Man and Troy – How ‘A Fish Called Selma’ Made Gag Characters Gratifying

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One of the innumerable plus points of The Simpsons comes in the form of its secondary characters. The titular family provide the anchor of which Springfield and its residents latch, but once that’s aweigh, we have an endless supply of fully-formed folk teeming with back stories. By Season Seven, the show was exploring this untapped potential more and more.

However, many would be hard-pressed to think Troy McClure would ever have his own spotlight. McClure was particularly prominent in the very early seasons, usually appearing on cheap, crass infomercials that Homer would lazily watch while on the couch (shilling anything from gravestone polish to a suntan lotion / laxative hybrid). While other characters such as Mr. Burns, Apu and even Krusty would permeate through the Simpsons’ suburban substinence, McClure was someone they interacted through, not with. Until A Fish Called Selma, that is.

Even with the peerless presence of Phil Hartman as the voice of Troy, an episode focused on the guano-eating grinner and Selma Bouvier, Marge’s less abrasive sister, doesn’t immediately strike the viewer as intriguing watching. Kudos to the talents of the writing team, then, for not only writing an episode that is rich with side-splitting jokes, but also with enough heart to flesh out these characters from sideshows to standouts.

In later shows, Selma would become an animated version of Darren Day, getting engaged to anyone from Fat Tony to Grandpa Simpson (in an episode that’s as wince-inducing as it sounds). Here, though,  the show’s development feels organic and natural – Troy McClure, after a late night drive to the aquarium (more on that later) results in being ticketed by Chief Wiggum, bribes Selma at the DMV with dinner in exchange for keeping his driving license. Straight away, it’s clearly portrayed Troy is never once interested in Selma, but like the perma-smoking sister herself, we go along for the ride.

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What is intriguing about the episode is how it shows Selma. There’s an element of pathos portrayed throughout, similar to her browbeaten bent on Principal Charming, in the sense that she deep down probably understands Troy isn’t really in love with her, but never once does it drip into cloying self-pity. The writers also flesh her character out to show her as intelligent and strong-willed, but also sensitive – she may start dressing more and more glamorously as her relationship with Troy goes on the upswing, but her embarrassment at being lambasted for smoking shows remarkable self-awareness, as does her lukewarm reaction to Troy wanting (or is that needing?) a baby. Even when Troy reveals it’s a sham marriage, purely to further his stuttering career, she has the nous to know that while it might be loveless, she’s enjoying herself and might as well just see it through.

And then there’s Troy himself. This is easily Phil Hartman’s finest hour, as he squeezes every modicum of simpering self-aggrandisement out of every platitude he musters. Seriously, almost every phrase he states is merely empty rhetoric and movie jargon, but delivered in Hartman’s slick brogue, they’re all hilarious. “Troy’s back from the gutter and he’s bought someone with him!”, “it’s a good day for me too, baby”, even “that’s not cigars…that’s love.” On the outside, Troy is desperately clinging to his fame, and after seeing the press plus points he receives from dating Selma, knows this is what he needs to reestablish himself. It’s a neat premise that shows Troy’s determined side, but throughout the show we feel for Troy as much as Selma, two lost souls connecting out of necessity.

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The show is surprisingly serious throughout, gliding along at a leisurely pace that mainly involves one-way conversations – including those between Troy and his agent McArthur Parker (played by Jeff Goldblum, who does a great job). However, the beauty of The Simpsons is even within an episode that’s more grounded, out of nowhere can come some of the finest jokes in the show’s history. The Planet of the Apes musical is one of the show’s exemplary moments, from the glorious title to the grandiose, big ballad ending (“You’ve Finally Made a Monkey Out of Me”). Even Troy’s closing shout – “I love you, Dr Zaius!” – is wonderful.

Of course, Selma comes to her senses and realises that bringing a baby into a sham relationship would be cruel and unfair. She leaves a sullen Troy behind, but not before a hilariously awkward scene in which the two try to ‘get jiggy’, a concept Troy seems so unfamiliar with his agent offers to send a pamphlet. Throughout, Troy operates in some sort of celebrity vacuum, concerned only about himself and his bizarre fish fetish, something so creepy it’s funny.

A Fish Called Selma throws into sharp focus just how much myself, and all Simpsons fans, miss the great Phil Hartman. He delivered all of Troy’s lines with the self-congratulary fakeness he needed to be endearing, and his tragic passing still rankles with us today. You’re missed, Phil, but thank you to the writers for giving him this spotlight – an episode that deserves praise for not just fleshing out two secondary characters, but for making them more than one-dimensional gags.

 

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Fresher 15 – The Songs That Shaped June

1). Band of Horses ft. J Mascis – ‘In A Drawer’

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Taken from the band’s sublime Why Are You OK? album, Band of Horses weave a sense of wonderful nostalgia on the atmospheric, gentle ‘In A Drawer’. To add to the sense of wistfulness, J Mascis pops up – like the loveable neighbour in a long-cancelled ’90s sitcom – to propel the contemplative chorus.

