King of the Hill Revisited: “Jumpin’ Crack Bass” and “Husky Bobby”

Jumpin’ Crack Bass (It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas)
Written by Alan Cohen & Alan Freedland

Even more than “The Arrowhead,” this episode shows Hank indirectly bringing a lot of pain on himself by compromising his principles just a little bit. The episode starts with Hank and Bobby digging for worms, because Hank refuses to use anything but natural bait. Hank explains that he doesn’t “fish for the fish,” but for the old-fashioned values that are inherent in fishing: for him, it’s a refuge from the painful compromises of the modern world, something that can still be the way it always was. (Soon after explaining this to Bobby, Hank gets another painful confrontation with modern bureaucracy: he stops a man from stealing his truck, and the cops proceed to dissassemble his beloved truck looking for drugs.) But Hank then finds that his friends are catching lots of fish with modern enhanced bait and modern lures, while his “hand-dug American worms” aren’t attracting any fish. So his competitive urges take over, and he goes looking for some special bait – which leads him, through Wacky Misunderstandings, to buy crack from a dealer on the street, thinking it’s bait. And of course, the fish love it.

The writers have a great deal of fun with the thematic connections between drugs and fishing. Hank has no idea that he’s fishing with drugs, but he becomes addicted to the thrill of catching fish, and begins to act like an addict: sneaking out in the middle of the night to get his fix, unable to pay attention to his family, fighting with his friends over the remaining “bait.” And when the fish stop biting, having gotten used to the bait, he goes back to the dealer looking for something stronger.

And like a typical drug addiction story, the script sets up the idea that Hank falls into addiction as a refuge from the troubles in his own life. With his truck gone and the bills piling up to get it fixed, with Bobby acting like Bobby, and with all the pressures of ’90s life becoming unbearable, Hank needs bigger and better doses of relaxation. Part of the gag is that for someone like Hank, who takes everything so seriously, becoming addicted to catching fish is as bad as drug addiction: using “cheater bait” is an artificial high. The episode even brings it all together near the end when Hank declares that for using non-natural bait, he’s no better than the punk who tried to steal his truck. We’re not supposed to take that statement as literally true, but it’s true from Hank’s point of view, because he’s a man who believes in holding on to tradition at all costs. Buying drugs was a mistake, and he doesn’t beat himself up for that; his real crime, as he sees it, was breaking with tradition and becoming like the value-less, lawless modern world. Of course that would lead to him getting arrested.

To tie in with the idea of Hank as a man fighting an uphill battle against changing customs, this episode is also the first to introduce an idea that will be hinted at a few times during the season, and finally become the basis of the season finale: the Mega Lo Mart is wrecking Arlen’s small businesses. The owner of the local bait shop, whose last act before closing up is to give Hank a tip on where to get the special bait, is seen torching his place for the insurance money, and later in the episode he’s dragged into the same courtroom as Hank. The privately-owned, traditionalist stores that Hank treasures are being dismantled and literally destroyed; he’s the lone hold-out, the one person who still instinctively heads for the little shops instead of the modern box stores.

Like many a high-concept story, this one has a certain amount of third act trouble: having built up the craziness step by step, making every move somewhat logical, the writers have to find a way out of it, and the way out finally seems a bit contrived in a way the other plot twists didn’t. (Hank and Dale are arrested for trying to buy more crack, and the judge, voiced by James Carville, tells them that if they catch a fish with the crack, he’ll let them go. The judge has been carefully set up as an eccentric guy with unusual sentences – that’s part of the function of the scenes after Hank’s truck is broken into – but it still seems a bit more outlandish than we can accept in this universe. On The Simpsons, a judge going fishing to decide a trial would be plausible. Not so much here.) Still, it sets up the final twist, where Hank can no longer catch fish with crack but does manage to catch one with a regular old worm. It’s a karmic happy ending for Hank: when he sticks to his guns and just enjoys old-fashioned fishing for its own sake, good things happen.

Luckily, the third act has some good jokes to keep it flowing, many of them coming from Dale. He really comes into his own here as an all-purpose comic character. With his claims of expertise and manly bravery, always turning to cowardliness when the chips are down, he’s a classic foil who can always be called upon to say something outlandish when the plot mechanics threaten to overwhelm the comedy. And he already has some of the most distinctive catchphrases, like “Wingo!” (This episode also seemed to be trying to make “That’s my position,” which he said in a previous show, into a catchphrase, but it didn’t stick.) Incidentally, the judge is voiced by James Carville, a nod to the Democratic party and the Clinton administration that balances out Hank’s many pro-Republican, anti-Democratic comments in this particular episode. Whether consciously or not, the early years of this show were all about finding a balance.


