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Batman: The Animated Series – “The Laughing Fish”

The_Laughing_Fish-Title_CardEpisode 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.

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I don’t care what Batman says, there’s no way I’m eating one of those.

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.

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Poor Harley is going to have a rough time with all of the fish in this one.

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.

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These transformation scenes felt genuinely disturbing to me as a kid, which is perhaps why this episode actually debuted in prime time as opposed to during normal children’s hours.

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.

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Here kitty…on second thought, maybe not.

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.

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This sequence is pretty stupid.

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.

B4rpth8Batman 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.

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The Batman fake-out definitely fooled me as a kid, as well as frightened.

“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.

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Joker and Harley get to demonstrate a taste of their chemistry in this one. Here Joker makes her his mermaid.

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.

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Farewell, sweet clown prince. For now, anyway.


Batman: The Animated Series – “Joker’s Favor”

Jokers_Favor-Title_CardEpisode Number:  22

Original Air Date:  September 11, 1992

Directed by:  Boyd Kirkland

Written by:  Paul Dini

First Appearance(s):  Harley Quinn

At last, we’ve come to the television debut of The Joker. Despite already appearing in several episodes, it was production episode number 22 that ended up being the first Joker episode to air on television, and as a debut episode, it’s both odd and strangely appropriate. The episode, seemingly more so than the other Joker episodes, requires having knowledge of who The Joker is going into it. As has been established with a few villains, The Joker existed before the events of the show and he’s so well known that even the citizens of Gotham know who he is, as we shall see with poor Charlie Collins. This episode is also the first Joker episode where Paul Dini is credited as having written, though as a creator on the show it stands to reason he had input on most of the episodes. And of course, this episode is most notable for being the debut of Harley Quinn in any medium. She would arguably end up being the biggest break-out star on the show. Interestingly, if you have the DVD release for this first volume of episodes the episode is titled “The Joker’s Favor,” though everywhere I’ve seen it listed it’s just referred to as “Joker’s Favor.”

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Bad idea, Chuck.

The episode opens with its protagonist. No, it isn’t Batman or even Joker, but an ordinary chum by the name of Charlie Collins (Ed Begley Jr.). Charlie is just an average guy having a bad day. Not much has gone right and his wife is making meatloaf for dinner – he hates meatloaf. He’s driving home from work when we meet him, and he’s soon cut-off by another motorist. This is enough to push Charlie over the edge and he starts laying on his horn and scolding the individual who wronged him on the road. Much to Charlie’s horror, the other motorist he just sassed turns out to be none other than The Joker. One turn of the head and a hideous grin is enough to scare the Hell out of Charlie. He knows who he just yelled at and immediately shrinks like a frightened turtle. Unfortunately, The Joker slides in right behind him and begins to follow him. Charlie tries to lose him and hastily exits the freeway. He pulls off the road and takes to his feet running through the nearby woods as fast as his short legs will carry him.

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This is not a situation you want to find yourself in.

Charlie collapses, exhausted, at the base of a tree, but he looks up only to find himself gazing up at The Joker. Joker, decked out in his gray hat and trench coat that he’ll sport in Mask of the Phantasm, isn’t too happy with old Chuck. He gives Charlie a chance to resume his tough guy talk, and as expected, Charlie is too frightened to do much but offer an apology. Joker, being the caring type, decides he’s not going to kill Charlie and instead tells him he expects a favor in return, some day. Charlie is frightened out of his mind, but all in all pretty relieved to not be dead as The Joker departs.

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There she is, that character we all love.

Two years later, the Gotham P.D. is getting ready to celebrate Commissioner Gordon with a special dinner and Joker wants sees it as a perfect opportunity for mischief. He decides now, along with his henchman Harley (Arleen Sorkin) seated beside him, to look up Charlie and call-in his favor. Turns out, Charlie did the wise thing and entered into a witness relocation program following his brush with The Joker. He’s now Don Wallace and lives in Ohio, but apparently Joker has been keeping a close eye on him because he’s able to call him up. Charlie tries to tell him he has the wrong number, but he soon realizes who is on the other end. Joker orders him to the airport to hop on the next flight to Gotham where Harley will pick him up from the airport.

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I have to admit, that cop outfit really works for her.

