The X-Files: Humbug   Rewatch 
August 30, 2015 7:55 PM - Season 2, Episode 20 - Subscribe

A bizarre murder in Florida brings Mulder and Scully to a town populated by circus freaks and sideshow performers of all shapes and sizes, bringing into question the very definition of "normal."
posted by town of cats (15 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
God, I so envy anyone seeing "Humbug" for the first time.

It's been so many years since I've seen it, but I watched my VHS of it so many times in my teens I still remembered most of the good lines. This is just fucking *transcendent* television. I loved it when I was 13 and I love it now, maybe even more than I did then.

God, how do I love "Humbug"? Let me count the ways! I love the recurring theme of judging people by appearances and playing with the definition of "normal"; that Mulder and Scully openly acknowledge that their suspicion of the sheriff may as well be racial profiling and shrug and keep exhuming his potato anyway, that the little-person hotel manager pegs Mulder as an FBI agent to teach him a lesson and is told that he's correct, that incredible cold open fake-out. Over and over again, we zip back and forth from appearance being exactly predictive to exactly opposed to reality. I love LOVE Scully and Lanny checking out each other's too-open bathrobes.

I love the clear tension in Gibsonton between the old-style sideshow types and the geeks and blockheads that were so big in the 90s for 5 minutes. It feels like a real place full of real people - an unlikely place, to be sure, but someplace you might stumble through on a road trip. In fact, this episode made me think explicitly of this very excellent article from Grantland from a couple years ago (if you haven't read it, do)...and when I revisited it I realized the author called out Humbug explicitly as being a play on the "weird small town" trope which by the end of season 2 X-Files had already done to death, and would continue doing to death for another seven years. Because, yes, in Humbug the people look weird and embrace the trappings of that weirdness with their tabernacles of terror and sideshow history museums with scammy "great unknown" exhibits, but when it comes down to it they're mostly just regular guys. Part of the great human sideshow we know as life. Y'know.

Honestly, while I'm glad they got Jim Rose to play basically himself since it makes this a sort of amazing artifact of mid-90s pop culture, his acting was one of the few weak points of the episode to me. Other weak point being the frankly terrible puppetry of Leonard; it looked like they had mutilated a baby doll and were dragging it around on the string, which for all I know may have actually been the case.

The credits on the Netflix version seem to be truncated, but one of my favorite trivia facts about this episode is that "The Conundrum" is played by "The Enigma". Of course.

I guess to me what makes the Darin Morgan episodes some of the strongest X-Files episodes of all time is not just that they're funny, although dear god they're so funny, but that they all try to make some deep observations about the human experience. I think I'm going to actually add War of the Coprophages to this rewatch list; I left it off because it's always been my least favorite of Darin Morgan's episodes since bugs generally give me the crawlies. But I was expecting to love rewatching Humbug and was not at ALL prepared for how much I loved rewatching Humbug, so I think I may owe it to myself to give WotC another chance.

Now...I am going into Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose next week with no illusions whatsoever about how much I'm going to love it. Easily in my top three episodes. I have kind of a crazy holiday weekend planned so it might get posted a bit late.
posted by town of cats at 7:59 PM on August 30, 2015 [6 favorites]

I thought this was a really good episode and probably the best of the X-Files comedic episodes, but I think this episode established a really bad precedent. I thought the later comedy episodes ranged from mediocre to unwatchable, self-indulgent crud, and it got to the point where by the seventh season the show seemed to be sending itself up (poorly) for weeks at a time.

I think Darrin Morgan can be good, when his worst instincts are kept in check and he writes an episode that seems to be actually set within a show's universe and it isn't just wall-to-wall winks at the camera about how silly the show is. He managed a couple of those within the run of The X-Files. But he seemed to learn the wrong lessons from this one and he followed it up with Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose, an episode a lot of fans adore but which I class with the unwatchables like First Person Shooter, Hollywood AD and whatever that Stephen King mess with the killer kitty cats was called. Remember that episode with Burt Reynolds as God that ended with a big musical number where the camera zoomed out so the city lights formed a picture of Reynold's smirking face? Remember shaking your head and wondering what the hell had happened to this show? Well, Humbug happened. This is where the goofy begins.

