For a television series that once celebrated a 138th Episode Spectacular, the commemoration of the 21st anniversary of one of its multiple apexes is clearly appropriate.
This fall, 21 years will have elapsed since Lisa on Ice aired during the sixth season of The Simpsons. The longest-running American television show in history, the episode, along with 1992’s Homer at the Bat, represent some of the greatest sports-themed episodes in the history of television.
A sharp mockery of the elevation of athletics and competition beyond all else, the episode, the second penned by writer (and later producer and showrunner) Mike Scully, uses Homer Simpson as the perfect vehicle to lampoon overzealous, boorish sports parenting.
There is, after all, the implication that Homer would have harmed Bart’s pet turtle if not for a positive outcome in one of his youth hockey games. “Here’s your turtle, alive and well,” Homer says while presenting it back to Bart when they return to the car after a win.
And while Homer commands an appropriate share of the laughs in the episode, it is at its heart a story about Lisa Simpson and sibling love, and Scully, who has five daughters and also wrote Lisa’s Rival and was the showrunner when HOMR first aired, has been amongst the show’s best writers in writing for Lisa. (He also noted that HOMR was written by Al Jean, a Red Wings fan.)
But make no mistake – Lisa on Ice is a hockey episode. The original draft included guest appearances for Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr written in.
“It unfortunately didn’t survive the rewrite process, which I was very disappointed in,” Scully said. “It’s kind of a running joke. I’m always writing in Wayne Gretzky in some of my scripts or Bruce Springsteen in others.”
The hockey ties are drawn from his background growing up in West Springfield, Massachusetts, a short drive from Ludlow, where Kings general manager Dean Lombardi was raised. Describing himself as a rink rat in his early youth who played pond hockey and pick-up hockey with friends, Scully recalls being 11 years old when Eddie Shore chased him and his friends around the Eastern States Coliseum, demanding that they give back the sticks and pucks that had earlier been given to them by the players.
Those players represented the Springfield Kings, Los Angeles’ original AHL affiliate during the club’s early expansion days. Scully recalled seeing Butch Goring play for the Springfield Kings and Billy Smith and Ken Dryden appear at the Eastern States Coliseum as visitors.
So when he moved to Los Angeles in 1982, there was already a connection with the local club.
“With no internet to follow the Bruins and very little NHL coverage in the LA press, period, I made the hard choice of switching my 14-year Bruins allegiance to the Kings, much to the horror of all my friends in Massachusetts. I wanted to root for somebody at the game, not just be a passive observer,” he said. “Besides, if the Bruins could trade Bobby Orr, I could trade the Bruins.”
Unike Orr, who joined Chicago as a free agent in 1976 and appeared in only 26 games over three seasons with the club due to injury, Scully joined The Simpsons in the early stages of many of the show’s most terrific years, and with his own hockey background reinforced by the sport’s early 1990’s appeal that had been accelerated by Wayne Gretzky returning to the Stanley Cup Final, the first Mighty Ducks movie and the appeal of Manon Rheaume transcending gender lines in attending training camp with the Lightning in 1992 and 1993, the fall of 1994 was more than an appropriate time for the only hockey-themed episode in the history of the series, whose 27th season will premiere on September 27 on FOX.
“[Rheaume’s popularity] definitely played a part … because she was getting a lot of attention in the press and it was kind of a novelty to have a girl playing hockey, and she also happened to be good. It was opening up this new area, so it felt like it’d be a fun thing to do with Lisa.”
“It’s funny, in hindsight, you’re worried that you’re running out of story ideas and ‘what haven’t they done yet,’ not knowing that the show would still be on 21 years later. I brought up the idea of the hockey story and the idea of putting Lisa in a situation where she had to be physical instead of using her brains. Hockey lends itself to animation, too, because it’s expensive and hard to shoot for a live action show.”
Scully pitched the idea to David Mirkin, the showrunner at the time, and got the green light. In the end, he estimates that the final script “might be maybe 60-percent mine.”
“When you sit down in the room and you have the basic idea of what the show is going to be about, then the fun is thinking of how we’re going to do it, and ‘how do we get Lisa in the position where she has to play hockey?’ So we came up with her failing gym and she has to take the sport kind of as a punishment to raise her gym grade. But then it was also figuring out what position should she play, and how do we figure out that she’s a goalie?”
Bart was more than happy to assist in the revelation by snapping discarded cups, soda cans and used hockey tape from the floor of the ice rink at Lisa after one of his games, only to have his sister turn aside every projectile from close range.
