Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Simpsons -- with "Audio Description"

Last Sunday, while I put my kids to bed, Fox showed the season premiere of one of my favorite television shows, "The Simpsons." So I taped it.

What I didn't know, since I use the VCR so infrequently, was that my children had somehow reconfigured it to tape with the audio "blind-assist" function on. So the entire episode is narrated, in DVD commentary style, by a mellow voice which describes the action taking place on-screen.

Since I first posted this story, bandwidth issues forced me to remove the QuickTime files from my server... but maybe one day we'll put them back up.

When I first flipped on the tape, the familiar clouds parted and the words "The Simpsons" appeared... and I heard the voiceover: "In a cartoon, words appear through clouds." Hmm, I thought; could this be a humorous parody of the opening sequence for "Law & Order"? It wasn't.

I was quite disturbed at first but, being the fan that I am, I watched anyway -- and discovered that the voiceover actually enhanced my viewing experience! The often dry humor of "The Simpsons" was given extra depth by the voiceover, and I decided I should share some of the better sequences here at Toner Mishap (not entirely in chronological order, for various reasons). Below are thumbnail images from the show; each thumbnail is followed by comments.



Let's start off slow, with a short, funny clip -- and one of the best, I think. Homer's talking to Moe, eating beef jerky. Hilarity ensues, and the narrator makes sure we don't miss the joke. Sometime the voiceover served as a sort of sweetener for those of us with sight; in case you didn't know it was funny, the narrator describes what's going on to prompt you to laugh.



In the "gambling" sequence, we know that Homer is tuning out Lisa, and we know that he's going to pick up the phone... nonetheless, the voiceover reminds us how funny it is by stating the obvious: "Homer's already on the phone!"


Santa's Village

Frosty the Snowman

Many of the gags on "The Simpsons" involve dragging out a pause to delay the gratification of the punchline that follows. We fans have grown accustomed to these pauses, and relish them -- but the voiceover sometimes came in early and articulated the visual punchline before we saw it! So we get (1) the enjoyment of the delay because we know a joke is coming, (2) the enjoyment of the punchline as delivered by voiceover, (3) the enjoyment of the knowledge that the delay has been spoiled by the early punchline, and (4) the moment of the intended punchline delivery itself. These two clips featuring Santa's Village give us that extra enjoyment.


Fat Tony

The lowbrow sight gags are also enhanced; the only thing better than seeing Homer get hit in the hand by hammer-wielding mafiosa is to have the voiceover proclaim in mock-surprise, "Two thugs hammer Homer's hand!"


Jet Ski

Because nothing is as funny as a manatee getting hit by a jet ski.



I began to wonder why the narrator seemed so interested in talking about the Alec Baldwin-voiced character so much; in this bit, he discusses his muscles and his Speedo bathing suit.



That's one of the great things about this voiceover guy -- he really tries to emote. Such as in the "angry" clip, in which Marge rams her car into Homer's.



It doesn't always work out well for the sighted fan -- the sequence in which Marge recharges her hair with her car's cigarette lighter is ruined by the early reveal. That said, the early announcement that Homer is napping makes this commonplace activity quite funny.



The contrast in the narrators descriptions of two of the three characters in the "phonebooth" clip are striking and hysterical; rather than merely referring to a manatee and a man, the voiceover is rather more... poetic in its descriptions. "A blubbery gray creature" and "the trim newcomer" are not phrases you hear often, and they enhance the visuals.


Suspicious Looks

This voiceover just reeks of something Hitchcockian about to happen...



The "dog-manatee-chicken" clip is incredible -- we get three different animal-related jokes in a row. They proceed so quickly, in fact, that the voiceover spills from one scene to the next, the narrator's voice revealing mild amusement, faux excitement and feigned surprise in rapid succession.



And when the writing and visuals are already enough to be hilarious, the voiceover is unobtrusive and hurts nothing, as in the "dinner" clip.



Some choices betray a wanna-be writer behind the voiceover -- why else would the narrator refer to the jet ski-riding no-goodniks in the "attack" clip as "four slick guys"? It's a pointless fluffy adjective.



The "beating" clip is a particularly violent scene (for a cartoon) and, again, the action is too fast for the voiceover to keep pace.


Homer Barfs

Earlier I mentioned how sight gags hold up even with the added narrative. Has there ever been an episode in which Homer didn't barf? This one is no exception to the rule.



This clip is from earlier in the show -- it's the reason Marge gets so mad at Homer in the first place. The narrator doesn't get to do much, but the sequence is hysterical -- so it wouldn't be fair to keep it from you.


Nuclear Power Plant

And during the last sequence of the episode, in which Mr. Burns and Smithers wash a manatee at the nuclear power plant, the sync is again off, and so the voiceover lets us know what's going to happen before it happens, given us that double-enjoyment cited above. And instead of a brief description -- say, "Smithers and Burns have a sponge fight," instead we have a Vin Scully-like play-by-play. Why did the voiceover writer bother to give us such detailed information? We may never know.


Opening Titles

Here's the last sequence I'll share: the entire opening titles. It's big, but worth watching. The sync of some of the audio is off -- but this is only a problem if, like me, you can see; for the intended blind audience, there would be no disconnect. The title sequence, for instance, is totally out-of-sync through most of it -- the audio's question of "Does any kid still do this anymore?" is unclear until a few seconds later, when we see that Bart is writing this phrase on the chalkboard of his classroom. Again, someone who can't see the show wouldn't notice any problem.


The punchline for this post, not surprisingly, is that I still haven't figured out how to change the VCR back. In fact, the only thing I could do was make it record shows with a Spanish overdub. Which means that by this time next week I'll either be using TiVo or reporting on what "The Family Guy" is like en Espanol.


Me said...

Nice. I want to turn that on and get loaded. That'll be fun. It'll be freaky. "Homer's already on the phone!"


"The football players high-five."

Unknown said...

You should see this post. Pretty much the same thing happened to him. I wonder when they started doing it, though.

Celina said...

These are awesome. Unfortunately I'm getting "Page Unavailable" errors from comcast for the majority of them.

Would you happen to have a directory listing for the movies so I could download them and watch them on my computer?

B2 said...

Celina (and others) -- if you want me to email you certain files, I am willing to do so... I think I may be having some bandwidth/hosting issues with this much data transfer. Email me with your request at brynjegardbialik [at]

Tim Cuthbertson said...

You could try creating a torrent of these vids, that ought to curb the bandwidth usage somewhat...

Attila said...

Hilarious. I almost thought you were kidding till I sampled one of the files.

If the narrator botches the joke, is that a stumbling block before the blind?

Daxohol said...

I onced watched some children programming on the "Treehouse" Channel in Descriptive Video. Let me tell you, Teletubbies in DV is like a bad dream.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I really hate the new narration on the show. I never messed with my VCR, it just started on the show one day. It serisouly bugs me and i wish it would go away.

Anonymous said...

its because your audio is set to "sap" look for an audio menu or button and click it off sap

Sildenafil Citrate said...

This is pretty awesome, I've never seen a VCR with that option, or at least I have never owned one that had it. This is pretty cool and a clever way to enjoy the show.

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