The perfect symmetry of Steamed Hams

If you want to see The Simpsons at its best, you could do worse than “Twenty-Two Short Films About Springfield”. This episode peels away from the Simpson family to show short vignettes from the lives of the series’ many side characters.

One of the best skits from that episode (titled Skinner & The Superintendent, but better known as Steamed Hams– if you haven’t seen it, it’s only a couple of minutes long) follows Bart’s headteacher, Seymour Skinner, inviting Superintendent Chalmers over for dinner. Chalmers is Skinner’s superior: he manages the local school district and often arrives to inspect Springfield Elementary at the worst possible times.

In other words, this is a classic sitcom plot – trying to impress the boss with a fancy meal that all goes horribly wrong. The show winks to this by giving the skit a cheesy sitcom style theme song, complete with an opening sequence.

Ski-i-inner, with his crazy explanations
The superintendent’s gonna need his medication
When he hears Skinner’s lame exaggerations
There’ll be trouble in town tonight

This works as a joke, but for viewers who aren’t familiar with Chalmers (a slightly obscure character, since he usuaully only appears once or twice per season) it doubles as a set-up. Something will go wrong, and Skinner will lie to cover it up, and in the process make everything worse.

In spite of being formulaic, Steamed Hams has gone down as a classic bit. It’s now a meme to mash up the scene in different ways – to turn it into guitar music, to remove all Skinner’s lies, to run it through a trippy vocoder, to replace the words with bad translations, to edit it like the movie Memento, and to reverse the order of the lines so the scene runs forward but the dialogue runs backwards.

This last one really intrigued me, because it reveals something incredible about this scene: its symmetry. Steamed Hams is constructed with the same kind of attentiveness to symmetry that you might expect of Greek architecture or Renaissance art. Don’t believe me? Watch.

Run it backwards, and nearly every line of dialogue works with the animation.* Everything that is a build-up in the first half is a pay off in the second half, and vice versa. Here’s the very first and last line:

Speaker   Forwards   Backwards
Chalmers Well Seymour, I made it, despite your directions. Well Seymour, you are an odd fellow, but I must say, you steam a good ham.

Right here we have a very obvious symmetry – the scene begins and ends with Chalmers saying “Well Seymour” – and the narrative arc from the sketch, as Chalmers goes from a not-very-veiled insult to a grudging compliment. Perfect bookends to a very neat sketch.

Speaker   Forwards   Backwards
Skinner Ah, Superintendent Chalmers, welcome. I hope you’re prepared for an unforgetable luncheon. No mother, it’s just the Northern Lights.
Skinner No.
Chalmers Meh. May I see it?
Skinner Oh ye gods, my roast is ruined! But what if I were to purchase fast food and disguise it as my own cooking? Oh ho ho ho, delightfully devilish Seymour. Yes.

Here, the lines don’t quite match for a necessary reason – in the beginning, Skinner needs to exposit and explain that he’s a) invited Chalmers around for lunch, b) burned the roast and c) will buy burgers to replace it. You don’t need anything like this at the end of the sketch, so instead there is a throwaway joke where Skinner tries to convince his mother that the house is not on fire. Still, I find it funny that we go from Chalmers as the monosyllabic one to Skinner yes-ing and no-ing.

Anyway, here (in the forwards version), Chalmers enters the kitchen just as Skinner steps out of the window to go to the Krusty Burger drive-thru and…

Speaker   Forwards   Backwards
Skinner Superintendent, I was just, uh, stretching my calves on the windowsill. Isometric exercise. Care to join me? Aurora Borealis?
Chalmers Why is there smoke coming out of your oven, Seymour? Yes, I should be… Good Lord, what is happening in there?!
Skinner Uh, that’s isn’t smoke, that’s steam. Steam from the steamed clams we’re having. Mmm, steamed clams. [Yawn] Well, that was wonderful. A good time was had by all, I’m pooped.