“That winds up being a great skill to have as a goalie, so it’s fun coming up with all those things and deciding how much she’ll enjoy it,” Scully said. “You don’t want to see her be terrified the whole show or not enjoying it because it’s fun to kind of watch her evolve from someone who didn’t care about sports of any kind to somebody who became incredibly competitive. I had a little bit of Billy Smith in my head because I wanted her hacking at players’ ankles.”
“‘Hack the bone!’,” he continued, citing one of Lisa’s aggressive on-ice directives to a teammate. “As a kid, I remembered how much I loved watching Billy Smith as players would come by his crease and when the refs weren’t looking, he’d take their ankles out.”
As the story develops, Lisa becomes a very good goaltender, leading her team to wins – and causing Bart to tire of her constant adulation. It reaches a head when Bart, told by Lisa to leave her room, responds by telling her that he’d leave while swinging his arms in windmill rotations, and “if you get hit, it’s your own fault.” Lisa then kicks air repeatedly, telling Bart, “if any part of you should fill that air, it’s your own fault.”
“That came from one of the writers, David Cohen, who went on to create Futurama,” Scully said. “That was a thing he and his sister used to do when they were younger. That was a real fight they would have – like walking towards each other, swinging arms and kicking – and whoever got hit was kind of the goal. And then we do it later with Homer [attempting to eat] a pie in the kitchen.”
“Any of those episodes where we explore Bart and Lisa and just hopefully acting like normal kids are a lot of fun for us, because they allow us to tap into all our childhood memories.”
In the episode’s climax, Bart and Lisa’s teams meet each other in the league’s championship, and Bart is awarded a penalty shot in the final minute of a tied game (Scully noted that the score clock was running during the penalty shot, a minor error that wasn’t corrected due to time limitations). Standing opposite Lisa in front of a frenzied crowd split between those chanting “Kill, Bart!” and “Kill Bart!” and aggressively demanding coaches, the siblings flashed back to early moments in their childhood: Bart lifts a diaper-clad Lisa up to a counter so she can reach cookies from a jar. Lisa laughs at Bart’s shadow puppets illuminated against a wall. The emotional spurs inspire the two to relieve themselves of their on-ice rivalry and meet at center ice to embrace prior to what the writers refer to as a “treacle-cutter” that ends the sap before the episode to end with a joke. Of course, this was followed by a sobbing Homer yelling “They’re both losers. Losers!” when the game ends in a tie.
“We try to balance it out where sometimes they’re there for each other. Or, the bigger the conflict gets between them, the more satisfying the resolution is at the end. We wanted them to remember the good times and the things they enjoy about each other, that they’re not normally at each other’s throats like this,” Scully said. “A moment like that where we have a sweet moment and then we always go for what we call a ‘treacle-cutter’ which is getting away from the emotional moment. The crowd gets angry and they start rioting. They’re angry at the display of affection and start tearing the arena apart.”
There’s even a second treacle-cutter when an introspective and slightly weeping Snake wonders aloud whether he’d be kept away from a life of crime had there been pee wee hockey when he was younger. (Snake then rises and destroys a chair with a crowbar as a hockey riot fades into black and an arena-style organ plays the Simpsons theme during the closing credits.)
Scully and his family have been season ticket members since 1999 – he estimates that “four or five” members of the Simpsons crew have Kings season tickets – and even amidst some of the less-pristine Kings seasons, there was still a strong devotion to the club.
“The day the 2000 playoffs [opened at Staples Center] against Detroit, I had a script reading for the network of a pilot I was doing starring the late comedian Robert Schimmel,” Scully said. “Before the reading started, I told everybody to please laugh extra hard so I could get out early to see the Kings. The reading didn't go well and the network president smiled and said, ‘Looks like you won't be making that hockey game tonight.’ At that moment, I decided, the hell with it, I'm going. My two youngest daughters wore their jerseys and painted their faces, and we had a great time. I got yelled at a lot the next day, but it was worth it.”
Kings fans are hoping that the course of the 2015-16 season deviates sharply from the abrupt end of the 1999-00 season, or for that matter, 2014-15.
“I’ve got a feeling that the team probably feels like they’ve got something to prove, and I think Lucic could be terrific. I think he also feels like he’s got something to prove, for different reasons,” Scully said. “It should be an interesting year. It’s a big year for Kopitar, it’s his contract year. It feels like there’s a lot on the line for the franchise, and my gut feeling is that they probably want to redeem themselves for last season.”
“Even though they did come close to making it – you almost forget how close they did come to making the playoffs, because it was just such a shock that they didn’t make it – it should be a fun year. I can’t wait, man. When they don’t make the playoffs, it’s that long five or six-month wait for hockey again.”