At the opening of the episode, Matt Groening welcomes us to a "very special" audio commentary, but it doesn't quite live up to this promise. The tone of the commentary is mostly jovial, with lots of laughter. There's dead air several times when the commentators get lost in the action happening onscreen and just laugh. Writer and co-executive producer Jace Richdale is introduced with much fanfare, but pretty much disappears after the first half. When asked about the genesis of the episode, Richdale admits that he "literally just, like, threw this off the top of my head." David Mirkin gushes over the "incredibly helpful" Richdale, Michael Caine ("we absolutely love him") and sounds quite proud of the introduction of the Estonian dwarf. He continues his mildly annoying trend of pointing out how he absolutely loves a gag and then proceeds to describe it (this happened 24 times, by my count) and astute observations ("[Homer] likes to eat flowers" he notes). Groening regales us with an anecdote about a botched Burger King promotion and an observation here and there ("To me, that's a horrible sound" he says as the topic turns to THX). David Silverman pops in with the occasional joke and singles out his favorite bits, while Mark Kirkland points out little details you wouldn't have really noticed before ("Watch this," he says during a scene where Lisa trips Homer. "He doesn't move."). The high point of the commentary comes as Mirkin takes a minute to describe in detail the deleted Richard Simmons scene in a deadpan voice, which makes the scene seem even funnier and more outlandish, and tops it off with "for some reason, that [being a robot] offended him." All in all, a good, fun commentary. Rating: 3.5/5
Halfway through this audio commentary, co-showrunner Mike Reiss exclaims that "this is like the worst DVD commentary." Indeed, the constant pointing out of having to pay expensive song royalties - "like a bunch of accountants doing DVD" he quips - is quite annoying and becomes a running gag throughout this commentary. However, as far as DVD audio commentaries go, this one is certainly far from "the worst."
Matt Groening, who introduces himself as "This is Matt Groening, and I... hung around at the time" to minor chuckles from two other people, shares an anecdote about seeing This Is Spinal Tap in a riff-raff movie theater with headbangers who turned angry once they realized the film was a mockumentary. James L. Brooks becomes the movie fun-facts guy as he mentions a test screening for Spinal Tap in Texas. Groening does an impression of the number of people who wrote him fan mail thanking him for a fan letter thanking him for turning the writer on to Herp Albert and the Tijuana Brass. There is a brief lull when he asks Castalleneta another one of his "I always ask this" questions: does Dan enter the minds of the characters as he voices them? One hasty, on-the-spot answer takes up nearly a minute, but a brief impression of Julie Kavner (voice of Marge) seems to make up for it.
There are some incredibly minor tidbits that might mildly salivate those who follow behind-the-scenes drama. Al Jean makes a weird assertive emphasis on the first syllable on "obviously" when mentioning that voice actor Harry Shearer is "OB-viously" one of the show's stars. Reiss mentions that one of the guys in Spinal Tap was very difficult to direct, and Jean jokingly asks if it was a guest. Persona non grata Sam Simon is briefly mentioned in passing by one of the commentators, but there is no reaction by the others.
Voice actors are usually the biggest source of comedy in cartoon show commentaries (see: Futurama), but Castalleneta tends to keep to the sidelines here - although he does do a hilarious rendition of Spanish Flea in Homer's voice during the credits. Al Jean, nasally as ever, talks about how much the songs in this episode cost, and after Reiss starts making fun of this, he continues to do so ironically. Frankly it's hard to sympathize with the budgetary woes of a billion dollar franchise, but maybe that's just me. However I think every commentary needs a nerdy, knowledgable person - like David X. Cohen of Futurama or Mitch Hurwitz of Arrested Development - who perhaps isn't as funny or entertaining as the other commentators, but keeps the "party" atmosphere in check, which is a role which Jean fills admirably. Someone jokes that they'll have to pay for Dan's rendition of Spanish Flea, which brings it all together, which is a nice touch.
Despite its flaws and lulls, this commentary is a fairly high-spirited one. There's lots of laughter throughout the episode, and everyone seems to be having a good time. There's certainly worse Simpsons commentaries out there. But one gets the impression that it could have been much more. It seems an extension of the mentality of the "it was late in the season" explanation for why there's an episode based around a third-tier incidental character: we've got to bang out 22 of these things, so don't bother trying too hard. Rating: 3/5
This season's commentaries mark a return to the more informational, down-to-earth tone of the first several seasons (a welcome change in pace from the more outlandish commentaries of seasons 4 and 5), while still maintaining its characteristic Simpsonesque sense of humor, tinged with a bit of conceptual meta-comedy. It also delves into the backstories of several supporting characters, such as guest star Jeff Goldblum, which allow us to view the production of the show from a different perspective.
