The way The Simpsons not only apes, but also twists familiar cultural touchstones shows reveals again that it's still smarter than all other parodists.
The Simpsons' "Treehouse of Horror XIX" begins with a startling look at everyone's worst nightmare: electronic voting machines. After a few election-related jokes, the annual episode sets to what it does every year, parodying topical touchstones (and a few Halloween classics, like The Raven and The Shining). Using its own beloved cast, internal logic, and visual style, the episode situates all its targets in Springfield and the greater Simpsons world.
Take, for instance, the "Untitled Robot Parody," this year's Transformers lampoon. (The segment's title was decided on after "Morph Transfers" and "Trans Morphers" were vetoed.) There's a lot in Michael Bay's creation that can be mined for comedy, including his predilection for big explosions, fast cutting, and lingering shots of Megan Fox, not to mention the array of American flags. The Simpsons lets all of that go. Instead, the transforming electronics (radios, toasters, and alarm clocks rather than muscle cars and tractor trailers) wreak havoc in a more Simpsonian way. An airplane lands at Springfield Airport, only to get into a fistfight with the runway stair car and vomit out all of its passengers. The local ATM starts shooting money everywhere. The Slushie machine at the Kiwk-E-Mart is so brutal that it makes the nacho machine cry out melted cheese.
Similarly, "How to Get Ahead in Dead-vertising" ignores many of the hallmarks for which its target, Man Men, is famous. It's true that, in one widely leaked video, Homer is given the sassy silhouette treatment in a close approximation of the show's title sequence. But rather than take on Mad Men's much-touted, insane attention to period detail, the segment launches into a bizarre screed about celebrity and advertising. Living celebrities refuse to lend their images to inferior products, so Homer kills them, and we wind up with products like "George Clooney Novelty Vomit." Then, the celebrities' spirits in heaven plot revenge -- not exactly the sort of thing that happens on AMC's award-winner.
The only time the "Treehouse XIX" bows to an aesthetic beyond its own is in its last portion, "It's the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse." As Milhouse adopts Charlie Brown's long-suffering mien, the rest of the Simpsons cast members are slip into other Peanuts parts, adopting the bouncy gait, round bodies (love the ovular shoes), and distinct vocal style of Bill Meléndez and Charles Schulz's classic Halloween special. (Even Santa's Little Helper gives a nod to a famous World War I flying ace.) In the Simpsons universe, however, the Grand Pumpkin does arrive -- and his antics would make Linus even more disillusioned than he already was.
The way The Simpsons not only apes, but also twists familiar cultural touchstones shows reveals again that it's still and always smarter than supposed masters of the parody form, like Family Guy or those terrible Friedberg-Seltzer movies. There, recognition of a pop-cultural element is supposed to be comedy in and of itself. Great comedy works a little harder.