- First broadcast: Thursday 11 April 1991, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 13 June 1997, BBC2
- Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
- First draft: Brian K Roberts
- Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
- Storyboard: Jeff Lynch, Raymie Muzquiz, Kevin O’Brien
- Animation director: Jim Reardon
In the scramble to fill an entire season of 22 episodes, The Simpsons’ producers were willing to accept stories from almost anywhere. Brush with Greatness began as an idea from one of the show’s editors, Brian K Roberts. In the hands of the writing team it grew into two interwoven tales on the subject of overcoming adversity, with full-frontal nudity and a real-life Beatle thrown in.
Marge rekindles her childhood interest in painting, which leads to Mr Burns commissioning her to produce his portrait. At the same time, Homer decides to lose weight after getting stuck in a water-slide at an amusement park. We’ve had parallel storylines once before, to not particularly good effect, in season one’s Moaning Lisa. Here the blend is much more accomplished and the reason is the strength of the writing. Both plots unfold economically with plenty of inspired twists and overlaps (Homer discovering Marge’s paintings while searching for athletic equipment, for example). There’s a parity of imagination and élan; you never feel you’re being shortchanged whenever the action flips from Marge and her easel to Homer and his scales. The stories trace similar courses of increasing excitement until colliding, spectacularly, when Mr Burns, while posing for his portrait, declares Homer to be “the fattest thing I’ve ever seen – and I’ve been on safari!” From then on Marge and Homer are united in their quests and share the spoils of their respective triumphs. 9
All the scenes with Burns “living” among the Simpsons are simply glorious, right from the moment he walks up to the front door and is too feeble to lift the knocker. “Now don’t be stingy with the blusher,” he coos to Smithers as the pair begin their residency: a situation that Marge handles with admirable tact (“I have the gift of being able to see inner beauty”) but to which Homer can only respond in terror.
Marge is a model of restraint in the face of Burns’ increasingly outré behaviour.
Burns’ complete disregard for social niceties is as gleeful as ever (“Another day in this suburban nightmare and I’ve have needed half a white valium,” he mutters within earshot of the entire family). His relationship with Smithers, meanwhile, just gets richer as it gets deeper. “This idea of yours to immortalise me in a portrait was as half-baked as your idea about me having children,” he barks in his office, followed moments later by: “Somebody up there likes me, Smithers.” “Somebody down here likes you too, sir,” comes the perfect reply. 10
Locations and design
After a near-weekly tour through some of the seediest and derelict amenities ever committed to cell animation, it’s a relief to find at least one building in Springfield that has a touch of class:
The fact it only exists thanks to Burns’ money is doubly ironic when we see a glimpse of the man’s own voluminous art collection, rammed in an anteroom at the power plant with all the disdain of a Charles Foster Kane:
Springfield Community College seems to be a warren of post-curricular activity; who knew the town’s residents were so keen on mature learning?
Top of the locations, however, is Mount Splashmore: a gallumphing titan of an amusement park, with absolutely everything depicted in monstrous extremes – the noise, the crowds, the rides, the slogans, the torrents of never-ending water. You understand exactly why Bart loves it and why Homer gets caught up in the hullabaloo. The designs are superb, from the joyously-named rides:
to the Escher-esque queuing:
to the entire arena that is filled with shrieking kids:
Krusty has been in residence for a week; no wonder his assistants have faces of thunder. 8
Pardon My Zinger
Whenever Homer and Mr Burns are brought together in this season, the jokes are almost as good as it gets. So it proves again here. “Honey, I’m home!” Homer cries as he walks in through the front door. “Now there’s an original sentiment!” Burns fires back, mid-pose. When Homer screams, Burns retorts: “Take it outside, Simpson – I’m male modelling!” “Does he have those spots all over his body?” Bart asks Marge after the bathroom incident…
Other highlights include Homer slandering some rice cakes (“Hello, taste?! Where are you?”) and upsetting the power plant doughnut vendor (who, on hearing Homer has gone on a diet, cries: “Oh my God – and I just bought a boat!”). There’s also Miss Hoover’s verdict on Marge’s painting of Burns: “He’s bad – but he’ll die. So I like it.” 7
A Beatle! In The Simpsons! Yes it’s Ringo, and yes he’s a bit rubbish, but even so – a Beatle!