This particular commentary starts off strong, with creator Matt Groening excitedly introducing the episode in what sounds like a New York or Italian accent, before retreating into the background.1 Soon after, nearly four minutes pass with nary a peep from him, something that is becoming a disappointing trend with each passing season. While commentaries from the earlier seasons tended to center around him, Groening has become relegated to little more than a secondary character; his main role in this one is to wait around for his favorite line (I shant spoil it here, but it involves Handsome Pete) and offer a short joke here and there. I for one would like to see a return to the season 2-era Matt Groening, the highly opinionated Matt Groening who was boisterous in voicing his displeasure (the classic commentary for "War of the Simpsons" being the most obvious example). We see a glimpse2 of that Matt Groening here, when he notes the "tiny tombstones" in a clumsy off-perspective shot, but only a glimpse. Showrunner Bill Oakley has the right idea when he expresses his unhappiness with "a few kinks in the story," but it doesn't carry the same emotional weight as Groening's groaning at the fish winking at the camera in "War."
The principle participants are showrunners Josh Weinstein and B. Oakley, who perform their roles as discussion leaders quite admirably. Following the usual structure, they guide us through the origin of the story to the editing of the final product (of which the slow-speaking Bob Newhart proved a special challenge), but in a way that does not feel formulaic; they play a familiar tune in a different key. While on the surface it may seem like a continuation of the David Mirkin years, Oakley and Weinstein manage to imbue the commentary with several changes that make it their own. Perhaps the most welcome change from the Mirkin era is the duo's remarkable ability to not simply repeat or explain a joke, but rather explain why a joke is funny - i.e. when Oakley talks about the Dewey, Cheathem, Howe, & Weissmann law firm - a subtle difference from their predecessor that makes all the difference. They are also incredibly sharp: when Groening notes the "tiny tombstones," Weinstein replies that it is a children's cemetery without missing a beat. However, Weinstein's humor does not always work, such as in the opening when he introduces himself as David Silverman, a joke that is more weird than funny.
Groening's fellow Futurama co-creator, David Cohen, seems relieved at not having to be the principle participant - the Head Nerd, if you will - as he is in the Futurama audio commentaries. Instead, he sticks to the sidelines, supplying a fair amount of wisecracks and interesting tidbits. He is responsible for the best moment in the commentary: during an establishing shot of "Dr. Julius Hibbert, M.D. Family Practice," he quips "that's a funny sign that we worked on for a long time," a clever meta-joke for audio commentary aficionados, who have heard producers talk about the length of time that goes into writing sign gags ad infinitum. It is a shame we did not get to hear more from him.
Likewise, it is a shame we did not get to hear from the perpetually absent writer John Swartzwelder, who nevertheless seems to be there in spirit: Cohen notes a funny stage direction from him3 while director Jim Reardon is pleased at the appearance of Swartzwelder and his puppet4 at Krusty's funeral. Mayhaps the reclusive funnyman could have been enticed with a temporary allowance of smoking in the recording room?
On the animation side of things, the always-affable supervising director David Silverman is present, paired with his more baritone directorial compatriot J. Reardon. Silverman's characterization has remained remarkably consistent over the years; his bright positivism being a pleasant contrast with the oftentimes cynical or self-deprecatory tone of the other commentators. At times, Silverman and Reardon seem to be off in their own commentary, asking each other about fellow animators and speaking technical jargon, such as when Silverman asks Reardon how a reflection shot of Bart was achieved, before being interrupted by Weinstein.
The audio quality of the commentary is crisp, clear and leveled. There is enough variance in the voices, from the boyish high pitch of Weinstein to the gravelly baritone of Reardon, that it is not difficult to keep track of who's saying what. One exception would be the scene where Groening does a nasally imitation of his description of Krusty's resemblance to Homer, to which someone asks, "Are you imitating you?" I am reasonably sure the questioner was Oakley, but it could have been Cohen. Subtitles would have been nice, methinks. A curious thing about Oakley's voice in this season is that it seems to change from commentary to commentary for unknown reasons. In the commentary for "A Fish Called Selma," Oakley's voice sounds remarkably like the biting low tones of former showrunner Mike Reiss, while in this one he sounds a bit more like a lower-pitched David Mirkin (another former showrunner). Very strange.
Speaking of strange, what was the deal with that ending? Weinstein mentions that nautical-based insurance fraud is actually a serious component of insurance fraud, which Groening suggests is good news for the upcoming TV show Nautical Insurance Squad. Oakley then tops him with Maritime Law, which draws a larger laugh. Why is Maritime Law funnier than Nautical Insurance Squad? Perhaps we will never know.
All in all, the commentary strikes a nice balance between entertaining and informational. There is a pretty good ratio of humorous anecdotes (one involving Paul Reiser), informational tidbits, and good jokes (children's cemetery). The problem is, there just isn't enough of them. Good, but not great. Rating: 3.7/5
1 Why do Simpsons audio commentaries never live up to the excitement of their introductions? See my review of the audio commentary for "Burns' Heir" for another example.
2 Please excuse the usage of this sight-based cliché in describing a purely audial medium.
3 Simpsons writers seem to love stage directions, if this George Meyer interview is any indication.
4 He says this in a way that suggests that either Swartzwelder and his puppet have made a previous appearance - have they? - or that the real-life Swartzwelder has a puppet. Which is it? As a related nitpick, Reardon fails to mention why Swartzwelder's puppet resembles Kermit much more than the Kermit in "A Fish Called Selma," a question that has plagued this Simpsons fan for more than a decade.