82. Homer’s Barbershop Quartet

“Theme from A Summer Place, from A Summer Place, the Theme, from A Summer Place, it’s the Theme…”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 30 September 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Thursday 10 September 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Jeff Martin
  • Writing staff: George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, Conan O’Brien, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Dan McGrath
  • Animation director: Mark Kirkland

This episode arrived in the UK just as three years of Beatlemania were coming to an end. The release in November 1995 of the first Anthology album, including the “reunion” song Free as a Bird, put the Fabs back in a position of eminence in this country they’d not experienced since the early 1970s. It wasn’t that the band had fallen out of favour in the intervening period; more that they’d fallen out of step, both with the nostalgia du jour and with the way defunct pop groups reinvented and repackaged themselves for different audiences.

Then Britpop came along, coinciding neatly with the first “new” material from The Beatles in 25 years, and suddenly the band were the biggest thing in the world once more. Their story was told again and again in the mid-90s, not just on the three Anthology albums, accompanying TV series and book, but in countless interviews, essays and biographies. It also found its way into narratives about contemporary bands, many of whom took to invoking The Beatles whenever they had a new single to plug or pet project to sell.

All of this meant that, come September 1998 and the first showing on UK terrestrial screens of Homer’s Barbershop Quartet, the architecture of the Beatles’ career was back in people’s minds. We’d had a refresher course in all the key events: the sacking of Pete Best, the screaming fans, the airport press conferences, “bigger than Jesus”, Yoko, the rooftop gig. Seeing them all referenced in The Simpsons, and in such a spirited way, was therefore an unexpected but delightful encore to a toppermost few years. It would have been a very different experience watching this episode in 1993, when the only recent bits of Beatles-related business were Paul McCartney’s lousy 1993 album Off The Ground and George Harrison doing a benefit concert at the 1992 general election for the Natural Law Party.

Pop culture felt an awfully long away from The Beatles in the early 1990s. But here the producers of The Simpsons were ahead of the game. The whole caboodle was long overdue for lampooning, and not in a wryly precise way like The Rutles, whose pastiches sometimes (Get Up and Go) sounded better than the originals. No, the story of The Beatles was well ready for a broad, absurdist, knockabout spoof, and in the hands of people like Jeff Martin and Alf Clausen, spoofed with intelligence and affection. There’s no question of this not getting a full 10 marks for homage. The Simpsons’ production team cares enough about The Beatles to bring us not just all those key events (Yoko included), but also toss in a recreation of the infamous “miserable” photo from the Let It Be sessions, and even quote the same album’s “hope we passed the audition” joke.

Those sorts of references will delight Beatles fans, of which there must have been a billion or so in 1993, and quite possibly a billion more by 1998. But if you fail to spot every single one of the in-jokes, it doesn’t really matter, because enough goes on in this episode to ensure the viewer never feels shut out or insulted for not knowing their Revolution 1 from their Revolution 9.

Top of the list is the music (10, naturally), which is a revelation. At least one pair of ears was opened to the charms of barbershop by this episode, and not just because of its novelty (“Achy Breaky Heart was seven years away. Something had to fill the void!”) Baby On Board is a genuinely brilliant song. It isn’t designed as a joke or to be deliberately crass. It is properly tuneful and exceptionally performed. Hearing the actors’ real voices (another 10) blended so expertly with professional barbershop quartet The Dapper Dans is the icing on the cake. Every time the group strikes up another song, you can’t help but start smiling. Watching Homer struggle to compose the song is almost as much fun (“Baby on board/something something Burt Ward”). Each time in The Simpsons when Homer really tries to make a success of something (Mr Plow), it burnishes his character with a depth and a sincerity that’s often crowded off the screen by sloth and gluttony.

Speaking of which, the sight of Homer gorging himself on a gigantic plate of brownies is easily this episode’s least appealing moment. It follows directly on from the appearance of special guest George Harrison, who contributes so little and underacts so well that you’re actually glad he’s not in it that much (8). It helps that he’s drawn sympathetically and gets the funniest joke (on spotting the rooftop gig: “It’s been done!”).

