61. A Streetcar Named Marge

“Play enjoyed by ALL!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 1 October 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Saturday 28 December 1996, BBC1
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Jeff Martin
  • 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: Peter Avanzino
  • Animation director: Rich Moore

The BBC didn’t know quite how to handle The Simpsons when it arrived on British terrestrial television in 1996. First came an enormous build-up of hype and oodles of publicity. A real air of excitement was created in the days leading to the first episode. It felt as if you were about to witness a true moment of TV history. But come opening night, the Beeb went and picked as a premiere one of the worst stories it had at its disposal. More clunkers followed in the next few weeks. No one really complained, though. We didn’t know any better. It was enough that The Simpsons were finally on television. Only when the BBC finally got round to broadcasting a decent episode – this episode – did its scheduling policy start to feel a bit odd. Mere seconds into the start of its very first scene, A Streetcar Named Marge fanfared a whole new world of Simpsons resplendence. In a flash, all the stories that had gone before seemed diminished in stature, their humour less funny, their imagination less far-sighted, their impact less profound. Here was something pretty sensational, and its impact all the greater for being so unexpected. Who knew cartoons could be like this – moreover, could make you laugh like this? A Streetcar Named Marge demolished for good any lingering doubt about The Simpsons claiming the right to be held as one of the finest television programmes ever made. Broadcast in the UK for the first time three days after December 25 1996, it was as if a surprise Christmas present had fallen belatedly into the nation’s lap.

There is no mystery about why this is one of the greatest episodes of The Simpsons. It is there in almost the very first line of dialogue, when Marge walks into the living room and tells her family: “I’m auditioning for a play. It’s a musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire.” Pow. That’s it. That’s all you need. The script has cleared its throat; the plot is set fair to begin. To say that the rest of the episode writes itself would be cruel though not entirely unjust. When you’ve a hook as all-conquering as this, there’s no point fighting the inevitable and denying the chance to crack wise about how the world of Homer and Marge can mimic that of Stanley and Blanche, and how the steaming emotion of the Tennessee Williams play can be so spectacularly quenched, coarsened and spoofed in the name of musical theatre. But the script goes further, faster, broader, deeper: the director of the play is one part raging narcissist, one part benevolent despot; his sister runs a day-care centre modelled on the theories of Ayn Rand; Ned turns out to have a bristling six-pack beneath his unassuming sweater; Maggie turns out to be Steve McQueen; and so on and so on and so gloriously on. An effortlessly outstanding 10.

Rather than fill the cast of the musical with faces from Springfield’s first eleven – Mr Burns, Principal Skinner, Krusty – the writers wisely go for an assortment of less familiar but no less interesting characters: Jasper, Wiggum, Apu, Helen Lovejoy and Lionel Hutz. These are just the sort of people who you’d expect would want to have a shot at the big time via the lowly medium of community theatre – and who in turn make the very idea of a musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire feel even more comfortingly preposterous. Marge is on sparkling form and much more agreeable than on previous occasions when trying to assert her independence. Homer’s ignorance is pitched the right side of stupidity, and he is totally redeemed at the end of the episode (“I wasn’t bored – I was sad.”) As for the play’s director Llewellyn Sinclair, he is Springfield’s finest peripatetic oddball to date. “I’m going to bed with a bottle of Amaretto. Good day!” 10

Locations and design
Springfield has acquired a community centre to go along with its civic centre:

How blessed are its residents to be spoiled with such a portfolio of municipal amenities. Though not quite in the same league as the venue that hosted the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award For Outstanding Achievement In The Field of Excellence, the community centre is still large enough to house a rotating stage which itself is large enough to house a replica of the New Orleans Superdome.

It’s right that everything in the community centre is on such a large, opulent scale.