Husky Bobby
Written by Jonathan Collier

If King of the Hill has one episode that is a template for subsequent episodes, this is it. Mike Judge and others have pointed to it as a model of what the show does well. Just about every season there would be at least one episode that had some form of this basic plot, and others that had elements of it. The basic story is simple: after coming to terms with the fact that he’s too fat to buy regular-sized clothes, Bobby gets an offer to be a model for plus-sized children’s fashions. Peggy, who has been trying to convince Bobby to be proud of just being himself, is happy about this, but Hank is horrified and forbids it. When Bobby tries to participate in a fashion show anyway, Hank shows up at the last minute and forces him out of it – just as all the other kid models are pelted with food by bullies. Bobby then realizes that Hank was right all along.

That’s the plot that I think a lot of us associate with King of the Hill – it’s not every week, but it’s a go-to plot, much like “Homer Simpson gets a wacky new job.” Bobby gets involved with something that is disturbing to Hank, and Hank is right to be disturbed. There are many variations on this idea, but it gets its effectiveness from the fact that it’s the exact opposite of what we usually expected to happen in a TV episode. Usually the message of TV is the message Peggy gives to Bobby early in this episode: “Being different is the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world.” But sometimes being different, or just being proud of who you are, isn’t a great idea. That’s where “Husky Bobby” lives, and that’s where a number of KotH episodes live.

A lot of ’90s television was very hyper-conscious of the fact that we had seen certain stories before, and played with our expectations of what was going to happen, of who would normally be the hero or villain. And though it doesn’t seem like it at first, “Husky Bobby” is sort of a TV episode about other TV episodes – a response to them, a subversion of them. The type of story that’s being subverted is the one where the father refuses to allow his son to do something “different.” The father is always the bad guy in that kind of story. There’s even an exchange that makes this explicit (recalling the famous scene from The Cosby Show where Cliff Huxtable doesn’t fall for Theo’s lame love-me-for-who-I-am speech):

BOBBY: Why are you always trying to turn me into you? Why can’t you accept me for who I am?
HANK: Yeah, yeah, we both saw that after-school special, but I’m not an alcoholic and you’re not an ice skater.

The early scenes of this story sometimes make it look like Hank is being set up to take the fall. He’s not portrayed as truly reasonable (he doesn’t sit down and explain to Bobby why this is a bad idea; he just says it is, and expects his authority to be obeyed), and he’s obviously uncomfortable with the atmosphere of the kiddie fashion world. The scene where Hank first pulls Bobby out of modeling is a showcase for a very funny monologue by KotH’s favourite utility voice actor, David Herman, and it sure seems like Hank is just being a narrow-minded dad.

To an extent, the episode does suggest that Hank is a narrow-minded dad, or at least it leaves that possibility open – that’s why it’s not just a story where Hank is perfect. But Hank is not portrayed as a bigot; he’s a guy who knows that “kids always victimize the one who’s different,” and that if Bobby acts too proud of being fat, he will get beaten up. There’s another subversion of TV conventions when Hank flashes back to his childhood experiences, and we see how he knows that fat kids get picked on: Hank was the alpha kid picking on the “fatties.” He is, and always has been, the designated villain of most small-town stories, but in this story, he’s the voice of reason.

It’s not a very pleasant message, and people who don’t like KotH sometimes point to the ending of this episode as an example of why. Hank is proven right, and the moral seems to be a depressing one: fit in, don’t be proud of who you are, don’t dress flashily or flaunt your extra pounds, or you will be beaten up. I think that is a depressing moral, but it’s also one that rings true. If Bobby wants to be different, he’ll have to wait until he grows up and gets a job that allows him to do it, or else he’ll have to leave Arlen. As a kid in a small town in Texas, he doesn’t have those options. And the message other characters try to sell him – be yourself, being different is great – is going to make his life miserable.

The primary theme of the episode is that the usual lessons of TV, and popular culture in general, are just inadequate to the real world, and especially the world that KotH portrays. Peggy says that “daytime talk shows” have taught her about the importance of celebrating differences, and urges Hank to get with the times. But the show suggests that things haven’t really changed since Hank was a kid; Peggy just thinks they’ve changed because TV told her so. Hank, narrow-minded as he is, has the better grasp of how useless these pop-culture clichés are as a guide to life.

Now, a possible problem with “Husky Bobby” is that the comedy of the show softens and ultimately defeats the message. Arlen is rarely portrayed as a particularly intolerant or closed-minded town (“Hilloween” is an exception, and even there it seems like there’s just one bad apple). And the bullying the “husky” kids experience is the mildest imaginable. Anything harsher would probably spoil the comedy, but because Arlen is a nice town where people really can get along despite their differences, Hank does seem like he’s over-reacting, no matter what the show is trying to prove. Still, you can see why it’s one of Judge’s favourite episodes: he’s like a common-sense subversive, and this was the first time since The Cosby Show that a father could say “father knows best” – Hank literally say it – and be right.

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