71. Marge vs the Monorail

“Hello! My name is Mr Snrub.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 14 January 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 25 May 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Conan O’Brien
  • 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: Rich Moore

Conan O’Brien worked on The Simpsons for only 18 months or so, but during that time he played a major role in steering the show away from character-based exploits and towards absurdist and surreal escapades that frequently involved outlandish individuals and events being visited upon the residents of Springfield. He has a “written by” credit on only three episodes, but pitched ideas for many more (such as Marge Gets a Job) and has the honour of coming up with the name Jub-Jub for Patty and Selma’s iguana. It is this episode, however, which is his finest work and for which he is still (wisely) hailed as one of The Simpsons’ most influential producers.

From the very opening seconds of this story it is clear something out of the ordinary is going on. The action begins not with the Simpson family around the dinner table or watching TV or even talking to each other. Instead it begins with a frame-for-frame recreation of the opening titles of The Flintstones. Once these are over – which have nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the story – we cut not to the Simpson family but to Mr Burns and Smithers trying to bury some nuclear waste. They can’t go to their preferred destination, a school playground, as “all those bald children are arousing suspicion.” Instead they try a local park, another favourite haunt, where previous dumps of nuclear waste have turned a tree into a tentacle-waving monster and given a squirrel laser-powered eyes. Burns is then caught by the police and appears before a judge, strapped on a trolley like Dr Hannibal Lecter, whereupon he hands over $3 million by way of compensation (“I’ll take that statue of justice too!”), which the population of Springfield decide to invest in a monorail scheme proposed by a strange man who just happens to be in town with a sales pitch, a scale model and a song. All this in the first five minutes. What follows is the most rococo kind of caper, one that manages to be both sprawling in its scope yet elegant in its construction, and which is by turns frivolous, barmy, nail-biting and knockabout. There’s no point trying to describe the architecture of the rest of the plot as it would take longer than the episode’s running time. Just gaze upon its ambitious conception and dazzling execution, and marvel. 10

The stranger who turns up with a song in his suitcase is a con man called Lyle Lanley, who is modelled deliberately on the character of Harold Hill from the 1957 musical/1962 film The Music Man. Both Hill and Lanley are snappily-dressed smooth-tongued rabble-rousing swindlers, able to dupe entire towns by appealing to their vanity and prejudice, and occasionally – in Lisa’s case – their intelligence. Lanley is a marvellous creation, wise enough to know how to exploit Springfield’s mob mentality but not how to avoid detection or personal comeuppance. The episode makes no effort to disguise his inspiration. We are meant to see the parallels with The Music Man and in turn feel flattered we can spot them and draw lessons from them. Plenty of other outsiders have brought their eccentric obsessions into The Simpsons but never on such a grand canvas or in order to catalyse such a vast romp involving such a huge number of regulars. In keeping with such an over-the-top episode, we also see cameos from other outsiders, including Lurleen Lumpkin – now an alcoholic – and an ageing juvenile from ‘Springfield Heights 90210’. Plus there’s a mysterious scientist called Sebastian Cobb, who designed one of Lanley’s previous monorails, and who is almost too abstract in his conception. Nonetheless this bizarre ensemble feels right at home in the episode, by virtue of the plot being elastic enough to encompass snugly every last one of them. 9

Locations and design
The design of the monorail is superb. Rather than looking how people in the 1990s thought the future would look, it looks how people in the 1970s thought the future would look. This is exactly in keeping with the aesthetics of Springfield, which has always been a place that could have slot into any era from the late 60s onwards. It also chimes with the hoary, fable-esque quality of the plot and the slightly out-of-time hokey patter of Lyle Lanley. Towards the end of the episode we see one of the labels on the monorail peel away to reveal the logo of the 1964 World Fair, further spicing up proceedings with a twist of early 1960s/Mad Mad Mad Mad World bacchanalia. 10

Pardon My Zinger
The jokes, like everything else, are inflated with a concentrated hilarity. Everyone will have their favourites, so let’s highlight just a few: Mr Burns turning up at the town meeting sporting an enormous fake moustache and announcing: “Hello! My name is Mr Snrub and I come from, er, some place far away – yes, that’ll do”. Lanley informing his class of students that “mono means one and rail means rail – and that concludes our intensive three-week course.” Homer driving down Main Street with a grand piano strapped to the roof of the car, shouting: “Look at that pavement fly!” The popcorn van driving into a giant pothole and exploding. Bart quizzing Homer: “True or false: you can get mono from riding the monorail.” The monorail technicians bitching: “Solar power? When will people learn?!” The townsfolk of North Haverbrook waiting by the airport for Lanley to land and shouting “There he is – seat 3F!” before charging the aircraft. And Homer’s stream-of-consciousness ramble as he tries to persuade Marge of the wisdom of becoming a monorail driver: “Am I turning you on? What if I undo this button? What if I talk like this? What if I sing to you? [sings] I gave my love a chicken, it had no bone…” 10

Special guests
Leonard Nimoy fits so cosily into this episode, it’s hard to believe his part was originally intended for George Takei. Second choice was almost certainly better than first, however, as Nimoy’s defiantly non-hysterical and ice-cool delivery sounds all the funnier in such an over-the-top story – particularly as he is given splendidly ludicrous dialogue (“I’d say this vessel could do at least Warp 5.” “A solar eclipse! The cosmic ballet goes on.”) Nimoy breezes through the episode, his voice as unflustered as his character by the mayhem unfolding all around. He gets to be gloriously mock-heroic when stopping Krusty jumping off the monorail (“No! The world needs laughter”) before signing off with a textbook gnomic utterance (“Well, my work here is done”) and promptly dematerialising into thin air. Utterly preposterous – but in the context of this kind of carry-on, totally glorious. 10

“Does anyone wanna switch seats?”

