84. Homer Goes to College

“I like to put my feet up.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 14 October 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 28 September 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First draft: Conan O’Brien
  • Writing staff: Jace Richdale, Harold Kimmel, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Conan O’Brien, David Richardson, Greg Daniels, Jonathan Collier, Gerry Richardson, David Sacks, Brent Forrester, Bob Kushell, Dan McGrath, Bill Canterbury, David S Cohen
  • Animation director: Jim Reardon

The start of a new era in The Simpsons: a brand-new showrunner, a bunch of new writers, and most of the programme’s original team gone. Calling the shots from now on is David Mirkin: someone with no prior experience of the programme and no history of working in animation. You wonder why Fox didn’t promote someone from within – until you realise that pretty much all the senior staff had quit, and none of those who did stay (Conan O’Brien, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Frank Mula) had been with The Simpsons that long. There was little choice but to bring in an outsider. And Mirkin at least had a fine pedigree, having been showrunner on Newhart and written for Three’s Company, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show.

His first job on taking over The Simpsons was to rebuild the writing team around a tiny and nervous nucleus of O’Brien, Oakley and Weinstein. One glance at the list of credits for this episode suggests he took no chances, over-stocking his staff rather than opting for a small group of trusted colleagues. It was a wise decision; O’Brien quit only a few months after Mirkin’s arrival, lured by NBC to take over from David Letterman on The Late Show. But O’Brien had a parting gift for his soon-to-be-ex-boss: the first draft of Homer Goes to College. Fox was so smitten with the episode that for a long time it was pencilled in as the season premiere. Then George Harrison agreed to do Homer’s Barbershop Quartet, and you can’t put a Beatle anywhere but top of the bill.

So it was that Mirkin’s debut as showrunner hit the screen straight after two of the strongest back-to-back episodes in the show’s history. Following that, anything would have seemed a letdown. But for all the upheaval behind the scenes, this is an episode that feels much more akin with the style of season four and “old” Simpsons. There’s no sense here of a changing of the guard. O’Brien’s story is completely of a piece with his one-sentence-pitches for New Kid on the Block and Marge vs the Monorail. Apart from the long list of names in the opening credits – which is easy to ignore, so speedily does the story (8) grab your attention – there’s no obvious sign of new fingerprints on the script. The tone (7) is as sustained and coherent as similarly brash, absurd tales; ditto the “variation on a theme” structure, which turned up as recently as the previous episode. The jokes (8) are just as well-timed and crafted (on Sir Oinksalot, the pig mascot of Springfield A&M: “Here he is conferring an honorary degree on Richard Nixon. Here he is rolling in his own filth.”) And the music (7) is as consistently unobtrusive as in most season four episodes, with only occasional flourishes catching the ear.

Even Homer isn’t too far removed from the version(s) in recent stories. What we have here is the boorish, thoughtless incarnation of Homer, and as unpleasant as he is, you can’t say his behaviour is a huge departure from the norm. He was acting like this in episodes like Duffless and Whacking Day. It’s just a shame the droll, pragmatic version of Homer – Mr Plow, Homer’s Barbershop Quartet – doesn’t get much of a look-in. Yes, the whole point of the story is to contrast Homer with college students and to make him a thousand times more unruly and indolent than people half his age. But you can be unruly and indolent in a sitcom in a constructive way, to achieve a particular crafty outcome, or to raise yourself up above others for humorous effect.

There’s precious little that’s constructive about Homer’s behaviour in this episode. Instead he’s dopey and he’s crass. The writers too often make him look undignified (“The bee bit my bottom! Now my bottom’s big!”) and plain stupid (setting fire to his own living room). The sharpest Simpsons scripts allow Homer to keep his dignity even when his situation is hopeless, and riff on his befuddlement rather than implying he is completely without a conscience. Here the balance tips too much towards out-and-out idiocy and too far from perplexed anger. It’s not fun seeing Homer want to be destructive towards others (“Those bastards”), cause a commotion and think only of himself. It is fun seeing Homer enjoying himself at nobody’s expense but his own: running round chasing squirrels or wrestling a dog for a giant ham.

