In its 30-year lifespan, The Simpsons has featured some of the biggest and most left-field guest stars of any TV show. For Season 3's "Stark Raving Dad," the popularity-gaining comedy managed to land pop icon Michael Jackson for a role that was long mired in mystery and sub-controversy. They mystery may be gone, but the controversy surrounding Jackson's life lives on, and in response to Dan Reed's recently aired documentary Leaving Neverland, The Simpsons producers have agreed to pull "Stark Raving Dad" from circulation.
Co-Creator James L. Brooks Speaks Out
Having first aired in 1991 as the Season 3 premiere, "Stark Raving Dad" featured Michael Jackson in the identity-swapping role of Leon Kompowsky, but despite it being one of many fans' favorite episodes, the decision was made to excise it from the Simpsons episode library. Co-creator and longtime executive producer James L. Brooks told the Wall Street Journal that there wasn't much of a debate.
It feels clearly the only choice to make. The guys I work with — where we spend our lives arguing over jokes — were of one mind on this.
To hash out this difficult conversation, James L. Brooks got together with both fellow co-creator and Simpsons mastermind Matt Groening as well as current showrunner and EP Al Jean. They were inspired, as many may have assumed, by HBO's recent telecast of Dan Reed's highly charged documentary Leaving Neverland, in which the two main subjects lay out a series of allegations against Michael Jackson.
Public reactions to the documentary have been nothing but polarizing. The Jackson family estate quickly got litigious about it, and a bevy of Jackson's closest friends have remained steadfast in their defense of the entertainment legend. On the flip side, many fans and celebs have been unable ignore all of the claims made in the four-hour documentary, and are calling for action to be taken.
Unsurprisingly, given how fully infused Michael Jackson is in all forms of pop culture, many within the various industries have been hesitant to make any permanent changes to existing content that features Jackson in some capacity. But as the old phrase goes, "The Simpsons did it first," so there's a more-than-possible chance that further TV shows, movies, and other projects will follow suit in removing Jackson.
James L. Brooks mentions that he went into the doc wanting to come out of it still believing in Michael Jackson's innocence, and also confirms that Jackson's 2005 acquittal over molestation allegations was why the conversations about pulling "Star Raving Dad" hadn't happened previously. Here, he hints that it was so automatically easy to let the episode go, even though they were all in agreement on Leaving Neverland having fully tainted Michael Jackson's legacy in their eyes.
This was a treasured episode. There are a lot of great memories we have wrapped up in that one, and this certainly doesn’t allow them to remain. . . . I’m against book burning of any kind. But this is our book, and we’re allowed to take out a chapter.
It's definitely a big move for The Simpsons, which hasn't ever previously pulled any of its episodes from circulation. It will be interesting to see if that decision does influence others to make similar moves.
Removing The Episode From Rotation
James L. Brooks said that the process to get "Stark Raving Mad" taken off all the various platforms won't be the quickest or easiest process, but that it has started. In fact, the episode has already been taken off of the Simpsons World website, with Season 3 now starting with the second installment, "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington."
Beyond getting it taken off of that main website, The Simpsons producers also have to worry about getting it removed from future pressings for Season 3's DVD and Blu-ray releases, as well as any Best-Of DVDs where the episode may have been included. The episode will also need to be pulled from syndication, so that it doesn't end up airing on TV in rerun format.
It's unclear just how far this content purging will go, in terms of the reach. Will references to the episode also need to be removed from future publishings of episode guides and the myriad other Simpsons-related books and magazines?
How "Stark Raving Dad" Got Michael Jackson
The Simpsons didn't even have to work hard or come up with any schemes to get Michael Jackson involved for the voice acting role. Jackson reportedly called Matt Groening, expressed his fandom, and offered to take on a guest role. As such, the episode was written specifically for him, and Jackson even requested some of the moments that were shown, such as the scene were Leon and Bart wrote a song together.
Jackson, who wouldn't formally agree to do the part until he'd witnessed a compete read-through of the script, eventually did voice Leon, but had other stipulations. He did not want to be credited for the episode – Leon was voiced by John Jay Smith in the original credits – and he wanted a soundalike artist to record the singing parts.
It was supposedly meant to be a joke on his brothers, but there were a lot of weird contractual stipulations involved as well. In fact, Michael Jackson actually did record the singing parts himself, but those recordings were not used, and Kipp Lennon's voice is heard during those moments of the episode.
Because of those largely undisclosed contract details, which also mandated that Michael Jackson not be credited for co-writing the single "Do the Bartman," the entertainer's true role within "Stark Raving Dad" went unconfirmed for years. The episode's commentary on the DVDs laid out some of the facts, and the various writers and producers have cleared things up more in the years since.
For anyone who doesn't want the episode to go away forever, I'd suggest buying up whatever Season 3 DVDs you can as soon as possible. Unless someone ends up disproving the entirety of Leaving Neverland in the very near future, the pop culture backlash against Michael Jackson may only be heating up.
For those who didn't get to see Leaving Neverland yet, the successful documentary is available on HBO's various platforms, including HBO Go and HBO Now. It will also be replaying on the linear channel itself this weekend.