Episode Number: 34
Original Air Date: January 10, 1993
Directed by: Bruce Timm
Written by: Paul Dini
First Appearance(s): None
“The Laughing Fish” is our second episode of Batman: The Animated Series to be directed by Bruce Timm and written by Paul Dini* (asterisk on the written by credit which I’ll get to). You may remember the first as being pretty damn good: “Heart of Ice.” Interestingly, both that episode and this one are the only two so far to not feature a true title card as each opts for a focused shot on a subject that’s simply part of the first scene (in this case, a swinging sign on a pier for a company that could share a name with the episode title). This episode, unlike “Heart of Ice,” is not an original story by Timm and Dini and instead is an amalgamation of three different stories from the comics. Those stories being “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge (1973)” by Denny O’Neil and “The Laughing Fish” and “Sign of the Joker! (1978)” both by Steve Englehart. If you hadn’t guessed from the title of the episode, then surely you know by now based on those titles from the comics that we’re dealing with The Joker this week as he seeks to utilize his Joker toxin in a fairly unique manner in order to win money and score laughs.
This episode is quite stylized from the get-go and will remain so. It features some brief narration by our hero, Batman, which I believe is a first for the series. The fish being harvested in the waters of Gotham are all sporting a tell-tale Joker grin. Batman suspects the worst, but when he dissects a fish he finds there’s no danger to humans when consumed, which just makes him more curious. This is a good thing because the ghastly visage of these fish apparently isn’t stopping the local fisherman from harvesting and selling the things as we soon see Joker himself pay a visit to a local paper-pusher at a patent office about licensing rights. That poor sap, G. Carl Francis (George Dzundza), finds himself in the crosshairs of The Joker when he can’t help him file a trademark on the fish. It would seem The Joker thought he’d be able to earn money on every fish sold since they bare his likeness, but he’s frustrated to find out that isn’t the case. His lovely associate, Harley (Arleen Sorkin), sprays poor Francis with some icky perfume while remarking that she has a strong dislike of fish which the perfume should eliminate. Joker informs Francis he has until midnight to reconsider his patent claim. Joker then goes to his old standby – television, to essentially broadcast his threat against Francis so his old chum Batman can be aware of his plans.
When Joker leaves the office angry, Francis does the right thing and enlists the aid of the Gotham Police Department for protection. They setup a watch for Joker that Batman soon crashes, much to the ire of Detective Bullock. They all patiently wait around for The Joker to make his presence felt, but noting comes. When Francis starts rubbing at his hands and makes the offhand remark that he never got to wash off the stuff Harley sprayed him with, Batman basically freaks out and starts demanding medical attention for Francis. He’s too late though as a speeding truck launches a swordfish through the window that stabs into the wall. It releases a gas and Francis begins to laugh uncontrollably, his face turns an ashen color and his mouth stretches into a hideous smile. Batman injects him with his anti-Joker compound and Francis begins to settle down. Batman deduces that whatever Harley sprayed on him mixed with the toxin in the swordfish to infect him. Joker soon appears on television to taunt Batman and also name his next victim: copyright office bureaucrat Thomas Jackson.
Having failed to stop Joker once, the police and Batman give it another shot with Jackson. They set up a security ring around him as well with Gordon and Bullock arguing over their approach. Apparently they’re doing this one Batman’s way and Bullock is less than thrilled. When Jackson’s cat comes waltzing into the room everyone soon notices it’s carrying a Joker fish in its mouth. The cat lunges at Batman and is able to bite him breaking the skin. Batman soon breaks out into laughter as his face becomes round and unrecognizable. Jackson jumps in to administer the anti-toxin, and it’s revealed that Jackson and Batman had actually switched places to try and fool Joker, unfortunately they couldn’t fool the cat.
Batman makes the obvious observation that the fish the cat dragged in is a tropical fish not native to Gotham’s waters. This means Joker must be at the local aquarium. Batman, however, is the second person to figure this out as Bullock has already fled Jackson’s residence to head there himself (“I didn’t need no Batcomputer to tell me that weird-looking minnow came from the aquarium,”) and confront The Joker. It doesn’t go well for him and he soon finds himself strung up by a crane like a worm at the end of a fishing line for Joker’s pet shark. Joker is having a good time until he realizes that if Bullock was smart enough to figure out his location then surely Batman will too. He decides to use Bullock as Bat-bait instead and, what do you know, it works.
Batman comes charging in and Joker’s two goons are no match for him. Joker has his ace though in Bullock and Batman is forced to hand himself over to secure Bullock’s freedom. Joker is happy to make the switch and Batman is tossed into the shark tank. As Bullock looks on, Joker decides he should go for a swim too and shoves him in (Batman couldn’t have possibly expected Joke to not do something like this) and then covers the tank depriving the two of precious oxygen. No matter, as Batman demonstrates his shark battling abilities. It’s a bit ridiculous, though I suppose it’s less ridiculous than the time Batman successfully fought off several crocodiles. He’s able to break the tank and free himself and Bullock as Joker takes off.
Batman and Joker square-off outside the aquarium on a large dock. It’s the most physical we’ve seen these two get as Joker gets ahold of a large wrench and gives Batman a good strike with it (in a bit of censorship, the screen flashes as Joker connects reminding me of the old Pow! Bam! effects from the 60s Batman show). Joker, not to be confused as Batman’s equal in fisticuffs, is soon subdued and cornered. His last resort is to simply leap off the tall structure revealing a get-away float around his waist. He laughs and taunts Batman from the waters below, until his shark-buddy shows up and drags him under. The episode closes teasing Joker’s demise as a tearful Harley says her goodbyes. Batman, apparently aware that this is only episode 34 of an 85 episode run, tells Commissioner Gordon he doubts The Joker is truly gone. Truer words were never spoken.
“The Laughing Fish” is a very stylized episode of Batman: The Animated Series. It’s sound production and setup are very film noir and evocative of old crime dramas, with obviously a super hero twist. It’s an amusing plot with Joker just out for money and Batman gets a chance to demonstrate just how well he understands his foil. It’s a fun episode to re-watch as well especially for the scene in Jackson’s home. They don’t cheat, like they often do, the reveal of Batman and Jackson switching places by having Batman speak in Jackson’s voice and vice versa. Rather you never see either man speak until after the reveal. Joker is also at his best as he’s pretty cruel throughout the episode. He obviously can’t actually murder anyone, but it feels clear his intention is to do just that. It’s also interesting to see his relationship with Harley evolving. Here it’s very business-like with her referring to him mostly as “boss,” but it’s obvious she’s higher on the pecking order than the other goons since Joker bothers to remember her name. It’s also fun to see her broken up over Joker’s apparent demise, making it obvious she has an unhealthy devotion to the man.
Where the episode does sort of cheat the viewer is in its resolution. Joker obviously is not dead and will return for many more episodes. The episode doesn’t offer a plausible explanation for how Joker survived a shark attack, and it won’t bother trying to explain it the next time he shows his face in this show. He’ll just reappear and this won’t be the last time he cheats death in such a way.