63. Lisa the Beauty Queen

“T is for her tooth-filled mouth…”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 15 October 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 6 April 1998, BBC2
  • 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: Martin Archer, Mark Kirkland
  • Animation director: Mark Kirkland

Up to now, episodes with the word Lisa in the title tended to leave at least one viewer of The Simpsons feeling out of sorts with the show and wishing the character a period of prolonged absence in a soundproof room. Not any more.

This episode opens with a great example of just how far the mechanics of telling a story on The Simpsons has evolved from the primitive days of season one. Back then, it probably would have begun with a simple scene of Lisa looking at herself in the mirror, deciding she is ugly, then going to talk to Marge about it. In season four that’s no longer enough. Now the entire family has to go to a funfair, whereupon various incidents take place including Principal Skinner beating up some lawyers and a rocket hitting the school, then Lisa decides to get her caricature drawn, and only then does she decide she is ugly. A plot detail that could have lasted a handful of seconds instead lasts a few minutes. But those minutes aren’t padding. They travel from A to B via a very pleasant scenic route involving a string of comic situations, some great visual set-pieces and a host of mini-cameos from Springfield’s rich assortment of eccentrics. It’s almost a kind of overture or opening flourish to the rest of the story, which then unfolds with ribald momentum. Many future episodes from this period of Simpsons history would begin in a similar way, up to and beyond the point it became a device that started to feel cliched and lacklustre. We’re some way off from that, however. 8

Homer’s solution to Lisa’s unhappiness is to suggest she takes part in a beauty pageant: an unappealing type of event in 1992, let alone today. But Lisa ends up quite enjoying it, and when circumstances elevate her from second place to first, she seems quite content to strut her way through the school canteen, lapping up the admiration of the boys (“Hi fellas!”). Her conscience kicks in only when she is asked to endorse Laramie Cigarettes and join a carnival parade alongside Laramie’s ageing asthma-riddled mascot Menthol Moose. It’s all played very broad and silly, which at least helps undercut Lisa’s familiar weakness for moping and pontificating. Bart’s on good form, disclosing some hitherto in-depth knowledge of the fashion industry (“Petroleum jelly on your teeth for that frictionless smile!”) and proving quite the mover in a pair of high heels.

Best of all, however, is the “Maitre D’ of glee: Krusty the Clown”. He is in his element during the beauty pageant, turning up late (“What is this, the Republican fundraiser?”), slagging off the contestants’ performances (“That just kept going, huh?”) then quizzing them on weighty matters with his own particular brand of charm: “Do you think the Bill of Rights is a good thing or a bad thing? Take your time, dear!” 8

Locations and design
Springfield now has a fort, large enough to contain what must be several thousand troops.

There’s also a new hairdresser in town:

– which is one of the best jokes in the episode. 5

Pardon My Zinger
Along with an exchange between Homer and Marge during the parade, when Homer salutes a coterie of very distinguished men dressed in white jackets. “Bless you, boys.” “Homer, those are ice-cream men!” “I know.” 6

Special guests
Bob Hope makes an appearance. It’s one of those cameos whose success depends entirely on the audience going “My God! It’s Bob Hope!” while simultaneously not bothering to listen to what he is saying. Hope is on screen for about 60 seconds, says one lousy joke (“Mayor Quimby’s golf ball spends more time underwater than Greg Louganis”) then gets helicoptered away in a nod to Apocalypse Now. Even before he’s finished speaking you’ve forgotten he was even there. 1

The producers asked Jeff Martin to write this episode in the hope he’d come up with songs of a similar class to those in A Streetcar Named Marge. The results aren’t quite in the same league, but we get to hear Krusty croon his way through four lines of the splendidly desperate Little Miss Springfield “theme”:
“L the losers in her wake,
I the income she will make,
T is for her tooth-filled mouth,
T is for her tooth-filled mouth…”
Whereupon the revels are cut short, just as we’re about to hit another L (and possibly just before the joke was about to stop being funny). There’s also a great razzle-dazzle opening number for the pageant, a snippet of Apu’s daughter playing MacArthur Park on the tabla, and Lisa doing a medley of America the Beautiful and Tina Turner’s Proud Mary. Treats for the ears, every one. 10

In an episode full of Simpsons rarities (Lisa is likeable; Homer is selfless; Bart is kind), the most unexpected incident of all has to be the sound of a nerd getting excited. It’s hard to think of an occasion when this noise would have been heard on TV before. It comes out of the mouths of a small bunch of nerds who we see attending a baseball game and who, inspired by Lisa rabble-rousing as Little Miss Springfield, decide to mount a pitch invasion and give chase to the players. As they do so, a bilious murmur of ecstasy pours from their throats. It is quite remarkable. 8

Animation direction
Three scenes worth looking out for: Lisa’s visit to the hairdresser and her sequence of alternative hairdos –

Bart showing Lisa how to walk in high heels; and the secret meeting where the town chiefs plot how to rob Lisa of her pageant crown.

They’re all compact, low-key scenes but in every case the animation unfolds in perfect step with the tone of the action. 8

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
When Lisa is sworn in as Little Miss Springfield, the scene is drawn to resemble the photograph of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as president after the assassination of John F Kennedy:

This has to be the most audacious homage in the show so far. Even Marge’s outfit is drawn to mirror that of Jackie Kennedy, while Homer and Bart are dressed in clothes matching those of onlookers in the photo. This alone merits a 10, but we also get nods to the Hindenburg disaster (Kent Brockman crying “Oh, the humanity!” when the Duff blimp collides with a radio mast) and to The Seekers – surely the first time both have been referenced on TV in the space of 15 minutes – when Homer reworks the opening line of Georgy Girl as “Hey there, blimpy boy! Flying through the sky so fancy free!”

Emotion and tone
There’s a whiff of the preposterous throughout this episode, from the opening sequence when the funfair rocket collides with the school (presumably killing its occupants), via the beauty pageant and Krusty’s unhinged presentation, to later scenes such as the incumbent Little Miss Springfield getting struck by lightning and Menthol Moose being crushed by a giant cigarette packet. It all helps distract you from thoughts of whether or not Springfield should be holding beauty pageants in the first place, and whether Lisa actually benefits from being put through such an ordeal. This kind of humour would become a staple ingredient of The Simpsons from now on – a sort of half-spiky, half-wacky displacement – and here it certainly helps give the episode a coherent tone, if not quite a coherent plot. 8

Verdict: 72%
At last: a story about Lisa that’s actually quite good.

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