Were the scenery and props made to look shoddy and ragged, or the costumes tatty and the music cheap, it would spoil the fun. Because everything is played absolutely dead straight, with no one questioning why such an extraordinary production is being mounted in such an ordinary town, it is all the more entertaining. 9

Pardon My Zinger
This isn’t one of those episodes where every other line is a joke. The biggest laughs come from situations: Homer’s glazed expression when Marge is telling him about her audition; Jasper in tights doing warm-up stretches; Homer charging like a bull at a vending machine; the police officers giving Wiggum a standing ovation at the end of the musical. As such the dialogue isn’t so much howlingly funny as satisfyingly amusing, like when Homer accidentally snaps the ring off the top of his can of pudding (“Oh no! My pudding is trapped forever!”), or when Llewellyn Sinclair patronises Marge’s peanut butter brownies (“Would anyone else like a bite of banality?” – “I would!” replies Wiggum, cheerily.) 8

Special guests
Casting Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman in the same episode is certainly, as Sir Humphrey Appleby would say, courageous. One of them alone is usually enough to ensure a full 10. As it turns out Hartman is barely in it. His short but perfectly-formed cameo as Troy McClure, introducing the Miss American Girl Pageant, is well out of the way before Lovitz barrels into view. As director Llewellyn Sinclair, Lovitz delivers his best ever character in The Simpsons. “I have directed three plays in my career,” he wails deliciously, “and I have had three heart attacks. That’s how much I care. I’m planning for a fourth.” As Llewellyn’s sister Ms Sinclair, evil queen of the baby daycare centre, Lovitz delivers his second best ever character. “Mrs Simpson, do you know what a baby is saying when she reaches for a bottle?” he proclaims in steel-capped falsetto. “She’s saying I AM A LEECH. Our aim here is to develop the bottle within!” 10

As it is with the scenery and props in Oh, Streetcar!, so it is with the songs. Not a trace of knowing quirkiness or deliberate stupidity is to be found. None of them are self-consciously “funny” numbers, for that would have been a disaster. Instead they are delivered with absolute sincerity and with straight faces all round.

“New Orleans! Home of pirates, drunks and whores,
New Orleans! Tacky overpriced souvenir stores,
If you want to go to hell, you should take a trip
To the Sodom and Gomorrah on the Missip!”

We hear snatches of half a dozen songs of a variety of styles, but all recognisably of a “musical” hue, full of rhymes and hooks and outré melodies, and embellished with properly razzle-dazzle Broadway orchestrations. They are all fabulous and – together with the long passages of music lifted wholesale (with permission) from The Great Escape – this is by far the best score so far. Credit to both Jeff Martin and Alf Clausen; without whom this episode would be a timid and soulless affair indeed. 10

Jon Lovitz has a habit of accentuating unexpected words and making all sentences sound as if they are enclosed by inverted commas. It doesn’t always suit The Simpsons but here it chimes well with the naturally over-wrought environment of amateur dramatics. “Hello!” he booms on his entrance, “I AM Llewellyn Sinclair!” Soon he’s telling us about how, while directing Hats Off To Hanukkah, he reduced cast members to tears. “Did I expect too much from fourth-graders?” he wonders out loud. “The review, ‘Play Enjoyed By ALL’, speaks for itself!” 9

Animation direction
When director Rich Moore received the script of this episode from the producers, he replied by sending them a drawing of himself with his eyes popping out in disbelief. His work is pretty much faultless, from The Great Escape pastiche in the daycare centre –

to the Miss American Girl pageant –

toLlewellyn Sinclair’s outfits –

to each and every one of the musical sequences.

Even the closing shot is beautiful. 9

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Quite apart from all the nods to the original A Streetcar Named Desire, there’s a whole other level of homage going on here, one that concerns nothing less than the American musical itself – to wit, its penchant for wrapping up complex ideas in catchy tunes, its fondness for injecting glitter into the earthy and the humdrum, and its unfailing capacity to elevate the most ordinary of incidents into high-kicking, shirt-ripping, skirt-twirling, throat-roaring entertainment. For example, look at (and listen to) how Blanche’s downbeat sign-off from Williams’ original play about depending on the kindness of strangers gets transformed via the magic of musicals into a rousing singalong finale where a “stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met!” Gaudy and unsubtle, yes, but thrillingly over-the-top and hence like pretty much every Broadway musical in history. If all that wasn’t enough (and it already would be for a 10), when Homer goes to collect Maggie from the day-care centre he wanders into a spoof of The Birds…

and later rifles himself through yet another spoof of Citizen Kane.

Emotion and tone
All the good work in this episode would be undone were the script ever to toy with self-aggrandisement. A line of dialogue, a gesture, even a single glance – anything that smacked of the writers feeling smug with themselves, or the show deciding to do a bit of look-at-how-amazing-The-Simpsons-is, and its fate would have been sealed. Thankfully there is none to be found. The episode wears its intelligence lightly and its brilliance lighter still. Its hard work is its own reward. 10

Verdict: 95%

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