Now we’re back to symmetry. From Chalmers yelling to Skinner trying to pretend there’s no fire, everything that happens forwards here in the first half happens backwards in the second:

Chalmers shouts, Skinner blurts out a blatant lie, Chalmers asks a question about the obvious crisis, Skinner pretends there’s no smoke <> Skinner pretends there’s no fire, Chalmers asks a question about the obvious crisis, Skinner blurts out a blatant lie, Chalmers shouts

Speaker   Forwards   Backwards
Skinner Superintendent, I hope you’re ready for mouthwatering hamburgers. Uh… you know… one thing I should… excuse me for one second.
Chalmers I thought we were having steamed clams. Yes, and you call them steamed hams despite the fact that they are obviously grilled.
Skinner No, no, I said “steamed hams”. That’s what I can hamburgers Yes!
Chalmers You call hamburgers “steamed hams”? For steamed hams?
Skinner Yes. It’s a regional dialect. Oh ho ho, no, patented Skinner Burgers. Old family recipe.
Chalmers Uh-huh. What region? You know, these hamburgers are quite similar to the ones they have at Krusty Burger.

Here we have more bookends: Skinner walks into the dining room with a plate of burgers on “Superintendent, I hope you’re ready for mouthwatering hamburgers” and leaves on “Excuse me for one second”. Virtually every line of dialogue here is Chalmers asking Skinner a question (or making a pointed statement) that demands Skinner raise the stakes of his lie, so it’s maybe not surprising that there’s a lot of symmetry here, but even beyond that, the details mirror each other too. Skinner tries to cover his tracks by referencing his heritage – the word “steamed hams” is his dialect, the obviously processed burgers are actually a family recipe – while Chalmers can never quite bring himself to believe the phrase “steamed hams” is real.

Speaker   Forwards   Backwards
Chalmers I see.
Skinner Uh, upstate New York. Oh, not in Utica, no. It’s an Albany expression.
Chalmers Really? Well, I’m from Utica and I’ve never heard anyone use the phrase “Steamed Hams”. Really? Well, I’m from Utica and I’ve never heard anyone use the phrase “Steamed Hams”

Pivot! There’s one more mismatched line of dialogue here – Chalmers has an extra “I see”. It’s not essential to the sketch, but it is funny, and it shows Chalmers does believe Skinner’s ridiculous lies, if he pushes them far enough, which is essential for the aurora borealis payoff.

It’s hard to argue that there’s no symmetry here, but why is this important?

Ultimately, it all comes down to the classical theory of dramatic structure and rising and falling action. In a comedy, setting up the joke is the rising action, and the punchline is the falling action. The German author Gustav Freytag drew this in his famous pyramid diagram.

What would Steamed Hams look like diagrammed? I think it would be something like this:

Given the limited time the sketch has, every line is used efficiently. Apart from the steady rising action in the exposition section (before the situation is set up, you can’t have situation comedy – although we do get some character humour from Harry Shearer (Skinner) and Hank Azaria (Chalmers)), it falls into a steady rhythm of Skinner lying, Chalmers pushing him further, and Skinner topping his lie before Chalmers accepts it or moves on to another question.

Having established this rhythm, they then break it near the end, when Skinner is unable to think of a final lie to satisfy Chalmers, which is what makes the awkward build up to the aurora borealis punchline so funny. Chalmers acceptance of the lie is ridiculously fast – within two lines of dialogue, he’s gone from screaming scepticism to meek belief – which is why the final falling action falls so precipitously. It’s also why the lines near the start/end didn’t match quite as well – it wouldn’t be possible to use that kind of pace during exposition.

This rhythm is why there is so much symmetry within the sketch, and why so many of the lines mirrored themselves. Nothing is wasted, and the sketch never dawdles. It uses its 2 minutes 40 seconds perfectly, and that’s why it’s gone down as an all time classic bit of TV comedy.

* In the second half of the video, the order of the lines is actually slightly changed. However, it would still work if it were more faithful to the original dialogue, and anyway, as the scene is symmetrical we only need to look at the first half.

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