Article Thumbnail

An Oral History of ‘Steamed Hams,’ the Funniest ‘Simpsons’ Scene Ever Recorded

You wouldn’t have seen this in Utica, no. It’s an Albany show.

CHALMERS: Well, Seymour, I made it, despite your directions.

SKINNER: Ah, Superintendent Chalmers, welcome. I hope you’re prepared for an unforgettable luncheon!

So began a segment that would eventually become one of the most famous comedy shorts of all time. Originally called “Chalmers vs. Skinner,” the two-minute-and-48-second piece was part of an unusual episode of The Simpsons that aired during the show’s seventh season, on April 14, 1996. While most episodes of The Simpsons focus on the show’s titular family, “22 Short Films About Springfield” was different, as it was broken up into a series of short segments focusing on Springfield’s supporting characters. “Steamed Hams” — as “Chalmers vs. Skinner” would later come to be known — was simply one of those segments. 

But in the 24 years since it first aired, the piece has taken on a new and unusual life, finding itself an enduring internet phenomenon that has included memes, remixes, remakes and even the occasional reference in real life. It all began, though, back in mid-1995, in the writers room of The Simpsons.

Bill Oakley, The Simpsons writer from 1992 to 1998 and co-showrunner from 1995 to 1997: One of the very first weeks Josh Weinstein and I were at The Simpsons, they did this episode called “The Front,” which was about Grandpa getting credit for writing those Itchy & Scratchy cartoons. Back in those days, [showrunners] Mike Reiss and Al Jean trimmed the shows tight and they often came in too short. Like, that was why that Sideshow Bob rake gag got repeated, because an episode ran short.

Anyway, “The Front” was so short that they actually wrote a little segment called “The Adventures of Ned Flanders.” It was really corny and short, and we thought it was so funny. So Josh and I always wanted to do more of those, but every one of our episodes was so bloated that we never had the chance.

Midway through Season Seven, when Josh and I were the showrunners, we realized we were never going to be able to do any of those little shorts. One of us, Josh or me, had the idea of, “Let’s do a whole episode of nothing but those things.” This was just around the time Pulp Fiction had come out and there were a couple of other things that were little bits and pieces that were intertwined like that, so we were like, “What if we did a whole episode like that, but with all the characters in Springfield?” We fell in love with the idea immediately, so that was the genesis of it.

We had to figure out how we were going to do this, so we decided that we were going to have everybody on staff get a chance to write for their favorite character. To make it fair, it was basically like a football draft and everybody got to pick a number and go in order and call dibs on their favorite characters to write a little segment for. My very first choice was Superintendent Chalmers and Principal Skinner. It might’ve just been Chalmers, but I think Skinner came along with the package. 

Chalmers has always been my favorite character in The Simpsons because he’s the only somewhat sane person in town. I love that dynamic where Skinner tells a crazy lie, Chalmers calls him on it, Skinner then makes up another lie and Chalmers asks maybe one more question, but then gives up. This was always so funny to me, that Chalmers kind of knows that Skinner’s lying, but he doesn’t care enough to pursue it. Either that, or he’s learned where the boundaries exist in the Springfield universe. He knows that you don’t probe too deeply, otherwise you get screwed.

Skinner, on the other hand, is the funny one, and you can’t have that dynamic without the preposterous liar. Josh and I always loved to write Skinner because he was so much like so many of the teachers that we had in our high school. The thing about Skinner is that he has such a deep voice that commands respect, so when he lies, the sound of his voice flies in the face of the silly things he says.

Anyway, so I called Chalmers and everybody went off and I think we had a week to write it, which is a pretty good amount of time. For me, I wrote mine all in one sitting on like a Saturday afternoon or something. The idea was to use this corny situation — that the boss is coming over for dinner and someone burned the roast, a sitcom staple going all the way back into the days of radio. So that was the premise: Chalmers is coming over and Skinner’s burned the meal.

SKINNER: Oh, ye Gods! My roast is ruined!… But what if… I were to purchase fast food and disguise it as my own cooking? Ooh, delightfully devilish, Seymour.

Oakley: From there, I decided that it had to be a series of unbelievable lies. Normally, Chalmers doesn’t pursue them, but this time, he does. So, as opposed to asking one follow-up question and giving up — which was his normal MO — he asked about 13 to 16 follow-up questions that each required Skinner to make up a more preposterous lie. Finally, it ends with the Aurora Borealis in Skinner’s kitchen.