Aside from an unnecessary appearance from David Crosby, that’s it as far as special guests go, and so much the better. Had the episode been stuffed with cameos there would be little room for anything other than celeb-spotting, and unlike – say – Krusty Gets Kancelled, this is not the kind of story deserving of a parade of stars. Instead all the characters (8) at the heart of the episode are Springfield adults. Once upon a time a Simpsons season premiere would have automatically been about Bart. Those days are long gone. The children are barely in it, and that’s just as well, as the tone (9) of the episode probably wouldn’t have been as robust or work on quite such an emotional level if The Be Sharps had been Bart, Milhouse, Martin and Nelson. Homer, Skinner, Apu and Barney is the ideal combination. None are extreme grotesques, or pantomime monsters, or bumbling zealots. They are all picked from the pool of “obsessive ordinaries”. Skinner is on particularly fine form (at the press conference: “Principal Skinner!” “Uh-huh?” “You’ve been referred to as ‘the funny one’. Is that reputation justified?” “Yes. Yes it is.”)

Making Wiggum part of the group at the start, then having him get kicked out, is obviously a nod to Pete Best’s undignified exit from The Beatles. But it also helps the plot no end, because it means The Be Sharps are rid of their one larger-than-life member. Wiggum is clearly too much of a grotesque to belong alongside our fabulously humdrum foursome. And the story only works as well as it does because of the contrast between its humdrum characters and its fanciful plot (9). Homer says he’ll “never forget my five and a half weeks at the top”, but you know full well it will have been forgotten about by the time the credits have rolled. The whole thing is a thrilling high-wire walk of preposterous ambition. We’re not meant to ask questions about how everything manages to stay up in the air; we’re merely meant to bask in the spectacle (“I’m surprised you don’t remember, son – it was only eight years ago!”).

There’s precious little time to ask questions anyway. The plot moves at a cracking pace; in the space of about two minutes the Be Sharps have written, recorded and released a hit record, and become famous enough for Homer to earn enough money to buy Grampa a new car. And when the story isn’t happening, the jokes are (9). “We’d like to dedicate this next number to a very special woman,” Homer announces at the Statue of Liberty Bicentennial in 1986. “She’s 100 years old and she weighs over 200… tonnes!” “This enormous woman will devour us all!” a man screams and promptly jumps into the sea. “That’s my son up there!” Grampa beams, when the Be Sharps perform at Moe’s. “What, the balding fat ass?” snaps the man sitting next to him. “No – the Hindu guy.” Grampa is also responsible for one of the funniest exchanges during the audition sequence (“Get off the stage!” “I want to but I can’t!”), topped only by Jasper and his infinitely-repeating rendition of Theme from A Summer Place (“It’s the Theme…”).

The best Simpsons episodes are not simply an aggregation of jokes, however. The best episodes are those where the zingers dance and sway in perfect choreography with the flow of the storyline and the pace of dialogue (“This is worse than your song about Mr T!” “I pity the fool who doesn’t like – he.”) The best episodes are those where gags are triggered both verbally and visually (“What ya do? Screw up like The Beatles and say you were bigger than Jesus?” “All the time! It was the title of our second album.”). The animation direction scores very highly (9) thanks to the skill with which the look and feel of the episodes are knitted together: watch (and listen to) the way Marge’s homemade replica of Homer falls apart so frightfully, and how the Be Sharps move around the stage, twirling their hats with aplomb and demonstrating what Darcey Bussell would describe approvingly as “fine armography”. The design (9) of this story blends as pleasingly with its tone as the group’s voices blend in harmony.

Thanks to the episode arriving in the UK when it did, Homer’s Barbershop Quartet manages to make you feel simultaneously nostalgic for the mid-1990s and the 1960s – regardless of whether you lived through both or can remember either. It’s one of those episodes that says more about ‘The Simpsons’ than The Simpsons. If you’re after some domestic mayhem with America’s Most Dysfunctional Family, there’s no point in watching. It’ll only give you the fidgets. We’re far beyond the point when the programme dealt mainly with poor school grades and stupid pets. But call me a square (friend, I don’t care), there’s just as much a place for those kinds of episodes as this, in the same way there’s just as much place for Paul singing about parking meters as John singing about his dead mum. It doesn’t mean you’d want both all the time, though. 91%

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