Ode to Homer: The Vidiots Salute the Simpsons
Anyhow, there's a backup outfielder on the Athletics, a kid by the name of Eric Byrnes, who happens to pronounce his last name the same way as Robert the poet, Ken the documentarian and George the dead comedian. I believe a friend of mine and I attended the a game a season or two ago where Byrnes made his Oakland debut. The Oakland Coliseum's basso-profoundo p.a. announcer introduced the rookie in his best voice-of-God intonation -- "Now batting for Oakland, number 22, Eric Byrnes."
"Are they booing?" my friend asked.
"They're not booing," I replied. "They saying 'Boo-urns!'"
And I think that says it all about the far-reaching impact The Simpsons has enjoyed on television, popular culture and the way obsessive nerds like myself communicate amongst each other. Here my friend and I were watching a baseball game, and all of sudden, we're quoting Simpsons dialogue at each other. And not even from a good episode, either -- that "Boo-urns" exchange comes at the end of "A Star Is Burns," the ill-advised crossover episode with the soon-to-be-cancelled The Critic. Even when The Simpsons turns out a clunker -- and it's safe to say that "A Star Is Burns" is decidedly that, what with Matt Groening yanking his name from the credits and all -- there's still a moment or two that's funny enough to stick with you years after the fact.
That's important to remember as The Simpsons broadcasts its 300th episode tonight -- a rarefied accomplishment for any program that doesn't open with a ticking stopwatch. And it's not as if The Simpsons has reached the 300-episode mark wheezing and limping and calling out to its God for death -- it's still among the best shows on television, and it looks like it will continue to be for quite some time to come. In a medium where most programs are lucky to stay on the air for 300 minutes, what the people responsible for The Simpsons have to managed to pull off is quite remarkable indeed.
Yes, as the show's minutia-obsessed fan base will explain in painstaking detail, episodes of The Simpsons these days rarely reach the heights achieved by earlier efforts -- some of the finest half-hours of programming you can ever hope to watch. And yes, The Simpsons can be maddeningly uneven, ping-ponging from brilliant to blasé often from one commercial break to the next. Slate even decided to commemorate The Simpsons' 300-episode milestone by chronicling the many ways in which the show isn't as good as it used to be. That the argument may be correct is beside the point -- rather, it's important to remember that even at its worst, The Simpsons is still better than almost anything else. Besides, you don't see too many fan sites devoted to detailing the myriad ways Full House or Becker fell off in quality during their later years, now do you?
Certainly, the fact that The Simpsons is animated helps it avoid the usual pitfalls that bedevil even the best of TV series as they get older. Animation allows The Simpsons to turn sitcom conventions upside down. The format gives the show's creators license to do things that in a live-action program would seem, well, cartoony. And thanks to animation, Homer Simpson and family always look the same -- they don't age Friends-like before our eyes, becoming tired or wizened or skeletal after a decade on the air.
The Simpsons also gets a boost from some very talented vocal performers. And if you have any doubt as to just how talented, do yourself a favor and tune into the Inside the Actor's Studio episode in which James Lipton bows and scrapes before the people who provide The Simpsons with their voices -- Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer. (When is that episode re-airing, you ask? Why, Saturday, February 22, at 4 p.m. Consider this a bonus "Watch Me," from me to you.) In a sense, those folks have a thankless role -- their entire body of work occurs off-camera so they don't always enjoy the same kudos for creating a living, breathing character that flesh-and-blood actors do. But try to imagine Homer without Castellaneta's distinctive cadence or Marge without Kavner's rasp. You could give the characters different voices, but they certainly wouldn't be the same characters -- and there's a good chance we wouldn't feel as warmly toward the four-fingered, yellow-skinned slobs as we do.
But in the end, if those voices don't have anything interesting to say, there would be nothing to differentiate The Simpsons from The PJs. Or Fish Police. Or any of the dozen or so other animated series that have tried and failed to make a go of it in prime-time during The Simpsons' 14-year-run. At the end of the day, what's kept The Simpsons on course for 300 episodes and counting has been the writing. It's the show's calling card. It's the thing that makes people feel so passionately about The Simpsons, that they'll debate whether or not Season 9 is funnier than Season 11. It's what turns a handful of the episodes listed below into monumental examples of satire, masterpieces of their medium. And it's why a couple of losers watching an Oakland A's game can recall a throw-away bit of dialogue word-for-word from an episode featuring an otherwise forgotten character from a lesser show.