2). Spring King – ‘Detroit’

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Championed by Zane Lowe (although, to be fair, he has done a fair bit of championing in his time), Manchester’s Spring King are the latest band to firmly fly high the British indie flag. Luckily, ‘Detroit’ is just one of many examples of the band’s ability to rise above the indie landfill, a thumping blast of brawny guitars and drummer Tarek Musa’s delivery.

3). Teenage Fanclub – ‘I’m In Love’

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It almost seems like Teenage Fanclub are becoming cyclical with dog years. Almost. ‘I’m In Love’ is their first single since 2010, but as soon as Norman Blake’s harmony-heavy vocals glide over the Glasgow band’s typically sterling melodies, you realise time doesn’t matter when you craft songs this good.

4). Two Door Cinema Club – ‘Are We Ready? (Wreck)’

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Speaking of comebacks, it’s been four years since fidgety Northern Irish trio Two Door Cinema Club bought their brand of dancefloor-ready rock. ‘Are We Ready?’ continues the electro bleeps and bloops that dominated 2012’s Beacon, although the pace changes frenetically and fantastically.

5). Car Seat Headrest – ‘1937 Skate Park’

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A recent lawsuit and an incredibly prolific output may have dented Car Seat Headrest’s clout somewhat, but their latest collection, Teens of Denial, is well worth a listen, not least for this woozy, woobly but brilliantly lo-fi song ‘1937 Skate Park’, which somehow blends Wavves with Nada Surf in an unholy, but wholesome, racket.

6). Slotface – ‘Get My Own’

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A name change from Slutface may have censored this Norwegian band a little, but you’ll never censor their music; their new EP, Sponge State, is a vitriolic statement of equality and involvement. ‘Get My Own’ is the spiky opener, all bulging veins and the kind of brio last heard when Britpop MK II was in full swing.

7). Happy Accidents – ‘Leaving Parties Early’

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With a drawling vocal that recalls The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, meshed with the punky energy of Ash and The Subways, London’s Happy Accidents have an innocence and energy that is incredibly endearing. ‘Leaving Parties Early’ is an angular soundtrack to wishing you were at home with Netflix and Neurofen.

8). INHEAVEN – ‘Baby’s Alright’

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Kudos from Julian Casablancas, plus support slots with VANT and The Big Moon, have elevated INHEAVEN to the next indie suitors. On the evidence of ‘Baby’s Alright’, it’s justified – a propulsive post-punk track bathed in Will Sargeant-esque guitar riffery, the chorus is incessantly infectious.

9). Ladyhawke – ‘Wild Things’

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Nee Pip Brown, Ladyhawke has been missing in action since 2012’s underwhelming Anxiety. Still blending articulate rock with heavy electro impulses, the title track from her third LP is a gloriously rousing slice of poppy melancholia. It’s also relentlessly catchy. Marriage suits her.

10). The Parrots – ‘Let’s Do It Again’

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If you want garage rock in its purest form, it looks like the perfect destination is Spain. After Hinds ripped up the rulebook with their brand of lo-fi rock, The Parrots are echoing those statements with similarly sublime garage hooks. ‘Let’s Do It Again’ has a Beatles-esque classicism, drip-dried into a boisterous rage.

11). Descendents – ‘Victim of Me’

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In a month where pop-punk legends Blink 182 began prepping their new album, it only felt right that their fellow peers Descendents made a long-awaited return. Their first music since 2004, Milo’s malcontents rip through their trademark breakneck punk in under two minutes, without missing their ear for rip-roaring melodies.

12). Jamie T – ‘Tinfoil Boy’

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Beginning with a jagged, Radiohead-esque riff, Jamie T’s new single soon dissolves into a frenzied clash of distorted vocals, muffled but morose drums and some gloomy harmonies. His trademark rap bluster is surprisingly missing in action, instead creating something far more ominous and lurking. Bloody thrilling.

13). Blood Orange – ‘Chance’ 

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Dev Hynes has proved something of a musical polymath since first emerging with Test Icicles towards the start of the noughties. ‘Chance’, taken from Blood Orange’s acclaimed album, is a sultry collection of tranquil synths, Hynes’ hushed howl and a brooding bassline.

14). Methyl Ethel – ‘Twilight Driving’ 

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Perth has proven Australia can provide some excellently atmospheric music, from Luke Steele’s The Sleepy Jackson to, of course, Kevin Parker’s Tame Impala. Fans of both will love Methyl Ethel, the project of Jake Webb. ‘Twilight Driving’ has a maudlin groove that’s embellished with some strident horns.

15). Lina Tullgren – ‘Grace’

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A fellow alumnae of Captured Tracks (the home of, among others, DIIV), Lina Tullgren’s new EP Wishlist is an intimate collection of maudlin melodies and Tullgren’s effervescent vocals. Recalling Daniel Johnston and The Mountain Goats – as well as a more traditional Girlpool – ‘Grace’ is a delicate ode to love and time.