- First broadcast: Sunday 18 February 1990, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Saturday 7 December 1996, BBC1
- Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
- First draft: John Swartzwelder
- Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jon Vitti
- Storyboard: Steven Dean Moore
- Animation director: Wes Archer
To sprinkle a little glamour upon the first season of The Simpsons, James L Brooks called in a few favours from his Hollywood friends. One was the actor Albert Brooks, who agreed to do a couple of guest cameos in the show. Brooks makes his debut in this episode, but chose not to be credited by his full name, perhaps wary of being publicly associated with something that could just as well prove to be a flop as a hit. In the case of The Call of the Simpsons, this was a wise decision.
Homer buys a camper van and takes his family on a weekend break to the woods, only to end up being mistaken for Bigfoot by a local television network. It’s an absolutely shameless old-as-the-hills fish-out-of-water story, but this wouldn’t matter so much were it not for the fact that we’re only seven episodes into the show’s history and haven’t seen anywhere near enough of the Simpsons’ in water. The trigger for Homer deciding to buy an RV (recreational vehicle) is his jealousy of Flanders, and as events unfold you can’t help feeling this would have been a much more interesting, not to say funnier, seam to mine than a “back to nature” plot. There’s a sense the writers knew this too, for the final third of the episode is a complete change of direction and pace, with a naked, mud-covered Homer being feted as Sasquatch in a rather obvious and unfocused satire of sensationalist “real life” documentaries. 2
If the idea of sending the Simpsons into an unfamiliar environment was to allow viewers to enjoy the family’s foibles laid bare, what we see is not very pleasant. Homer is at his stupidest yet. He runs off a cliff, walks into a cave of bears with his eyes closed, thinks he’s dying when he’s shot with a tranquilliser gun, and – worse of all – puts some bees in his mouth to taste their honey. In every case Homer is the architect of his own plight, so it’s hard to care about him or find any of it amusing. It’s just annoying. Bart isn’t much better, and doesn’t have any of the wit or intelligence we’ve seen before. Instead he’s simply hopeless and unable to have an original thought about anything. Marge and Lisa are left behind in the plot, at one point quite literally, and their behaviour doesn’t ring true, particularly when they let Maggie wander off in the woods. Even the brief cameo from Ned Flanders is poorly pitched, depicting him as someone in favour of buying stuff on credit. It’s a pretty miserable display all round – and just when you think it can’t get any worse, Dr Marvin Monroe appears! 1
Locations and design
The forest is, frankly, boring:
It is a place that is neither bursting with menace nor overflowing with Eden-like delights. As such both Homer’s terror and Marge’s pleasure just aren’t that convincing. This is compounded by fact the forest can’t help but seem dull in comparison with what we know of life in Springfield itself. Every second the screen is filled with yet more trees and rocks makes you wish you were back in the town with its tatty charm and eccentric residents. The car yard is the perfect example: yes, it’s rundown and desperate and presided over by an extraordinarily slippery huckster, but it’s packed with curiosities and interest.
The design of Homer as Bigfoot is not very convincing – but then maybe that’s the point. Equally unpersuasive is Springfield Primate Institute, for which Dr Monroe now appears to work, and which is peopled with every possible cliché of a TV scientist, including one with hairs not attached to his head. 3
Pardon My Zinger
When the Simpsons enter the forest at the end of act one, they leave behind not just all evidence of civilisation but virtually all traces of jokes as well. Actual one-liners are very hard to come by in this thicket of slapstick and caricature. Homer’s cry of “I’ve murdered us all!”, muttered in what he thinks is safe isolation but which instead gets echoed boomingly right around the forest, is a rare glimpse of a zinger. The pick of the jokes all come in the opening sequence at the car yard, when Homer is salivating over a vehicle called the Ultimate Behemoth (“Does it have a deep fryer?” he bawls desperately) and when Bob the salesman is checking out Homer’s credit rating (“You ever known a siren to be good?”). There are also a few gags in the third act when the media believes they’ve found Bigfoot, mostly based around comedy newspaper headlines, but these are all-too-quickly smothered by the preposterousness of the finale. 3
Albert Brooks’ cameo as Cowboy Bob, the owner of the car yard, is undoubtedly the greatest thing about The Call of the Simpsons. He’s only in the first act, but so completely upstages and outperforms everyone else that his absence in acts two and three is all the more noticeable (and regrettable). Brooks takes what could have been a flat and one-note character and garlands it with substance and peculiarity, resulting in a creation that mixes desperate flattery (“Why don’t we step into the credit office, Zeus!”) with outrageous flannelling (“You can tell your son this RV has its own satellite!”), all delivered with a kind of bizarrely hypnotic clumsiness, as words and phrases trample over each other to be heard.
It’s a complete show-stealer, but that’s just as well, as without him there’d be little else worth commending. 8
After a couple of episodes with music well to the fore, we’re back to the kind of sparse and rather forgettable cues of earlier in the season. Richard Gibbs doesn’t get much of a chance to shine, which seems even more of a waste now that we know the kind of orchestral gems he can devise. He comes up with a nice Peter and the Wolf-style theme for Maggie during her encounter with some bears in the woods, but that’s about it. Elsewhere we get a predictable blast of The Happy Wanderer (“Val-de-ri, Val-de-ra…”) when Homer is driving through the forest. There’s also some suspiciously Steptoe and Son-esque music to accompany the family’s arrival at the car yard, which could be either a complete coincidence (the US got Sanford and Son, not Steptoe and Son) or a sly bit of transatlantic hap-tipping. 3
With so few supporting or recurring characters on hand, we get our most protracted exposure to date of Homer as Donald Sinden-meets-Walter Matthau, and Marge as Elaine Stritch doing Anne Charleston. Unsurprisingly, neither is easy on the ear. The scenes with Maggie and the bears, where there is no dialogue whatsoever, are a welcome relief. The same goes for the appearance of the film crews towards the end, whose delirious outbursts (“No bears! We’re taping! All bears off the set!”) are among the few highlights of the overcooked conclusion. 3
In an episode that takes place largely in one unchanging landscape, which the plot requires to be devoid of anything recognisable or particularly distinctive, there’s understandably not a lot of scope for visual flourish. Wes Archer does his best at enhancing what little he’s given to play with. The sequence where Homer tries to trap a rabbit in a noose, only to see it catapult off towards the horizon, is probably the best:
It’s helped enormously by the sound effect of the noose flying into the air and the creature’s distant terminal thud on the forest floor. The direction during the Bigfoot segments, especially the depiction of the media’s hysteria, also contains some inspired touches:
Plus you can never really go wrong with a spinning newspaper. 4
Homages, spoofs, fantasies
There aren’t any. They are sorely missed. 0
Emotion and tone
Both are present, but not in any coherent order. The episode never remains in one style of comedy long enough for a consistency of tone to develop, which makes the emotion lurking behind the family’s plight seem rather flippant and insincere. The story lurches from one set-piece to another, until whatever trace of concern you might have invested in the plot is shooed away by the next zany contrivance. The ending seems to have flown in from a different episode entirely, with the hideous Dr Marvin Monroe declaring that scientists cannot tell if Homer is Bigfoot: “The evidence is inconclusive; it may or may not be human.” 2
The Call of the Simpsons starts so well but ends up a real disappointment. Sending the family into the forest alone might in itself seem a promising idea, but in reality it takes away everything that has been good about the show to date: Springfield, its residents, its locations, and the interaction between the Simpsons and all the supporting characters. The one thing it does share with previous episodes is the quality of the ending, which yet again feels rushed and rubbish. Even Mike Reiss, one of the writers and co-producers, admitted he was “baffled” when he first saw it on TV.