Can you believe it’s been 25 years of one of the most beloved stories and catchphrases of The Simpsons.
We are talking about the twenty-first episode of the seventh season of the Simpsons – titled 22 Short Films about Springfield which first aired on 14th April 1996. The actual part of this episode is titled “Skinner & the Superintendent” or as as everybody knows “The Steamed Hams Sketch” and runs at just under 3 minutes.
It’s a truly ridiculous sketch but is so brilliant at the same time. Skinner wants to impress his boss but the whole lunch just descends into total lies and utter craziness. I’m a massive Simpsons fan and I quote the show all the time but this is just one of my all time faves that stays with me after all these years and surprisingly so many people know what you mean if you mention “steamed hams”.
Fast forward 20 years and the memes and videos start popping up of “steamed hams” showing how much people love and appreciate this brilliant short.
Bill Oakley the co-writer of the episode recalls “This was right around the time Pulp Fiction came out, so we thought to weave it together with music and intros”
This great episode nearly kickstarted a spin-off series called ‘Springfield’ and was greatly influenced by Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and all the writers had to pick characters from a hat to write the short stories for the episode.
Hank Azaria who voices Superintendent Chalmers – “I don’t know why this captured people’s imaginations or what it is supposed to represent or what it means beyond face value. But, I get a kick out of it,”
The classic sketch
Bill Oakley, former co-showrunner and staff writer – I wrote it all one afternoon. Once I got the premise, it came out pretty fast because all I wanted was food that rhymes. It logically all followed: Chalmers keeps asking questions and Skinner just keeps lying. The lie gets more and more baroque until Chalmers believes it’s aurora borealis rather than the house is on fire.
Josh Weinstein, former co-showrunner and staff writer – It was a perfect piece of comedy that I determined should not be rewritten at all. It would have destroyed the hilarious rhythm that Bill wrote.
Jim Reardon, director – It was the salad days of the show. The scripts were essentially bulletproof and it was our job to not screw it up.
Al Jean, current showrunner – I thought the episode was very clever. I remember the most I laughed was at the “Steamed Hams” part.
There’s a Different Animator Every 13 Seconds
Hank Azaria – Having grown up on sitcoms, I love the ridiculous trope of taking the boss home for dinner. Oh, the merry mixups that ensue! I remember getting a big kick out of it, the boss doubting the employee’s silly little lies, but then being fooled by it.
Josh Weinstein – In that era, we liked to make fun of classic and active sitcoms.
Bill Oakley – The first draft is almost exactly what you see on the air. On paper, it doesn’t seem that funny, but we put it in and figured that some people would like it.
Jim Reardon – I had already watched Pulp Fiction, but we went through it again with the storyboard guys. One of our layout guys, his name was Sarge Morton, always had an affinity for scenes with Skinner and Chalmers. So I pretty much gave him that whole sequence to lay out himself.
Hank Azaria – It was very early on in Superintendent Chalmers’ life. The voice was different back then. It is totally unconscious on my part. I think I was trying to do a direct impression of Harry Shearer’s Skinner voice. Through the years, it got higher and a little closer to Tony Randall for some reason.
Bill Oakley – Chalmers was my favorite character. Chalmers is the only sane man in town. He knows everything around him is crazy and people are lying and he just doesn’t care enough to pursue it.
Al Jean – I had nothing to do with it. The credit goes to Bill and Josh. It was one of the rare episodes I saw for the first time when it aired. At that point, I had a Disney deal. I came back full time at the end of season 10.
Jim Reardon – The episode was a fun one to do because there were so many different bits and styles of humor. It gave you more interesting challenges because, for so many of the episodes, it’s like how to stage a scene at the couch or the living room or the dinner table that’s interesting because we’ve done it 50 times. So getting something like “22 Short Films” inspires you to try things, stylistically, you wouldn’t normally do.
Take on Me Version
Al Jean – I believe [creator, executive producer] Matt [Groening] wanted to use the episode as the basis of a spinoff for the secondary characters in the show, but we weren’t able to get that off the ground.
