Earlier this month, The Simpsons paid homage to Downton Abbey with one of the show’s highest honors: An “Itchy & Scratchy” parody (called, natch, Downton Tabby). The ultraviolent cousins of Tom and Jerry have been an integral part of the Simpsons universe since the beginning, first appearing in a 1988 Simpsons short on The Tracy Ullman Show. Since then, there have been more than 90 installments of “The Itchy & Scratchy Show,” all of them splattered with ridiculous (and often ridiculously funny) amounts of cartoon violence. According to longtime showrunner Al Jean, one of the hardest parts about creating the shorts is deciding what to call them. (“Dazed and Contused,” “Kitty-Kill Condition.”) “Eighty-five percent of the time we spend on these is spent thinking about the title,” he told Vulture. Also tough: trying to make a list of the most memorable “Itchy & Scratchy” shorts from the more than six dozen produced to date. But we asked Jean and the current team of writers on The Simpsons to do just that anyway. After what we assume was a lot of fighting and biting, they came up with this list of their nine favorite “Itchy & Scratchy”s (in no particular order) from the past quarter century.
This installment was part of the episode’s larger meta commentary about both network interference and what happens to beloved TV shows when they get older. Instead of the standard “I&S” blood and gore, the segment features the awkward introduction of Poochie, a test-marketed sidekick who’s “half Joe Camel and a third Fonzarelli,” invented as Krusty’s push to boost ratings. Both the short and the episode were inspired by real-life network meddling, says Jean. “Around season seven, some people at Fox wanted to shake things up. They wanted to add a spinoff character to The Simpsons, so they could have [another] show at 8:30,” Jean says. “So instead of doing that, we did a satire of the idea of adding one.” Despite poking fun at the notion of a spinoff, series creator Matt Groening wasn’t completely against the idea. “At one time, [he] worked on a live-action Krusty show,” Jean says. “And we also talked about a show featuring the other characters in Springfield. But that was logistically difficult. You’d have to start a new show, but with characters from the old show, and they’d be making the rate they were making on The Simpsons. It would’ve made it a very expensive show.”
Our boys Itchy and Scratchy are down on an Amish-like farm when Itchy suddenly finds himself in need of butter. When Scratchy walks by, Itchy gets the brilliant idea to feed Scratchy to a cow and turn him into a delicious buttery spread. While most “I&S” shorts are carefully scripted, “The portion where Scratchy was dissolved in the cow’s stomach was improvised by director Lauren MacMullan,” Jean says. That’s future Oscar nominee Lauren MacMullan: She was nominated this year for the pre-Frozen Disney short “Get a Horse.”
A vaguely American Graffiti–esque episode in which a leather-jacket-clad Itchy chains police officer Scratchy to a pole; when “copper” Scratchy gives chase on his motorcycle, his skin is ripped off — all to the tune of “Rock Around the Clock.” Hoping to fly to safety, Scratchy hops on a plane, for a brief moment thinking he’ll be okay … and then he notices Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper are all on the same flight. “For some reason, [they] turn into vampires before they crash,” Jean laughs. “So they super kill you before you die in the plane crash!”
Their 2001: A Space Odyssey parody opens The Simpsons Movie, and is also one of the longest “I&S” shorts. Our cat and mouse heroes travel to the moon, but, of course, Itchy ends up inflicting great physical harm on Scratchy and leaves him for dead. Back on Earth, Itchy is hailed as the hero who tried to save his fellow astronaut and ends up in the White House. When it turns out Scratchy is still alive on the moon, Itchy sends missiles to finish the job. Jean notes that this short “appeared in the first draft of the movie’s script.” But the writers kept agonizing over a key joke, which meant the “scene with bombs filling Scratchy’s mouth came very, very late in the production process. We actually did a ton of rewrites between a screening of the movie in Portland and one in Arizona. And one of the things that got changed was the missiles [joke]. It was one of the late additions. When it got a laugh, we were like, ‘Finally!’”
A parody of Reservoir Dogs with a dash of Pulp Fiction, the episode is basically just Itchy doing awful things to Scratchy (covering him in gas! slicing off his ear!) while Dogs’ “Stuck in the Middle With You” plays. As Jean notes, a character looking very much like Tarantino “appears at the end to explain the cartoon — and is killed. The part was offered to the real Quentin Tarantino, who for some reason turned it down.” Why did the director reject the chance to be on a show so many celebs have readily embraced? “We assume he turned us down because we chopped him to pieces,” Jean theorized. Still, Tarantino does seem to care what happens in Springfield: “We later did a parody of Inglourious Basterds, and I heard he wanted of it a copy of it,” Jean says.
This installment is part of an episode in which the Simpsons visit a Disney-style theme park devoted to Itchy and Scratchy. And so, perhaps appropriately, this short is an homage to Disney’s Fantasia, with an ax-wielding Scratchy playing an evil sorcerer’s apprentice. But there’s a twist: “This one features Scratchy attacking and killing Itchy,” Jeans says. “The big thing was to make one where Scratchy finally did something to Itchy. If you’ve got some rule where you’ve never done something, it’s always great to do it once.”
The larger episode revolves around Homer punishing Bart by banning him from seeing the new “I&S” movie. The short, however, is a self-contained spoof of Steamboat Willie, the black-and-white cartoon that birthed Mickey Mouse. “When the animators were working on it, they called it ‘Steamboat Lawsuit’ because of their fear of legal action by Disney,” Jean recalls. “It’s lifted almost exactly from Steamboat Willie, which itself is a parody of [Buster Keaton’s] Steamboat Bill Jr.” Well, almost identical: We’re pretty sure neither earlier version features legs being shot off or burning heads.
This “I&S” short has never aired on TV or at the movies: It’s the actual safety video Universal Studios shows before park visitors begin The Simpsons ride at the theme park. The roughly one-minute film briefs guests on all the usual safety tips, but in a Simpsons way: To illustrate the importance of keeping one’s hands inside the ride, for instance, we see Scratchy losing an arm after Itchy sabotages him and pulls his hand outside. “The [content] standards are even tighter on a ride than TV, because you have little children coming from all over the world seeing it,” Jean says. “It took a while for them to approve the film.” Another fun fact: “The voice in the film who tells you to keep your hands in the car is Nancy Cartwright,” who is also the voice of Bart.
This short was nearly the first in which Scratchy finally gets the better of Itchy. After Scratchy ties Itchy to a pole larded with massive amounts of explosives, he lights the bombs on fire. “Scratchy is about to get his long-sought revenge,” Jean explains. “But just before he does, the TV is unplugged and the kids miss it.” Why didn’t the writers show this much-anticipated moment? “It’s about the humor of frustration,” he says. “It’s easy to say you’re seeing the most amazing thing in the world if you don’t have to show it.”