March 9, 2019


James L. Brooks, co-creator of The Simpsons, says that the 1991 episode guest-starring Michael Jackson is being yanked, permanently.“It feels clearly the only choice to make,” Brooks told the Wall Street Journal. “The guys I work with—where we spend our lives arguing over jokes—were of one mind on this,” he added.

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Brooks says the episode in question will be removed from all platforms including DVD sets and streaming services. “I’m against book burning of any kind. But this is our book, and we’re allowed to take out a chapter,” he told the Journal.

But tossing his episode down the memory hole is in itself is a form of book burning. Should Michael Jackson have appeared on the Simpsons? In retrospect, of course not. But the assumption that 21st century audiences can’t handle knowing that he once did seems beneath a series that once — a long time ago — contained some of Hollywood’s smartest comedy writing. (When does Apu start getting spliced out?)

Pop culture of the past exists in part as an unintentional time machine, showing us how its creators viewed the world at that time. We laugh at the stilted acting and $1.99 production design of Jack Webb’s 1960s version of Dragnet, but millions of mid-‘60s Americans shared Webb’s views on narcotics and crumbling social mores. The original Star Trek had at least one episode that can be viewed as grudgingly defending the Vietnam War, and its (very silly) final episode was premised on the sexist notion that even in the 23rd century, women won’t be allowed to command a starship. M*A*S*H’s first three seasons were awash with sexism – and contained the series’ funniest writing. What about Archie Bunker’s racism? Will network execs give 21st century audiences the benefit of the doubt that they can figure out that Bunker was a parody, not a role model?

As I warned a year ago, when the #MeToo crowd started looking askance at Hollywood’s sex-obsessed 1970s sitcoms, I Felt a Grave Disturbance In The Force, As If Millions Of Sitcoms Suddenly Cried Out In Terror And Were Suddenly Silenced.

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