6. Moaning Lisa

"Lisa - get away from that jazz man!"

“Lisa – get away from that jazz man!”

  • First broadcast: Sunday 11 February 1990, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 21 March 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jon Vitti
  • Storyboard: Wes Archer, Steven Dean Moore, Mike O’Connor
  • Animation director: Wes Archer

Based on an idea James L Brooks had come up with almost 10 years earlier for the US sitcom Taxi, this episode sees The Simpsons making its first notable foray into two areas hitherto unexplored by a mainstream animation series. One is the depiction of adult emotion from a child’s perspective. The other is music, not just as a soundtrack to a story but also as a catalyst for events and their consequences. This was heady stuff in 1990, and if the results now seem mixed, their legacy is unarguable: just seven months after Moaning Lisa first aired, the show’s cast were in a recording studio taping the hit album The Simpsons Sing the Blues.

Plot
Lisa is feeling depressed but neither she nor her family know why. She is eventually able to find temporary solace in playing her saxophone and in the companionship of a wandering blues musician. The plot is a radical departure from both the style and the content of the season to date, and treads a fine line between humdrum charm and mystical pomposity before tumbling headlong into rather sickly psycho-babble. But the idea of Lisa being sad and not knowing why is a powerful dramatic motor that helps propel the episode safely through some of its more ludicrous twists. This is also the first time in The Simpsons that we get a ‘B’ story, or secondary plot. Homer’s attempt to outsmart Bart in video boxing gets very tedious very quickly, but at least offers a bracing and earthy parallel to Marge’s somewhat cumbersome efforts to cheer up Lisa. 7

Characters
What a change from the brattish, unsubtle Lisa depicted in There’s No Disgrace Like Home. Lisa isn’t merely a more rounded and plausible child in this episode, she’s been given more depth than any of the grown-ups. Her depression is both plaintive – “A simple cupcake will bring me no pleasure” – and tortured: “Would it make any difference at all if I even existed? How can we sleep at night when there’s so much suffering in the world?” It’s a predicament that could have ended up sounding mere proto-adolescent whinging, were it not for Lisa’s self-awareness (she knows her dad and mum mean well) and her articulacy: she is able to tell her PE teacher in concise terms why she won’t play dodgeball.

Too sad

Making up moods in a minor key

Her character becomes increasingly one-dimensional as the episode goes on, however, and ends up apparently “cured” thanks to a few words from Marge and a trip to a music club called The Jazz Hole. The tricky mother-daughter relationship shows Marge in a better light than at any point in the series to date, and it’s a nice touch having her, not Homer, go searching when Lisa disappears. By contrast Homer and Bart can’t help but seem shallow and irksome. Given the episode sets out to prioritise sentiment over gags, perhaps this was always going to happen. But Homer comes out of this story looking pretty undignified, the lowest point being when he goes to a video arcade, a child orders him to bark like a dog, and he obliges. As for the saxophone player Bleeding Gums Murphy, he’s a bit too much of a cliche to make you really care about his plight or understand his attraction for Lisa. Maybe he’s meant to be a projection of Lisa’s inner turmoil. Or maybe he’s just a shifty loner hanging round the town in the hope of attracting attention with his parping. 6

Locations and design
The suicide bridge from Homer’s Odyssey makes a return, still looking just as foreboding but now bathed in an altogether more sympathetic, not to say serious moonlight:

Sax-a-ma-things

Sax-a-ma-things

By contrast The Jazz Hole seems more like a gymnasium than the cradle of Springfield’s alternative music scene:

By Gums

By Gums

The video arcade is massive and packed with marauding kids, both of which help to accentuate our sense of Homer being utterly out of his comfort zone. Otherwise this is an episode that sticks very closely to home turf, albeit one that is a bit hazy on dimensions. Since when did the Simpsons’ house become big enough to have both a “den” and a “rumpus room”? 5

Pardon My Zinger
It’s a zinger-free episode – and proud of the fact. What humour there is sits unashamedly within inverted commas and relies almost wholly on the very mannered interaction of characters and emotions. I laughed twice: when Lisa’s music teacher Mr Largo exclaims: “There’s no room for crazy be-bop in My Country, ‘Tis of Thee!”; and when Marge, on finding Lisa alone with Bleeding Gums Murphy, yelps: “Lisa! Get away from that jazz man!” But even this felt a little bit wrong, like swearing inside a church. 2