In Gotham, Charlie is forced to confront the Joker once more, and much to his surprise, he’s only asked to open a door. Feeling he’s capable of doing that, he goes along with the plan. Realizing something is up though, he leaves a bat-signal like calling card for Batman as he’s put into position inside the banquet for Gordon. He does as he’s told, opening the door when instructed and in strolls Harley dressed as a cop with an over-sized cake in tow. The men in the room think something sexy is bound to happen, but instead they’re all hit with some nerve gas that renders them all unable to move, frozen in place like statues. Harley, of course, wears a mask to prevent the gas from affecting her and she affixes one to Charlie as well. Joker rises from the cake to taunt the police as Harley attaches a bomb to Gordon, his plan almost complete.

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That could be a gag bomb, but I wouldn’t want to wait around to find out.

Charlie, realizing he can’t be an accessory to this, tries to do something about it but finds his hand has been glued to the door handle. Joker informs him he’s done with him and leaves him to die with the others. Good thing he left that little signal for Batman, because the caped crusader soon arrives on the scene. Charlie tells him what’s going on, and Batman is able to remove the bomb just in time with the added benefit that it landed on Joker’s escape van when he tossed it out the window.

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Got to hand it to him, Joker really takes it well when things don’t go according to plan.

A fight ensues between Batman and Joker’s goons. Joker is able to use yet another bomb to distract Batman and slips into an alley only to find Charlie waiting for him. He tries to brush past Charlie, but all of a sudden he finds the portly fellow full of courage. Charlie slugs Joker in the stomach and knocks him into some trash cans. He then produces another Joker bomb, only he seems intent on blowing them all up. Batman arrives and tries to talk Charlie out of it, but Charlie makes the correct observation in noting it’s pointless because The Joker will just escape from wherever he’s locked-up to torment him again. Joker, now no longer having any fun, tosses all of the information he has on Charlie at his feet, but Charlie refuses to abandon this course of action. Joker tries to hide behind Batman, but Charlie tosses him the bomb only for it to detonate and reveal itself to be a gag bomb. Charlie has a good laugh, and Batman even joins in, at Joker’s expense. Batman basically tells Charlie to get out of here, and he’s happy to do so. As we wanders away, he even mentions he hopes his wife is making meatloaf for dinner.

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In the end, Charlie gets the last laugh.

“Joker’s Favor” succeeded as a Joker episode for two very important reasons. One, it establishes The Joker as being a villain to fear. It’s easy to lose sight of that on a kid’s show given all of the silly Joker stuff that exists in most of the episodes featuring him, but he is a murderer and someone to be feared. His stalking of Charlie is creepy and Charlie’s fear is easy to understand. And then second, it also showcases Joker’s silly side, the side of him that basically always gets in the way and prevents him for doing real lasting damage on the show. He carries gag bombs, rarely takes Batman seriously, and even dismisses Charlie. He also only uses Charlie in his scheme because he just wants to terrify the guy. He probably could have utilized someone else for his plant at the banquet, someone who wouldn’t have betrayed him and called Batman, but as we’ll see time and time again The Joker just can’t get out of his own way. It often seems like he prefers it that way.

Harley Quinn makes a nice debut for herself, though it’s also not indicative of the character she’ll become. Her harlequin inspired attire and attitude is fetching (much of that can be credited to Arleen Sorkin who really brings life and charm to the character through her performance) and she makes an instant impact since so often the henchman in the show are lacking a personality. Still, I’m not sure if people expected to see more of her or if they thought she would just be a one and done sort of character. Of course, she wasn’t, but considering a series of Joker episodes followed this one without Harley it seemed to suggest she wouldn’t play a large role going forward. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, and Harley ended up being one of the few villains who often has another layer revealed about her in each subsequent episode she appears in, rather than just being an unchanging villain of the week.

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If you liked Harley in this episode, then I have some good news for you because we’ll be seeing a lot more of her.

As for Charlie, he was one and done and that’s the way it should have been. Joker probably should have sought revenge, and if you’re the dark type maybe you just assume Joker did end up killing him and we never found out. If Joker could find him once even with a name change and move out of town then he could probably do it again. This episode also doesn’t feature much Batman, but at this stage that’s fine as we’re pretty comfortable with Batman at this point. He can sort of come and go as he pleases, as long as what’s in his place is worthwhile and here it certainly is. This may be my favorite Joker episode, though more good ones are to come.


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