(originally aired October 1, 1992)
This show is as multi-layered as they come, not just in its story and characters, but in its jokes. I’m referring to how intelligent some of the gags in the series can be, referring to classic literature, old film, anything that the writers think would be funny to some percentage of the audience. I don’t remember when I first saw this episode, but it must have been some time in middle school, and I had never read, or really even heard of, A Streetcar Named Desire. However, I still enjoyed the episode regardless; the play was funny on its surface: a song bitching about New Orleans, Apu’s solo, Flanders’ passionate “Stella!”, they were all funny instances by themselves. In high school, when we all were assigned to read the play in English class, I knew I had to rewatch this episode when I finished. I did, and it was a completely different read. The episode reached a new level for me having known the source material, but the jokes and story were so solid it still worked without me. Then even later, learning a bit more about Ayn Rand gave it another layer. It’s the show that keeps on giving.
In her feeble attempts to escape her marital servitude, Marge goes out to audition for a community play, a musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Homer is less than responsive, and his boorish, insensitive treatment of his wife is what ends up not only getting her the lead role, but riling her up with the rage needed to play a convincing Blanche. The key here is that Homer is never intentionally mean to anyone. The first act features Homer and the kids watching TV, where Marge tells them about the play, practices, and then leaves, with none of them being any the wiser. This seems to be TV’s function in a lot of these shows, to just drown out other members of the family, usually at the start of the show. But the telling scene is later in bed when Homer admits he doesn’t care about Marge’s play, and he can’t fake an interest like he had in other activities of Marge’s past. When Marge asks him why he never told her this, he responds, ever-so sincerely, “You know I would never do anything to hurt your feelings” and promptly goes to sleep. Homer is none the wiser of his behavior toward Marge, and that’s the important thing: he doesn’t realize he’s an asshole. When called out on such a thing, like being a bad father or an overall jerk, he goes into overdrive to fix things. Watching Marge’s play strangely touches Homer, and Marge is equally touched when her husband feebly attempts to explain it to her.
The musical itself… is genius. Firstly, we have Jon Lovitz as the acerbic director Llewellyn Sinclair, which is probably my favorite of his characters (maybe tied with Artie Ziff). He’s loud and demanding, a true nightmarish artiste (best line is in response to Marge’s weak read for Blanche: “If you set out to push the bile to the tip of my throat, mission accomplished!”) He also voices Sinclair’s sister (who is nearly identical in build and voice), who runs the Ayn Rand Daycare Center (where A is A) where Maggie is left at. We get a great subplot involving her attempts to relinquish her fellow toddler’s pacifiers in a Great Escape esque sequence, culminating in a great Birds reference as Homer tactfully tiptoes through a sea of suckling babies to retrieve Maggie and slowly back out. Again, these references are funny due to their contexts and fitting into a new story, not because we recognize them as references. The same goes for the play, which already is a joke; the idea of making an upbeat musical of the ultimately dour play is funny already. The opening number, riffing off of the opener to Sweeney Todd, is hilarious, as is Apu’s as the paperboy, and the ridiculous over-theatrical laser light show depicting Blanche losing her mind. But the crown jewel is the finale: “You Can Always Depend on the Kindness of Strangers” is the best song ever written on the show. That’s a bold statement that I may take back (the Planet of the Apes musical may rival it); it’s just so, so, so wrong in terms of what happens in the play, and ultimately the point of the story, but it’s absolutely hilarious turning the depressing ending into a showstopping final production number (randomly ending with “Streetcar!”) There had been songs in the show previously, but this I felt was really the first musical episode, one that prepared us for the bevy of wonderful, memorable songs soon to come.
Tidbits and Quotes
– On TV, Troy McClure hosts the Miss American Girl Pageant, which opens with the contestants singing “At Seventeen” (unironically). Again, only Phil could have hosted this event (“If you ask me, they’re all winners! We’ll be cutting our first 40 contestants right after this.”) There’s also a Mr. Blackwell expy commenting on wardrobe, who amuses Bart (“He’s such a bitch!”)
– Flanders is a great addition to the cast; first in his admission he played Blanche back when he attended an all-boys school (later he comments “not to be an armchair Blanche” in teaching Marge how to properly break a bottle). Him playing Stanley is a wonderful contrast, and one Ned doesn’t shy away from. I feel a later day Flanders would be taking notes on all the offensive material in the play like a media watchdog, but here, he’s a normal guy playing a role. He takes direction, responds, “Rodger dodger!” and proceeds to throw Marge onto the bed… and his heart melts when Maggie takes his glasses. It’s completely in character, and makes Flanders more like a real person than the uber-Christian extremist he would later become.
– Lovitz goes big as Llewellyn, and his hilarious from his first scene: “While directing ‘Hats off to Channukah”, I reduced more than one cast member to tears. Did I expect too much from fourth-graders? The review ‘Play enjoyed by all’ speaks for itself.” Also great that his first order is for the potential Stanleys to immediately take off their shirts, and that we see Apu’s various bullet wounds from the back.
– Marge’s reservations about her character gives us a classic, telling line: “I just don’t see why Blanche should shove a broken bottle in Stanley’s face. Couldn’t she just take his abuse with gentle good humor?” The build-up of Homer’s obnoxiousness in the background, ramming into a vending machine and honking the horn outside, is a great sequence in riling Marge’s anger. This is turned humorous later when Marge rehearses at Ned’s, and Homer’s wailing winds her up further: “Let’s rehearse the bottle scene!” as she smashes another one. Ned, already with a bloody mark on his chest, suggests, “Let’s not and say we did?”
– The family talking in different accents at the dinner table gives us a Homer line I still quote today: “I’m living in a cuckoo clock!”
– Homer’s summary of the play is perfect, poorly worded, but still understanding: “The poor thing gets hauled to the nuthouse when all she needed was for that big slob to show her some respect.” The ending as Homer realizes he’s similar to Stanley and Marge’s mollifying of him is very sweet.