Plot summary: Joker decides to move away from the murder business to win big in small claims court!
Each Saturday and Sunday Matt Waters recaps an episode of the legendary Batman: The Animated Series, building an overall ranking along the way. Plus best performances, the ever-popular Villain Watch and more!
Episode Title: ‘The Laughing Fish’
Original Air Date: January 10th, 1993
Directed: Bruce Timm (2)
Written: Paul Dini (5)
This, ‘Heart of Ice’ and the two-parter ‘The Demon’s Quest’ don’t have title cards, opting for just text over the top of the episode itself.
Joker grabs a tool from a box marked ‘Binford Tool’, which may ring a bell for fans of Home Improvement.
The first of MANY instances in animation of Joker apparently dying only to later return without explanation.
An amalgamation of three iconic Joker stories: ‘The Joker’s Five Way Revenge’, ‘The Laughing Fish; and Batman #321.
We open in Gotham Harbour and a fishing vessel dumps out its latest haul… a net full of fish with huge red-lipped grins, white bodies and green fins. The fishermen are disgusted.
Batman is looking on from above (for some reason) and mutters to himself “he’s made his move.” The media run with the story while Bruce brings one of the fish back to the cave for dissection, remarking how most criminals follow logical motives, but Joker does not.
Sure enough, across town at the Gotham Office of Copyrights and Patents, Harley Quinn introduces her boss who flops a fish down on the table of one of the clerks.
The madman declares his intention to claim copyright infringement on his appearance, stunning the poor desk jockey, Mr. Francis, who points out you can’t copyright wild animals. Joker strongly suggests he reconsider.
Back in the cave, Batman confirms the fish are harmless, pondering the nature of Joker’s game. Right on cue a commercial plays on a TV advertising Joker Fish. Harley tries to protest taking a bite when prompted on account of not liking fish, so Joker of course shoves a forkful in her mouth anyway.
Jim Gordon is furious, demanding a cop change the channel, but of course it’s playing on all of them. Joker threatens the clerk that denied his claim, giving him until midnight to change his mind… or else.
Luckily for Mr. Francis a plethora of GCPD are already in his home with five minutes until midnight, with Harvey Bullock remarking how little chance Joker has of getting in. Not so fast, Harv; Batman strips out of a police uniform to point out how easily he got in. This is lowkey one of the most insane scenes in Batman history.
Francis begins to act strangely, which only Batman picks up on, commenting on Harley spraying him with perfume earlier that day. Sure enough, a truck with a huge swordfish on top pulls up outside and launches the damn thing through the window, with Batman barely pushing Francis out of the way in time.
Only the swordfish wasn’t intended to hit Francis, but instead releases a purple gas that causes Francis to laugh himself into a fit. Batman deduces it’s a two-part compound, with Harley’s perfume dosing him with the first.
Joker returns to the screen to report on Francis taking some unexpected time off, giving the second most senior clerk until 3am to grant his copyright claim.
Naturally the police and Batman convene at Mr. Jackson’s house, with Gordon remarking on Batman taking point this time. Right before the deadline Jackson’s cat appears with a Joker fish in its teeth and a wild look in its eyes, leaping at Batman and scratching him, causing him to laugh uncontrollably…
… until Jackson injects him with an anti-venom to pacify him. Yep, Batman was dressed as Jackson complete with prosthetics and Jackson was in the Cape and Cowl! Bruce points out the cat was able to identify its owner even in disguise, as if that’s not a thing most animals can do.
Batman returns after changing out of his Jackson disguise, pointing out this fish is a Japanese Tang. Asserting it’s not native to Gotham, he gets the idea to check the aquarium, which is of course closed for remodelling like every Joker hideout.
Harvey Bullock arrived at the same conclusion despite storming off before the fish was identified, and is immediately captured by Harley and lowered into a shark tank by Joker!
Mistah J changes his mind, realising Batman won’t be far behind. His pointy ears burning, Bats arrives to the hostage situation and immediately offers to trade places with Bullock, with Joker ultimately shoving both of them in along with some chum.
Batman outmanoeuvres the shark and uses his handcuffs to steer it, tricking it into breaking the glass, which you’d hope wouldn’t be possible, but I ain’t not safety inspector.
The shark washes all the way out the door and into Gotham Harbour as Batman pursues Joker onto the roof. The two battle under a purple thunderstorm sky, with the hero of course getting the better of it. Cornered, Joker leaps off the roof, activating a flotation device… only to land in the now shark-infested water!
Harley sobs as she drops a black-lipstick-stained joker card into the water, calling him puddin’ (for the very first time!) Batman tells Gordon he doubts Joker really perished, but the last thing we see is the shark eating the playing card.
Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill dominate this category to such a degree that they should almost be disqualified from consideration to give somebody else a look in. Almost.
Honestly, I wouldn’t begrudge you for picking either of them, but I would probably give the slight edge to Hamill this time. He combines the charismatic pageantry of ‘Christmas with the Joker’ with the sly menace of ‘The Last Laugh’ and the bipolar emotionality of ‘Joker’s Favour’ to help craft the best Joker performance to date.
Conroy is excellent too though, frustrated by his inability to get out in front of Joker’s plan, and giving a performance that made the whole thing feel like the final showdown between the two mortal enemies.
