55. Colonel Homer

“Let me guess: ‘Look Who’s Oinking’? – SOLD OUT”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 26 March 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 9 May 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Matt Groening
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Steven Dean Moore, Jerry Richardson
  • Animation director: Mark Kirkland

This is the only episode of The Simpsons for which Matt Groening received a sole writing credit. How much of his first draft made it into the finished script is anyone’s guess, but you can bet it was more than most. The higher up The Simpsons’ food chain, the greater the likelihood of an idea being waved through without debate.

It’s another episode where Homer and Marge have a tiff. Everything up to the part where they quarrel is just fine; in fact, it would work perfectly well as a mini-episode all in itself, as the family visit the local cinema and struggle to find a space in the car park, then disagree about which film to see, then end up in separate screenings, then react to what they watch.

After all this comes the quarrel (“Oh shut up, Homer: no one wants to hear what you think”) whereupon things take a very peculiar turn. Homer drives off somewhere, discovers a waitress who is good at singing country and western songs, becomes her manager, she falls in love with him, he runs off and the episode ends. The Simpsons can excel at being freewheeling and daft, but only when it’s tightly-scripted and funny. Here it’s all rather aimless and a bit too wacky-by-numbers. 4

Lurleen Lumpkin, the singing waitress, shares with Homer’s half-brother Herb an air of having been propelled into the Simpsons’ universe not entirely by their own volition. Why someone so talented, beguiling and unquestioning would want to spend time in the company of people to whom she is so diametrically opposed is something this episode never overcomes. The suggestion that Lurleen enlists Homer as her manager for reasons of innocence or even naivety doesn’t wash; she’s far from naive when concocting scenarios to try and talk or sing Homer into bed. Rather it is Homer who is the naive one, and (as always) that’s uncomfortable to watch. If Lurleen was styled a bit more in the mould of Springfield’s fine stock of comic grotesques, her relationship with Homer would be a great deal more intriguing. Instead it has an air of pointlessness, not to mention boredom at seeing Homer and Marge’s marriage put under strain yet again. Filtering the whole thing through the fusty gauze of country music doesn’t help either. For a few seconds you’re tempted to sympathise with Marge when she starts to moan and gripe about Homer’s behaviour – then you remember that Marge has behaved just the same in the past, and the whole story ends up feeling even more like the insubstantial whim of one writer rather than the scrupulously-plotted, finely-developed end product of a team. 2

Locations and design
Lurleen’s stamping ground of Spittle County looks like somewhere that belongs in another cartoon. It’s all plainly-designed bars and dull, cramped caravans and unremarkable streets and forgettable recording studios. The entire place is aggressively bland, which at least serves the purpose of making the Simpson family look all the more out of place.

You certainly wouldn’t get a store like CORPULENT COWBOY in Springfield, and whenever you see Homer wearing his “manager” outfit in his own home – “sweat actually cleans this suit!” – the credibility of the plot is at its most paper-thin.

Lurleen is drawn as a jumble of curves and angles. It’s like she’s been put together by committee, one whose majority of members are adolescent males on heat.

The only thing in the entire episode that boasts a wholly successful and entertaining design is the cinema car park. 3

Pardon My Zinger
The joke count is very low, though you do get one of the best-crafted lines in the entire history of the series, when Homer informs Marge, with ludicrous piety, “It takes two to lie: one to lie and one to listen!” The rest of the plot is just too insipid to ever be that funny, though Homer’s reaction to hearing Lurleen’s singing – “I haven’t felt this way since Funky Town!” – is spot on, being exactly the sort of thing you’d expect him to say. There’s also a nice throwaway remark from Marge, when she tuts about Homer and Lurleen spending their time “judging that grease pig contest”. 4

Special guests
Beverly D’Angelo plays Lurleen and manages to get through the script with her dignity intact. Although her voice, like her character, is never completely distilled into Simpsonsworld, there’s no faulting her ability to act or to sing, at which she is pitch perfect. 8

Any time the Simpsons sets off up a cultural alley, be it sport, hobbies or music, how far you get carried by the story depends on how far you share the episode’s obsessions. Country music is certainly not a niche taste, and all the songs that appear in this story are as accessible as they are hummable. But whether you can admire them as anything more than plot devices comes down to your penchant for pedal steel guitars and choruses that never quite know when to finish. D’Angelo wrote two of them herself: Your Wife Don’t Understand You, the song that Homer first hears Lurleen sing in the redneck bar, and I Bagged Me A Homer, the song the family watch her record in the studio. Apparently she penned them both within an hour: a feat of dubious merits comparable to when Sam Smith boasted of having written the theme song for Spectre in 20 minutes. 5

Julie Kavner tries to make the best of scenes that consist largely of Marge sighing, groaning and grinding her teeth.

It’s not pleasant listening. Just as the script requires her performance to stay on one note, so Dan Castellaneta’s Homer spends much of the episode projecting an air of self-righteous indolence – the sort of tone that would become Homer’s default response in later years. This too gets rather wearing, and it’s a relief when he is allowed finally to see through Lurleen’s antics and sound more plausible again. At least Marge and Homer get to have one humorous exchange before their behaviour becomes too tiresome: “I don’t like you hanging around some cocktail waitress.” “Marge! You make it sound so seamy. All I did was spend the afternoon in her trailer watching her try on some outfits.” 3

Animation direction
The best sequence is also one of the funniest, and involves no dialogue whatsoever. It lasts a minute and follows Homer on a drive through the countryside, just after his tiff with Marge. It has no relevance to the plot at all, but it stays in the memory because – unlike most of the rest of the episode – it involves interesting things to look at:

There are two other animation highlights, which again bear no real importance to the plot: the sight of a joyous Homer whimsically pulling levers at the power plant, sending the town in and out of darkness:

and a picture of Homer attempting to eat the world’s largest hoagie. 8

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
The episode title is a nod of the stetson to Colonel Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager. Homer’s giant suit aside, the rest of the episode wears its Elvis trappings very lightly. Knowledge of Presley’s career doesn’t in any way affect how much you’re likely to enjoy or dislike the rest of the story. Similarly there are in-jokes that only fans of country music are likely to get, but this doesn’t add to the tonnage of material counting either for or against the episode. The TV music programme in which Lurleen appears, Ya-hoo, will ring bells among those familiar with American television’s fondness for over-long showcases of dubious talent. For everyone else, there are some silly names to laugh at. 6

Emotion and tone
The aw-shucks, kooky, warts-and-all tone of Colonel Homer harks back to the very early episodes of season one of The Simpsons: not a place you want to revisit out of choice, certainly not when you’re nearing the end of season three. Groening’s ideas for this story don’t chime at all with the sensibility of the show at this point in its history, which makes you wonder whether – apart from feuding with Sam Simon – he’d been paying much attention to what the rest of his staff had been up to. The episode does set one worrying precedent for the future, however: the notion of Homer junking his usual job without a thought for the consequences and trying to make it big by doing something completely different, burning up his family’s money and patience in the process. This idea, novel at first, would be recycled again and again and again in the future until the list of Homer’s “other jobs” was almost as long as the show’s end credits. 2

Verdict: 45%

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