Let’s start by rewatching this, the Steamed Hams sketch from ’22 Short Films About Springfield’.
I believe this is the greatest scene of all time in any comedy. And I’m going to tell you why.
1. The Script
This scene comes in at about 340 words, and 67 sentences. Every line serves a purpose – either as a joke, or as character building.
The very first exchange, for example, goes as follows:
Well, Seymour, I made it- despite your directions.
Ah. Superintendent Chalmers. Welcome.
I hope you’re prepared for an unforgettable luncheon.
Chalmer’s opening line does so much work. It demonstrates that Chalmers is already somewhat annoyed at Skinner, for giving him wrong directions, and that he has an incredibly dry and sarcastic sense of humour. It also implies that Skinner is unreliable and prone to errors. Chalmer’s resignatory tone may also suggest that he’s used to Skinner’s bumbling idiocy, setting up the dynamic for the rest of the scene.
Indeed the very first thing that Chalmers says is “Well”. Starting a sentence with “well” is a casual way of speaking. He’s not saying “Hello Skinner, I’m here” – he’s saying “Things are already off to a bad start, and I’m a bit annoyed.”
Skinner on the other hand is oblivious. He misses Chalmers’ veiled insult, and seems surprised to see him at all. The very first thing he says is just “Ah” – a kind of surprised noise. He’s either too dumb to get the joke, or he’s so engrossed in his own little world that he doesn’t notice. The line “I hope you’re prepared for an unforgettable luncheon!” is both intelligent (it uses long, intellectual-sounding words) and stupid (people don’t talk like that) – giving the line an airy feel contrasted with the grounded, sarcastic opening from Chalmers. Chalmers’ response to Skinner’s line isn’t even a word, it’s just a kind of mumbled “Yeah..” – again a contrast to Skinner’s own flowery language.
So what do the opening two lines tell us? We know that Chalmers is the down-to-earth straight man, and Skinner is the airhead idiot. It’s the classic straight man vs. crazy character set up that you find throughout comedy. Which brings us onto the structure.
2. The Structure
The structure of the scene is very simple. Skinner is trying to impress Chalmers, but is foiled again and again by both the situation and by Chalmers’ inquisitiveness. Rather than admitting defeat, Skinner attempts to bolster his position with increasingly flimsy lies. Thus there’s a characterisation to be noted in the structure of the scene – Skinner’s pride vs. Chalmer’s intelligence. The power dynamic is boss-employee, and the concept of desperately trying to impress one’s superior without showing any signs of weakness is universally relatable.
The fact that the setup is something of a cliché is entirely the point. The faux opening for a show called ‘Skinner & the Superintendent” is so good because you can perfectly imagine what the entire show would be like; “Skinner with his crazy explanations“. Farce is a sitcom staple, and though this sketch is meant to be a lampoon of the format, it also works perfectly in and of itself.
Notice how the lies that Skinner tells become ever-more absurd.
- Skinner is just stretching his calves, rather than climbing out the window.
- The smoke coming out of the oven is just steam.
- That Skinner moments ago said ‘steamed hams’ instead of ‘steamed clams’.
- Skinner routinely calls hamburgers ‘steamed hams.’
- That ‘steamed hams’ is a regional expression for hamburgers (from Albany, specifically).
- The burgers are an old family recipe.
- The fire in the kitchen is actually the aurora borealis.
At what point does Chalmers stop buying into Skinner’s deceptions? Possibly as early as (2) given the facial expression he makes before leaving the kitchen, and certainly by 4/5. The ‘steamed hams’ interrogation scene in particular is a densely-written masterpiece. Look at the script:
Superintendent, I hope you’re ready for mouthwatering hamburgers.
I thought we were having steamed clams.
D’oh, no. I said steamed hams.
That’s what I call hamburgers.
You call hamburgers steamed hams?
Yes. It’s a regional dialect.
Uh-huh. Uh, what region?
Uh, upstate New York.
Well, I’m from Utica, and I’ve never heard anyone use the phrase “steamed hams.“
Oh, not in Utica. No.
It’s an Albany expression.
You know, these hamburgers are quite similar to the ones they have at Krusty Burger.
Oh, no. Patented Skinner burgers.
Old family recipe.
For steamed hams.
And you call them steamed hams despite the fact that they are obviously grilled.
To his credit, Skinner does a decent job here at fending off Chalmer’s queries. Chalmers isn’t buying it for a second of course, Skinner’s charade is woefully transparent, but the deception doesn’t completely fall apart until the very last line. There’s no contradiction in what Skinner has said (apart from the clams v. hams discrepancy which he addressed directly) until the point at which Chalmers points out that steaming is a different process to grilling.
As a side point, it’s worth comparing this scene to the one in Inglorious Basterds where Fassbender’s character is interrogated about his accent.
Replace Piz Palü with ‘Albany’ and it’s pretty striking. The comparison isn’t really relevant to my point, but it is interesting. Just because the scene is in an episode of The Simpsons, it doesn’t mean it can’t be incredibly great writing. Which brings us onto…
3. The Animation
Because yes, The Simpsons is ultimately a cartoon. There’s just some great drawings and animations in this scene. Chalmers’ reaction shots especially.
That one just screams suspicion and scrutiny. Meanwhile, the previous shot is equally excellent.