SKINNER: Superintendent! I was just stretching my calves on the windowsill! Isometric exercise. Care to join me?

Sean Salazar, personal trainer and owner of Anywhere Gym: Isometric exercise is basically an exercise where you’re not moving — a plank, for example. Your muscles are working, but you’re holding a position. With Principal Skinner, when he’s saying he’s doing an isometric exercise by stretching his leg in the window, some people argue that stretching is an isometric activity, so some would say that yes, he’s doing an isometric exercise. 

CHALMERS: Why is there smoke coming out of your oven, Seymour?

SKINNER: Oh, that isn’t smoke. It’s steam. Steam from the steamed clams we’re having. Mmmm, steamed clams.

Oakley: As for the whole thing with “steamed hams” and “steamed clams,” I just needed a phony lie that rhymed. I actually didn’t know at that time that steamed clams was a real dish and then steamed hams just seemed like a preposterous, half-assed lie. 

So I turned in the segment, which was by far the longest one in the whole show, but since I was the showrunner I kind of stuffed it in. Greg Daniels was supervising the writing for this thing, which basically meant that he figured out the right order for the segments to go in and punched some things up. Mine remained largely unchanged, but he did have a couple of changes. Also, Ken Keeler wrote the little song for “Steamed Hams,” that wasn’t me.

The thing is, at the time, I didn’t even know if it was funny. The table read for the episode wasn’t all that successful, but we decided to do it anyway. After it broadcasted, we never really heard anything about it for years afterwards. Steamed Hams didn’t even become a thing until 2016, when some Australian grocery store kept getting calls from people asking for steamed hams.

Brad Esposito, BuzzFeed, June 29, 2016, excerpt from “Hundreds of People Won’t Stop Asking This Grocery Store for Steamed Hams”: Australian grocery chain Woolworths says “about 1,000 people” have commented on its Facebook page asking for steamed hams. “It started Monday night,” a Woolworths social media specialist told BuzzFeed News. “We’ve had about 1,000 people come and make comments about it. Lots of fun banter.”

Robin, founder of the Steamed Hams Facebook group: I started the Facebook group in 2009, and at the time, I was just gregariously clicking “like” on everything and starting groups. I thought “steamed hams” was a fun thing for people to be able to click to say they liked. The group amassed 6,000 or 7,000 followers before I stopped posting in 2011. Since then, it’s been largely defunct, so I’m not sure that the Steamed Hams craze started with me. What’s interesting, though, is that I’m in New Zealand, and over 50 percent of the group members are from Australia, so maybe it’s related to the calls to that Australian grocery store. I don’t know.

Sarah Croft, The Simpsons fan and creator of the Memed Hams Reddit thread: I started the Reddit thread Memed Hams at the beginning of June 2016, which is just a few weeks before the Woolworths thing. I live in Canada, so I’m not sure it had anything to do with that, and I don’t take credit for the Steamed Hams Memes. There are Simpsons Shitposting meme groups on Facebook and Steamed Hams would show up there from time to time. Steamed Hams memes were my favorite since it’s one of the funniest segments of the whole show.

Don Caldwell, internet historian and editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme: Steamed Hams has kind of a weird meme history in that it was a slow burn. There are a number of memes that are old and take a while to peak, and Steamed Hams is one of those. It’s old, of course, because it comes from that 1996 Simpsons episode, but online, it was put into the Urban Dictionary in 2007 and there was a Facebook group started in 2009. But that’s not what seems to have made this explode online. What might have happened is that, because The Simpsons is so popular, it could have arisen independently in multiple ways as an inside joke. 

The group Simpsons Shitposting was perhaps more instrumental to Steamed Hams’ success online. Simpsons Shitposting is a popular group that recontextualizes moments on the show into absurdist non sequiturs. A lot of Simpsons meme content comes out of that group, and a lot of the content from outside of that group is posted there too. In 2015 and 2016, Steamed Hams became a popular topic of discussion in Simpsons Shitposting, then it later navigated to YouTube.

YouTube is where Steamed Hams became popular. One of the earliest videos came in 2010, and it was a 15-second “text-to-movie” remake of the scene. After Steamed Hams became more popular in 2016 in Simpsons Shitposting, you began seeing what we think of as the Steamed Hams memes growing on YouTube and that’s what kicked Steamed Hams into overdrive. 

Robin: I love the Phoenix Wright one where Chalmers gets an inner monologue.

