Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Truly Trivial: Who is the only Simpsons Treehouse of Horror writer to be honored by the Mystery Writers of America?

Bart and Lisa tell scary stories to each other...Image via Wikipedia
One would be tempted to describe the annual "Treehouse of Horror" episode of The Simpsons as one of the most revered annual Halloween specials in the history of television -- except that half of the Treehouses of Horror have failed to air in time for Halloween. This year's episode, "Treehouse of Horror XX," aired on Oct. 18, breaking a nine-year streak of post-Halloween airdates. That's because halfway through the series' run, Fox television became a broadcaster of Major League Baseball, including the MLB playoffs and World Series, which has pushed the Treehouse air dates into early November. That's just one of the quirks of this 20-year tradition from TV's most distinguished animated sitcom.

So far as the distinction goes, The Simpsons was the first animated series to win a Peabody Award, which serves as the sweet, sweet icing on the series' 25-Primetime-Emmys cake. Despite this strong record of success, the Treehouse of Horror has been a subject of regular Emmy disappointment for the Simpsons production staff.

Most years, the alternate version of the Simpsons theme created for the Treehouse of Horror special is submitted for the Outstanding Musical Performance Emmy, but to date no Treehouse tune has taken home the statuette, nor has any other Simpsons musical number. Call it the Treehouse musical curse.

In fact, despite the fact that The Simpsons has garnered over 100 individual television awards in its history, only three Treehouse of Horror episodes have won awards of any kind. "Treehouse of Horror VIII" won the Golden Reel award for sound mixing, "Treehouse of Horror X" won the CINE Golden Eagle Award, and the 3D animated sequence from "Treehouse of Horror VI" won the Ottawa International Animation Festival grand prize. Not exactly the equivalent of the Golden Globe Awards, let alone the Emmys.

While the critics remain unimpressed by the Treehouse of Horror lineup, fans love the quasi-Halloween annual. Much of this adoration is due to the creative license given to Simpsons writers when preparing Treehouse stories. Series continuity is abandoned, as is subtlety and restraint. Writers are free to openly and explicitly parody any cultural topic, film, play, novel or TV show. Moreover, excessive violence is not only possible, it's encouraged, with Simpsons producers often intentionally ratcheting up the goofball gore in early Treehouse episodes just to tweak the television censors. Former Simpsons executive producer David Mirkin often strove to make the Treehouse of Horror specials funny and scary, which leads us to a unique distinction amongst the long and legendary list of Simpsons writers.

For an early Treehouse of Horror episode, the Simpsons brought in a guest writer who appeared in the credits of only one episode in the entire series' history. This writer's work, a portion of which was featured in this Treehouse script, earned him honors from the Mystery Writers of America -- the only Simpsons writer to ever attain such an award.

Who is the only Simpsons Treehouse of Horror writer to be honored by the Mystery Writers of America?

The writer in question is none other than Edgar Allen Poe, for whom the Mystery Writers of America named their annual awards, colloquially known as The Edgars. Poe's poem "The Raven" was the basis (and the title of) the third segment in the original Treehouse of Horror special in 1990, back when it was just known as the Simpsons Halloween Special. James Earl voice-of-Darth-Vader Jones recited the verses of "The Raven" during the segment, and various Simpsons characters acted out the described plot. Poe was credited as the lead writer on the segment, thus earning him the distinction of being not only the sole credited Simpsons writer ever honored by the Mystery Writers of America, but also the only Simpsons writer to have a major award of any kind named after him.

Despite Poe's individual accolades, the original Treehouse of Horror is hardly the most amusing, endearing, or horrifying episode in the Treehouse lineup. Instead, "Treehouse of Horror V" is generally consider not just the greatest Simpsons Halloween episode ever, but arguably one of the top ten greatest Simpsons episodes, period. (And yes, "Treehouse of Horror V" did air before Halloween on Oct. 30, 1994.)

"Treehouse of Horror V" included the Shining parody, "The Shinning," which inaugurated the infamous running gag of Groundskeeper Willie being slain by an axe to the back throughout the remainder of the episode. Thus, the exaggerated violence Mirkin was going for. James Earl voice-of-Poe Jones also reappeared as an alternate universe voice for Maggie Simpson in the same episode, created by Homer Simpson's careless time-traveling. The fifth Treehouse episode was also the last to feature Marge Simpson issuing a parental warning at the beginning of the episode, this time in the form of an Outer Limits opening voiceover parody.

Also, "Treehouse of Horror V" is to date the only episode where Principal Skinner is a known cannibal and the sky literally rains donuts (though not in the same segments). Personally, I blame Kang and Kodos. If that isn't Truly Trivial, I don't know what is.

After years of writing trivia columns I've come to embrace the fact that almost everyone reading these things is smarter than me, which is why you always seem to find omissions, mischaracterizations, and outright screw-ups in my work. And like all great businessmen, I intend to profit from my own ignorance and sloth. Thus, I invite you, the reader, to call me out on these entertaining little glitches in each Truly Trivial column. The responder with the smartest, best-sourced, and/or most amusing gotcha will earn a place of honor in the subsequent column by having his/her/its comment highlighted next week in this space, along with an excuse, rebuttal or (more likely) half-hearted mea culpa from me. Yes, that is your sense of self-importance rising to the bait. Don't fight it. I dare you.