A couple of us Vidiots decided to list our five favorite episodes. When we came up with the idea, four of five Simpsons installments immediately leapt to mind, but just in case I was overlooking something, I decided to peruse the exhaustive and impressively maintained episode guide over at The Simpsons Archive. By the time I was done sorting through the 14 seasons worth of shows, my Top Five list had swelled to 21 -- and those are just the episodes I think are the best ever. If we were to list the ones that I actually liked, the number would spike into the hundreds.
(And even the ones I don't like would probably wind up one someone's list. I mentioned to Gregg Wrenn that I don't particularly care for Stark Raving Dad -- the one where Homer wears a pink shirt to work and gets thrown in an insane asylum with someone claiming to be, and sounding an awful lot like, Michael Jackson. I told Gregg I find the episode to be overly sentimental and a little bit sappy -- he gave me the stinkeye, and I suspect he wouldn't be the only person to do so. Which again proves that even those episodes of Boy Scoutz N the Hood. that we deem, in our Comic Book Guy voices, to be the worst ones ever are still pretty damn entertaining. Oh, also that's there's no accounting for taste, particularly Wrenn's.)
So here's my Top 5 Episodes in descending order, complete with my favorite line from each and tinged with deep regret that I couldn't find room for either "The Day the Violence Died" or "Boy Scoutz N the Hood."
5. "I Love Lisa." As a rule, the Lisa-centric episodes tend to be my least favorites -- they have a sentimentality to them that, to me at least, feels out of place with the overall tone of the series. But this episode avoids all that, thanks to a little boy whose parents won't let him scissors and who has an alarming tendency to glue his head to his shoulder -- the misunderstood genius, Ralph Wiggum. Lisa gives Ralph a valentine out of pity, which our nosebleed-prone hero takes as a sign of undying affection. There's a Krusty anniversary special, a musical tribute to one-term, forgettable presidents and an alarming glimpse at the depths of Police Chief Wiggum's corruption and incompetence. But this episode is Ralph's, from the moment Lisa choo-choo-chooses him to his stirring performance as George Washington in the school's President's Day pageant.
Favorite Line: "You can actually pinpoint the second his heart rips in half."
4. "Cape Feare." I could have picked any one of the episodes where Sideshow Bob returns to avenge himself against Bart -- along with the late, lamented Phil Hartman, Kelsey Grammer turns in the best work of any Simpsons guest star. But I'm going with this one, not because it features McBain's ill-advised attempt to host a late-night talk show, not because of the clear "Cape Fear" shout-outs, not even because Homer is unable to grasp even the rudimentary concepts of witness relocation. I just think every show should feature a medley of hits from "HMS Pinafore" sung by a convicted felon.
Favorite Line: "No one who speaks German could be an evil man."
3. "The Front." As you might well imagine, I'm a sucker for anything that parodies the TV industry. And this episode, where Grandpa becomes a writer for Itchy and Scratchy cartoons, throws a few well-deserved elbows at children's programming, the Emmy awards, and the alarming number of Harvard grads who wind up writing for television. Throw in Homer returning to high school to get his diploma and you've got something every bit as entertaining as the Wedding Episode for Strondar: Master of Vacom.
Favorite Line: "Didn't you wonder why you were getting checks for doing nothing?" "I figured it was because the Democrats were back in power."
2. "Krusty Gets Busted." Along with "Bart the General," this was the episode of The Simpsons that, in my mind, established it as more than just a half-hour extension of those animated bumpers from The Tracey Ullman Show. It's our first prolonged look at Krusty -- really, along with Moe, the best and darkest ancillary characters in the Simpsons universe -- and it features an outstanding use of a Stephen Sondheim lyric to usher in suspects for a police lineup ("All right... send in the clowns."). Plus, we have the first appearance by Sideshow Bob. I mentioned I like his episodes, right?
Favorite Line: "If the crime is making me laugh, they're all guilty!"
