- First broadcast: Thursday 7 November 1991, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 17 October 1997, BBC2
- Showrunners and first draft: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
- Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
- Storyboard: Steven Dean Moore
- Animation director: Carlos Baeza
It’s rare for showrunners to write their own Simpsons episodes, but this is what Al Jean and Mike Reiss did for Lisa’s Pony. It might have been the added pressure of producing the show, a run of good form or simply that they were feeling particularly inspired, but something spurred on the pair to create not merely one of their best scripts but also one of the most accomplished stories of the season.
We’ve had to wait a long time, but finally here it is: an episode about Lisa that isn’t stubbornly unfunny, deeply insufferable or just plain creepy. Even better, it’s fresh, funny and exciting. The secret lies with the way the plot doesn’t just focus on Lisa’s unhappiness, as per usual, but broadens the story to incorporate a struggle on Homer’s part too. Their plights are intertwined from the start, when Homer is late for Lisa’s performance at the school talent contest and fails to give her a new reed for her saxophone. Lisa honks her way tunelessly through a rendition of Stormy Weather before embarking on one her trademark monumental sulks. She fades into the background from here onwards, however, as attention shifts to Homer as he tries to redeem himself by buying his daughter a pony and then – to help pay for the cost – taking a second job at the Kwik-E-Mart. As Homer becomes steadily more beleaguered and rundown, so the episode becomes steadily more witty and (perversely) fast-paced. Both script and animation then dance together towards a joyous ending. 9
Homer tries so hard all the way through this episode, refusing to give up even when stymied at every turn. He’s never been quite this committed or selfless. Even when he screws up you can’t stay annoyed with him for long.
There are some fantastic cameos, including an unexpected appearance by Princess Kashmir enjoying a night of passion with Apu (complete with equally unexpected orgiastic cries) and a wise-guy pet-shop owner (“Oh my, what is that smell? Oh it’s you”). It’s lovely to see Homer’s developing friendship with Apu, first quarrelling over a lottery ticket, then being upbraided for his behaviour (“What has reduced you to such cheap chicanery?”) and finally doting on his new employer:
Apu: You WILL be shot at. Each of these bullet wounds is a badge of honour.
Homer (writing): Badge…of…honour…
He may struggle with Lisa, but Homer has the complete measure of Bart: “I know you love me, so you don’t get squat – tee hee!” Even his relationship with Marge has an added sprightliness that harks back to the fast-tempo cross-talk of Itchy & Scratchy & Marge. A faultless ensemble. 10
Locations and design
A pony may be sweet but it is an absolute pain to draw. The animators do their best and come up with a perfectly charming design for whenever Princess is standing still, but the scenes where she is trotting about the Simpsons’ house all look rather awkward, not to say unsettling.
It’s just as well the pony doesn’t appear very often and that the story focuses more on the consequences of its purchase by Homer rather than its relationship with Lisa. 6
Pardon My Zinger
Just a few of the many, many glorious moments in this episode: Marge telling Homer “We can’t afford to buy a pony!” only for him to reply: “With today’s gasoline prices we can’t afford NOT to buy a pony!”; Homer’s plan for the pony’s welfare: “By day it’ll roam free around the neighbourhood and at night it’ll nestle snugly between the cars in our garage!”; his encounter with the haughty owner of the stables (“This cheque is dated January 1st 2034!” “Is there a problem with that?”); and almost everything at the school talent contest, beginning with Skinner taking great delight in informing the audience “The doors are now locked” to his hasty termination of a performance of My Ding-a-Ling:
There’s also an absolutely shameless cameo from Mr Burns and Smithers, who have clearly been inserted into the plot just so the writers can enjoy giving them dialogue of ever-increasing ludicrousness:
Burns: Are you acquainted with our state’s stringent usury laws?
Burns: Silly me, I must have just made up a word that doesn’t exist… Smithers, he’s planning on joining the horsey set! You’re not planning to EAT it?… Just sign this form and the money will be yours… [laughs maniacally] Sorry, I was just thinking of something funny Smithers did today.
