The Theory of the Nine Rakes

How a joke from the Simpsons tells a story about the power of commitment.
BY Taylor Davidson | December 19th, 2011

Back in October I learned about the Theory of the Nine Rakes from Eric Marcoullier (@bpm140) at TribeCon.

The origin dates back to a memorable Simpsons episode from October 1993, from a sequence where Slideshow Bob steps on the teeth of nine rakes in a row, causing the handles to swing up and hit him in the face nine times, before he finally walks away.

Why? As Wikipedia explains the history behind the episode:

There were difficulties getting this episode up to the minimum length of an episode and many scenes were added in post-production. The episode starts with a repeat of a couch gag that was first used in the episode “Lisa’s First Word”, which is considerably longer than the typical couch gag. The crew added an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon and a few misleads as to who was trying to kill Bart. Even with all of these additions, the episode still ran short of time. This led to the creation of the rake sequence, which became a memorable moment of the episode. Originally, Sideshow Bob was only supposed to step on one rake after he stepped out from the underside of the Simpson family’s car, but this was changed to nine rakes in a row. According to executive producer Al Jean, the idea was to make the scene funny, then drag the joke out so that it is no longer funny, and then drag it out even longer to make it funny again.

And that’s exactly how the joke plays out. The first couple times it’s funny. And then it gets boring. And then you start to pay attention again, wondering how much longer they are going to drag out the joke. “Again? Again?” you tell yourself every time Slideshow Bob steps on another rake. And by the end, you’re rolling in laughter, and amazed at the sheer cojones of the show to take the joke so far.

As I interpreted it from Eric’s explanation, it’s a lesson about the need for commitment to carry one through the inevitable barriers we face when we start something. After initial high expectations and the buzz of starting, the high expectations fade and we often enter the trough of disillusionment, which kills off many efforts before they have the chance to mature and evolve.

But it’s in that trough that we begin to truly understand how to make things work, and that’s when we build the learnings and implement the modifications, often outside of the limelight, to reach that slope of enlightenment and win widespread adoption.

Getting through the first couple rakes is easy. But we have to go through all nine rakes to win.

A related quote by Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”