1. "Last Exit to Springfield." Brilliant on so many levels, from the absurd (the room in Montgomery Burns' mansion featuring 1,000 monkeys at 1,000 typewriters) to the sly (far too many digs at organized labor to reprint in the confines of these parentheses). You like references to popular culture? Then enjoy this episode's riffs on "Marathon Man," "Batman," "Yellow Submarine" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." And, of course, Grandpa's dissertation on bumblebee nickels and the importance of tying an onion to your belt may well rival the Gettysburg Address, Kennedy's inaugural speech and Bryan's exhortations against a cross of silver as a landmark of American oratory. Or not. But it's still a great episode.
Favorite Line: "If only we'd listened to that boy instead of walling him off in the abandoned coke oven."
Picking only five great Simpsons episodes is the hardest thing I've ever been forced to do here at TeeVee. After all, how do you separate the extraordinary from the merely stupendous? What kind of subjective scalpel must one wield to say that an episode like "She of Little Faith" -- a recent show that featured Lisa converting to Buddhism and Homer launching a hamster into low-Earth orbit -- is merely the sixth best episode ever? Especially considering "She of Little Faith" would be the high-water mark for 99.99% of the sitcoms that have ever aired.
So I used a dart board. Here, in no particular order and whittled down from an initial list of over 25 possibilities, are the five that were selected almost at random.
1. "The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show." The Simpsons is at its best skewering popular media and this self-referential spoof was a brilliant satire that lacerated network television's propensity for churning out series after series of mindless, unoriginal tripe. From the kid focus groups to the humor by committee mindset of network executives, The Simpsons explains better than any Variety article ever could just why TV is so awful so much of the time.
2. "The PTA Disbands." This is my dark horse pick, an episode from season six that never gets mentioned when people talk about all-time greats. Yet The Simpsons lampoons education just as sharply as it does the media, especially this show, which features a Springfield Elementary teachers' strike and normal citizens filling in as substitutes. Barring the crayon-up-his-nose show, this episode may also feature the smartest Homer we've ever seen. When Lisa invents a perpetual motion machine, Homer gets to utter one of his best random lines: "Young lady, in this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!"
3. "A Fish Called Selma." This episode featured Troy McClure's move from secondary character to star as he marries Marge's sister Selma in an effort to revive his flagging career. It continues the grand Simpsons tradition of flogging Hollywood, but even if it hadn't, this show deserves to be in the top five for its stunning off-Broadway interlude, "Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off." The Simpsons has always pulled off incredible musical parodies, but staging a song called "Dr. Zaius" to the tune of Falco's "Amadeus" was perhaps the most inspired moment in the entire history of the series.
4. "Last Exit to Springfield." This episode is on everyone's list, and for damn good reason. Make that dozens of damn good reasons. Take your pick: Burns' bizarre Dr. Seuss riff on the striking plant workers; Kent Brockman's immortal "Tonight on Smartline: The Power Plant Strike: Argle Bargle or Fooforah;" Homer's mistaken belief that Mr. Burns is coming on to him. But for me it all comes down to those 11 simple words from Dr. Wolfe, the evil dentist: "Why must you turn my office into a house of lies?" Unfortunately, that seems to be Boss Snell's motto here at TeeVee headquarters as well.
5. Tie: "Sideshow Bob Roberts" and "A Streetcar Named Marge" OK, so I'm cheating here, but "Streetcar" boasts the one of the best movie parodies in TV history: Maggie leading a baby rebellion at the Ayn Rand School for Tots in a beautifully goofy homage to "The Great Escape." "Sideshow Bob Roberts" is a political episode that finds Sideshow Bob sprung from prison and running for mayor of Springfield. Most people pick "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish," the episode where Burns runs for governor, as The Simpsons' best political satire. It might well be, but "Sideshow" deserves a mention too for it's use of Sideshow Bob, Mayor Quimby and the introduction of a Rush Limbaugh clone, Birch Barlow. Bob gets to deliver the best line when he threatens Bart and Lisa: "No children have ever meddled with the Republican party and lived to tell about it."
The thing that amazes me is that my favorite episode was produced back-to-back with "Simpson Safari," my least-favorite episode. Inflammable means flammable? What a country!