Oakley, excerpt from Now This Nerd interview: I don’t know Metal Gear Solid, but that one is the best one.

Richard Cook, The Simpsons fan and author of “Steamed Hams Is the Greatest Comedy Scene Ever”: The Pulp Fiction one is possibly my favorite one. 

Nightbane Games, YouTube channel: The game The Simpsons: Hit & Run is basically a cartoon version of Grand Theft Auto, and the fact that it was released on PC makes it easy to mod. I’d created several mods for the game, and in 2018, I saw that the Steamed Hams meme was getting popular. One day it just popped into my mind to put that into the game, so I designed “Steamed Hams” as a playable level that you can download.

Oakley: My favorite one is actually not a video, it’s a six-panel comic strip that someone did that’s really sad. In it, Skinner dies in the fire, there’s a funeral and then, at the end, Chalmers has gone camping and sees Skinner’s ghost in the sky. I found that very moving.

Chaz Kangas, radio host on Go 95.3 in Minneapolis: During the meme’s height two summers ago, I would put the mash-up of “Steamed Hams” and Gorillaz’ “Feel Good Inc.” into the regular rotation on my radio show. The first week I did it, I would get people calling in asking, “Is there a problem with your ‘Feel Good Inc.’?” Eventually though, a lot of people would call in for it.

Oakley: So many of those remixes are so good, like that one that’s like the A-ha video to “Take on Me,” and there’s a Lego one that’s really great.

James Morr, cartoonist: In 2018, the Steamed Hams meme was in full force and I wanted to contribute to it, so I thought it would be fun to remake “Steamed Hams” in Lego, especially since The Simpsons had done a Lego-themed episode called “Brick Like Me.” I did some research on how best to pull this off and made it in Blender. I started in late 2019 and finished it this past April. There are a couple of shots that I had to cheat because the proportions for Lego are so off, but I I tried to recreate the piece as faithfully as possible.

Zachary Howe, author of The Heir of Olympus and the Forest Realm and “How the ‘Steamed Hams’ Scene From ‘The Simpsons’ Spawned an Entire Bizarre Subculture” for Ranker: There’s a Dragon Ball Z one, and I think that’s stuck with me more than anything simply because I loved Dragon Ball Z growing up. One of the coolest things, though, is that when you Google “Steamed Hams,” Google offers you “Did you mean: steamed clams,” so it’s a pretty hilarious meta joke in Google.

Justin Hintze, owner of Jojo Food Truck in Portland, Oregon: Bill Oakley lives and writes about food here in Portland, and he’d posted on Twitter a recipe for his favorite sandwich. It looked really good, so I hit him up and asked him if he’d be interested in having me serve it at Jojo, and donate a portion of the profits to charity. We did it last summer and it was madness, so we did it again this summer. The sandwich is a grilled ham-and-cheese with Coleman’s mustard, Duke’s mayo and house pickles. For the ham, I put it on the griddle, put the cheese on the ham, put some water on there and cover it with a dome. This melts the cheese really well, but I actually steam the ham, which was my idea that came together really perfectly.

Caldwell: In January 2018, Bill Oakley posted some tweets about “Steamed Hams,” revealing the first draft of the script. The post received more than 3,200 retweets and 7,900 likes in less than 24 hours. Fans also tweeted their gratitude for the post and several news outlets covered it. After that, even more impressive tributes to “Steamed Hams” were done, one of the most famous of which was this montage put out by Albino Blacksheep, which was done by different animators every 13 seconds. It’s a really wonderful video, and I see videos like this as a milestone in meme history. When a meme gets so big that something like this is created, that’s a big deal.

What’s interesting too is that while these videos started growing in 2017, “steamed hams” didn’t peak as a search query in Google until April 2018. In meme world, a week is long for a meme to peak, so it had a really interesting growth. That year too, we named it as Know Your Meme’s Meme of the Year.

SKINNER: Superintendent, I hope you’re ready for mouth-watering hamburgers!

CHALMERS: I thought we were having steamed clams.

SKINNER: No, no. I said, “Steamed hams.” That’s what I call hamburgers.

CHALMERS: You call hamburgers “steamed hams”?

SKINNER: Yes. It’s a regional dialect.

CHALMERS: What region?

SKINNER: Upstate New York.

CHALMERS: Really? Well, I’m from Utica, and I’ve never heard anyone use the phrase “steamed hams.”

