“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” Turns 25: When ‘The Simpsons’ Mocked Studio Meddling and Addressed the Dawn of Toxic Fandom While Making Animated History
Stars Yeardley Smith, Nancy Cartwright, Hank Azaria and writer David X. Cohen, among others, share new insights and secrets about the "ballsy" episode that thumbed its nose at Hollywood brass and pushed back against viewers already claiming that the Fox show was far past its prime.
Worst. Oral History. Ever.
On Feb. 9, 1997, an episode of The Simpsons premiered that would mock industry executives’ meddling in the creative process and call out obnoxious fan fickleness, all the while making history as it ushered the show past The Flintstones for the most episodes of a primetime animated series, at 167. It would also mark the first instance of Comic Book Guy’s catchphrase: “Worst (fill in the noun) Ever.”
As hilarious as it was bold, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” (episode 14 of season eight) would go on to be considered by The Simpsons crew, fans and media (including Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, Time and the BBC) as among the best chapters of the Fox cartoon staple, which is currently in its 33rd season.
With a couch gag featuring the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover, then–co-showrunner Josh Weinstein noted that “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” from writer David X. Cohen, was one of the most complete first draft scripts ever produced for the show.
The meta episode revolves around waning interest in the long-running “Itchy & Scratchy Show.” In a knee-jerk reaction to recover from his ratings dip, Krusty the Clown demands the classic segment be retooled. Bumbling studio executives order the addition of an edgy dog to reinvigorate the cat and mouse duo. Enter Poochie.
Homer lands the gig voicing the hip-hop surfer canine — but Poochie is immediately loathed by fans and unceremoniously killed off. To drive the point home about nonsensical series alterations and further poke fun at Fox executives, the Simpson family has a hip teenage houseguest named Roy drop in for the episode.
Now, 25 years later, Simpsons cast and crew take a look back at making the groundbreaking episode to explore its then-taboo industry ridicule (far before it was fashionable), discuss the series’ oddly dedicated armchair quarterbacks and reveal production secrets, among much more as The Hollywood Reporter once again pays a visit to Springfield for the oral history of “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show.”
Josh Weinstein, former co-showrunner, staff writer: One of the origins was that Fox was not allowed to interfere with the show, but as a courtesy, Bill [Oakley] and I would meet yearly with the president and top executives. And at one point, someone suggested that we add another family member to the show, a teenager.
Bill Oakley, former co-showrunner, staff writer: That’s correct. I am not going to say who it was.
Weinstein: And we were like, “That smacks of desperation.” We were polite. They wanted to help. But we just ignored them.
Steven Dean Moore, episode director: Anyone who is associated with the entertainment industry and has gainful employment is a very fortunate person. But at some point, everybody feels ridiculous, whether they’re made to or it is something they did to themselves.
Hank Azaria, Jeff Albertson, aka Comic Book Guy: I began working on The Simpsons when I was 23 and by season eight, I had certainly experienced that in the industry; you get a character forced on you, a storyline forced on you or a joke forced or cut. I found that kind of meddling a drag and annoying. So, it was a real catharsis release to do this episode.
David X. Cohen, episode writer: The stuff that really zings it to the executives, like, “Excuse me, but ‘proactive’ and ‘paradigm?’ Aren’t these just buzzwords that dumb people use to sound important?” came for more experienced writers who had to put up with that longer. [Writer] George Meyer was instrumental in contributing those lines.
Weinstein: At the time, it did feel ballsy. We weren’t thinking, “Oh, we’re making fun of executives, we’re never going to work in this town again.” It was more, “Goddamn, this can be frustrating. Let’s make fun of it.”
Yeardley Smith, Lisa Simpson: I remember when we were table-reading this episode, I wouldn’t say smug, but there was this chortling from the writers, as they realized it was a taboo subject, which is essentially taking on your employers.
Nancy Cartwright, Bart Simpson: It was so flipping clever how they did it. They just threw it right back into the executives’ faces with a middle finger.