1. "Trilogy of Error." I'm a sucker for wacky narrative devices, and this one's got the wackiest in Simpsons history. Telling a story three different ways from three different perspectives, this episode features Linguo the ill-fated grammar robot, Bart's attempt to entrap Fat Tony, a police call to 123 Fake Street, and an important vocabulary lesson for Dr. Nick Riviera. It's 120 minutes of material in a 30-minute capsule, and there's no better episode.
2. "Marge vs. The Monorail." The Music Man-inspired song sequence is probably the series' high point, both musically and satirically. But there's more, including a Leonard Nimoy cameo and a deus ex donut. Is there anything those sweet pastries can't do?
3. "Treehouse of Horror V." One of the most clever recurring events in "The Simpsons" is the outside-of-continuity episode, whether it's horrific Halloween horror stories, Tall Tales, Bible Stories, or tales of mythology. The best entry in the lot is this one, featuring a parody of The Shining, a tumultuous time-travel tale where Homer learns how dangerous changing even one event in the past can be -- it's raining donuts! -- and a horrible visit to the Springfield Elementary cafeteria featuring a lunch made out of students.
4. "22 Short Films About Springfield." I'm actually not a big fan of "Pulp Fiction," which is parodied in this episode, but I love the scattershot collection of odd short stories told largely through one of "The Simpsons'" greatest strengths, its incredibly deep cast of supporting characters. Too bad we didn't get to see more of The Misadventures of Professor Frink, though -- someday that monkey is going to pay.
5. "You Only Move Twice." The Simpsons leave Springfield and move to a beautiful community. Marge begins to drink. Lisa has an allergy attack. But that's beside the point -- Homer is working for a James Bond villain (voiced by Albert Brooks), and the collection of Bond references and other bizarre nonsequiturs makes this one a classic.
These aren't really in any order. And I don't guarantee that I'd make the same list tomorrow, or even later today. My problem is that I've seen too much Simpsons. I quote it as part of my everyday conversation; it's part of the background of my life. So it's hard to think of which episodes I like best. So I just went through an episode guide and grabbed five that stand out in my mind. Honorable mention to "The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show" for that stuff about "attitude" and "paradigm".
1. "A Streetcar Named Marge." For my money, the best episode has to have both a great plot and a great subplot. And this episode's B plot, with the Ayn Rand School for Tots ("A is A") and Maggie's Stalag 17 breakout, has so many parodies per minute that it could stand on its own as the main plot. But the A plot is even better, with Marge playing Blanche to Ned Flanders's Stanley. The musical is characteristic of Simpsons parodies, with valuable screen time being taken out just so everyone can marvel at Apu's lovely singing voice. Plus, this episode features Jon Lovitz in two roles, surprising everyone with his versatility as he plays both Llewellyn Sinclair and his sister.
2. "Itchy & Scratchy Land." "The violentest place on earth." "Look at this bible I just got -- fifteen bucks! And talk about a preachy book: everybody's a sinner! Except for this guy." "Where nothing can possiblie go wrong. Possibly go wrong. That's the first thing that's ever go wrong." "Searing gas pain land?" "I repeat, we are sold out of 'Bort' license plates." "When you get to hell, tell 'em Itchy sent you." "Smashy smashy!"
3. "And Maggie Makes Three." I normally don't care for the Simpsons episodes that go for sentiment, because I think a lot of the time, that comes at the cost of the comedy. "Lisa's Substitute" just bores and irritates me. But the end of "And Maggie Makes Three," when it's revealed that Homer's used pictures of Maggie have been used to turn "Don't forget: you're here forever" into "Do it for her" -- that always makes me tear up. Plus, it's got Homer firing a shotgun and yelling "Bowling! Get yer bowling!"
4. "22 Short Films About Springfield." Plot? Who needs plot? I mean, when you can spend a whole episode wallowing in tertiary characters like Bumblebee Man, Dr. Nick, and Nelson. This episode's commitment to the supporting cast is such that Cletus and Professor Frink both get their own theme songs. And so does the Principal Skinner-Superintendent Chalmers relationship. Now that's obscure!
5. "Homer at the Bat." All I'm saying is that, as far as celebrity cameo episodes go, this one is my favorite. And if you're at a baseball game, you can quote pretty much any line, including the "Talkin' Softball" end-credits theme.
Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels, Jason Snell, Monty Ashley, Gregg Wrenn.
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