The Simpsons, Season Four, Episode Seventeen, “Last Exit To Springfield”

This is the first episode where, as a filthy foreign non-American, I almost don’t feel qualified to write about this episode. It feels so rooted in a specifically American (and specifically working-class American) perspective that I’m certain there are nuances I’m missing. Homer, obviously, has always been a clear member of the upper-lower-middle working class; living paycheque to paycheque, surviving but always on the verge of collapse and generally concerned with day-to-day living while dreaming of the big payout that means he won’t have to work so hard. But I also think he and Marge work as a stand-in for the everyday person from a distinct political perspective – self-interested, with all the good and bad that implies, people who expend all their energy just on getting from one day to another and have none left for things like political activism. Homer’s not going to march down the street when he barely has enough time in his life for eight hours of TV a day. Which is all a long way of saying it’s inherently hilarious to make all the other characters believe he’s a genius union leader.

That self-interest is what kicks the plot off in the first place; Homer’s motivation is to retain the company dental plan (Lisa needs braces DENTAL PLAN) so he can afford Lisa’s braces (DENTAL PLAN). Pre- and post-Golden episodes would often have opening acts that had nothing to do with the rest of the episode; I prefer situations like this, where one situation unexpectedly sets up stakes for another, and provides its own flavour of jokes – I never had a dentist as scary as Hank Azaria’s soft-spoken sorta-German dude, but that is basically who you’re expecting to see when you’re at the dentist as a kid, and her general humiliation with the braces is what the kids today call Too Real (“These predate stainless steel, so you can’t get them wet.”). There isn’t really any explicit place in the story where Homer is all “Do it for her”, but it does ground the episode emotionally.

Where the story feels particularly American is in Burns himself. There’s a wonderful scene early on where Burns flashes back to his grandfather, which ties him into America’s history of robber-barons at the same time as parodying weak film attempts to do the same (“Then we’ll go too far and get corrupt and shiftless, and the Japanese will eat us alive!”). People have been doing what Burns does here long enough for words like ‘bosh’ and ‘flimshaw’ to fall in and out of fashion, and the only reason big businesses won’t wall their critics up in abandoned coke ovens now is because they can’t get away with it. To me, satire is something that reminds you bad things happen in the world via the friendly medium of comedy, and this is some of the show’s most effective satire.

The flipside to that Americanness is the fact that this is one of the most influential episodes of The Simpsons, not necessarily on any particular show, but definitely on an attitude of at least two generations. “Last Exit To Springfield” regularly tops critics’ favourite episode of the show, and I can see echoes of its voice all over the internet; the sincere core of anger at the rich and powerful that drives the story forward, the folk song idealism of Lisa flowering into the union standing strong, and of course the wacky sense of humour and constant references. Even when we’re not directly quoting the show (look at all those god damned iconic moments below), I can see how the jokes we tell each other operate under the same logic as this episode. If there’s any specific idea I think I personally drew from this show and which this episode relentlessly demonstrates, it’s that the harder you sweat the details, the funnier the joke is. The dentist isn’t just scary, his office is dank and underlit; the movie references are precise when it would funny (like the scene lifted shot-for-shot from Batman ‘89) and looser, more imaginative riffs when it would be funny (I think aside from one of the creatures and the submarine itself, nothing from Lisa’s trippy dream actually comes from Yellow Submarine – it’s a stylistic reference). My favourite example of all is the scene where Burns and Smithers travel through the plant to turn the power off. The setup is all very serious, long corridors, face-scanners, passwords, foreboding music… only to reveal a shed in the middle of nowhere, with a stray dog and a screen door that won’t shut properly. Even Burns’ “oh for god’s sake” is perfectly muttered, the precise level of irritation I have whenever my door won’t shut properly.

There are episodes I personally like better, but I don’t think you can find a purer distillation of what The Simpsons is than “Last Exit To Springfield”, and if you were to try and reduce the show to, say, five necessary episodes, this would definitely have to be one of them. If I had to use one word to describe this episode’s quality, it would be ‘effortless’; there are and will be episodes that reach for deeper emotional content, more precise satirical aims, more absurd comic heights, but this episode is like someone at a party that just throws out brilliant bon mots and deep statements with not a whit for how they’re recieved. It’s the show’s voice at its most confident.

Now if you’ll all excuse me, I’m gonna punch Lenny in the back of the head.

Chalkboard Gag: Mud is not one of the four food groups.
Couch Gag: The couch turns into a monster that swallows the family.

This episode was written by Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarsky and directed by Mark Kirkland. This was the last episode those two would write. One of my favourite acting moments in the show is Harry Shearer’s reading of the line “Atoms. One, two, three, four – six of them!”. I also love how Hank Azaria’s dentist sounds like he’ll burst into rage at any second. Best unity of performance and animation goes to Grampa’s “onion on my belt” monologue – Dan Castellaneta drifts in and out, interrupts himself, and breaks his throughline, and the animators back him up by having Grampa gesticulate, shift his facial expression, and lean in and out (Family Guy often goes for the same kind of joke, and while Seth MacFarlane is actually up to Castellaneta’s level, the dead-eyed animation means it just kind of drags).

Originally, the dentist was offered to Anthony Hopkins and Clint Eastwood, who both turned it down, and Anthony Perkins accepted the role before coming down with a sudden case of death. The original panellist was to be OJ Simpson, but he turned it down, which the producers would come to feel relief about when he was tried for murder. I was wrong about the Yellow Submarine stuff being a creative riff; in fact, it was different for legal reasons. I stand by the effect though.

There’s a reference to the myth that Jimmy Hoffa was murdered and buried under a football stadium. Gummy Joe’s voice is a dead-on impression of [if you can read this, I forgot to look up the name of that guy from Rio Bravo]. Homer imagines himself in a scene from The Godfather. Lisa dreams a scene referencing Yellow Submarine, and when she wakes up she recreates a scene from Batman ‘89. Burns recreates the ending from How The Grinch Stole Christmas. It’s not a reference to anything in particular, but the ending is a parody of old sitcoms that felt the need to end episodes with everyone laughing together at a dumb joke. The title is a reference to the book Last Exit To Brooklyn. Mr Burns quotes Star Trek Moby Dick. The vulture in Mr Burns conservatory is a reference to Citizen Kane.

Lisa’s protest song was used in earnest during protests in Argentina in 2017.

Iconic Moments: 5. “DENTAL PLAN” / “Hired goons?” / “It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times?!” / “I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time.” / “Now do Classical Gas!”
Biggest Laugh: Going by ‘how much of my life I’ve spenty laughing at a particular joke when it randomly occured to me’, “Hired goons?” and “Blurst of times” would be the winners. “Hired goons” in particular is one of those jokes where I couldn’t explain to you why it’s so funny, and I’m fairly certain any attempt to replicate the structure of the joke would just destroy it. I prefer to put down which made me laugh hardest while watching the actual episode, though, which in this case was: