Brow Beat

The Simpsons Pulled an Episode Featuring Michael Jackson. That Was a Mistake.

It doesn’t get to hide from the past.

A scene from the Simpsons episode “Stark Raving Dad.”
A scene from the Simpsons episode “Stark Raving Dad.”
Fox

One unexpected fallout from our cultural reckoning with the life and work of Michael Jackson is the erasure of a Simpsons episode. “Stark Raving Dad,” the premiere of the show’s third season, tells the story of Homer being committed to an insane asylum, where he meets a patient named Leon Kompowsky, who claims to be Michael Jackson. Homer, not knowing who Michael Jackson is, believes him. Antics ensue. The central joke is that Leon is actually voiced by Michael Jackson, a joke extended further by his use of a pseudonym in the end credits. Following the renewed allegations of child sexual abuse against Jackson, executive producer James L. Brooks announced last week that The Simpsons will no longer include the episode in syndication packages, streaming, or even future DVD releases of the show. It’s gone. But don’t call it a book burning, he cautions. “This is our book,” he told the Wall Street Journal, “and we’re allowed to take out a chapter.”

While Brooks is correct that Fox has the right to pull the episode, he’s wrong that this is simply like editing a book for a new edition. Consigning “Stark Raving Dad” to the dustbin of history is a mistake, an offense against art and the medium of television, and part of a growing trend of corporations using their consolidated power and the death of physical media to do damage control by destroying works by troublesome artists.

People of good faith can come to any number of interesting disagreements about how to handle the art-artist relationship. Slate’s recent coverage of Leaving Neverland and Michael Jackson attests to this. Questions about what we do with the work of difficult, abusive, or terrible people are in some ways unresolvable, because at their heart they are questions we answer emotionally. The principles and rationales we apply usually buttress things we’ve already decided. As with most reasoning, our hearts make up our minds, not the other way around.

This gets even more complicated when it comes to “Stark Raving Dad.” Jackson did not write “Stark Raving Dad,” is not visually represented in it, and does not have his name on it. He voices a character who looks nothing like him and received no on-screen credit for doing so. (The role is attributed to John Jay Smith.) The song Leon sings for Lisa’s birthday isn’t even sung by Jackson, but by a Jackson impersonator named Kipp Lennon. (When the song, which Jackson wrote, appeared on a Simpsons album, it was credited to W.A. Mozart.) It’s an odd situation: Jackson’s involvement in the episode is minimal, but he’s also essential to it working.

I’m genuinely unsure how I feel about revisiting “Stark Raving Dad” any time soon, but you can’t decide whether you want to engage with works of art you aren’t allowed to see. Removing the episode from syndication, where viewers could accidentally stumble onto it, would be an understandable decision, but actively preventing people who want to see the episode from doing so is a different story. The paternalism here—the belief that viewers can’t, or shouldn’t be able to, navigate these waters on their own—is striking. Thinking about the episode’s complicity in manufacturing Jackson’s family-friendly image might make James L. Brooks, Al Jean, and Matt Groening uncomfortable, but they have created something of enduring importance, and, like all great cultural works, it no longer completely belongs to its creators. It belongs, on some level, to all of us.

One level on which it doesn’t belong to us is legally. This decision appears to have come, quite earnestly, from the show’s executive producers, but it has not been and will not always be the case that the actual writers and producers of shows are the ones making the decision to erase them. As physical media gives way to streaming, large corporations have greater and greater control over what we can and cannot see. This gives them unprecedented power to disappear bothersome work. Whether we agree with a particular instance of memory-holing or not, this practice is deeply troubling, its history even more so. (Burying works of art by politically controversial artists was a key component of the hysteria surrounding the House Un-American Activities Committee in the ’40s and ’50s, for example.) Furthermore, while corporations might be motivated by a sincere desire to prevent harm, it’s hard to escape the sneaking suspicion that, as with Amazon’s recent decision to permanently shelve Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York, some of it is about damage control and protecting the brand. It’s hard to believe, for example, that the “entire Walt Disney motion picture library” available on the conglomerate’s soon-to-launch streaming service will include such long-buried films as the reprehensible Song of the South. If that’s the case, the film will be harder to see (which is probably for the best), but so will Disney’s history of making racist fantasies (which might not be). Amazon shelving A Rainy Day in New York doesn’t erase the fact that it funded the film in the first place, three years after allegations that Allen sexually molested his daughter forcefully resurfaced. What it does instead is erase a reminder of the deal it struck, just as removing “Stark Raving Dad” erases evidence that The Simpsons worked with Jackson. Keeping audiences from seeing these works sends the signal that sexual assault survivors are being taken seriously, without actually committing to any meaningful reform going forward. The ability to ink deals, fund art, and then reap the public-image rewards of destroying it continues to fully rest in corporate hands.

With a vanished work like Louis C.K.’s I Love You, Daddy, at least the loss concerns a movie that was, by all reports, not very good. “Stark Raving Dad,” on the other hand, is a brilliant, culturally and historically important work of art. As the premiere of The Simpsons’ third season, it kicked off the show’s much-beloved golden age, a period of sustained genius that changed television, sitcoms, animation, and the American sense of humor. As Matt Zoller Seitz put it when he named The Simpsons the greatest sitcom of the past 30 years in 2013, the show is “bigger than sitcoms, in some ways bigger than television. It’s our virtual Smithsonian and Library of Congress, our collective data cloud, the Force, or Farce, that surrounds us, binds us, and holds the galaxy together.

“Stark Raving Dad” is not the golden age’s best episode, but it is the shot across the bow. In its absurd plotting and metatextual japery, its alchemical mixture of cynicism and heartwarming sentiment—to say nothing of the way it reckons with its guest celebrity’s public image—it establishes the formula that the show was to follow for years. The episode belongs in a museum—preserved forever, not swept into the memory hole.

Art is more than the people who made it, and it’s independent of them in many ways. But it also makes them money. Each airing or stream of “Stark Raving Dad” might put a few coins in the Scrooge McDuck’s treasure bath that is the Jackson estate. So getting rid of one of the show’s approximately six gajillion episodes of television might look like the correct moral stand to take. But preventing people from seeing a work of art is almost never the correct moral stand. Brooks, Jean, and Groening ought to know this, seeing as that’s the point of “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge,” the show’s early, brilliant episode about the limits of stopping people from seeing art that makes them uncomfortable. In that episode, Marge Simpson successfully gets Itchy & Scratchy, the dumb, hyperviolent show beloved by her children, taken off the air, only to change her mind when she’s recruited into an effort to censor Michelangelo’s David. It’s one of the first episodes that hints at the maturity and complexity that would become the show’s hallmark—maturity and complexity that’s missing from this panicked and ill-considered decision to choose for The Simpsons’ audience which episodes of the show we’re allowed to watch. Where do we draw the line? The important thing is that we are able to draw it ourselves.