From "Simpsons" to "South Park": Michael Jackson's animated legacy mirrors his real life decline
In tribute to Michael Jackson, "The Simpsons" aired the classic 1991 episode that put Homer, the pink shirt wearing "anarchist," into a mental institution next to a large, white, bald man who enjoyed singing "Billie Jean" for kicks.
A huge "Simpsons" fan who co-wrote novelty hit "Do the Bartman" in 1990, Jackson's adoration for Matt Groening's four-fingered family was largely kept secret because of contractual reasons. So no one ever knew Jackson helped pen the hit song for Bart, and there was even bigger doubt that he was the voice behind over-sized mental patient Leon Kompowsky since the credits oddly read "Guest Voice: John Jay Smith."
It's since been confirmed that John Jay Smith was Jackson -- at least the speaking part. Dead ringer and "Simpsons" music contributor Kipp Lennon did the singing (Jackson reportedly found Lennon's impression hilarious), though Jackson wrote Bart's timeless "Happy Birthday Lisa" jingle for the episode.
While some have accused Fox of cashing in on Jackson's death with the re-airing, I thought it was a nice touch. A mega-star like Jackson didn't have to volunteer to do a voice on the animated series, yet he clearly loved the show. Of all the things to be critical of regarding non-stop Jackson coverage -- and really, just follow what's happening today -- re-airing a "Simpsons" episode should be at the bottom of the complaint pile.
Now the 2004 "South Park" Mr. "Jefferson" episode? Yeah, that probably won't get out of the Comedy Central vault anytime soon.
But it should -- because the "SP" and "Simpsons" episodes are truly symbolic of how far Jackson's star fell in the span of a mere decade.
A brutally hilarious assault (watch it here) on Jackson's freakish modern day transformation, Season 8's "The Jeffersons" remains one of the funniest "South Park" episodes ever conceived.
Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker obliterate Jackson for his ghastly appearance (the kids think he's a burn victim), suspect parenting skills (he climbs trees, rides trains and hordes all the cotton candy with no regard for his son, Blanket) and general creepiness due to the child molestation badge of dishonor (a dream sequence almost has Jackson making out with Cartman) he wore following well-publicized accusations.
Like I said, it absolutely sets a torch to Jackson's public image. But it's also incredibly fair.
Instead of piling on Jackson for his alleged sexual perversions, the "SP" creators focused more on his unhealthy level of perpetual adolescence. In one scene, Jackson shows up at Stan's house in a Peter Pan costume. When Cartman gazes in wonder at all the video games and zoo animals at the "Jefferson" home, Blanket says, "Oh, those are my dad's."
Stone and Parker also make a strong comment about racial profiling and poke fun at how the "rich, black celebrity" that supposedly has infiltrated Colorado ala Kobe Bryant is really ... well, a dude with a fake mustache that looks white. Whenever Jackson is leveled with an accusation, he relies on a limp "that's ignorant" in response. Oh, and his nose falls off at the end of the episode.
Conversely, "The Simpsons" turned a gentle giant into the King of Pop out of pure fascination that Jackson's instantly memorable song and dance routines could bring so much joy to the world.
An unintentionally funny part comes when Leon exits Homer's car upon arrival to the Simpson home amid a throng of fans and media. Someone from the gallery shouts, "He's white!" as a way to discredit the fact that Leon could possibly be the Thriller himself. Er ... yeah.
Ultimately, a disgruntled Bart enlists the help of Leon to write Lisa a memorable birthday song. After delivering the gift via piano serenade, Leon resorts to his natural, gravelly voice (courtesy of Hank Azaria) -- which can't carry a tune, of course. When asked why he pretended to be Jackson all those years, Leon simply states that when he began talking like Michael, he noticed how much people smiled.
To be honest, it was a nice moment in "Simpsons" history. They treated a guest star with respect, but ultimately put Jackson on the kind of pedestal he had grown accustomed to since his salad days in the Jackson 5.
"South Park," on the other hand, took a wrecking ball to the Jackson legacy -- and again, did so fairly based on what he had morphed into, at least in the minds of unbiased observers. They didn't portray Jackson as a caricature (except that mustache) for cheap laughs. Instead, they presented the visible reality of what Jackson had de-volved into -- the molestation charges, the incessant plastic surgery, the hiding behind masks, the baby dangling fiasco in Germany ... etc.
Weepy Jackson fans would probably be outraged if the episode ever aired again (thank god for the Internet!). But to this objective TV viewer, watching "The Simpsons" and "South Park" episodes back-to-back only affirmed that the Michael Jackson most of us thought we knew actually ceased to be more than a decade ago.
-- Thomas Rozwadowski, email@example.com