Bill Oakley – It was going to be called “Springfield.” And it wasn’t going to be just about the minor characters, there would be other things that were outside the normal Springfield universe. And the episodes would be free-form.
Josh Weinstein – Each episode would have been a side character not involving the Simpsons. We never knew exactly why, but I think at the time [executive producer] James [L. Brooks] didn’t go for it.
Al Jean – And like a lot of Simpsons things — although this is the largest example — it has an enormous afterlife on the internet. It’s insane.
Bill Oakley: The first time I heard anyone refer to it was this Facebook thing where there was this grocery store chain in Australia called Woolworths. And people were pranking calling, asking for steamed hams. I think this was 2016. And Woolworths played along in good humor and made a little video and put out signs.
Hank Azaria – I had a fondness for the bit, but then a few years ago, someone pointed out how it had become this popular thing on the internet. I went down the rabbit hole one night, and I found it wildly confusing. I was like, “What is all this?!” It was one of those things that made me feel old.
Under the Northern Lights Version
Jim Reardon – I didn’t even know the mania for “Steamed Hams” until my daughters pointed it out to me a few years ago. I saw a few of the videos, but since I am not much of an internet person, I just let it go.
Bill Oakley – My favorite one isn’t a video, but a series of photos, which is the sad one where Skinner dies. It is an eight-panel still cartoon where what happens is Skinner dies in the fire. There is a funeral. And then Chalmers is out camping, there is the aurora borealis and he sees Skinner in the sky. It’s really emotional.
Jim Reardon – These things breed amongst themselves, and you say, “OK, fine.”
Bill Oakley- I like homemade stuff that the fans do, and I love some of the really weird ones.
Jim Reardon – I am happy it gives people pleasure after all these years. As an artist, it’s the best compliment you can receive.
Josh Weinstein – I love the Lego video (1 million views, posted in 2020).
Bill Oakley -The best video is the A-ha “Take On Me” (1.3 million views, posted in 2020). The Green Day video (1.6 million views, posted in 2019) is also amazing.
Hank Azaria – My assistant recently mentioned to me that she thought maybe one of the deeper meanings behind it became, in this day in age, people just say whatever lie they feel like saying. So, claiming the aurora borealis is in the kitchen makes about as much sense as other things people claim. And asking, “May I see it?” just sums up the moment we are in, where it is like, “Can you prove to me that’s true?”
Josh Weinstein – Maybe it is one of the best explorations about lying in our culture.
Hank Azaria – We’re approaching 800 episodes of The Simpsons. Each episode has, conservatively, 20 bits inside it. So that one would be picked out, and it’s this one? It’s just very random.
Bill Oakley – It’s one of my most favorite things I have ever written and it is certainly the most famous. It’s going to be on my tombstone, there is no question about it.
Skinner Never Lies Version
Josh Weinstein – When we started making the show, the internet was still in its infancy, so we had very little fan contact. We were writing for ourselves. So it’s been awesome to see all the memes that have exploded. We love it, and I know Matt Groening loves it too.
Bill Oakley – If you go on Etsy, you can find hundreds of “Steamed Hams” things, like shirts. I don’t own the rights to anything, but I don’t begrudge the fans making their own things. Disney might have a different opinion.
Hank Azaria – I like to think that these things don’t happen totally by accident.
Bill Oakley – It’s a two-word thing, like “Dead Parrot” from Monty Python. It serves as a calling card to me that doesn’t pay any money but does allow me to have a tiny bit of fame.
Hank Azaria – I guess in a way, this is keeping that comedy tradition alive. That fact that it is such a trope of comedy and became such a staple of every single show out of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s doing some version of the boss is coming home for dinner. So maybe that’s why that bit, in particular, is more deeply embedded in our comedy subconscious. Memes have become sort of the comedy torch getting passed.
Thanks to all the Simpsons crew we salute you.