“Not in Utica, no — it’s an Albany expression.” So goes one of the deadpan lines in a much-loved, and oft-imitated, segment of “The Simpsons.” The segment, in an episode that first aired 25 years ago this month, carries the official name of “Skinner and the Superintendent,” but has become shortened into a two-word fan catchphrase: “Steamed hams.”
The segment built a cult following over time, to the point that online videos using the “steamed hams” plot and characters have proliferated in recent years. The explosion of the meme shows how the show became a cultural icon of American television. Indeed, the evolving history of the “steamed hams” bit illustrates the former power of a widely watched show that used to define comedy for millions of Americans.
Origins of the Segment
The “steamed hams” segment occurred in “22 Short Films About Springfield,” an episode of the seventh season of “The Simpsons” that first aired on Apr. 14, 1996. According to a recent oral history of the segment, the show derived from a short sketch added to the end of a prior episode that was running short on time.
Creating an entire episode out of a series of similar quick sketches allowed “The Simpsons” to explore some of its less prominent characters — and served as the basis for a spinoff about Springfield that the show’s creator, Matt Groening, unsuccessfully tried to pitch to studio executives. The episode featured sketches about (among others) Spanish-language TV star Bumblebee Man, Dr. Nick Riviera, Springfield’s resident quack, and local bully Nelson Muntz.
The show’s writers each “drafted” the characters they would develop segments about out of a hat. Thankfully, writer Bill Oakley claimed the pair of Seymour Skinner and Gary Chalmers, as the selection resulted in comedic genius.
Simple Premise, With Hilarious Results
The “steamed hams” segment starts with two premises of classic television: The boss comes over for a meal — in this case, Superintendent Chalmers visiting the home of Springfield Elementary School principal Skinner — and chaos in the kitchen, a bit that shows like “I Love Lucy” regularly employed. Even the theme song to “steamed hams” has echoes of a 1950s Madison Avenue ad jingle.
Once Skinner realizes his roast has burned to a crisp in the oven, he rushes next door to Krusty Burger to purchase alternative cuisine for his “home-cooked” meal. Skinner then proceeds to tell Chalmers an increasingly absurd array of lies to hide the fact that he ruined his original meal:
- When Chalmers sees him jumping out the window to run to Krusty Burger, Skinner tells the superintendent he’s doing isometric exercises.
- When Chalmers sees smoke emanating from the oven, Skinner tells him it’s steam from the steamed clams he’s making (Oakley claims that “I actually didn’t know at the time that steamed clams was a real dish”).
- When he serves Chalmers a plate of hamburgers, Skinner claims he said he wasn’t serving steamed clams — he said he was serving steamed hams.
- When Chalmers questions why he calls hamburgers “steamed hams,” Skinner claims it’s a regional dialect from upstate New York.
- When Chalmers points out that he hails from Utica and hasn’t heard the phrase “steamed hams,” Skinner claims it’s an Albany expression.
- When Chalmers says the “steamed hams” taste like Krusty Burgers, Skinner says he used an “old family recipe” for “patented Skinner burgers.”
- When Chalmers points out that the hamburgers (a.k.a. “steamed hams”) have grill marks on them, Skinner stammers and exits the room.
- When Chalmers asks why flames appear to be coming from his kitchen, Skinner claims Chalmers is actually seeing the aurora borealis. Chalmers incredulously asks, “Aurora borealis — at this time of year, at this time of day, in this part of the country, localized entirely within your kitchen?” but then asks to see this phenomenon. Skinner politely tells him no.
- When Skinner’s mother Agnes screams that the house is on fire, Seymour calmly replies that it’s just the northern lights, as Chalmers departs following a very eventful meal.
The segment takes a funny premise and expands it to absurd lengths one could find only on a television show — and an animated one at that. One doubts that a live-action sitcom would go to the extent of burning down a house just for laughs.
This also raises a plot hole of sorts one can’t help but ask: Even if he kept lying to Chalmers about the meal, why didn’t Skinner at least turn off the oven before it started incinerating his house?
The Making of a Meme
In recent years, “steamed hams” has taken on a life of its own, prompted in part by prank calls from some Aussie shoppers. In 2016, Australia’s version of the Woolworth’s chain wrote a Facebook post telling people who called asking for “steamed hams” that “in Australia, we call them hamburgers. ‘Steamed hams’ is an Albany, New York expression. Fans of ‘The Simpsons,’ this is for you…”
Shortly thereafter, the segment’s enduring popularity and relatively short three-minute timespan have led to an abundance of memes using it in various ways. YouTube contains countless videos, some of which have millions of views, entitled “Steamed Hams but” or “Steamed Hams with.”
Among many examples of the genre: Versions with a new animator every 13 seconds; with Jeff Goldblum voicing Skinner; with Chalmers investigating everything; with Lego characters; run through Google translate 10 times, and with the dialogue modified to fit Green Day’s “Basket Case.” There’s even a separate video, created last fall, demonstrating how to make the proverbial “steamed hams.”
In the online history, the show’s creative team expressed appreciation for the fans who have given “steamed hams” a life of its own — even if attorneys at Disney, which now own the rights to “The Simpsons,” may have less enthusiasm for the copycats. “The Simpsons” even included a sneaky “steamed hams” reference in a Chalmers-and-Skinner-themed episode that aired last fall, when the two drove past a store selling the product on a road trip together.
A Bygone Era?
The number of Monday conversations that started with “Did you see ‘The Simpsons’ last night?” at my high school, and others like it, help explain the enduring legacy of references like “steamed hams.”
Yet while “The Simpsons” continues to air new episodes, its recent emphasis on identity politics in the composition and casting of its characters reflect a show that now prioritizes leftist virtue-signaling as much as appeals to a broad audience.
Doubtless, the further segmentation of media markets also explains why interest in the program has waned over the past quarter-century. But through clips and memes like “steamed hams,” fans of classic episodes of “The Simpsons” can relive treasured memories of years past — while making those moments their own.