But Humbug itself really is quite good, there's no denying that. (Again, Morgan is not untalented.) It's funny to think what a big deal the Jim Rose sideshow was back then. You don't see it on TV anymore, but I just checked and apparently it's still going strong.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 9:16 PM on August 30, 2015

Ursula Hitler, you make a fair point (and I literally ground my teeth when I read the words "Hollywood AD"). But there's a part of me that thinks this show wouldn't have survived past season 3 if it weren't for Darin Morgan's episodes. Part of what made the show interesting and groundbreaking was that they were willing to go meta this way, and to go comic too. I think if the X-Files had continued to take itself as seriously as it did in S1 it might well have collapsed under its own weight.

But yeah, I agree that there were a lot of cheap and embarrassing imitations of the Darin Morgan style. As the show got into its later seasons, it didn't seem like they were breaking new ground to take the show and characters in new directions; they were just bored and doing different stuff for the sake of doing different stuff, trying to keep the cast and crew feeling like things were fresher than they actually were. X-Cops, man. Never forget.

Basically: I think they were going to go goofy eventually anyway, and I think it's something the show really needed. Given the subject matter of the show, given the already quippy leads, I think it was inevitable. But I don't think they could possibly have gone goofy in grander style.

I'm definitely going to keep your perspective in mind as I rewatch Clyde Bruckman next week!
posted by town of cats at 10:34 PM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

EVERYBODY but me loved Clyde Bruckman. It's something where the love is so widespread and so extreme that I keep thinking the problem must be me. But then every five years or so I'll give Clyde another look and I still can't stand it. My response is nearly allergic.

I would be interested to see an alternate universe version of The X-Files where they never went goofy, or never went goofier than Humbug. Maybe it would've been over in five seasons, who knows? I did think the last season or two were underrated, once Mulder was gone and Scully was as good as gone and Doggett and Reyes were doing straightforward monster-of-the-week eps and conspiracy arc stuff. It felt like they were trying to get back to basics, and even if Doggett and Reyes were never nearly as compelling as Mulder and Scully, I felt like the scary monsters/conspiracy stuff still had some life in it.

I like some comedy in genre stuff, even a certain amount of self-parody is fine. But a show like Buffy or Supernatural has plenty of comedy baked in from the start so when they get silly it just feels like they're having a little extra fun that week. But The X-Files (and Millennium, which tried a few truly dire comedy episodes) weren't like that. They were very serious most of the time, and then they would suddenly go nuts with this goofy stuff. I would just kind of wait out most of the comedy episodes, but then they hit that stretch where everything became a self-parody or a stunt episode.

I think you're right with your description of them being bored and trying to convince themselves that things were still fresh. Chris Carter certainly got bored, and the last X-Files movie was a real slog. I have high hopes for the reboot, but unfortunately the early word is not good. It may be that by 1999 or so Carter had already said absolutely everything he ever needed to say about the X-Files universe.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:56 PM on August 30, 2015

This will date me, but in some ways X-Files had a lot in common with Moonlighting. Both were really good when they were good, but they had unhappy leads and they got high on their reviews, and you ended up with episodes focusing on side characters because the leads wouldn't show up, some "experimental" episodes that were kind of embarrassing, episodes where the showrunners just stood back and let the leads totally indulge themselves and a lot of episodes that got rather painfully post-modern and self-parodying. (At least this was well before Duchovny started recording albums, so we were spared the musical episode.) Moonlighting doesn't seem to have really lingered in the public consciousness, but The X-Files was good enough for long enough that we tend to remember the best parts and forget how crazy it got when things weren't working.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:29 AM on August 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

I thought Humbug walked the line between "goofy" and "serious" really well. Definitely one of my favorite episodes.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:54 AM on August 31, 2015

Oh, Jesus. What if one of the new episodes next year if a musical episode? The mind boggles... and not in a good way.
posted by town of cats at 8:15 AM on August 31, 2015

Spot on with the Moonlighting comparison, UH.

