A Journey Through 'Steamed Hams': The 'Simpsons' Scene The Internet Loves to Meme
The Golden Age of The Simpsons is probably the best that television has ever been. Certainly thus far in the medium’s relatively brief lifespan. Then again, if the air in front of me was to suddenly fizzle and the fabric of space-time tore asunder to reveal a time traveller from our far-flung future saying: ‘Actually, even when I’m from, we still consider it the best TV ever,’ then to be honest I wouldn’t have much trouble believing her. It’s that good. Precise Golden Age demarcations differ based on personal taste (for me it’s indisputably seasons 3-8), but it’s almost an objective truth that during that time The Simpsons mixed humour (both high and low), cultural and social satire, homage, character development, and genuine emotional poignancy with such deft skill that ranking other shows after it is a little bit like doing the world league table of military spending—it’s the U.S., and then one hell of a drop-off before we get to number 2 and the rest.
The Golden Age within the Golden Age is the double whammy of Seasons 4 and 5. Al Jean and Mike Reiss’ tenure as showrunners expanded the base that the first two seasons had established, and their time at the reins during Seasons 3 and 4 began the process of transcendence. Seasons 3 is flawless, but Season 4 is something even above that. After their departure Jean and Reiss handed showrunning duties over to David Mirkin, who shepherded the show during its 5th and 6th seasons. Season 5 is, incredibly, on a par with 4. Really, it beggars belief just how astonishingly good things were then. And though Season 6 is still leagues above any other season of any other television show ever made, it is the first time that you begin to see the—albeit microscopic cracks—in the show’s armour. From then on there would be a very slow decline over the next few years.
But the great thing about The Simpsons is that even on that (again—very slow, very gradual) downward slope, some truly incredible things would happen.
Case in point: The fan-dubbed ‘Steamed Hams’, a segment from the 21st episode of Season 7, and a serious contender for the best scripted and performed little scene in the history of TV. The episode, ‘22 Short Films About Springfield’, is structured as a series of short skits, which affords the writers a lot of freedom to try out little conceptual riffs on characters and themes. The thing with short skits, however, is that they exist in the same space as short stories do: On a knife edge. With so little room to work with, everything must be judged perfectly, and there can be no room for flab or error. There certainly is none of either in ‘Steamed Hams’. In it, the highly strung and eager to please Principal Skinner invites his superior Super
nintendointendent Chalmers over for ‘an unforgettable luncheon’, only to find that his efforts to please are thwarted by kitchen mishaps and poor attempts at improvised damage control. It’s such a genius little bit that relies on nothing more elaborate than the carefully worked out personalities and meticulously understood relationship between the two principal players (and, sure, some made up Aurora Borealis), it could be a stage production. Hank Azaria (as Chalmers) and Harry Shearer (Skinner) deliver line readings that could be minutely analysed for decades. Their cadence and rhythms are flawless. The way they dance around each other is out of this world. Watching Skinner duck and weave in the tide of Chalmers’ questioning and mounting suspicion is a thing of beauty beyond compare. It’s like a goddamn symphony. Beam this shit out into space, it’s clearly the best we can do as a species.
The internet loves to take things and remix them. The cumulative nature and lightning quick spread of memes is built on the remix ethic: You take a basic template, and you apply a filter, peeling off on a tangent that takes us places both familiar and weird.
A lot of this stuff happens on or is shared via Reddit. I spend a lot of time on Reddit. For the past year or so I’ve been seeing a meme rising there that I have to say I am a huge fan of. The template is ‘Steamed Hams but it’s [X]’, and some of the examples make me both marvel at the scale of human creativity, and be a little bit afraid of the madness that lies at the heart of the human condition.
For example, one of the earliest instances was this little slice of crazy. Watch how it incessantly builds and builds before exploding in a moment of ecstatic alignment:
Who the hell thinks of doing that?
Since that wonderful bit of gonzo nonsense there has been an ever-increasing gallery of these replacement remixes.
We have the ‘Steamed Hams but it’s a Custom Guitar Hero Song’ which has racked up over a million views on YouTube:
The two notes for Chalmers’ surprised grunt as he enters to kitchen to find Skinner with his leg up on the window is my favourite bit. I don’t know why, but every single time that absolutely slays me.
One of the more recent Steamed Hams mixes was a clever bit of Ouroboros meta. ‘22 Short Films About Springfield’ was famously inspired by and referenced Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, so why not come full circle with this piece of art:
I’m not sure why Leopold, Superintendent Chalmers’ ferocious-looking assistant, is there, but I’m glad he is.
There is another recent entry that tries to really stretch the ambition by casting ‘Steamed Hams’ as a mission in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It doesn’t quite achieve all its goals but still deserves credit for going to a strange and innovative place:
Away from using a bit of pop culture to reference another bit of pop culture there are the more mathematical and linguistic exercises in ‘Steamed Hams’. Like this remix that takes the clip and replaces each word in the script with the first version of that word already said in the scene:
That one is pretty damn good. A less consistent version is the one where every 5th and 7th word is replaced with ‘steamed hams’ and ‘Aurora Borealis’. Some of it is jarring and awkward. Some of it hilarious:
Or the one that’s translated and then translated back again:
And, then, inevitably, come the hard-to-categorise ‘Steamed Hams’.
Like this steam-fixated entry:
And this one featuring Skinner’s slow damnation:
Or the one where Skinner holds up much better under the intense pressure of Chalmers’ questioning and his house being on fire:
Memes flare to life with incredible speed on the internet. They very often burn out just as quickly. The site KnowYourMeme charts these lifecycles. Their page on ‘Steamed Hams’ has a graph depicting the Google search interest for the meme:
You can see there that after some initial bubbling, it’s in the last two months or so that we have seen an exponential explosion in the viral interest in ‘Steamed Hams’. Like all bubbles, this one will burst, and likely burst quick. Creative peaks will be hit, innovation will dry up, and people will move onto newer and danker things. But for now I suggest you lean back, relax, and enjoy some patented Skinner burgers. It’s good to have a favourite. Here’s mine: