18. Dancin’ Homer

Simpson

“A Simpson on a T-shirt? I never thought I’d see the day.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 8 November 1990, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 12 May 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Ken Levine & David Isaacs
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
  • Storyboard: Mark Kirkland, Peter Avanzino, Tuck Tucker
  • Animation director: Mark Kirkland

When Fox ordered 22 episodes for season two, nine more than in season one, the show’s writing team called on a number of freelancers to help meet the target. Ken Levine and David Isaacs had penned several scripts for M*A*S*H and Cheers. Levine’s love of baseball was the inspiration for them to pitch the idea for Dancin’ Homer, which became the first of two episodes the pair contributed to The Simpsons.

Plot
Homer becomes famous (again) after entertaining the crowd at a local baseball game with some improvised dancing. He is hired as the team mascot, gets booked to appear at the state capital stadium, is an immediate flop and goes back home. It’s an unsubtle and slight tale that struggles to fill even two-thirds of its running time, and is eked out with a really corny “flashback” wraparound (“So Homer, what happened in Capital City?”) that feels like it was stuck on hastily as an afterthought*. Many of the incidental details are baffling to a UK viewer, with scenes full of arcane references to US baseball players, stadiums and teams. Almost as confounding are the rituals of the game: the chanting, the announcers’ patter, the blathering on about rules. None of this would matter so much were the plot more substantial and its pace less lugubrious – ironic for a story about major competitive sport. 3

Characters
With Homer so much the focus, and with his voiceovers framing almost all of the action, his character dominates the episode. Unfortunately, it’s a character that never comes close to being one with which you’d happily spend time. He starts off downright unlikeable, rolling up to the baseball ground growling: “This ticket gives me the right, no the duty, to make a complete ass of myself.” His dancing is rubbish, naturally, but not in an endearing way.

Beauty's where you find it

Beauty’s where you find it

When we’ve seen him behaving like an extrovert in previous episodes, his motivation has always been rooted in a response to a third party. Here his motivation is himself, and in this context his impulsiveness never rings true. His pursuit of fame for its own sake runs counter to the Homer who felt compelled to become a safety inspector, defend his son from a mob or join a chorus line. Meanwhile the rest of his family exhibit a plot-driven fickleness you hoped had been left behind in season one, first not wanting to follow Homer to Capital City, then not wanting to follow him back to Springfield. Lisa is worst of all, moaning that Capital City is “too big and too complex”, then moaning how a return to Springfield would see her “wither and die like a hothouse flower”. The only other person of note is Mr Burns, who one week on from vowing revenge on the Simpson family has completely forgotten who they are, and who once again behaves utterly out of character: socialising at the baseball game, cracking jokes, buying a beer for Homer (“My treat”) and even joining in the chanting. His one saving grace is the horror he expresses at seeing Homer’s dancing. 2

Locations and design
There’s a new contender for Springfield’s grottiest municipal venue:

Talkin' baseball

Feverish excitement not pictured

The town’s baseball stadium is depicted with a pitiless lack of sympathy: dirty, dingy, half-rotting, full of litter and tat and murk and utterly unwelcoming.

room

Plenty of room on the right

Why anyone would want to spend five minutes here, let alone an entire evening, is left to the viewer’s bafflement – though you can understand why its inhabitants are so eager to dull their senses with giant buckets of beer. The pencils lodged in the ceiling of the announcer’s booth are a nice grisly touch:

pencil

Fixing a hole

As are the advertising hoardings around the field:

from

What happened in 1987?

The stadium in Capital City is drawn as a complete contrast: huge, impersonal, over-lit and sterile:

Dome

Stately dome

For the purposes of the story, both venues are expertly realised and do what’s asked of them. A shame neither is the sort of place in which the Simpson family, and the entire show for that matter, feels at home. 6

Pardon My Zinger
There are almost no one-liners. Marge gets an arch gag when she spots a stall selling Homer-branded merchandise: “A Simpson on a T-shirt? I never thought I’d see the day.” Lisa has a similarly knowing line when Homer bounds into the kitchen decked out in the garb of his new role as team mascot: “Our lives have taken an odd turn.” But that’s more or less it. The most laugh-free episode of the season so far. 2

Special guests
No fewer than four are credited, though two don’t really count. Writer Ken Levine does a few lines impersonating a baseball stadium announcer. Daryl L Coley stands in for Ron Taylor as the voice of Bleeding Gums Murphy, whose character is invited to perform the national anthem at the start of the baseball game. He contributes one of the episode’s few memorable sequences: a lampooning of the kind of rendition that gets so festooned with soul-tinged improv and indulgent vocal acrobatics that it drags on…

"Oh say, caaaan yoooou seeeeee..."

“Ohhhhhhh say, caaaan yoooou seeeeee…”

and on…

kjhjk

“…the rockets’ red glaaaaare…”

and on:

"...and the home

“…and the home oh-o-oh-o-oh-o-of the braaaaaaaaaave.”

