On April 20, 1999, Fox aired one of the all-time-great King of the Hill episodes.
Season three’s "Revenge of the Lutefisk” goes like this: After the reverend of Arlen First Methodist leaves the congregation (“The future of god is on the internet”), a new church leader comes to town. This replacement minister arrives by way of Minnesota, but that isn’t what worries Hank and the boys; their concern is that the new guy isn’t a guy at all, but Reverend Karen Stroup. A woman. (“So, it's up and running. The secret lab in the basement of the Harvard Divinity School where they ordain women surgically.”)
The episode is littered with Minnesota references—Stroup, voiced by honorary Minnesotan Mary Tyler Moore, brings to a welcome potluck a platter of lutefisk as a symbol of her people's "culture,” and calms Hank’s concerns about missing kickoff when she says she’s a Vikings fan. The “revenge” in "Lutefisk" comes about when Bobby eats the whole tray, gets horribly sick at Sunday service, and rushes out of the sanctuary to use the bathroom, where Cotton Hill enters to find the single stall occupied and reeking.
From there, Bobby burns down the church when he lights a match to hide his tracks; the reverend thinks the incident is retaliatory arson because she’s a woman; Cotton takes the blame (the matchbook was from a strip club in Houston); and Bobby, racked with guilt, confesses (but not before trying to flee to Mexico). Ultimately, to save his grandson the embarrassment of confessing to public diarrhea and accidental arson, Cotton continues to cover for him.
A church-burning, community-shattering bowel problems, Mary Tyler Moore—“Revenge of the Lutefisk” has everything.
It also raises some questions. Like, “Why did an East Coast-bred comedy writing duo (Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger), who were based in L.A. and working on a show set in Texas, pitch and write such a specific episode?” Beyond just "having an awareness of Minnesota,” Berger and Aibel were familiar with lutefisk, a culinary… contribution, I guess, that even Lutheran Minnesotans I know wish they could disown.
It's baffling. So I tracked down Aibel—who’s gone on to write the Kung Fu Panda movies and Trolls with Berger since KOTH went off the air in 2009—to ask, essentially: What the hell?
“This is the most random email Glenn and I have gotten in a while,” came his gentle reply. But though more than two decades have passed since the two wrote “Revenge of the Lutefisk,” he agreed to answer a few questions.
Incredibly, neither Aibel nor Berger has been to Minnesota (nor have they tried lutefisk), and if memory serves, Aibel says the initial germ for the episode wasn’t lutefisk at all: “It was church.”
“At the beginning of the season, we’d get the whole staff together and writers would pitch a whole bunch of story nuggets to [co-creators] Greg [Daniels] and Mike [Judge]," Aibel says. "My recollection is we had three make the cut: ‘Bobby sees Luanne naked,’ ‘Hank vs. a Magician,’ and ‘Church burning.'”
He doesn’t remember the exact order in which the plot elements came to them, but their plan was to have the Hills’ preacher retire and introduce a new, female reverend, “which would make Hank and the boys—and especially Cotton—suspicious of her. But then it would turn out she was cool because she was a huge football fan, football being Hank’s other religion.”
At this point, they had a church burning, and the idea that folks would assume it was arson because they didn’t want a woman leading the congregation. But diarrhea and arson alone do not an episode of King of the Hill make. They needed an emotional hook.
“A King of the Hill episode always focused on a core relationship between characters (Hank and Peggy, Dale and Nancy, Luanne and Hank), and we wanted to do something with Cotton and Bobby,” Aibel recalls. “We thought it would be really touching if Bobby accidentally burned the church down, but Cotton took the fall to prevent him from a lifetime of teasing. Cotton was kind of a monster, but he had a big sweet spot for Bobby, which helped humanize him. We just loved that.”
Okay, admittedly perfect—but what about the lutefisk? Aibel and Berger had never been to Minnesota or indulged in Norway's great jelly-like seafood export. Presumably, they’d never soaked fish in caustic chemicals on a whim.
Aibel says they thought it would be funny if Bobby burned the church down because he was covering up for a bathroom odor—“It just felt very ‘Bobby’ that he would have a curious palate and be willing to try something no one else would”—which meant they needed a weird food to cause his digestive meltdown. As it happens, Glenn had read Mark Kurlansky’s book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, which mentions lutefisk. He'd filed away that bit of trivia, and when he brought it to his writing partner, it just felt right.
“Fish cooked in lye until the bones become gelatinous? It checked all the boxes,” Aibel recalls. “Seems gross. Seems likely to cause gastric distress. Seems like something Bobby would try and enjoy. And best of all, it was real and specific, so we had the vague sense that there would be people out there who would enjoy seeing it (even if we didn’t know this for 20 years).”
Aibel’s right—I've long said “Revenge of the Lutefisk” is a top-tier episode in the KOTH canon.
But I’m also not from Minnesota (and I, too, have never dared down a platter of lutefisk). It’s one that spoke to me when I was just a kid on the coast.
The thing I like about the episode is the thing I like about all the series’ best ones: It’s full of heart. It’s weird. It references the Gribble Report. It feels somehow real, even though it… also doesn’t at all?
"This was the third episode Glenn and I had written that season, and I do think by this point we finally understood what made the best KOTH episodes—every episode should have three things: a funny plot, an emotional story between the characters, and then some kind of issue we could put a King of the Hill populist spin on,” Aibel reflects. “In this case, it was gender politics (and church burning).”
“If you do it right, you’re basically covering all your bases,” he continues. “It’s funny, it’s got heart and emotion, and it makes you think a little bit about something in the world.”