This episode is one of the few that gets regularly referenced in my family by people other than myself (read: non-fans). Haven't rewatched it in years but I was describing the gapping bathrobe scene toc mentions only the other week (it was pertinent, honest!).

Didn't even realise it was a Darin Morgan episode, but I should have. Classic X Files.
posted by comealongpole at 1:36 PM on August 31, 2015

"Must be something I ate."
posted by orange swan at 10:01 PM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

What if one of the new episodes next year if a musical episode?

I suspect this run of episodes will be very serious indeed. Gillian Anderson described the premiere as "slow, intense and functional." (Way to sell the show, Gil!) If it doesn't work, I suspect it will have the same problems as the I Want to Believe movie. That was definitely slow, intense and functional.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:31 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

"Slow, intense, and functional." Sounds like a riot. But that's just the, I just know they're going to do a musical episode and that is going to be THE END OF THE FUCKING ROAD for me and X-Files.
posted by town of cats at 8:06 PM on September 1, 2015

This episode was just on the wrong side of weird for me, but I loved the moment when Scully took the bug from the blockhead. Way to show him up!
posted by Monochrome at 9:57 AM on September 5, 2015

Our chihuahua's favourite way to spend her day is pressing up as close as possible against either my or my partner's abdomen. It never fails to remind me of this episode.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:09 AM on March 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Wonderful episode. So much empathy and humanity. Kept the funny without punching down.

"Yeah, but it's an appendage...",

and "And you never will again. 21st century genetic engineering will not only eradicate the Siamese twins and alligator-ed skinned people but you're going to be hard pressed to find a slight overbite or not so high cheekbone. You see - I've seen the future and the future looks just like him!" - points to Mulder in a "tall drink of water" pose, eyes squinting from the sun. - "Imagine. Going through your whole life, looking like that."

I liked how they showed Scully being uncomfortable (developmental abnormalities to a medical professional) but remains professional and softens when she sees that children with dev abs are still children and people. Anderson went above and actually at a live cricket on film (despite the slight of hand in-show).

A "local sheriff" type who's sympathetic to 'very special people' - wow, he's the abnormality. Great in-show backstory.

I can see how the superstition of rubbing a potato on a wart (caused by papilloma virus) could have arisen; Synchytrium endobioticum is a fungal pathogen on potatoes that causes growths that resemble warts) but I can't pinpoint where it arose, whether the sheriff picked that up from his native Romania (where he was feral and didn't have language) or from his later residence in the US.

I wonder how much of this episode's DNA lived on in 'American Horror Story: Freakshow'? And how much 'Total Recall' (1990) influenced this.

"So your twin can... What an Act!"

What's happening to Mulder's hair? He had wonderful hair in Season 1, and it's just been getting progressively worse as Season 2 progresses.

Another great performance by Vincent Schiavelli.
posted by porpoise at 7:50 PM on April 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

The X-Files wikia page for this episode says Anderson chewed the insect, but didn't swallow it.

This is an episode in which Mulder and Scully are almost guest stars in their own show. The rendering of Gibsonton's subculture is fantastic. Almost all the characters have embraced their physicality, whatever it is, and often see it as an advantage to be used. The genetically blessed Mulder and Scully wander through the episode wide-eyed over the oddities they see, but the Gibsonton residents are used to being gawked at and need neither their compassion nor their professional intervention -- the case resolves itself. Although wouldn't The Conundrum have to face legal investigation for murder? He could argue that he acted in self-defense I suppose, but I don't think eating your would-be murderer is considered reasonable force.

There were so many great moments, such as the bathrobe thing, and Scully getting hustled into paying more to exit the museum, and I especially enjoyed Nutt and Mulder's verbal jousting matches:

Nutt: Just because I am not of so-called "average" height does not mean I must receive my thrills vicariously. Not all woman are attracted to overly tall, lanky men such as yourself. You'd be surprised how many women find my size intriguingly alluring.

Mulder: And you'd be surprised how many men do as well.

Nutt: [looks discomfited and scurries off].

posted by orange swan at 11:10 AM on April 14, 2020

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