The Simpsons, Season Five, Episode Three, “Homer Goes To College”

I’m beginning to see what you all mean when you divide the Golden Age into smaller units – this is one of the silliest episodes we’ve had so far without actually delving into a musical number or an all-star softball team. Somehow, the comparatively ordinary storyline (Homer goes to… an institute of higher learning) makes the silliness stand out even more. If this had been a season two or three plot, we’d have had a wacky teacher, some funny lessons, parodies of academia, I think. Here, we have Homer somehow cause a nuclear meltdown despite there being no nuclear material in the simulation he’s using, and managing to shake off radiation when he realises it’s lunchtime. What we’re seeing here is a slight shift in comedic logic, from a heightened naturalism where Springfield can be expected to work like the real world (and then that’s either confirmed or subverted for Laffs) to something where you could actually have reason to use the word ‘postmodern’.

I was thinking about this because of the joke where Burns tries bribing the Nuclear Regulatory commissioners as if he’s the host of a cheesy game show. We are now outside the realm of real-world logic and into “TV, but moreso” – instead of jokes coming from characters reacting to things absurdly, it comes from switching the logic from ordinary business to The Price Is Right. It’s a very difficult joke to pull off – I normally use this moment to dump on Family Guy but honestly so many comedy writers of my generation, including me and including post-Golden Era Simpsons have struggled to pull off that kind of humour, and I believe this episode nails it, and I believe it’s because the whole thing is held together by character. This particular joke is held together by the fact that Burns is a showman and a charlatan and it feels like he would try bribing someone this way if he could; this episode is held together by Homer.

I’ve said before that the voice of The Simpsons takes pleasure in knowing things just for its own sake, and that Homer is outside the voice of the show in that he’s impulsive and thoughtless. Homer and the show come together in two ways: first, both are very much in touch with their feelings. More relevant to this essay, though, is that both have a deep love of pop culture; where they differ on this is that the show understands that the real world doesn’t work like movies, while Homer actually specifically seeks out pop culture to teach him how the world works – in this episode, when Homer goes to… tertiary education, he looks up terrible Animal House ripoffs with the intent of recreating the experience with himself as the star. The famous thing about postmodernism is how easily it can go up its own ass (think of that great line from Shirley in Community, “That sound like a great film… for filmmakers.”), but this story is less about those particular movies and more about a guy who tries recreating pop culture in the face of all evidence that this is not one of those stories.

In fact, the plot is practically It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia in proto-form, in how hard Homer commits to the narrative he makes up in his head (also, in how his solution to a zany scheme going wrong is an even zanier scheme) – I think the funniest plot point (as opposed to, like, one-liner) is him falling in with nerds without realising it despite being fervently anti-nerd, but I also get a real kick out of Homer being tripped up by how the college kids are responsible and emotionally sensitive, because that’s a joke I think will age perfectly. Ten years ago, it was funny because college kids were wild party animals and so it subverted something I knew; here in 2018, my perception is that college kids do exactly what they do in this episode, so now the joke’s even more on Homer.

College comedies might have fallen out of popularity as we have become more aware of things like ‘passing grades’, ‘not being a douchebag’, and ‘consent’, but as long as we tell stories, there will be people trying to recreate those stories in the real world and not quite getting that they’re not pulling it off. How many wannabe Captain Picards have you met, thinking they’re righteously smacking down Evil when they’re just being really obnoxious? How many wannabe Sherlock Holmeseseses have you met who thought they were totally dismantling someone when they were just flagrantly making shit up? How many wannabe Homer Simpsons have you met who were aiming to be as funny as him but just landed in boorish? I know these people exist because I have both met and been them, and so “Homer Goes To College” will always be funny.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family are crushed by the Monty Python foot.

This episode was written by Conan O’Brien (oh, that’s why it’s so wacky) and directed by Jim Reardon. This was O’Brien’s final sole writing credit before leaving to host Late Night. The three nerds were based on three of O’Brien’s friends in college, and Benjamin is a black version of Simpsons director Rich Moore.

Love that scene of Bart and Lisa watching Itchy & Scratchy together, holding hands, perfectly capturing both the awe we can give TV shows and what can happen when siblings are perfectly in sync.

Homer chasing squirrels when he had the option of studying more unfortunately reflects my actual attempts at higher education.

Once again, the less gifted in an organisation are simply shoved in a basement to get them out of the way. I know Matt Groening has a childhood story he loves to tell, when his Scouts (or Weebalo?) leader took him aside and told him “Matt, you’re the worst one here,” and he responded “Well, someone’s gonna be the worst. Might as well be me.” You can really see his influence in this kind of cynicism. Of course, I also wonder how many Simpsons writers found themselves locked in the basement when the executives came around the studio.

I love the joke where Burns tries to use his trapdoor, only to discover the painters moved his desk. It’s in the same vein as Sideshow Bob last episode, that these characters have become icons themselves, and we can make jokes about expectations that have been built up over five seasons. And it’s not even my favourite trap door joke!

One thing that hasn’t aged well since 1992: jokes about modem sounds.

There are multiple references to Animal House, including the use of “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen. The nerds reference Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Trek (with the classic nerd argument, Kirk vs Picard), the 80’s arcade game Berzerk. Burns telling Homer to “find the jade monkey” is a reference to The Maltese Falcon. The game show he’s referencing is Let’s Make A Deal. Burns’ escape pod is a reference to Star Wars, and his attempt to beat a guy with a baseball bat is a reference to The Untouchables.

Iconic Moments: 2 “I am so smart! I am so smart! S-M-R-T! I mean S-M-A-R-T!” | Homer yelling “NEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERD!” out of a window. “Hey pal, did you get a load of the nerd?”
Biggest Laugh:

(There are a lot of times where the joke is on Homer for laughing at something inane, and this is my favourite)