59. Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?

“It’s going back for more!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 27 August 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 9 March 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, Conan O’Brien, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein
  • Storyboard: Raymie Musquiz, Kevin O’Brien, Steven Dean Moore
  • Animation director: Rich Moore

This was to have been the opening episode of season four of The Simpsons. It had been given a transmission date for late September 1992 and post-production was due to continue through the summer. Then Fox decided to yank the broadcast forward by a month to help pep up its holiday schedules. Suddenly the race was on to complete the episode, with much frantic scribbling in the animation department – hence the credit for three storyboard artists – and 20-hour days for some of the staff. It’s a tribute to the stamina of the production team that the finished thing bears only mild traces of the hoo-ha behind the scenes. This episode is significant for another reason. It marks the arrival of four new people to the writing team – the first to join the staff since the early days. Of the four, Frank Mula lasted barely 12 months and Conan O’Brien, though hugely influential, not much longer. But the other two, Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, would remain for the next five seasons and have enormous impact, helping pilot The Simpsons to ever-greater heights and ultimately taking charge of the entire show. But all that is still a long way in the future. For now, here is a story that was retrospectively lumped in with season three, even though it doesn’t belong there, and which takes as it starting point something that happened even further back in season two.

Superficially the story is about Homer’s brother Herb, last seen 31 episodes ago, who suddenly decides to invent a baby-translating machine and visits the Simpsons to borrow some money. Substantially the story is nothing to do with Herb and is all about Homer: his lazy sperm; his relationship with his couch; his irritation at Ned Flanders; his short attention span; his unconfined joy at watching a wooden drinking bird; and a host of other things, all tiny in their own right but all adding up to a richly satisfying whole. There’s no question that Homer is now the star of The Simpsons. Time was that Bart was the default subject of a season premiere. Those days have long gone. Homer from hereon is by far the most interesting member of the Simpson family, and this episode signals a crescendo in the development of his character, not – as before – through his interaction with the others but instead as an individual in his own right, and one specialising in charmingly abstract whimsy and unshakeable absurdity: “It’s drinking the water! This is the greatest invention in the world! It’s going back for more!” 8

Herb is as dull a person as he was first time round. The script has the same problem as before in needing to ensure Herb is always the polar opposite of Homer, which in this case means he has to be unexceptional and joyless. The only time he commands your attention is when, on meeting Homer for the first time since going broke, he punches him in the face. You get the sense the writers don’t really know what to do with Herb once they’ve brought him back. They go to great lengths to have him show up at the Simpsons’ house, but within minutes he’s built the baby-translator, sold the baby-translator and is back to being a millionaire (“I’m rich again! U-S-A! U-S-A!”). Much more rewarding – for the writers and viewers alike – are our glimpses of Homer’s life before Herb turns up: his nonchalance at having to take a medical at work (“No eating in the tank!” “Go to hell!”); his despair at seeing his couch collapse (“The dream is over!”); his exasperation at overhearing the Flanders’ singing a hymn (“I wish I was deaf”) and his idolisation of a vibrating chair (“Dammit, I said full power!”). 7

Locations and design
In order to get Herb to visit his relatives, Homer has to come into some money, and for that to happen he has to be owed it (for he would never be able to earn it by himself). Hence he is found to have lazy sperm and, to avoid the power plant being sued, Mr Burns buys Homer off with $2,000 and the hastily concocted First Annual Montgomery Burns Award For Outstanding Achievement In The Field of Excellence. Cut to Springfield’s Civic Centre: a striking deposit of municipal brutalism:

– inside which an audience is treated an elaborate song and dance routine by The Springfield Nuclear Plant Soft Shoe Society:

“This award is the biggest farce I ever saw,” comments Lisa. “What about the Emmys?” says Bart. “I stand corrected,” replies Lisa. 9

Pardon My Zinger
It’s probably the first time semen has ever been depicted in a primetime sitcom. Homer’s sperm resemble a bunch of idle tadpoles who sigh and snore:

By contrast, Smithers’ sperm, much to their owner’s pride, are so full of beans they even make a kind of humming sound:

For all the scenes involving Homer at odds with people and things around him – and there are many – the funniest sequence in the episode features the Flanders, who are overjoyed when Herb visits their house by mistake. “Aren’t we in luck?” cries Ned, sizing up the bedraggled figure on his doorstep. “Today’s our tithe day and we got ourselves a transient!” Where else in mainstream TV comedy would you hear language like this? “Come in my friend,” Ned continues, “let us feed and bathe you!” “Dad,” pipes up one of the Flanders children, “can I anoint the soles of his feet?” Had this been written to seem sinister or seedy, the scene would be ghastly. Instead the Flanders come over merely as harmless eccentrics, and the scene is a treat. 8

Special guests
Danny DeVito reprises his role as Herb and sounds bored from start to finish. Joe Frazier appears as himself, presenting Homer with the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award For Outstanding Achievement In The Field of Excellence. Frazier delivers his lines clumsily and with even less enthusiasm than DeVito, but because what he says is so implausible and far-fetched, the end result is really quite funny. “You lost a couch,” he informs Homer, “I lost a heavyweight championship. One day you’ll be walking along and you’ll see a piece of furniture you can love just as much.” 6

It’s a bit of a cut-and-paste job from Alf Clausen. When Homer collects the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award For Outstanding Achievement In The Field of Excellence, the Springfield Civic Centre Orchestra strikes up The Simpsons signature tune, as if it’s a “real” piece of music. It’s like the moment in Octopussy when Roger Moore hears the snake-charmer playing the James Bond theme: a nice gag on paper, but a bit too hokey on screen. 5

This is Dan Castellaneta’s show; the other cast members barely figure. “Ohhh, why did this have to happen in primetime,” he sobs when Homer’s couch collapses, “when TV’s brightest stars come out to shine?” He makes Homer sound forever teetering on the edge of a titanic emotional volcano. “My life just can’t get any worse,” he wails when Homer is sulking at the power plant. A noticeably long pause follows, as if he is waiting for the script to prove him wrong. “That’s right,” Castellaneta continues with exactly the right amount of bile in his voice, “there’s NO WAY my life could possibly get any worse.” After another, shorter pause – just long enough to be precisely funny – the public address system crackles into life with the inevitable summons to Burns’ office. 8

Animation direction
The style of this episode is set in almost the very first shot: Homer sizing up a stark-naked Lenny.

The animation serves the script utterly and matches it beat for beat; there is no padding, no scene-setting, not even the occasional artistic flourish from the director. What visual jokes there are have been mapped out to the letter – literally, in the case of the carriages making up the train which Herb decides to “jump” to get back to Springfield:

The tiniest expressions on characters’ faces function the same way. Look at how Homer’s face changes in this scene, from when Herb starts speaking:

…to the moment Herb says he wants to give the family a presentation that will last 20 minutes:

Some of the layouts are just as subtle. When Homer reminiscences about all the times he’s spent on his couch, the flashbacks reward you for looking not just at the foreground but the background as well:

Given the palaver through which this episode tumbled to make it on to the air, this is a smart, efficient job by Rich Moore from start to end. 8

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Homer’s decision to roadtest a vibrating chair gives the writers another excuse to reference 2001: A Space Odyssey:

The homage, naturally, is meticulous. 9

Emotion and tone
Herb is someone it’s hard to warm to, but this wouldn’t matter so much if he was interesting. Of all Homer’s family members, he is the least able to prompt an emotional reaction from the viewer. He’s almost a walking stage direction. Tonally he subtracts rather than adds to every scene in which he appears. Thank goodness, then, that he’s not the star of the episode. He’s not even much of a supporting character, ranking somewhere below Homer’s sperm and the vibrating chair. But his presence ensures the pace of this story is lumbered with a genealogical limp that it is never quite able to shake off. 4

Verdict: 72%
Don’t hurry back, Herb (but you can leave the drinking bird).

2 thoughts on “59. Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?

  1. Welcome back Ian. Another excellent review, I don’t mind De Vito in this ep. though. I always get a chuckle from his reading of the baby translations.


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