70. Homer’s Triple Bypass

“We had a hell of a time replacing you.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 17 December 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 18 May 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Gary Apple & Michael Carrington
  • Writing staff: George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern, Conan O’Brien, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Dan McGrath
  • Animation director: David Silverman

The Simpsons’ writing team got smaller during season four as people left to work on other shows or got development deals with different TV companies. This episode was farmed out to a couple of freelancers when the workload got too much for the permanent staff. Such is the depth of the humour and the detail in the characterisation, however, an awful lot of rewriting clearly went on – and all of it worthwhile.

It’s another of those episodes with a plot summed up in its entirety by its title. Strip away the frippery and padding and all that happens is Homer has a triple bypass. What the title doesn’t sum up is just how outstanding is all the frippery and the padding. With such a slim premise of a story, there is plenty of room – and plenty of need – for diversions and mini-set pieces and comic interludes to eke things out for a full 22 minutes. Thanks to the skill and imagination of the writing team, these bits of business are just as entertaining as the main plot, if not more so. Sure, it’s amusing to see Homer in a hospital ward, playing with electrical devices (“Bed goes up, bed goes down”) and being told to shush for praying too loudly. But this being a cartoon, and one where everything gets reset at the end of each episode, there’s never any doubt Homer is going to survive. What’s more gratifying is watching how and why Homer gets put in hospital in the first place – particularly the way he becomes increasingly aware of his ailing heart. It’s not enough at this point in the history of The Simpsons for its lead character to discover a life-threatening condition over breakfast one morning. Instead he has to do it while driving up a hill and getting stuck behind a lorry that is transporting the birthplace of Edgar Allan Poe while being driven by a half-blind codger who then plunges to a fiery death. 10

Pretty much everyone within the immediate orbit of the Simpson family turns up in this episode. But it never feels crowded. The skeletal plot means there’s plenty of room for cameos. It’s only natural that a brood of familiar faces would visit Homer in the hospital, concerned with his wellbeing. Relations loom large, particularly Patty and Selma, whose appearances are one of the highlights of the story, as they react to Homer’s plight with typical candour (“Oh my God” “What?” “Five cents off wax paper”) before turning their attention to Marge (“This is Andre – I think you two would make a lovely couple”). There’s a satisfyingly low amount of schmaltz, with things for the most part played very broad. This was probably the only way to do a sitcom about bypass surgery that didn’t end up too grisly or tasteless. All the scenes with Dr Hibbert are a delight (“Look at that blubber fly!’/”Nurse, cancel my one o’clock”). It’s a nice change to see him at work in a ward rather than being flippant in his consulting room, even if most of the time he is enjoying teasing Homer (“You’re weak as a kitten – got your nose! – what about this bee?!” “Please – remember your hippopotamus oath!”). The one problem with this episode, and there is only one, is the presence of Dr Nick Riviera. He has now become one of Springfield’s resident eccentrics, only without the hapless charm of Principal Skinner or antiquated cunning of Mr Burns. Like Otto and Marvin Monroe, he is someone you either love seeing on screen or can’t abide. There’s no middle ground. 8

Locations and design
Whenever Homer puts on his half-moon glasses, his personality immediately becomes more appealing – more so when he’s doing it while sat up in bed in his pyjamas reading some paperwork.

There aren’t any brand new locations in this episode, so character design is well to the fore. Animation director David Silverman was assigned to the story specifically because of this, and to work on the tricky task of making an ill Homer look endearing rather than troubled. Our eyes are also diverted away from anything squeamish, the interiors of the hospital always looking rather tired and functional rather than distressing or blood-spattered. 8

