By the time The X-Files was approaching the last third of its second season, it was clear the series was well on its way to being a hit show. Its first season had achieved a cult following and was a distinctive newcomer to warrant the Fox Network to renew it for a second year.
The first two seasons of Chris Carter’s sci-fi-horror-mystery-drama (what a lovely combination of genres) saw the series laying down the groundwork for much of what we would come to associate with the series; strange, imaginatively violent deaths; witty back and forth dialogue amongst its two leads, not to mention buckets of unresolved sexual tension (fans of whom were fashioning the term shipping to describe how much they loved it on the developing internet); intense and beautifully atmospheric 90s synth music score from Mark Snow; a developing complex mythology and some of the best production values of any television show from the period. The X-Files looked like a feature film and that wasn’t going unnoticed either.
The one thing the series had yet to pull off by the time it was about to hit the end of its second season was comedy. Thought of as a dark, serious show that took B-movie genre ideas about aliens and monsters and treated them seriously with intelligent writing and high production values, it was also a very witty series around the edges, with much of the dialogue between Mulder and Scully being genuinely funny, and while the series’ best episodes are generally considered to be the ‘funny ones’ now that the series is over (for now), it’s strange to consider that when ‘Humbug’ made its debut twenty-five years ago, it was considered somewhat of a massive risk for the series to be taking a more comedic approach to one of its stand alone stories.
It was the last bridge for the series to cross. It had proven that it could do monster tales, suspense thrillers, science gone wrong stories, tales with an environmental edge, and also work in an on-going complex story arc, all the while treating its audience intelligently. In fact, one of the things that marked The X-Files out right away was how it never talked down to the audience, and while we might have laughed along at some of Mulder’s one liners, and the witty conversations between its heroes, the idea of devoting an entire episode to a more comedic style seemed to be a potentially jump-the-shark moment.
It’s a strange thing to think about such a reaction now given that Darin Morgan’s script for ‘Humbug’ was to prove one of the most impactful episodes on the show. Like ‘Squeeze’, ‘The Erlenmeyer Flask’ and, earlier in the season, ‘Duane Barry’, ‘Humbug’ proved to be a quietly radical piece of writing for the series, cementing a type of instalment that would prove to be pivotal element of The X-Files’ creative DNA.
Ask anyone to name a favourite episode of The X-Files and chances are they’ll name an episode that’s a comedy one, and even though its writer would only write a small number of episodes of the show, the majority of them in the third and later revival seasons, there’s no denying that Darin Morgan would prove to be a writer of great importance to the X-Files world, with a style and observation that when applied to this particular piece of pop cultural work would work superbly.
There are moments of story telling subversion that would be honed even further by Morgan in later episodes; set amongst a sideshow community in Florida, the episode opens with two children in a swimming pool who look as if they’re going to be the victim of The X-Files’ latest monster of the week, only for the strange figure with scaly skin stalking them being revealed to be their father who then turns out to be the victim that gets the ball rolling and leads to Mulder and Scully paying a visit, with his skin condition being explained by the visual reveal of a van displaying his performing name The Alligator Man.
This then segues into what must amount to the funniest funeral in television history and a subsequent investigation that has a larger amount of jokes and visual gags than was usual for the show. What was most remarkable was that this was Morgan’s first full script for the series (he had a ‘story by’ credit earlier in the season on the much more serious and darker ‘Blood’) and the second episode of the series to be directed by Kim Manners, who had made his own debut with ‘Die Hand Die Verletzt’, at the time the last contribution to the series by Darin’s brother Glen and co-writer James Wong, itself a dark tale with lots of horror, but the show was genuinely doing something different with ‘Humbug’ that many behind the scenes felt was potentially going to destabilise the series and possibly hurt it, but that was further from the truth.
It gave The X-Files another element for it to play with, another genre for which to hop onto, and one which it would grasp with both hands completely for its sixth season when the majority of the episodes were comedic. Morgan would, in the end, contribute a total of six episodes, which may seem like small potatoes (no pun intended) for a series that ran for 216 episodes, but they were the most impactful with many other writers trying, and not necessarily succeeding, in trying to ape his style with only one, Vince Gilligan, successfully becoming the comedy guy after Morgan left, although it says a lot about how flexible the series was that Gilligan could contribute something as funny as ‘Bad Blood’ but also something as serious as ‘Tithonus’, the latter picking up on an unresolved thread from Morgan’s third season masterpiece, ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’.
As for Morgan, the success of ‘Humbug’ gave him a chance to essentially try and, in the words of David Duchovny, destroy the show. His work in the third season would keep much of the subversive tone, not to mention constantly making fun of the show’s leading man, a touch that began at the end of this episode, while Morgan’s style of comedy, not to mention long titles, would reach its zenith with ‘Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”‘, an episode that took everything about the show, including elements of its alien based mythology, and went to town with it in a work of glorious satire.
His ability to take genres that were very much in the wheelhouse of The X-Files and play with them and the manner the series handled them made for some of the very best genre television of the 90s, with his second episode, ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’, earning himself, and guest star Peter Boyle, well deserved Emmy awards. That episode is undoubtedly his masterpiece, an elegiac, tragic tale that also happens to be very funny with profound themes on death, life and fate.
As for ‘Humbug’, it’s possibly his most straightforward tale and yet its impact is undiminished. It became an instant fan favourite and proved that there was nothing The X-Files couldn’t do when it did it well. It was another ace in the hole for what was a superlative second season and having conquered horror, thriller and drama, now armed with the knowledge that it could also do comedy, it meant the series was about to go into its third season in glorious, confident fashion and become a juggernaut of 90s pop culture.