(originally aired December 17, 1992)
In this week’s hilarious episode of The Simpsons, our lovable hero, husband and father of three, has a heart attack and must get a triple bypass operation. Rather heavy subject matter for any show, let alone a comedy. Such a serious premise could have created a dour, maudlin tone to the entire show. Treating it too light and goofy would have betrayed the premise. The magic of this series is its ability to have it both ways: we get as many laughs as we can get, more than you think you could squeeze out of an episode about a heart attack, but the episode remains sincere, emotional and so very real. This blend is so effective, the episode can flawlessly go to a heartfelt moment with Homer and the kids to an over-the-top gag with Dr. Nick. It’s a crowning achievement, and one of my favorite episodes of the series.
After a great quick TV parody (“COPS… in Springfield!”), we delve right into our story, in showing how Homer’s poor eating habits and sloth-like lifestyle has finally got the better of him, with him having several major chest pains during the day. Massive thanks goes to David Silverman, who took a task as monumental as making a heart attack funny and succeeded tremendously. We still feel the tension (also helped by great dramatic stings by Alf Clausen) of Homer’s pain, but also are amused by them, particularly due to his complete unacknowledgement. You can tell fairly quickly it’s a Silverman show because of the great acting: one moment sticks out when Marge offers Homer a healthy bowl of oatmeal, to which he patronizingly responds, “Oatmeal! What a delightful treat!” The small dainty movement corresponds perfectly with the great performance, so flowing and meaningful. Homer may be grossly overweight, but there’s still a very flighty air to him that allows him to act with occasional grace, like his fairy dance in “Flaming Moe’s.” This all builds toward our tipping point, one of the greatest scenes in the show’s history, as a fierce scolding from Mr. Burns finally triggers Homer’s heart attack. With a picture-in-picture of Homer’s heart going mental, and the hilariously off-model fluctuations of Homer, it’s an absolute wonder to behold. Again, we’re talking about a man having a heart attack.
Following Dr. Hibbert’s diagnosis (and a high price tag for an operation), the story briefly becomes another money crunching episode where the family tries to scrounge up funds. Things turn upon seeing a commercial for quack Dr. Nick, who will cut anyone open for a mere $129.95. We get some absolutely beautiful scenes from then on: Homer praying for God to look after Marge, Bart and Lisa whispering Homer his possibly last words to them, they’re all very touching. Similar to “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish,” we know Homer will survive his operation, but we’re so invested in these characters and their emotions that we feel connected to the story. This also helps with the humor; because we care about what’s happening, we’re able to laugh at it. We feel pained as Lisa tears up about her father’s situation, and Homer’s reassurance that only bad people die, and just like that, we laugh when Homer feigns a story about Abraham Lincoln giving poison milk to school children. This episode exemplifies the show at its very best; at its peak of emotional resonance and prevailing humor in the face of any subject matter.
Tidbits and Quotes
– I like Bart’s antics at the breakfast table: we all know the “see-food” trick, but Bart goes one step further by scraping the goop into Lisa’s cereal bowl. It’s the perfect trigger for another of Homer’s chest palpitations.
– First time Hans Moleman dies spontaneously, going off road whilst towing the birth home of Edgar Allen Poe, which bursts into flames for no real reason, and long before the vehicle even goes off-road.
– I’ve already said the scene is perfect, but Harry Shearer does an amazing performance during the firing scene, seamlessly alternating from cordial to raving. The capper is great of course (“Your indolence is inefficacious!” Homer is confused. “…THAT MEANS YOU’RE TERRIBLE!!”)
– Another great cheek slap: after Marge runs out announcing Homer’s at the hospital, Patty finds a coupon for five cents off wax paper. Selma is stunned.
– Absolutely great sequence of Dr. Hibbert torturing Homer; slightly out-of-character for him, but it’s so hilarious, with great ad-lib between Castellaneta and Shearer, and the great final line, “Remember your hippopotamus oath!” I love the tests with the radioactive dye and the fat analysis (“Woo hoo! Look at that blubber fly!”), and Hibbert’s numerous attempts to dumb down his medical jargon (“We’re going to cut you open and tinker with your ticker.”)
– Homer once again displays his occasional knowledge base in reassuring Marge (“America’s health care system is second only to Japan, Canada, Sweden, Great Britain, well, all of Europe, but you can thank your lucky stars we don’t live in Paraguay!”)
– The scene at Happy Widow’s Insurance is another amazing one, with great acting, pacing and execution. Homer just can’t wait to get his insurance plan and rub it in the poor clerk’s face that he screwed them, thinking his scheme is completely fool-proof. Every second of the scene is gold (“Now, under ‘heart attacks’, you crossed out three and wrote zero.” “Oh, I thought that said ‘brain hemorrhages'”), and the finale of Homer fighting another chest pain and his back-and-forth with the clerk is so hilarious (after collapsing, Homer weakly asks if he can have a free calender. The clerk says that’s fine.)
– Desperate, Homer turns to houses of worship for money, but has no luck with Reverend Lovejoy, Rabbi Krustofski, or Surdrudinma Baradad (host of his own yoga show, as seen in “Kamp Krusty.”) No luck with funding, but Homer does get a nifty souvenir from the rabbi (“Son, it’s called a droodel.”)
– So many great Dr. Nick moments, right off the bat with his call number 1-800-DOCTORB (“The ‘B’ is for bargain!”)
– I can’t quite put into words the great feel of this show: you totally feel the sense of drama the story needs. The scene where Lisa asks her Sunday School teacher what will happen if her father dies is one of those scenes; they’re played straight when they need to, and when we do get the joke at the end where Lisa imagines angel Homer in the clouds (“Cloud goes up, cloud goes down!”) it doesn’t lose that tone, since you’d imagine Lisa to be thinking of that.
– The scene of Krusty visiting Homer has some amazing animation, particularly on Krusty. The animation of him lighting his cigarette and unbuttoning his shirt is so full of life, it helps so much with the great performance. And we close with one of the best Krusty quotes ever: “This ain’t makeup!”
– Unfortunately for Dr. Nick, the videotape tutorial for the operation has been taped over with a talk show featuring the segment “People Who Look Like Things.” Fortunately for us, it’s a hilarious scene. A man with a pumpkin-like head speaks his mind, “All we ask for is a little dignity and a little respect. The host slyly responds, “And a new candle every now and then?” Pumpkin guy is suitably grumpy and the audience applauds. Hysterical.
– Dr. Nick is hilarious during the operation, saying the worst possible thing anyone could hear before they go under (“What the hell is that?”) There’s also the great bit at the end of being accosted by one of his botched patients (“If it isn’t my old friend Mr. McGreg, with a leg for an arm and an arm for a leg!”)
– The ending is perfect, showing picture-in-picture of Homer’s heart back in working shape… mostly. I heard on the commentary alternate takes of Homer having a horrible creaky wooden heart, or another joke of him eating a pizza, mirroring an earlier flashback of infant Homer, but I think the end works a lot better played straight, with a minor joke.