Pardon My Zinger
Helping to further flesh out the plot and to burnish its many comic digressions are an above-average number of zingers. “We had a hell of a time replacing you,” Carl tells Homer in hospital, before cutting to a shot of a brick tied to a lever. “Little do you know you’re drawing ever closer to the poisoned doughnut!” Mr Burns cackles as he watched Homer stuffing his face – before adding, “there is a poisoned one, isn’t there Smithers?” “And that’s why God causes train wrecks,” begins the Sunday school teacher, to which her class murmurs their approval. Flanders is inserted into the episode purely so he can annoy Homer by being next to him in the hospital, and then offering a prayer of thanks to God for “Ziggy comics, little baby ducks, and Sweatin’ To The Oldies volumes 1, 2 and 4!” “Time to bag us a cattle rustler,” yells Chief Wiggum before breaking down the door of Reverend Lovejoy. “What in God’s name are you doing?” the reverend demands, pointing to the herd of cows outside his neighbour’s house. “Put out an APB on a male suspect driving a… car,” Wiggum continues. “Suspect is hatless, I repeat, hatless.” There are many more. It’s one of those episodes where you didn’t realise it was possible to laugh out loud at quite such a volume. 10

Special guests
There aren’t any, but they’re not missed, so a default 10.

The broad comic tone of the episode is reflected in the soundtrack. There isn’t much subtlety to be heard. Whenever Homer’s health starts to fail, Alf Clausen wheels out the parping brass and the stabbing violins. Alone in the ward, Homer is accompanied only by some mewing strings. When Homer finally has the bypass operation, Clausen rifles through his collection of 1970s-TV-hospital-life-or-death motifs. In the final sequence, the writers have Homer’s heart beating in time with The Simpsons theme. It’s so brazen that they just about get away with it. 8

There is one scene where the animation, the writing and the performances all come together in exemplary fashion, and it’s when Homer is summoned to Mr Burns’ office for a dressing down. The script is structured beautifully (“You’re the kind of guy I could really dig… a grave for!”), as are David Silverman’s designs of an increasingly contorted Homer.

But it’s Harry Shearer’s performance that crowns the lot, absolutely nailing Mr Burns’ delight in see-sawing with calculated malice between flattery and outrage. “Your indolence is inefficacious,” he splutters, before howling by way of clarification, “that means you’re terrible!” 10

(As a side note, this leads directly into one of the best exchanges of the episode:

Smithers: Mr Burns, I think he’s dead.
Burns: Oh dear. Send a ham to his widow.
Homer (as a half-dead ghost): Mmm, ham!
Smithers: No, wait – he’s alive!
Burns: Oh good – cancel the ham.
Homer (fully alive): D’oh!)

Animation direction
The stand-out moments from David Silverman have already been mentioned, but there are plenty of other great touches, such as the use of shadow (not done very often in The Simpsons) when Homer is telling his family about his operation and when he’s in his hospital bed:

There’s also a neat fade from the circular operating theatre to the circle of the clock in the waiting room:

Some fine physical comedy when Homer, mid-heart attack, is grappling with a piece of paper at the Merry Widow Insurance Company:

And, of course, the assorted characters appearing on the television show People Who Look Like Things. 10

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
This week’s “what the Simpson family is watching on TV at the start of the episode” is one of the better pastiches: Cops in Springfield, a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the local police, which lays bare Wiggum’s ineptitude on a scale we haven’t really seen before. This gets a nice callback later in the episode, when Wiggum’s jaw is locked open after trying to eat a large sandwich, and the Cops in Springfield theme plays on the soundtrack.

Elsewhere Homer fantasises about how he chewed a pizza just minutes after being born and of being spoken to by a roast pig. Just your average season four episode, then. 8

Emotion and tone
Doing knockabout comedy on the subject of heart surgery is probably something The Simpsons could have attempted only at this point in its history. Had it been any earlier, the story wouldn’t have had enough self-confidence; any later and it would have been too crass. Instead the balance is just about right, save for the very end when Dr Nick greets a former patient: “Well, if it isn’t my old friend Mr McGregg, with a leg for an arm and an arm for a leg.” This is too arch and clever-clever, and almost spoils the good work that has gone before. Luckily for us, both this sentence, and Dr Nick himself, can’t compete with the predicament of Homer’s dodgy ticker. 8

Verdict: 90%
Proof that a bedbound Homer is just as funny as a pratfalling Homer.

2 thoughts on “70. Homer’s Triple Bypass

  1. Love this episode but disagree about Dr Nick. The line about Mr McGregg has entered out family lexicon and always gets a big laugh in this house.


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