“My real name is… Armin Tamzarian!”
–Seymour/Armin, “The Principal And The Pauper”
A number of fans point to the 1997 Simpsons episode “The Principal And The Pauper” as the start of the end of the “real” Simpsons—basically, when the long-running animated sitcom “jumped the shark.” In the episode, it is shockingly revealed that Principal Seymour Skinner (one of the key Simpsons supporting characters) was not who he said he was…he was, in fact, an impostor.
The seemingly uptight Skinner actually started life as unruly street orphan Armin Tamzarian (who had a personality not unlike…Bart Simpson). Tamzarian met the real Sergeant Seymour Skinner (voiced by Martin Sheen, natch) in Vietnam. Idolizing the now missing-in-action Skinner, it was Tamzarian who offered to visit his mother to break the terrible news to her. But when he arrived, Skinner’s mom mistook Tamzarian for her actual son, and…he just sort of went along with it. For, like, forever.
Most interestingly, the once-rebellious Tamzarian adopted a nebbishy, insecure…almost bumbling personality as Skinner. This was not the personality of the original Skinner, so there is some question as to why Tamzarian made the change here. Was it to protect his own identity? Was this a dormant facet of his personality that just sort of emerged as he lived a much more stable middle-class life in Springfield?
Or…was Tamzarian just a chimera of sorts, a trickster, a compulsive liar, even? (Some Simpsons fans say this was just a shitty plot hole and in actuality, there is no explanation)
In any case, when the real Skinner, very much alive, shows up at Springfield, there is, obviously, a big problem. The stern Skinner 1 takes over as Principal of the school—and the children hate him, missing Skinner 2. Skinner 1 also takes his rightful place at the home of his mother—but instead of being an obedient son, he talks back to her. He basically doesn’t fit within his new community—more “awkward” than the awkward Skinner 2.
It becomes clear: though Skinner 2—Armin Tamzarian—is a liar and an impostor, he’s also a “better” Skinner than the real Skinner. The townspeople figuratively run him out of town on a rail—tying him to a chair in a freight train car. A judge decrees that not only will Tamzarian retain all the name and birth rights of the original Seymour Skinner—but that the rest of the citizens of Springfield are “banned” from ever mentioning the name “Tamzarian” again (“under penalty of torture”).
While some feel that this episode is terrible because it messes with the deeper Simpsons continuity, I see it more like a parody of the idea of “continuity” and of “collective reality.”
In Springfield, the “collective reality” of the citizens—that Tamzarian was Skinner—trumps the “actual” reality (he is an impostor). That collective reality/continuity then gets literally “policed”—nobody can mention Skinner 2’s former life.
To be fair…Skinner 2 sort of “built” his persona and place in the world. Though as unsmiling a disciplinarian as Skinner 1 was, he has other, more vulnerable traits—being, essentially, his own person. He created his own reality, one in which those around him—his mother Agnes, Bart, etc.—felt comfortable enough with to integrate with their own reality.
An interesting off-shoot of this idea, also involving Skinner, is the popular “Steamed Hams” Simpsons meme. Based on the 1996 episode “22 Short Films About Springfield,” it is a sketch featuring Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers in which the former has the latter over his house for “an unforgettable luncheon.” An important point here: Skinner is always trying to please Chalmers, in fear of losing his job as Principal.
After putting down Skinner for giving him bad directions to the house, Chalmers notices smoke coming out of Skinner’s kitchen. Panicking, Skinner lies: telling his boss that that isn’t smoke, but steam; and that he is cooking “steamed clams” (he was actually making a roast, which caught on fire and is now ruined).
Thus Skinner goes down a path of continual lies for the rest of the sketch, sneaking out of the house, buying Krusty Burgers, and presenting the burgers (on a bed of french fries) to Chalmers as a home-cooked meal:
Principal Skinner: Superintendent, I hope you’re ready for mouth-watering hamburgers.
Superintendent Chalmers: I thought we were having steamed clams.
Principal Skinner: Oh, no, I said, “steamed hams.” That’s what I call hamburgers.
Superintendent Chalmers: You call hamburgers steamed hams.
Principal Skinner: Yes, it’s a regional dialect.
Superintendent Chalmers: Uh-huh. What region?
Principal Skinner: Uh, upstate New York.
Superintendent Chalmers: Really. Well, I’m from Utica and I never heard anyone use the phrase, “steamed hams.”
Principal Skinner: Oh, not in Utica, no; it’s an Albany expression.
Superintendent Chalmers: I see.
But when Chalmers finally stumps Skinner with a “proof” he can’t lie out of, he excuses himself and runs into the kitchen—which is now engulfed with smoke and red light. When he stumbles back out to the dining room to laugh nervously and end the lunch, Chalmers demands to know what the hell is going on in that kitchen:
Superintendent Chalmers: GOOD LORD! WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THERE?
Principal Skinner: Aurora Borealis?
Superintendent Chalmers: A…Aurora Borealis! At this time of year? At this time of day? In this part of the country? Localized entirely within your kitchen?
Principal Skinner: Yes!
Superintendent Chalmers: [beat] May I see it?
What’s particularly interesting about that exchange is that in the end, Chalmers—who has proven himself to be a no-nonsense guy who can see through any BS—actually wants to believe there is an actual aurora borealis in Skinner’s kitchen. In the actual scene, his face suddenly softens, in an expression almost of yearning. He wants to share in Skinner’s beautiful lie.
In the end, Chalmers, though admitting he thinks Skinner is an “odd fellow,” is satisfied with his lunch of “steamed hams.” As Skinner’s house goes up in flames, his mother screaming from the upper floor, he flashes Chalmers the reassuring “thumbs up” signal.
How can a man lie with a straight face about an aurora borealis taking place in his kitchen? Remember: this is Armin Tamzarian, who had been living most of his adult life as a lie—a beautiful lie that the rest of his fellow citizens of Springfield willingly accept as its own truth.
Now, this idea of reality being subjective is further explored within the Steamed Hams meme itself, which has spawned countless variations on YouTube. The Simpsons sketch is replayed over and over and over again, some with slight differences, and some recontextualized into an entirely new thing. In some, Skinner doesn’t lie. In some, there are multiple Chalmerses invading Skinner’s house. There are 3D animation versions, “flash” animation versions, versions made to look like classic video games. And in several, there is an actual aurora borealis in Skinner’s kitchen.
And in some, “reality” breaks down entirely into a loose agglomeration of non-sequiturs and allusions to other memes.
These multiple versions of “Steamed Hams” are not the actual 1996 sketch that aired on the Simpsons. And yet they are—even the most abstract of them. How can they be both? How can Armin Tamzarian be Seymour Skinner? How can there be an aurora borealis in Skinner’s kitchen?
And how could Agnes Skinner not know this wasn’t actually her biological son? Fact is: she probably did.
And she didn’t care.