74. I Love Lisa

“…And don’t forget to purchase some orange drink for the long ride home.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 11 February 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 15 June 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Frank Mula
  • 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: Wes Archer

Unusually for The Simpsons, this is a story that takes place over a specified time period. It opens on Valentine’s Day and ends on Presidents’ Day: two dates which, in 1993 when this episode first aired, fell on the consecutive days of February 14 and 15. Evidently the calendar runs differently in Springfield, for this is not a story whose events can be compressed into 48 hours. Either that or the Presidents’ Day Pageant at the end of the episode takes place a few days later than it should. Which, given Principal Skinner’s track record at organising community events such as Fire Drill Follies (Willie: “You opened the show with a fire drill and everyone cleared out!”), is entirely possible.

An episode that has the word Lisa in the title and advertises itself as being about Valentine’s Day is not something to make the heart leap. Watching the opening scenes, it’s tempting to instantly write the whole thing off as an orgy of schmaltz, especially when you get to the bit where everyone at Springfield Elementary School is furiously exchanging Valentine’s cards and Ralph begins his infatuation with Lisa. But such a reaction would be premature, as just in time the writers snap out of their gooey reverie, and we get first the Krusty 29th Anniversary Special, with a bounty of clips from previous Krusty shows, and second the Presidents’ Day Pageant, every single moment of which is a joy. By the end of the episode you’ve forgotten all about Valentine’s Day and are smitten with the sight of Principal Skinner manipulating a row of giant cardboard commanders-in-chief. 8

Lisa and Ralph may be the most prominent characters but they are not the most interesting. We learn little new about either of them, and Lisa’s obnoxious treatment of Ralph coupled with Ralph’s stupidity makes for desultory television indeed (Ralph: “My parents won’t let me use scissors.” Miss Hoover: “The children are right to laugh at you, Ralph; these things wouldn’t cut butter”). Far more entertaining is what we get to see of the supporting characters. Krusty, it turns out, has been hosting a talk show for the past 29 years, one that is famous enough to attract President Clinton to its audience (Krusty: “I campaigned for the other guy, but I voted for you!”) and Robert Frost to be among its guests.

Meanwhile Ned Flanders chooses to spend Valentine’s Day dressed in a giant heart costume and strumming Da Ya Think I’m Sexy on his front lawn.

And Principal Skinner, when not becoming increasingly haunted by memories of Vietnam (“Valentine’s Day is NO JOKE!”), puts together a glittering tribute to America’s presidents complete with a song-and-dance number and impressively over-elaborate staging. “Good evening everyone,” he booms, “and welcome to a wonderful evening of theatre and picking up after yourselves.” A pity the pageant doesn’t run for longer. Ideally, for the entire episode. 7

Locations and design
There’s a domestic, humdrum feel to much of the story that recalls seasons one and two. Almost all the locations are familiar and the script rarely calls for novel or distinctive designs. Even Krusty’s TV studio isn’t particularly memorable. Only during the Presidents’ Day Pageant is your eye grabbed. 4

Pardon My Zinger
Bart gets all the best gags. He is devastated when Lisa gets to go to the Krusty Anniversary Special and not him, pleading his superfan credentials (“I even have the Krusty Home Pregnancy Test!”) before making Lisa a proposition:

Bart: I’ll go, disguised as you.
Lisa: What if he wants to hold hands?
Bart: I’m prepared to make that sacrifice.
Lisa: What if he wants to KISS?
Bart: I’m prepared to make that sacrifice.
Lisa: What if he…
Bart (interrupting): You don’t want to know how far I’d go.

Bart is given something witty to say and do whenever he appears on screen, which is why his appearances in this episode, though few, stay far longer in the memory than those of Lisa. Backstage at the pageant he treats his classmates to a unique impersonation of President Nixon:

“I am not a butt!”

Listen for how the giant nose squeaks when Bart wobbles his buttocks. “Bart,” snaps Miss Hoover, “do you want to play John Wilkes Booth or do you want to act like a maniac?” Seconds later he’s on stage, assassinating with aplomb (“Hasta la vista, Abey!”), being cheered by his father in the audience (“C’mon boy, finish him off!”), threatening to continue his spree further through the history books (“You’re next, Chester A Arthur!”) before being yanked off stage by Miss Hoover (“Unhand me, yankee!”). 9

Special guests
There are none to be seen or heard – not even Phil Hartman. They’re not missed, so a default 10.

The song-and-dance number that opens the pageant is a tribute to “our lesser-known presidents” and is another winner from the pen of Jeff ‘Streetcar‘ Martin. In the best tradition of all Simpsons musical spoofs, it is performed with deadly seriousness combined with lavish spectacle and sparkling lyrics:

“We are the mediocre presidents!
You won’t find our faces on dollars or on cents!
There’s Taylor, there’s Tyler, there’s Fillmore and there’s Hayes,
There’s William Henry Harrison (I died in 30 days!)
We – are – the –
Adequate, forgettable, occasionally regrettable
Caretaker presidents of the USA!”

Alf Clausen’s Broadway-style arrangement even tosses in a closing wah-wah on the tuba. Another hit for the songbook. 10

Harry Shearer makes sure every one of Skinner’s lines holds your attention and releases it only when you have fully digested its magisterial pomposity. “From sea to shining sea,” he sings, through the mouths of the cardboard heads – before adding: “Thanks for coming! And don’t forget to purchase some orange drink for the long ride home.” There’s a great back-and-forth with Dan Castellaneta when Skinner tells the audience: “And now our evening comes to an end…” (Homer: “Woo-hoo!”) “…with a thorough retelling of the life of George Washington.” (Homer: “D’oh!”). Julie Kavner has barely anything to do in this episode, but she does get to make Patty and Selma swoon deliriously over Ralph, cooing: “That boy is MAGNIFICENT!… Now THAT’S a man!” 9

Animation direction
Wes Archer adds a few decorative flourishes to an otherwise nuts-and-bolts production. There’s the way streetlights bounce and glide off the windows Chief Wiggum’s car:

A point-of-view shot from inside a fireplace during the “thorough” retelling of Washington’s life:

And the unforgettable sight (compounded by the unforgettable sound) of a lorry-load of beef hearts plopping onto the floor of the school kitchen. 6

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Giving Krusty his own talk show is a way of giving the writers the chance to take a pop at The Tonight Show, for which the showrunners Al Jean and Mike Reiss had once worked. The pops are broad enough to be amusing even for UK audiences not aware of the heritage of something like The Tonight Show and its host Johnny Carson, particularly the archive “clips” of Sideshow Mel drunk, the urine monkey (Bart: “That’s funny for so many reasons”) and Kroon Along With Krusty (Krusty: “What was I on?”).

One week after failing to get any response from the Tuesday Night Live audience, it’s a nice touch having Krusty fail to get any response from his own audience, even when prompted by a huge flashing sign saying APPLAUSE. “Talk to the audience?” mutters Krusty at one point. “Oh God, this is always death.” 10

Emotion and tone
Tonally this episode is all over the place, but mercifully so. Had it all been of a piece with the opening section, and Lisa and Ralph’s relationship remained the sole focus for the entire running time, the tone would have been consistent but the entertainment value close to zero. Instead, thanks to Krusty, Skinner and co, we jump between tedium and farce at an increasing rate as the minutes go by. By the end the story is not so much a pre-teen romance as a historical romp – something with which the script feels much more at ease. 7

Verdict: 80%
Saved by the (liberty) bell.

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