52. Homer at the Bat

"Lord Palmerston!" "Pitt the Elder!"

“Lord Palmerston!” “Pitt the Elder!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 20 February 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 2 February 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: John Swartzwelder
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Raymie Muzquiz
  • Animation director: Jim Reardon

Welcome to the first Simpsons ‘stunt’ episode. These kind of yarns would become an increasing staple of the show, and their success would always depend on two things: how much you buy into the idea of spectacle over story; and whether the spectacle can manage to hold your attention for a full 22 minutes.

Plot
In the case of Homer at the Bat, it’s touch and go whether the spectacle will hold your attention for even two minutes. It must have been a particularly rakish script meeting when the idea was pitched and then agreed to build an entire Simpsons episode around the appearance of not one, not two, but NINE special guests, and to get all of them from the United States professional softball league. Let’s not go for a couple of stars, you can imagine the ego-fuelled conversation running: let’s pack the screen with as many as possible, all of them of a vintage that means next to nothing to anybody outside of America. You can try and admire the audacity of such a stunt, or you can search for something else worth commending in the plot, but in both cases it’ll take a hell of a long time. 2

Characters
The nine softball pros are shipped into Springfield by Mr Burns, who is desperate to ensure the power plant’s amateur team is victorious in the local league cup final. So much time is taken up getting all nine guests into the story and then giving them things to do, there’s little room for anyone else. Even Homer is virtually a supporting character. Thank heavens for Burns, who the plot demands has a permanent presence throughout the episode. “Is it wrong to cheat in order to win a million-dollar bet?” he drawls to Smithers. “Yes, sir,” comes the response. “Let me rephrase that,” Burns continues. “Is it wrong if I cheat in order to win a million-dollar bet?” “No sir,” Smithers dutifully replies, adding: “Who would you like killed?” 5

Locations and design
Springfield has acquired a Trade Centre of a size to match its former namesake in New York, with a Millionaire’s Club right at the top.

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It’s more stunt scriptwriting – there’s no reason for the building to appear other than to look very very big and very very out of place. Still, judging from the bustle inside, the town has more than a few big spenders. 5

homer7

Pardon My Zinger
For all its faults, this isn’t a mirth-free episode. “You will give 110%,” orders the hypnotist hired by Mr Burns to help his team win. “That’s impossible,” the mesmerised team reply in unison, “no one can give more than 100%, by definition that is the most anyone can give.” There’s a nice bit of knowing patter from Burns the night before the final, as he brags about the invincibility of his ringers and how victory is guaranteed… “unless, of course, my NINE all-stars fall victim to NINE separate misfortunes and are unable to play tomorrow. Nine misfortunes? I’D LIKE TO SEE THAT!” Cue the misfortunes. But that’s pretty much it. There’s only so many in-jokes about big-softball-fish-in-a-small-Springfield-pond that a non-sports fan can take. 5

Special guests
None of the nine special guests are professional actors. We shouldn’t expect them to deliver sparkling performances, or even sound like they’re trying not to read a script. What we should expect, however, is for them to sound at the very least interesting and to be worth listening to. On this score, pretty much all of them fail. Mike Scioscia is passably convincing when gamely tries his hand at working at the power plant (“Oh man, is this ever sweet!”) and it’s fun hearing Barney argue with Wade Boggs over who is the best UK prime minister (“Lord Palmerston!” “Pitt the Elder!”). The rest of the guests are all interchangeable and ultimately forgettable. But then what should you expect of an episode obsessed chiefly with showing off the faces of its celebrities, not what comes out of their mouths. 2

Music
Talkin’ Softball, the song that plays over the end credits, is one of this episode’s few unqualified successes. It works because it’s entertaining purely on its own terms. You don’t need to know a single thing about softball to enjoy the melody, the harmonies, even lines like “Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness made us smile”. That the song is a pastiche of a real song called Talkin’ Baseball, which was written and performed by the same person who sings this spoof version, is of importance only to those who already know. The rest of us get along just fine, with phrases like “Ken Griffey’s grotesquely swollen jaw” rattling pleasantly if obliviously around our heads. (Jeff Martin supplied the new lyrics.) Elsewhere there are a couple of great cues from Alf Clausen: the charming little fanfare whenever the Springfield softball team takes to the pitch, which sounds like the opening to any number of TV sport programmes; and the rattling, chuntering, “we’re on a train” music that plays under the montage of the team’s progress upwards through the softball league. 9

homer5

Voices
It took about six months to get all the guest stars into a studio and record their respective contributions. All were taped separately and their performances are spliced together with admirable skill. There’s an inevitable chasm of ability between the guests and the regular cast, though with so few of the regular characters included in the script, it’s really only Dan Castellaneta (Homer) and Harry Shearer (Burns) who get much to do. It’s difficult to rank the vocal talents of all the guests – how can you separate the dull from the dreary? – but Roger Clemens probably takes first prize for doing his own chicken noises. 3

Animation direction
Sympathy points go to Jim Reardon for having to direct an episode with so many caricatures of real people, including one who gets giganticism:

homer9

Most of the episode involves placing these caricatures in situations that require whole new locations – another thankless task. In between all of this shuttling around, plus all the very dull scenes of people sitting around at softball matches, a few treats creep in: the sign by the Springfield Mystery Spot:

homer11

Mr Burns having his head massaged:

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and then jiggling around in an attempt to send Homer a coded signal:

homer13

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and also a satisfying pull-back-and-reveal shot when Homer is choking on a doughnut and Lenny makes like he’s about to help…

homer1

…only he isn’t. 6

homer2

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
When Homer discloses he has a “secret weapon” to help win the softball game, his colleagues escape into fantasy to speculate on what it could be: a giant hand? Springs in his legs? A laser gun?

homer3

A pity it turned out be none of them; they’d have livened up the episode no end. Fans of sporting movies are catered for with references to the 1984 baseball film The Natural, starring Robert Redford; and the 1942 biopic The Pride of the Yankees. 4

Emotion and tone
Without Mr Burns this episode would be very tedious indeed. It’s a pity he’s not in it more, as every time Burns appears on screen the energy levels lift tenfold. How ironic that the feeblest inhabitant of Springfield emerges here as the only person with any real pep. The guest stars strut and slouch; Homer and his colleagues mope and bicker. The tone of the whole thing is one of intense self-aggrandisement. Look at how important The Simpsons has become, we are told again and again, as yet another celebrity glides into view. Homer gets knocked unconscious at the episode’s finale;  if only the same courtesy had been extended to us in the opening scene. 1

homer8

Verdict: 42%
Nine “special guests” who are actually special? I’D LIKE TO SEE THAT!

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