Oakley: In terms of “You can’t bite the hand that feeds you,” The Simpsons has been doing that since day one. Fox did not give us notes on anything because they were not allowed to see the material, not allowed to come to the table reading. They were not allowed to do anything but broadcast the show when we delivered it on videotape.
Cohen: It was daring the execs to react in some way, but that was part of the pleasure of not being in charge. I had the easy job. I could poke anyone in the eye I wanted to. I was in the catbird seat.
Oakley: There were only two times the network ever did anything. One of them was [“Marge Be Not Proud”] with Lawrence Tierney where he says, “If I wanted smoke blown up my ass, I’d be at home with a pack of cigarettes and a short length of hose.” We refused to remove it. So they took the master videotape and removed it for the initial broadcast. [Producer James L.] Brooks read them the Riot Act. The other time was in “Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming” when we had [21st Century Fox founder] Rupert Murdoch in prison with Sideshow Bob. Someone at Fox worried and went to Murdoch. And he said, “I would be honored to be in prison on The Simpsons.”
Azaria: Only Jim Brooks could have eschewed network notes completely, and he did right from the start. And that is one of the reasons why The Simpsons became what it became. They were smart to bring in young writers who were just unleashed, and this episode is a great example.
Weinstein: David’s first draft, probably 75 percent went to air when normally, people would get 40 percent on a first draft, no matter how good they are.
Cohen: I did get more stuff on the air from my draft than most episodes I wrote. But, I wrote a 57-page script, which is about 12 pages too long. Credit to Bill and Josh for keeping it in check.
Weinstein: Roy was originally in “Treehouse of Horror V,” but was cut. He was David’s idea, as he had a good friend named Roy.
Smith: Roy was such a brilliant send-up of that “Oh, my God! The ratings are dipping! The Titanic is going down! What are we going to do to save it?!” When, in fact, nothing needs saving.
Moore: The writers on The Simpsons are really perceptive and intelligent people. And I thought it was really cool the way they portrayed themselves in the episode.
Weinstein: We were not trying to be cool. In fact, all the actors gave the writers very nerdy voices. It was a chance to make fun of each other.
Cohen: [Writer] Richard Appel came up with the name “Poochie.” We were trying to think of a name for the dog, and it took about one second for Rich to say “Poochie.” Everyone was like, “OK.” And that is the exact scene within the episode.
Moore: I remember directing the part where Marge is in the department store with Bart and Lisa. The kids are bored and go running around, and there’s the focus group guy who jumps out from behind the shelf. That guy would be arrested now.
Oakley: We said, “Please give this guy an outfit that makes him look like an abductor” because that was the joke.
Smith: I love that scene of Lisa talking to the mirror in the focus group. She looks so small, but she is already suspicious of the fact there are people behind it. I feel so often with Lisa that she does the things that we wish we could do if we thought of it and had the courage.
Moore: My assistant director at the time, Nancy Kruse, did a great job with that conversation between Lisa and the focus group. That was complex; you’re doing double the work with the mirror.
Cohen: Lisa was the stand-in for the writers in that moment. There is some actual bitterness in that scene with the focus group where they know if they like something but can’t articulate why. Writers get annoyed with those groups for that reason.
Moore: [The late] Alex Rocco was so great as Roger Meyers Jr. He only did a few of our episodes. Even when he was saying boring stuff, I laugh because he was just a funny character. During Homer’s audition, when Meyers calls him “barely outrageous,” that always makes me laugh, especially in today’s society.
Cohen: The episode still makes sense today because it’s about a show that’s getting along in years. And we thought then, “Well, this is season eight and that is about as long as you can hope for a show to stay on the air.” So, we were commenting on being in the perceived golden years of our series.
Weinstein: In the early days of the internet, when we were just writers, we would log on to alt.tv.simpsons and there were people saying “worst episode ever” about some which are now regarded as the best ever.
Oakley: Alt.tv.simpsons was the original Usenet newsgroup where people would post about The Simpsons. You needed a Unix account. I asked Fox to install a regular phone line in the writers room so that we could hook up a modem to our computer. I got a book and learned some rudimentary Unix commands and there it was, alt.tv.simpsons.