Phil Hartman is the other special guest, taking the role of the shyster Lyle Lanley. If Lanley’s voice sounds near-identical to Hartman’s regular Simpsons roles of Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure, that’s because it is. But the character of Lanley is so strong that you quickly forgive any similarities and bask instead in a performance that seems to pride itself in juggling effortlessly a breezy connivance and an off-the-peg charm. It’s all encapsulated perfectly in the monorail song. Without it, the story would not be able to launch itself on the absurd trajectory along which it glides merrily right through to the finale. Nor would the behaviour of its characters feel quite so plausible and their fate so fanciful. The song is a pivotal moment in the evolution of The Simpsons. If you’re looking for a symbolic marker that separates the show’s fledgling years as a character-led sitcom and its subsequent incarnation as a show riffing on wacky events, here it is. You could pin it down even to one line: Marge pleading “But Main Street’s still all cracked and broken!” followed by Bart’s care-free cry: “Sorry Mom, the mob has spoken!” It is the first time the entire town has broken spontaneously into song, something it would now do with dependable frequency. And it is also another layer of the episode’s intricate homage to The Music Man, being a beautifully-crafted pastiche of the song Ya Got Trouble, right from the tempo and rhythm (which are identical) to the breathless chanting (“Trouble, trouble, trouble” here becoming “Monorail, monorail, monorail”). No matter how many times you watch this sequence, it floors you with its swagger and its sheer love of high-wire inspiration. A real moment of TV history. 10

Yeardley Smith, who voices Lisa, once described this episode as “one of our worst”, adding that the entire cast agreed with her. Whether or not the cast did hate the script, they don’t show it in their performances, which are all pretty much spot on. Smith doesn’t have much to say as Lisa, perhaps thankfully, but she does get one of the best exchanges with Phil Hartman (Lisa: “The ride only takes a minute!” Lanley: “Yeah, well, my plane leaves in less than one minute”). Nancy Cartwright isn’t in it much either, but she is handed one of the episode’s highlights when Bart fears his dad is about to use him as a human anchor.

“Think harder, Homer.”

Dan Castellaneta enters fully into the spirit of things (“Doughnuts! Is there anything they can’t do?!”) and Julie Kavner gets a change from simply moaning and reacting to her family. Her exchange with Hartman, when Marge discovers Lanley’s plans, is a five-line encapsulation of the episode’s madcap physiognomy. 9

Lanley: How much did you see?
Marge: Nothing incriminating.
Lanley: Good.
Marge: Well. Bye!
Lanley [gesturing to his plans]: I don’t know why I leave this lying around!

Animation direction
Rich Moore gives the episode an appropriately epic sense of scale, creating not just an entire new mass transport system for Springfield but an entire new town (North Haverbrook) with its own entire mass transport system, which is entirely ruined.

It’s not just the scope of the animation that is impressive, however. There are countless little touches that are evidence of how the production team took care to make even the smallest detail memorable – such as Lyle’s sketchbook with its look-how-fradulent-I-am doodles (complete with smiley sun):

The pictures on the walls of the monorail carriages:

And the picture of Homer on the local news. 10

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
The Music Man alone guarantees 10 points. But then there’s Lisa’s fantasy of what to do with the $3 million that Mr Burns has given the town: a stash of virtual reality headsets for Springfield Elementary School:

“You’ll go where I go – defile what I defile!”

Or there’s Bart fantasy of what to do with the same money: giant mechanical ants to destroy the school and Principal Skinner.

And then there’s Truckasauras the Movie, starring “the voice” of Marlon Brando: just as irrelevant to the plot as The Flintstones pastiche, but as equally entertaining. “You crazy car! I don’t know whether to eat you or kiss you!”

Emotion and tone
In light of some of the episodes that followed in the next few years – Homer goes into space, the Simpson family insult the entire population of Australia – Marge vs the Monorail is comparatively tame. It’s certainly not as flippantly bizarre or lazily absurd as stories that date from after start of The Decline (1998). You are invested enough in the characters and their predicament (particularly the runaway monorail) to indulge and ultimately forgive the episode’s dafter moments. There is never any doubt this is a caper and therefore should be treated as such. Besides, it is the viewer who is left feeling smart, while the residents of Springfield are the gullible ones, happy to be taken for a ride before stumbling towards salvation (“Could this town be any stupider?” asks Snake, as he robs a row of empty houses). If there’s still any doubt about what’s going on here, Marge supplies a voiceover at the very end of the episode intended just for us: “And that was the only folly the people of Springfield ever embarked upon – except for the popsicle-stick skyscraper. And the 50-foot magnifying glass. And that escalator to nowhere.” 10

Verdict: 98%
The best yet.

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