Arleen Sorkin was GREAT here too, and in a scenario where the big two are banned, she’d take it.
There is a reason Paul Dini is the show’s most revered writer, and he proved it yet again by following up on giving Joker his first truly great episode (‘Joker’s Favor’) with what is in my opinion the best episode to date. Dini and Bruce Timm only (officially) collaborated on three episodes, and spoilers for twenty-ish episodes’ time: the third one is great too.
So much is crammed into the runtime, from Batman’s detective work to Joker’s intimidation scene, to the pair of attacks on civilians and then the extended aquarium scene, with multiple little twists and turns in the plot that were a genuine treat to watch unfold, capped off by one of the best Batman/Joker standoffs ever.
Speaking of genuine treats to watch: The entire aquarium set piece is utterly gorgeous, with abandoned public attractions somewhat of a calling card of Batman media. Illuminating this one with little more than lightning flashes and torch light lets it rise above. The animation of Bats infiltrating the building under the cover of shadow is sublime, easily the most effective instance of those white eyes in darkness shots I rave about frequently. They use a similar technique to sell the Jackson switcharoo, with Bruce’s familiar silhouette and Kevin Conroy’s disembodied voice making the situation appear authentic. Superlative stuff.
Dini’s talent for writing Joker and his creation, Harley, shines brightest in the scene in the copyrights office, which might be one of the most underrated Joker scenes in the whole series. From Joker tricking a man into speaking so he can slap him with a wet fish, to Harley butchering the pronunciation of enchanté, they make for an outstanding double act, with a smattering of actually good gags to seal the deal.
The part that really seals the deal is how easy it is to show this episode to ANYBODY and for it to work. ‘Heart of Ice’ has some slightly janky elements, while ‘Robin’s Reckoning’ asks you to care about Robin (and ends on a cliffhanger). ‘The Laughing Fish’ boils things down to the most simple element of Batman vs Joker, moves with pace and has some of the best animation in the whole show. Simplicity can be huge.
- The Laughing Fish
- Heart of Ice
- Robin’s Reckoning Part I
- Perchance to Dream
- Two-Face Part I
- Joker’s Favor
- Feat of Clay Part II
- Robin’s Reckoning Part II
- Beware the Gray Ghost
- Mad as a Hatter
- Appointment In Crime Alley
- Two-Face Part II
- On Leather Wings
- Pretty Poison
- Feat of Clay Part I
- It’s Never Too Late
- See No Evil
- The Clock King
- Eternal Youth
- The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy
- The Cat and the Claw Part I
- Christmas with the Joker
- Fear of Victory
- Be a Clown
- The Cat and the Claw Part II
- Nothing to Fear
- Prophecy of Doom
- Dreams In Darkness
- The Last Laugh
- The Under-Dwellers
- The Forgotten
- I’ve Got Batman in My Basement
The Joker (Mark Hamill) (fifth appearance)
Gotham’s favourite Murder Clown sits atop the rankings for a reason, and it’s become a much easier one to justify now that they’re writing legitimately great episodes for him, instead of coasting by on Hamill’s talent in middling-to-bad ones. This is Joker 101, with Batman pointing out early on that his schemes are too illogical to predict. Seriously, how do you plan for him disfiguring every fish in the harbour so that he can try and sue for copyright infringement?
And even if you do, how on earth do you keep one of his intended victims safe? Joker twice manages to get his man in their own home under heavy protection from Batman and the GCPD, even with the Caped Crusader laying an incredibly clever trap the second time. It gives the ultimate supervillain a supernatural sense of inevitability that is made all the more maddening by the way he makes a show and dance of it all. If this weren’t a children’s show the two copyright clerks would have died for sure.
I know everybody loves ‘Christmas with the Joker’, and I hear lots of arguments for ‘Joker’s Favor’, but to me this is the Joker episode.
Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) (second appearance)
It wasn’t a great debut for Harley in ‘Joker’s Favor’, but that was only natural given she was a last-minute addition, with little to distinguish her from any other henchperson beyond a memorable voice. She was deployed far more effectively in her second outing, both in tandem with the Joker and as his metaphorical punching bag. It’s enough to slide her a few spots up the rankings.
There’s also a dark humour to the ending with Bullock remarking how abusive and psychotic Joker was and Harley tearfully seeing these as the very reasons she will miss him. MUCH more on this way down the line…
- Mr. Freeze
- Mad Hatter
- Poison Ivy
- Clock King
- Killer Croc
- Rupert Thorne
- Lloyd Ventrix
- Josiah Wormwood
- Roland Daggett (and Germs & Bell!)
- Tony Zucco
- Harley Quinn
- Red Claw
- Arnold Stromwell
- Mad Bomber
- Nostromos (and Lucas!)
- Sewer King
- Boss Biggis
Eager for more long-form coverage of Batman? Why not check out my podcast with Mike Thomas, The Tape Crusaders, which reviewed every Batman movie and delved a tiny bit into the animated series.
Speaking of my podcasts, There Will Be Movies continues tomorrow with The Florida Project.
Kevin & Jerome’s Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul podcast, Reel Bad, drops new episodes the first Tuesday of each month… that means this week! BCS Season 3!
Jerome & Brian’s Pantheon Plus returns in two weeks
Speaking of Jerome (twice), he continues to bring you his 100 favourite movies of all time, posting between 3 and 4 per week.