Steamed Hams is the Greatest Comedy Scene Ever

1. The Script

This scene comes in at about 340 words, and 67 sentences. Every line serves a purpose — either as a joke, or as character building.

2. The Structure

The structure of the scene is very simple. Skinner is trying to impress Chalmers, but is foiled again and again by both the situation and by Chalmers’ inquisitiveness. Rather than admitting defeat, Skinner attempts to bolster his position with increasingly flimsy lies. Thus there’s a characterisation to be noted in the structure of the scene — Skinner’s pride vs. Chalmer’s intelligence. The power dynamic is boss-employee, and the concept of desperately trying to impress one’s superior without showing any signs of weakness is universally relatable.

  1. The smoke coming out of the oven is just steam.
  2. That Skinner moments ago said ‘steamed hams’ instead of ‘steamed clams’.
  3. Skinner routinely calls hamburgers ‘steamed hams.’
  4. That ‘steamed hams’ is a regional expression for hamburgers (from Utica, specifically).
  5. The burgers are an old family recipe.
  6. The fire in the kitchen is actually the aurora borealis.

3. The Animation

Because yes, The Simpsons is ultimately a cartoon. There’s just some great drawings and animations in this scene. Chalmers’ reaction shots especially.

4. The Psychology of Space

Imagine physical space in the scene representing the dominance of each character We see four spaces in the scene, as such.

5. The Climax

The height of the narrative comes in the aurora borealis exchange.

6. The Editing

Before concluding, I just want to appreciate the editing. The whole scene is edited really nicely, but particularly in a few key moments.

  • The transition from Skinner running over to Krusty Burger to entering the dining room with the hamburgers. We don’t need to see him buying the burgers, or arranging them in the kitchen. The pacing means we’re still on edge from the previous altercation between the two, and the music subtly smoothes it over too. Special mention goes to the noise that plays as Skinner runs over to KB — it has the feel of a scheme being put into motion, emphasising Skinner’s deception.
  • When Skinner leaves the dining room, enters the kitchen, and re-emerges a second later. It’s not an immediate enter-and-leave, and it would have been easy to do so given Skinner’s swinging kitchen door, so there’s just a moment where we’re left to imagine what’s happening in the kitchen. It’s great that we don’t see it, and makes Skinner’s non-reaction all the funnier. There’s just a glimpse of flames through the kitchen door, and that’s enough for the audience to know that something awful is happening.
  • The way the camera snaps to zoom in on Chalmer’s face during his aurora borealis line. We get closer and closer to him, so he becomes framed larger and larger in the shot. Each part of what he’s saying makes the lie more and more ridiculous. After Skinner fobs him off with a simple “Yes”, we return to Chalmers normally-sized again, as if the enormity of the lie has somehow been deflated by Skinners’ flippancy.

Conclusion

The steamed hams scene is incredibly tightly written, and masterfully executed. Every line is delivered to optimal effect. The editing and use of space help to reinforce the dynamics of the scene, which in turn support the humour. The format of the scene as a parody of a typical sitcom farce is sublime, and succeeds on both levels: being funny in itself, and spot-on as satire. At under three minutes, the scene delivers on all fronts that you’d want a comedy scene to deliver on, and nothing is wasted. Nothing else in the history of comedy comes close. This is a masterpiece.

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Richard Cook

Richard Cook

Professional cynic (but my heart's not in it)