Veteran US comic actor Tom Poston is the voice of the Capital City Goofball, the state mascot. Pretty much unknown to UK audiences, Poston supplies a fittingly laconic if brief contribution. Outclassing them all, however, is Tony Bennett: easily the biggest star to guest in The Simpsons so far, and a real coup for the episode. He’s only on screen for about one second:

"Hey, good to see you!"

“Hey, good to see you!”

– and spends the rest of his short cameo off-camera, singing a fantastic swing tune, Capital City, which accompanies the family’s journey through the eponymous metropolis. But he does it all with incomparable charm, audible enthusiasm and, naturally, pitch-perfect talent. It’s just a pity he’s not in it for longer. 9

Music
This is easily the best thing about the episode. For starters, Bennett’s song is a joy. He performs it with real sincerity and feeling, ensuring it works both as a pastiche of Sinatra and on its own merits. The idea to reprise it over the end credits is a masterstroke, as it means you come away from the episode your ears ringing not with the sound of a droning voiceover but the sweet phrasing of one of the 20th century’s finest popular singers. The song’s composer, staff writer Jeff Martin, deserves praise as well. He catches brilliantly the melodic inflections of a big band crooner along with the hokey lyrics of Tin Pan Alley (“Capital City, that happy-tap city…”). Alf Clausen’s arrangement is also a triumph, and Clausen comes up trumps elsewhere in the episode: first with the portentous cue that swells on the soundtrack whenever Homer’s fortunes as a mascot take another turn; and then with the numerous interpretations of Henry Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk we hear at the baseball ground – especially the reggae version the organist dutifully supplies when Homer declares:

"Helen, I'm in a Caribbean mood tonight."

“Helen, I’m in a Caribbean mood tonight.”

“Ah Mancini,” sighs the Capital City Goofball, “the mascot’s best friend.” The composer’s too. 9

Voices
Five episodes into the new season and still Mr Burns isn’t right. Moe’s voice is dreadful; it sounds like someone with a throat infection doing an impression of the Fonz. Dan Castellaneta doesn’t seem all that confident trying to pitch Homer’s voiceovers, sometimes coming over too pompous, at other times too coy. It’s not really his fault, given the gimmick is a lousy one, but a bit more conviction would have made the lines sound a bit less irritating. 3

Animation direction
This is Mark Kirkland’s first episode as director, and he makes the best of very slim pickings. The highlight by far is the family’s journey into Capital City, animated in time to the titular song, and just as evocative:

swinging

“There’s a swingin’ town I know called…”

frown

“It’s against the law to frown in…”

My

“My home sweet swingin’ home!”

Kirkland is saddled with a story that requires almost half its scenes to be set in places with large crowds: the animator’s nightmare.

Cast of thousands

Cast of thousands

Judicious framing allows him to get away with skimping on the details, but only up to a point. We’re still treated to a dozens of shots showing rows of people with missing faces, or their mouths frozen open, or turned into smudges of colour. And just who is this hideous clan meant to be?

Family from another series

Family from another series

Kirkland gets two pity points for ensuring the sight of Homer in a jockstrap is done through frosted glass. 5

Showing a little more cheek than usual

Showing a little more cheek than usual

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
If you’re a baseball connoisseur, you’ll spot that the entire plot is based loosely on the antics of an American fan called Wild Bill Hagy who became infamous for chanting and dancing at matches in Baltimore in the 1970s. If you’re not a connoisseur, you’ll spend much of the time with a frustrating sense that something or someone is being sent-up but you don’t know exactly what or who, culminating in a big joke you’ve not been let in on and a punchline you don’t understand. 2

Emotion and tone
This is a very glib episode. The tone is never far from being flippant, and almost everyone behaves without plausible motive. Even Homer’s confessional voiceovers sound like they’re in inverted commas (“We would talk about it always: for the first time in our lives, Marge fell asleep before I did”). Consequently it’s hard to feel any concern towards the family’s plight, and next to no commiseration with Homer. The speed at which they dump everything, including their house, for the sake of a wacky adventure is utterly alien to the style of the show at this point. You can’t help but side with the crowd at the Capital City stadium when they greet Homer’s dancing with total ambivalence. 2

Verdict: 43%
A parochial meander through an insular slice of Americana. Aside from the song, the trip into Capital City and the gag with the national anthem, there’s little that warrants the distinction of sticking in your memory. The whole thing feels like a spin-off; it’s the Simpsons but not The Simpsons. It’s also the first episode in the show’s history to manage the dubious honour of being boring. “Tell it again, Homer!” croaks Barney at the end. No thanks.

*The DVD commentary for this episode confirms the wraparound was an afterthought, and that it was done at the instigation of James Brooks who felt the story didn’t have a proper ending. The upshot is an episode that has neither a proper beginning nor ending.

One thought on “18. Dancin’ Homer

  1. I completely agree with you, this episode has to have one of if not the weakest plots ever because nothing happens at all. In latter seasons this would be the C story let alone the A story. In a lot of newer episodes they cram too much in each episode and have to rush it in the end. But this is the exact opposite. The one thing the Simpsons should never ever be is dull.

    Like

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