A few points are salvaged for characterisation (5) thanks to the scenes when Homer briefly falls in with the college nerds, much to his family’s displeasure:

Homer: We played Dungeons and Dragons for three hours, then I was slain by an elf.
Bart: Listen to yourself man! You’re hanging with nerds.
Homer: You take that back!
Marge: Homer please. These boys sound really nice but they’re clearly nerds.

Three cheers for the nerds, in fact, as without them this episode would not have their soothingly bland voices (9) which provide such a welcome contrast to Homer’s near-perpetual bawling. “I need to go to the bathroom,” one of them whines during an outing with the family. “We stopped five minutes ago!” snaps Lisa. “Yeah,” he replies, “but someone knocked on the door and I couldn’t go.” There’s more entertainment value in seeing them stray into Homer’s environment than Homer stray into theirs. The design (9) of the nerds is spot on: their appearance has just the right amount of novelty to ensure they look completely at odds with the rest of the Simpson family. By contrast the college itself doesn’t have much novelty value at all. Having Homer mistake this nondescript location as a crucible for zany schemes is funny the first couple of times. Having Homer go on doing this for the rest of the episode just tries your patience.

At least the college doesn’t turn up until act two. Act one is concerned merely with contriving to get Homer to go there. It is the strongest section of the episode, and also features Mr Burns: two statements that are not unrelated. Burns is the best character in this story, has all the best jokes and – more evidence of continuity with previous seasons – is as crisply malevolent and fussily vindictive as you’d expect (and welcome). “A watchdog of public safety,” he growls; “is there any lower form of life?” His beloved power plant now has an escape capsule, built for two but into which Burns climbs purposefully alone. His explanation to Smithers: “I like to put my feet up.” Circumstance continues to thwart his meticulous chicanery. He fails to send the safety inspectors through the trapdoor in the floor of his office because, as Smithers explains, “the painters moved your desk”. He tries to give the Springfield University board of administrators “the beating of your life”, but – nodding to The Untouchables – is too puny to lift a baseball bat. If only Homer had half of Burns’ capacity for offering the viewer such a rich variety of comic escapade. But then Burns would have twice as much capacity as Homer, instead of 20 times as much, and The Simpsons would be a different beast entirely.

“I have a chair at Springfield University,” says Burns, and then we see it, in a fine example of where the joke comes from showing and telling rather than showing not telling. The reverse is true of the moment at the end of the episode where the dean is run over by Homer’s car; the effect of cutting from the sound of the crash to the sight of the dean trussed up in hospital might have made for a less grisly, more subtle denouement. Then again, this is not an episode which came into being as a showcase for subtlety. For heaven’s sake, at one point Homer creates a nuclear meltdown inside a van that contains no nuclear material, them climbs out of the ground shimmering with radiation, before shaking off the green glow as if it were a few drops of rain. Moments like these may provoke groans of despair from those pining for The Front or Homer the Heretic, but – being charitable – they are executed with as much economy of pace and bravura animation (9) as anything in those two stories.

At one point in Homer Goes to College, a photograph of Homer choking on a birthday cake is enlarged for inspection by two college tutors. It’s an example of the kind of earthy gag with which the show would, in a few years, become utterly obsessed: here’s some gross humour – and here it is again, in close-up. “It was the most I ever threw up,” Homer adds by way of a caption, “and it changed my life forever.” The best that can be said about this moment is that it’s over quickly. Coarse Homer will never be funnier than guileless Homer. Sticking him in a parody (3) of something that is already a parody is also a misstep; the source is broad and exaggerated enough to begin with. But what lifts this episode above the kind that would become so tiresomely common in the future (dropping Homer in an unusual and implausible setting and making him suffer) is the robustness of the production and the eye for absurd detail – both of which O’Brien took to NBC, to huge success. In an alternative universe somewhere, he stayed with The Simpsons, ended up showrunner, and the programme bowed out in 2000 at the peak of its powers. 75%