In a good cartoon, any frame should be able to stand on its own as a great joke. I’d say this one qualifies. The framing of Skinner in the foreground, with a whole leg out the window, and Chalmers bursting in with an expression of shock, is perfect. It’s the straight-man vs. the fool in a single shot. (The rational vs. the irrational). The hard cut from this to the light-hearted intro is a great piece of timing too, just at the beat we’d expect Skinner to get rumbled. It’s also parodying the concept of a cold opening in sitcoms, so again the concept is well married with the form.
Returning to the ‘steamed hams’ interrogation scene, observe how it’s mostly just two shots. Skinner talking, then Chalmers talking and back again. Between them are the offending hams.
Without wanting to seem too arty, there’s surely something in the placement of the burgers. They’re symbolically the objectification of Skinner’s lies, and they’re literally under both their noses. Skinner has served his lies up on a literal platter too. The two men are talking around a subject when they can both see the truth right in front of them. It’s not until Chalmers finally confronts Skinners with evidence of his lies (the grill marks on the burgers) that the spell is broken.
But we can go even deeper.
4. The Psychology of Space
Imagine physical space in the scene representing the dominance of each character We see four spaces in the scene, as such.
The spaces to the right are the (literal) domain of Skinner. Chalmers acts as an intruder into this domain. So we begin in this position, at the front door scene.
Chalmers gradually invades the space, and Skinner loses power accordingly. He’s weakened early on when Chalmers steps into the kitchen, attacking his defensive bastion.
Skinner is able to just cling on though. And off-screen is able to make it to the Krusty Burger.
During the meal, they’re just about even. Equal combatants fending off blows.
The power balance is thrown off when Skinner is confronted with the grilled hams. At the very same time, something else interesting happens. His safe space is again compromised.
By the very end, Skinner has no space left at all at the fire has spread to his entire house.
Symbolically, Skinner has sacrificed everything, and he’s failed. He’s lost his footing and Chalmers goes away with the power advantage, having come out on top in the battle of wits. Or has he?
5. The Climax
The height of the narrative comes in the aurora borealis exchange.
I should be- Good Lord! What is happening in there?
Uh. Aurora borealis at this time of year at this time of day in this part of the country localized entirely within your kitchen?
May I see it?
It’s Skinner’s most extravagant lie by far. And Chalmers’ perfectly-delivered “at this time…” line is one of the funniest and most memorable Simpsons moments ever. But at the very last minute, the scene pulls its punch. Skinner isn’t called out. In fact, Chalmers acts entirely out of character and asks to see the very thing he has such trouble believing.
What’s the rub? It’s an inconsistency that’s hard to explain. The writers gave themselves a hard task here, essentially writing themselves into a corner. Skinner’s lies are a build up of tension that has to be released. You’re constantly expecting Skinner to get rumbled, and it doesn’t happen. Even at the end, his obviously-burning down house isn’t commented on. So, rather than giving us the satisfaction in a payoff where Chalmers exposes the web of deceit Skinner has concocted, the tension is relieved by an unexpected shift in tone.
Even the very ending is ambiguous. Chalmers tells Skinner “you are an odd fellow but I must say you steam a good ham.” The language he uses here is somewhat similar to Skinner at the start – some awkward turns of phrasing. Is Chalmers subtly mocking Skinner with his remark about steaming hams? Certainly he doesn’t buy into the lie.
I’d argue that the message we take away from this is that Chalmers regards Skinner as a good friend, and that he actually enjoys their interactions, ridiculous as they are. He knows that Skinner is doing his best, and only has good intentions. Skinner on the other hand remains 100% oblivious. It’s a strange friendship, but it works, and it gives the scene heart. We go away knowing something more about each of the characters.
6. The Editing
Before concluding, I just want to appreciate the editing. The whole scene is edited really nicely, but particularly in a few key moments.
- As said above, the hard cut from Chalmers entering the kitchen to the sitcom intro.
- The transition from Skinner running over to Krusty Burger to entering the dining room with the hamburgers. We don’t need to see him buying the burgers, or arranging them in the kitchen. The pacing means we’re still on edge from the previous altercation between the two, and the music subtly smoothes it over too. Special mention goes to the noise that plays as Skinner runs over to KB – it has the feel of a scheme being put into motion, emphasising Skinner’s deception.
- When Skinner leaves the dining room, enters the kitchen, and re-emerges a second later. It’s not an immediate enter-and-leave, and it would have been easy to do so given Skinner’s swinging kitchen door, so there’s just a moment where we’re left to imagine what’s happening in the kitchen. It’s great that we don’t see it, and makes Skinner’s non-reaction all the funnier. There’s just a glimpse of flames through the kitchen door, and that’s enough for the audience to know that something awful is happening.
- The way the camera snaps to zoom in on Chalmer’s face during his aurora borealis line. We get closer and closer to him, so he becomes framed larger and larger in the shot. Each part of what he’s saying makes the lie more and more ridiculous. After Skinner fobs him off with a simple “Yes”, we return to Chalmers normally-sized again, as if the enormity of the lie has somehow been deflated by Skinners’ flippancy.
There’s so many other little gems in the scene too. Like Skinners’ shaky thumbs-up at the end. Is there a better drawing of someone pretending everything is fine?
The steamed hams scene is incredibly tightly written, and masterfully executed. Every line is delivered to optimal effect. The editing and use of space help to reinforce the dynamics of the scene, which in turn support the humour. The format of the scene as a parody of a typical sitcom farce is sublime, and succeeds on both levels: being funny in itself, and spot-on as satire. At under three minutes, the scene delivers on all fronts that you’d want a comedy to deliver on, and nothing is wasted. Nothing else in the history of comedy comes close. This is a masterpiece.