Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Itchy and Scratchy Show: 500 Easy Pieces

"500 Easy Pieces"
15 Seconds

This advertisement for Butterfinger successfully combines the shock humor of The Itchy and Scratchy Show from The Simpsons with a clever and unique selling point for the candy bar itself: the loud crunch. Using the brand’s poster child, Bart Simpson to help sell the product Butterfinger makes the effort to tie in a relevant storyline from The Simpsons to give Bart’s laugh at the end more meaning. Thus, this “one-joke” short works on several comedic and particularly ironic levels once The Itchy and Scratchy Show is analyzed and understood.

The origins and inspiration of Itchy and Scratchy can be traced back to the ever popular cartoon, Tom and Jerry. Both shows involve a cat-and-mouse interplay (literally) in which the mice always seem to triumph and outsmart the former, often predatorial character. But the means of which this “outsmarting” occurs is often at the expense of excessive (and creative) violence. This violence is so preposterous and unjust in nature that it is hard for many Americans including The Simpsons Creator Matt Groening to contemplate how children were allowed to and even encouraged to watch such violence on their television sets. It’s no wonder that with short attention spans and an easy to follow plot that kids would fall victims to the older cartoons that made it okay to be violent.

Groening used these 30-second snippets of satire in his show consistently because he knew that the themes which the show attempted to stand for would ironically contrast with Itchy and Scratchy. The mere concept of Bart Simpson constantly watching this whimsical violence and being amused by it while left by his parents unsupervised at the television is often taken for granted when we watch the show.

The animation style and story structure of Itchy and Scratchy are also deliberately stylized the same as Tom and Jerry. The animation is simple with the characters having simplified bodily and facial features and the settings generally kept lackluster in detail. Most effort in its animation is concentrated on the punch line which unfortunately is always when Itchy is killed. The only slight variation in story structure is that Jerry and Tom always seems to be provoking each other in Tom and Jerry while the mouse in Itchy and Scratchy seems to completely dominate the cat without the cat ever bothering him and blindly falling into his traps. And while both animations’ stories follow story causality, Itchy and Scratchy condenses the suspense by eliminating the cause and just having the reaction! Therefore, Scratchy’s obsession with ultra violence is never justified in the show and seems darkly random. And that’s what makes it work.

The film’s title, “500 Easy Pieces,” is of course a play on words with the film title “Five Easy Pieces.” Each of the Itchy and Scratchy shows are titled in the same form perhaps to signal older audiences that kids would never “get it.” The fun and catchy jingles that bookend the Itchy and Scratchy shorts also work to play up on this irony by sounding kid-friendly. And that’s what gives the show its loveable charm. We watch the show to experience the dramatic irony that Itchy is going to experience a horrible death. What better contrast to a domesticated but flawed all-American Simpsons family? Only in an episode of Itchy and Scratchy can characters be cremated and killed by the sound of a Butterfinger.

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