Smithers: I didn’t do anything funny…
Burns [stage whisper] SHUT – UP!
Frank Welker returns to provide the voice, such as it is, of Princess the pony. In so far as it’s possible to score the ability of a human to impersonate an animal for the purposes an animated sitcom, Welker canters through this episode without a fault. 10
There’s nothing that really stands out from Alf Clausen’s score, save for two things: the poignant cues he supplies for the scene when Lisa has to say goodbye to Princess; and his contribution to the most beautiful sequence of animation in the history of The Simpsons to date – for which, more below. 6
Dan Castellaneta won an Emmy for his performance in this episode and it’s easy to see why. He is absolutely at the top of his game and in complete control of each sob, howl, wince and giggle to tumble from Homer’s mouth. Every emotional extreme he takes in his stride and turns into something very special. He makes Homer sound utterly crushed at his treatment of Lisa, blubbing “I never even noticed she was alive.” Then he turns Homer back into a puffed-up know-all, bitching at Marge: “First you didn’t want me to get the pony! Now you want me take it back. Make up your mind!” As a finale, his sleepy, utterly exhausted Homer cannot be bettered.
By the end of the episode he’s doing little more than tired grunts, but even these are brimming with pathos. It’s a tour de force from start to finish. 10
Carlos Baeza makes an assured debut as director. He’s undoubtedly blessed with a very strong story rich with visual potential, though it takes the eye of an astute animator to turn those elements into something that looks as good as it sounds. Baeza is in his element whenever a new shot is required of Homer asleep:
A 7 for his direction, but his finest contributions undoubtedly come in the shape of…
Homages, spoofs, fantasies
This episode sets out its stall in the very first seconds when we get a near frame-for-frame homage to the pre-historic segment of 2001: A Space Odyssey, replete with not just the familiar opening fanfare from Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and a dash of the Blue Danube waltz but even the distinctive teeth-grinding sound of Ligeti’s atonal chorus wailings.
The Godfather gets yet another nod when Lisa wakes up, sees the pony’s head on her pillow and lets out a neighbourhood-waking scream.
Johnny Carson turns up on the Simpsons’ TV set, doing a typically topical Tonight show monologue (“I just heard Milli Vanilli was arrested for impersonating a McNugget!”). When Marge rifles through her brain for a reason why Homer is late to the talent contest, we see various scenarios culminating in Homer being probed by aliens
But each and every one of these is eclipsed by the most breathtakingly gorgeous and sublime sequence of animation the show has attempted so far: the moment when Homer, driving back from another night shift at the Kwik-E-Mart, falls asleep and dreams of floating home on a bed carried by angels past a benevolent moon:
Inspired by the drawings of Winsor McCay in Little Nemo in Slumberland, the sequence unfolds to a lovely music cue from Alf Clausen based on The Beatles’ Golden Slumbers, and ends with a becalmed Homer swerving his way into his own garage, stepping out of his car and a buzz saw falling on his head. A collective triumph. 10
Emotion and tone
What makes everything in this episode extra special is the conviction with which it is delivered, and that goes just as much for the emotion as the dialogue, the jokes and the animation. You really feel for Lisa when her dad fails to make it to the concert in time; you feel equally pained for Homer when he realises what a mess he’s made of things and then at how hard he tries and tries to make things better. Homer may act rashly, but it’s born of distraction not stupidity. When he overdoes things it’s thanks to a jumble of conflicting thoughts, not thoughtlessness. It helps that he’s also depicted as being so articulate and quick-witted – flattered unquestionably but the way everything is so tightly edited and briskly paced. After inadvertently calling the owner of the music store a moron, he wails: “Oh, me and my trenchant mouth!” You laugh because the word “trenchant” is so unexpected from Homer yet delivered with such passion, as if this vocabulary was second nature to him. And you don’t doubt that is it, for there is nothing insincere about this episode, not even its sunrise of an ending. 10
One of the best. With this episode The Simpsons discovered the secret to making enormous effort look utterly effortless and the most meticulously well-crafted humour look casually, infectiously hilarious.