Special guests
Ron Taylor is completely plausible as Bleeding Gums. He invests the part with a well-judged mix of cynicism and soul, while his singing is simply magnificent. It’s not his fault that the character is ultimately rather vacant, or that Lisa’s relationship with him comes over as more queasy than cute. Taylor was the first genuine “guest star” to appear on the show, though his name still doesn’t carry that much significance for UK audiences. A veteran of musical theatre, he had appeared in a number of supporting parts on US television during the 1980s before his spot on The Simpsons. The exposure he won thanks to this episode and the subsequent Simpsons Sings The Blues album led to a higher TV profile during the 1990s, including roles in Twin Peaks, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Ally McBeal and City of Angels. Taylor died in 2002. 7

Music
Lisa’s “sax-a-ma-thing” is as much a character in this episode as anyone else, and as such music plays a key role in the story right from the off. Richard Gibbs’ score is his finest so far, and also his most varied, encompassing richly mournful strings in the first act, Lisa and Bleeding Gums’ melancholic saxophone duet on the bridge, and the stately, cool 12-bar-blues of the finale. Even the school band’s deliberately appalling version of My Country, ‘Tis of Thee is well executed. For the first time, we don’t hear The Simpsons theme over the end titles. Instead, Bleeding Gums’ blues continues into and under the credits. The words to Lisa’s song were written by Al Jean and Mike Reiss and are pretty perfunctory, but this doesn’t matter so much in an episode where sounds and feelings are more important than words. The choice of saxophone for Lisa is inspired: it’s an instrument that can sound both very personal but also universal, embodying something of the appeal of The Simpsons itself. Whoever is really playing her saxophone, and that of Bleeding Gums, ought to have received a namecheck in the closing credits. 8

Searching for a young soul rebel

Searching for a young soul rebel

Voices
Yeardley Smith had Lisa’s voice pretty much sorted before this season began, so by the time we get to her first big story it’s not really a surprise (and just as well) to find she has no shortage of confidence or depth. Her singing voice is also really great, and blends exceptionally well with that of Ron Taylor. Elsewhere Dan Castellaneta’s Homer is still too curmudgeonly, especially in the endless scenes of video boxing with Bart, but there’s a touch more warmth to Julie Kavner’s Marge than before. Harry Shearer supplies a rum mix of camp and exasperation for music teacher Mr Largo. 6

Animation direction
The very first shot of the episode is the best: a giant close-up of Lisa looking sad.

Moping Lisa

Moping Lisa

It’s a stark but affecting way to kick off the story, and one that gets you instantly intrigued as to what’s going on. It also sets the tone effectively for the opening act, which has an unusual structure resembling more a sequence of vignettes than a continuous developing narrative. Scenes fade in and out, there’s no real sense of time, and other family members do little but go about the mundane business of cooking cakes and searching for car keys. It’s a very nuanced but convincing bit of direction by Wes Archer, who sustains that inaugural mood of confused dejection in a subtle but expert fashion. The rest of the episode doesn’t quite live up to this opening, perhaps because the story itself becomes less focused. Archer slips in a couple of nice flourishes, however. There’s a great shot of a bewildered Lisa standing in the middle of her enormous school gym being pelted by rubber balls:

Who invented this 'sport' anyway?

Who invented this ‘sport’ anyway?

While Homer is literally floored by the prospect of never beating Bart at video boxing:

Homer defined

Homer defined

It’s a moment that foreshadows the kind of extreme emotional reactions in Homer that would become such a rewarding ingredient of future seasons. 6

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
There’s only one, but it’s a treat. Homer has a nightmare about being trapped in a boxing video game with Bart. He’s about to be punched in the mouth by his son when he suddenly wakes, sits bolt upright, and lets out a spectacularly hysterical scream that lasts almost five seconds, whereupon he promptly falls straight back to sleep:

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH." *snores*

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH.” *snores*

The performance, timing and direction of this all-too-brief fantasy are superb. 7

Emotion and tone
The entire episode pivots around Lisa’s discovery of Bleeding Gums Murphy. Up to that point, the tone is heartfelt and sincere, even a little mature. Then the mood changes and the schmaltz starts to creep in, culminating in Marge at her most platitudinous: “Always be yourself. If you want to be sad, honey, be sad. We’ll ride it out with you!” If you’re in a particularly sentimental mood, you’ll be swept up in these moments and feel quite exhilarated when Lisa finally admits: “I feel like smiling.” But the lacklustre ending in the jazz club, with everything supposedly for the best in the best of all possible worlds, just leaves you with a nagging sense that a sad Lisa is more interesting than a happy Lisa. 4

Verdict: 58%
This is an ambitious episode that almost convinces you it’s doing something profound, only to tip you a wink at the end as if to say: “Not really!” How much you buy into its blend of the everyday and the otherworldly depends on how much you’re bothered by the sight of Lisa wandering around town unaccompanied in the dead of night. Still, the show’s entire reputation for combining human emotion with cartoon humour can be traced back to here. “The blues isn’t about feeling better, it’s about making other people feel worse!”

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s