“You know, Scully, hypertricosis does not connote lycanthropy.” – Fox Mulder
“What are you implying?” – Dana Scully
“We’re being highly discriminatory here. Just because a man was once inflicted with excessive hairiness, we’ve no reason to suspect him of aberrant behavior.” – Fox Mulder
Our heroes venture to the Gulf Coast of Florida to investigate the death of a local sideshow performer. Their investigation snakes through a rogues gallery of escape artists, freaks, and circus performers in their most audacious case yet.
Max: “Humbug” is our first so-called “comedy” episode, that being something outside of the usual sense of seriousness that marked the series up to that point. Sure, The X-Files has always had moments of uniquely morose comedy, but this is the first episode specifically tailored to elicit laughs from the audience. Written by the inimitable Darin Morgan (brother of producer Glen Morgan and the man in the Flukeman suit in “The Host”), this was his second writing credit for the program. He would later go on to pen a couple of the most acclaimed episodes of the series, and his incisive wit is on full display here.
The death of The Alligator Man brings Mulder and Scully down to sunny Florida to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding his demise. During the funeral, the agents (and the audience) are introduced to several denizens straight out of circus central casting. You have the Bearded Lady, an escape artist, little people, conjoined twins, etc. It is all very Tod Browning. Checking into their motel, they meet its height-challenged manager Mr. Nutt and his employee Lanny, the man with a seemingly dead conjoined twin. Mulder and Scully go down many blind alleys and rabbit holes. Theorizing everyone from the Fiji mermaid to some sort of simian beast as the culprit, the episode is less about an investigation of the murders (yes, more people do fall victim to this unknown assailant) and more about an investigation of a community of outsiders who are frequently misunderstood and ostracized. Morgan’s writing and Kim Manner’s direction though help to shape an episode that considers these people as people and not objects of ridicule. We as the audience laugh with the circus folk, not at them.
Eventually, the long and winding road of the investigation leads to only one conclusion. Lanny’s conjoined twin Leonard is able to detach himself from his brother for extended periods of time, wherein he goes on his rampages, killing everyone from Mr. Nutt to a local artist. Lanny, wracked with grief and guilt, couldn’t bring himself to turn Leonard in, and dies while sobering up in the country jail. Leonard, on the other hand, his whereabouts become unsure after Mulder and Scully chase him through the motel property.
If there is a complaint one can level against this episode, is that against all these colorful characters, Mulder and Scully feel like extras in their own show. Everyone from The Blockhead to The Conundrum are so bold that our agents seem to just be going through the motions of an investigation, and aside from Mulder shipping a nail off to a lab to be tested and Scully filling us in on the sideshow past of the Sheriff, they do very little casework. In this way this episode is more like Twin Peaks (evidenced by the use of that show’s Michael J. Anderson), where the case frequently took a backseat to the atmosphere of the town. In this instance, it’s a more benign experience.
Nevertheless, it is a very strong episode with some delightfully oddball moments and and extremely strong script by Morgan.
Radhika: For all its dark themes and forays into the world of the paranormal, The X-Files never exactly shied away from humor, even before its first true comedic episode, “Humbug,” made its way to our televisions. There were plenty of humorous interactions between Mulder and Scully from day one, and of course, characters like The Lone Gunmen allowed for some additional silliness from time to time. But the surreal quality and the downright commitment to comedy seen in this episode do make “Humbug” a bit of a turning point in the series, indicating that the show runners were definitely willing to take a risk here and there.
“Humbug” isn’t actually my favorite comedic outing on The X-Files; there are a few more episodes that strike my fancy a little more. But rewatching the show in order really does make you realize what a brave departure “Humbug” is, and I found myself laughing quite a bit at the dialogue, perhaps slightly pleasantly surprised by it all. I also like that this is an episode where we get to see the more lighthearted side of Scully — of course, I’m alluding to the scene where she eats a cricket and then pulls it out from behind Mulder’s ear. As much as I hate bugs and always cringe a little during that scene, it’s just nice to see a character so known for her ice queen tendencies — a character who has undergone some drastically painful situations this season — let loose and have fun. And Mulder’s reaction to it is pretty great, too.
With that, I find myself really looking forward to rewatching some of the other Darin Morgan classics when we get to season three.
YES, IT’S THOSE GUYS
Michael J. Anderson – Playing motel manager Mr. Nutt, Michael is perhaps best known as the Man From Another Place in the landmark show Twin Peaks. He would later go on to play the same character in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, as well as star in David Lynch’s other film, Mulholland Dr. On television, he had a lead role in HBO’s Carnivale.
Vincent Schiavelli – A luminary of screens big and small, the man who played conjoined twin Lanny had over a hundred credits to his name before he died in 2005. He first broke out in the film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and went on to be in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Ghost, Tomorrow Never Dies, and The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension. On television, he guested in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Taxi, and Miami Vice.