The Joker tries to copyright his mutant fish.
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Bruce W. Timm
Music by Shirley Walker
Animation by Dong Yang
Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Alfred
Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon
Robert Constanzo as Bullock
Mark Hamill as The Joker
Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn
George Dzundza as G. Carl Francis
"The Laughing Fish" is a sly and swaggering piece of work, so sure of itself that you can practically see it hitch its shoulders and clutch a meaty paw to its crotch after it throws a punch. It has the gaudy style and unpretentious glamour of a Hollywood hood, and it is so confident in its own storytelling that it can toss off clever asides like they were silver dollars and it was tipping the cops.
The episode is based on the two-part "Laughing Fish" story from a late seventies' Detective comic (with a third act borrowed from an unrelated story), and the cleverness of its concept can be traced back to the adapted material. With a diluted form of his toxin, the Joker has mutated the fish stocks of Gotham's waters so that they all carry his ghastly grin. Then, since they bear his visage, he tries bullying the copyright office into granting him royalties off the sale of all fish productspotential millions to fund his "happily hedonistic" lifestyle, he exults. So Batman has to protect the threatened bureaucrats, and there unfolds an battle of wits as the one attempts, and the other thwarts, ingenious and unexpected assassination attempts.
The original comic came layered with a lot of fat"what the hell?" subplots involving Silver St. Cloud and Rupert Thorne and the ghost of Hugo Strangethat are necessarily jettisoned, leaving only a lean tale that is as direct and compelling as some of the early Bill Finger stories. The result is the Joker of our dreams. It's rare to find a bad Joker episode in the animated universe, but the iconic status of the character is persistent bait for a nasty trap: too often he gets pumped up into a glittering madman and floats away on implausible schemes of pure nihilism. (Alternately, he gets dumbed down into a kind of jolly but murderous uncle, someone whose criminal pranks you can laugh at without fear.) But here he is presented as a smart and cagey criminal who bends his gleeful persona to the pursuit of his villainous ends. The result is like being caressed with razor blades.
After stripping down the comic, Dini and Timm have gone back in and added little riffs ("fish schtick"?), some of which intensify the story while others merely give it a wicked little spin. Foremost is the addition of a conflict between Bullock and Batman in which the police detective comes off quite well, going so far as to anticipate Batman by tracking the Joker down to his fish-stocked hideout. But the showiest bits go to Harley Quinn (this was the first episode in which she emerged as the Joker's necessary sidekick) and performer Mark Hamill, whose commitment to the role is so complete that at one point he even seems to dip into a demented mimicry of the weird, atonal song that Bugs Bunny hummed as he emerged from Ala Bama's hat in "The Case of the Missing Hare." Hamill may have saved his most dramatic performance for Return of the Joker, but he here achieves his true apotheosis as the Joker, channeling some undreamed of mix of Lon Chaney, James Cagney, and Daffy Duck.
The animation is a little slow, which sometimes throws off the pacing, but even that is turned to advantage by Shirley Walker's moody score; dissonant harmonies combine with dissonant pacing to give otherwise comedic scenes a threatening edge. (Timm has said that the overseas animation came back softer than expected, so he and Walker conspired to cover it with a Herrmannesque scoretruly a case of an invention-inspiring necessity.) But there's nothing fishy about the resulting cocktail of lethality and laughs.
Bruce Timm: "When we were spotting the show, I told [composer Shirley Walker] I didn't want the Joker theme in it. I wanted it to sound like a horror movie. Not like an over-the-top, melodramatic Universal horror movie, because most of our scores are already over-the-top, but I wanted it to sound like Alien. ... It's the weirdest score of any of the shows, with this strange, dissonant music behind the Joker that builds a weird tension you're not consciously aware of."
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