Hats off to Ringo for agreeing to do a cameo in something he probably knew next to nothing about (and probably still doesn’t), and then for agreeing to read out a load of nonsense that makes it sound like he thinks he’s living as if it’s still the 1960s (which, come to think of it, really isn’t that nonsensical at all). The writers put him in a giant palace inside a reading room the size of a provincial library, and give him a pony-tail, huge nose and a butler with a silver tray. The whole thing is ludicrous yet charming, just like the man himself:
Jon Lovitz, back in the show after only a handful of episodes, has to settle for second billing as Marge’s dependably loopy art teacher Professor Lombardo, hurling barbed remarks at interior decorators:
and damning his students with the faintest of praise. 7
For the first time in The Simpsons, a commercially-available recording is used not for background colour (e.g. The Way We Was) or as part of the plot (Bart the Genius), but as incidental music – in this instance, as the soundtrack to a brief montage of Marge painting. Ringo Starr’s 1971 single It Don’t Come Easy, aside from being an obvious nod to the episode’s guest star, helps perk up act three just as the story is starting to drag. Extra points must go to whoever chose this Ringo track; it’s enough of a hit to still sound relatively familiar, but not too predictable a choice to call undue attention to itself. Elsewhere Alf Clausen does a fine job at spoofing cues from the film Rocky during Homer’s exercise routine, and Jeff Martin supplies an appropriately ghastly song for the massed brigands of hateful kids at Mount Splashmore when they Kroon Along With Krusty. 8
The sequence where Bart and Lisa badger Homer over and over and over again to be taken to Mount Splashmore only works as well as it does thanks to the contrast between the monotonic petitioning of Nancy Cartwright and Yeardley Smith (“Will you take me to Mount Splashmore? Will you take me to Mount Splashmore?”) and the crescendoing fury of Dan Castellaneta. It’s a great example of where the cast’s spot-on delivery helps turn a pedestrian exchange into an exceptional one. The same goes for Castellaneta’s vocalisations when Homer is on the scales, reacting in manic disbelief as the numbers flip from one extreme to the other. 7
Jim Reardon has a ball with Mount Splashmore. The scenes of the family shooting down the water slide are genuinely exciting – even when Homer, with a desperately painful thud, gets stuck in the tube, a string of kids is sent down after him, and you realise what is bound to happen next.
But the scene when Homer is removed from the slide, his sad face poking out one end of the tube, the crowd booing to add to his complete humiliation, is an absolute treat:
On the minus side, just what is Homer meant to be wearing here?
Is it a see-through vest? Is it nothing at all? It’s only marginally less distressing than the close-up of Homer’s crotch:
Reardon resorts to every trick in the book to keep Burns’ private parts obscured, at one point resorting to a feather in a woman’s hat.
But as is always the case when handling such a delicate area, he pulls it off with aplomb. 7
Homages, spoofs, fantasies
The sure-footed, top-drawer spoofing of recent episodes is absent here. Instead we get a rather lacklustre canter through the classics. Gone With the Wind gets referenced again, this time when Homer, about to embark on his diet, cries out: “As God is my witness, I’ll always be hungry again!” His exercise routine is a pastiche of Rocky, while Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns get a tiny homage when Homer approaches the bathroom scales as if advancing on a shoot-out. 3
Emotion and tone
There’s such confidence in the writing of this episode that rarely does its tone of daft fun mixed with knowing lunacy become a problem. It’s pretty much a given that Burns would never parade nude around the house of a stranger, or a grown man get stuck inside a water chute, or a Beatle answer letters personally to fans. But none of that matters. It all unfolds with such breezy outrageousness that you get swept up along in a fug of warm absurdity, before being deposited – along with the cream of Springfield society – in front of a naked, spindly Mr Burns. “Thanks for not making fun of my genitalia,” the painting’s subject informs its creator. “I thought I did!” replies Marge, and the credits roll just in the nick of time. 9
One of the best of season two’s romps. The nimble juggling of plots and highly-polished silliness looks ahead to the commanding heights of seasons three and four.