Cohen: Bill and I were pretty early in getting angry with these fans who were never satisfied.
Cartwright: This is crazy, but I used to tabulate at the table read how many laughs per page a script was getting. And on a good show, it would get four to five laughs per page. So as long as we were getting laughs in the room, I thought we were in good shape. That was the only monitoring I had. I didn’t know that the fans had a problem.
Oakley: What we gradually learned is that even the most beloved, classic episodes, maybe, if you were lucky, 60 percent of the people would like them. And everyone else would literally be saying, “worst episode ever.” We became so frustrated with them hating everything, we deleted the account and told Fox to take the modem out. And that was the end of it.
Smith: My feeling today is most people say, “The show hasn’t been good since season 10.” And it’s like, fuck you. The piece that goes along with a comment like that is, “I can’t believe they don’t try anymore.” That is so offensive to me. You’ll never meet more hardworking writers, animators and actors than at The Simpsons.
Cartwright: It also bothers me. That is just a critical person. My response is, “What are you doing?” Everyone is just trying to get by, especially with the pandemic. So to have a show that still brings lightness and thought-provoking storylines — after 33 years we’re still culturally relevant. That is mind-boggling.
Cohen: What I have come to understand from all my years of writing is that the fans know what episodes they like and they don’t like, but the reasons they identify are often wrong. You will see someone say “I like this episode, it was really funny,” but having worked on it, you’ll think, “No. That episode had fewer jokes than average, and it is very emotional.”
Smith: You have to co-exist with the fans because without an audience, there is no show. But the amount of armchair quarterbacking on the internet where it is so easy to fire off something really horrible, that toxic fandom has become its own animal. There are entire Reddit threads on how “shitty” The Simpsons is now. And it’s like, you’re really going to spend all this time or something you don’t even enjoy? You all need to get a hobby.
Azaria: Comic Book Guy is a representation of a real contingency. No question about it. I would rather play it than deal with it.
Moore: For myself, I understand that fandom. I understand that expectation. Part of Bart’s defense is that they’ve given years of content for free. But the fact is that even in commercial television before the internet and cable TV, you had to buy a TV and there were commercials. It is not free. You’ve suddenly paid for entertainment all these years. In a way, it kind of strengthens Comic Book Guy’s argument.
Weinstein: I think Simpsons fandom was more toxic then, in the days of alt.tv.simpsons, than it is now when we get so much love on social media for these old episodes.
Azaria: I really understand both sides of it. I am a really big fan of TV and movies, and it upsets me when franchises go wrong, in my opinion. But I have been on the inside with The Simpsons for 34 years. It is different now than it was when this episode came out due to social media and how everything is whipped into a frenzy in a second. Like anything else, taken to excess, it’s ridiculous.
Moore: I might get in trouble for this, but the card that says “Poochie died on the way back to his home planet” was actually just my writing on a piece of paper that I sent overseas and had them animate. There was no design approval, but I could defend it since it was in the spirit of what the script was asking for. I guess they were happy with it.
Oakley: Oh, wow. I had no idea!
Weinstein: We heard that this episode number would surpass The Flintstones, so we moved “Poochie” to that. I am sure we got a gift basket or something, and we thought, “that’s kind of cool.”
Cartwright: I am continually surprised and amazed at the success of the show.
Cohen: There are two episodes I wrote I consider the most memorable: this one and “Lisa the Vegetarian.” It was very emotional, “Lisa the Vegetarian,” and we made an actual ongoing change to the series. And “‘The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” I felt like it broke ground in terms of the fourth-wall aspect.
Smith: It so stands the test of time. This one is on my top 10 list without question because it is so razor-sharp.
Moore: To work on an episode that has my name associated with The Flintstones and so many other outstanding cultural marks — to have directed competently enough to have hopefully enhanced the material I was given, I am in awe and honored to be a part of it.
Weinstein: Since we made it, it has been in my top three. And the other two episodes are always revolving episodes, but this has stayed there because it is so constantly funny but so amazingly incisive and still holds up as it hits at so many truths about making a show in Hollywood.