SKINNER: Oh, not in Utica, no. It’s an Albany expression.

CHALMERS: I see.

Devin Ziemann, burger chef and owner of Crave in Albany, New York: We call hamburgers hamburgers here in Albany, and I can’t recall any customers ever requesting “steamed hams.” I might have to make it a special now, though.

CHALMERS: You know, these hamburgers are quite similar to the ones they have at Krusty Burger.

SKINNER: Oh, no. Patented Skinnerburgers. Old family recipe.

CHALMERS: For “steamed hams.”

SKINNER: Yes.

CHALMERS: And you call them steamed hams despite the fact that they are obviously grilled?

SKINNER: Uh, you know the— One thing I sh— Excuse me for one second.

Brian VanHooker, author of this piece, who tried calling Krusty Burger at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida: Hello, can I be connected to Krusty Burger?

Universal Studios Operator: They don’t have a direct line. How may I assist you?

VanHooker: Can you possibly tell me if they have something on the menu?

Universal Studios Operator: What would the item be?

VanHooker: Steamed hams.

Universal Studios Operator: Hold on please.

(Two minutes later.)

Universal Studios Operator: Thank you for holding. No, they do not sell that.

VanHooker: Thank you.

Cook: “Steamed Hams” is, of course, really funny, but as a piece of comedy writing, the sketch is really impressive because every line serves a purpose either as a joke, or as a way to build character. Also, the lies that Skinner says become increasingly more absurd in a really clever way. It doesn’t just jump to Aurora Borealis — that would be ridiculous — it gets there slowly, one lie at a time, until it becomes almost plausible. 

SKINNER: Ah. Well, that was wonderful. A good time was had by all. I’m pooped.

CHALMERS: Yes, I should be— Good Lord! What is happening in there?

SKINNER: Aurora Borealis.

CHALMERS: Aurora borealis?! At this time of year? At this time of day? In this part of the country? Localized entirely within your kitchen?

SKINNER: Yes!

CHALMERS: May I see it?

SKINNER: No.

Chris Lintott, astrophysicist and professor at Oxford University: The Aurora Borealis happens because the Earth’s atmosphere is excited by particles coming from space, mostly from the sun. When the sun is active and there’s a good display, you would be able to see it from the more northern U.S. states. It would generally occur after midnight and would be most visible in March or in September/October. As for whether or not it could be localized within someone’s kitchen? Well, in science, we never say never, but it’d be the subject of a research paper if that did happen to someone. 

SKINNER’S MOM: Seymour! The house is on fire!

SKINNER: No, Mother, it’s just the Northern Lights. 

CHALMERS: Well, Seymour, you are an odd fellow, but I must say, you steam a good ham.

SKINNER’S MOM: Help! Help!

Kangas: Just when the meme started to bubble up, I got a hoodie that said “Steamed Hams” in a Burger King logo, and it was kind of a “secret hi” sign to Simpsons die-hards. I started doing these promos wearing the hoodie, and people would hit me up asking if it was a Simpsons reference. See, we’re all Simpsons fans if you’re of a certain age — there are some quotes that everyone automatically knows, and then there are ones that are less obvious, and, prior to the memes, “Steamed Hams” was a bit of a deep cut.

For my generation, growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it’s hard to overstate the impact of The Simpsons. For something that was an “adult cartoon,” you had toys of them at Toys R Us and Burger King. We watched it for the aesthetic when we were kids, but it was tremendously well written, so there’s more to enjoy the older you get and new things stand out for you. There are so few shows that actually grow up with you as opposed to just growing old.

Oakley: I’m delighted that people actually did think the sketch was funny, because it took me approximately 20 years to find out that people liked it. I’m even more delighted that people find it so user-friendly because I love all these remixes. It’s hard to get into the specific weirdness of its success, but I think that part of the reason it’s successful is because it pushes that nostalgia buzzer for Simpsons fans. It’s become like a code word for Simpsons fans that then snowballed and fed upon itself and became a microcosm of Simpsons nostalgia.

Another reason I think it’s taken off is that it’s easy to remember: It has a real distinctive name, which is “Steamed Hams.” Many of the most memorable sketches in the history of comedy are really easy to say in two or three words, like [Abbott and Costello’s] “Who’s on First” or “Dead Parrot” from Monty Python

That memorable two-wordness of it, I think, is a huge reason why it’s become what it has.

Do Not Sell My Personal Information