As we all know by now, Michael Jackson, singer, entertainer, dancer and pervasive celebrity presence, died of cardiac arrest on June 25, 2009. He was 50 years old. This is according to CNN, TMZ, The Los Angeles Times … well, everybody.
My neighbors are blasting his greatest hits album right now, and, regardless of the somber mood, it’s hard not to feel a little like dancing.
I’m a TV writer, and Michael Jackson is a topic out of my professional purview. The best I can do is to honor the pop singer by looking back on the only TV appearance he ever made (not counting the MTV Video Awards, because who else does?).
Jackson lent his voice to “The Simpsons” third season premiere “Stark Raving Dad,” an episode largely forgotten by all but fastidious “Simpsons” fans. In typical ironic fashion, “The Simpsons” had the biggest pop star in the world play a mental patient who thought he was the King of Pop. In typical oddball fashion, Jackson refused to be credited for the voice; his name appears in the credits as “John Jay Smith.”
Homer meets Leon Kompowski — who claims to be Jackson, despite a notable difference in appearance — after he is sent to the New Bedlam Mental Institution. It’s a long story involving a hat with too much red dye and Homer passing off his Sanity Test to meddlesome Bart.
Anyway, Homer and Leon form a fast friendship. Leon teaches Homer to moonwalk (though Homer can only do it forwards) and lullabies him with Jackson’s 1972 hit “Ben.” Leon belting “With a friend to call my own / I’ll never be alone!” to Homer’s background murmurs of “beer … potato chips” is a musical scene of forgotten brilliance. After the two leave New Bedlam, they discover that Bart has spread a rumor: The “real” Michael Jackson is in Springfield. News vans, helicopters, and legions of fans swarm the Simpson house only to discover Leon, a fat, bald steel worker from Cleveland. Suddenly, no one seems interested anymore.
Alone again, Leon helps Bart concoct the perfect birthday song for his neglected sister Lisa. The song, “Happy Birthday, Lisa,” is quality Jackson — a hooky chorus, festive percussion and adroit singing. It has made its way onto more than one of my friends’ iPods.
I like when “Simpsons” writers can work in a celebrity guest without making the whole episode revolve around him or her. But Jackson’s appearance is especially enduring, as it illustrates a truth about the man himself. The crowd around the Simpson house — the gawkers, the news media, the fairweather fans — were there for Jackson the celebrity event, not Jackson the pop singer.
Let me explain, though I doubt I need to. In 1991, when “Stark Raving Dad” aired, Jackson had already become somewhat of a tabloid spectacle. The former golden child was under increased media scrutiny due to his recent abnormal behavior. Jackson’s ownership of the Neverland Ranch and a chimp named Bubbles are just two of many well-cited examples. Luckily for Jackson and “The Simpsons,” this episode pre-dated those infamous sexual abuse allegations by two years.
When the crowd of Springfieldians saw Leon, they were disappointed. They had expected a pop icon and gotten an odd-looking white guy. But the crowd never asked Leon to sing. Not once. If they had, they would’ve heard the same melodic, sweet voice that sang away Lisa’s blues. Yes, maybe Leon wasn’t the same Michael Jackson Springfieldians knew (or thought they knew) and loved. But he still could sing. Bart didn’t care who Leon was. He just knew the man could make music. I kinda wish more of us had felt the same way.