The Simpsons, Season Five, Episode Four, “Rosebud”

My main takeaway from this episode is how uniquely Simpsons it feels. One big thing I personally value in a television show is a sense of identity; a sense that this is what we do, this is what we don’t do; as a result we get stories that could only happen here, in this way. “Rosebud” manages to hit all different parts of the Simpsons identity, making it a kind of all-rounder, hitting so many standard Simpsons beats, emotionally and comedically. I don’t think it’s the best episode of the show (although it’s definitely in the top ten percent just of the Golden Era), but it is the one I would use to introduce a new viewer to the show, to say “this is what it does, this is what it is”.

Chiefly, of course, there’s the sense of humour of the whole thing. If I were a pretentious nerd, and I am exactly a pretentious nerd, I’d call post-vaudeville – not just a slapstick mentality, and not just a slapstick mentality that applies itself to a much wider range of topics, but a slapstick mentality that knows that you know the cliches of the form and can make the jokes either go in a completely different yet equally logical direction (see my biggest laugh), or can push them one step further into absurdity (responding to “It can’t get any worse” with something worse is easy, having Smithers specifically use the phrase “report for much worse duties” is between one and ten degrees funnier).

But there’s also, as always, the sense of morality, and even better the episode hits a few different kinds of Simpsons morality at once. Once again, Homer is caught between his love for his family and his greed, and once again, his moral conundrum is resolved much faster the second time around. A first time viewer would simply get a good, fast-paced story; we regulars get the pleasure of seeing an older idea get pushed even further as we and Homer have to deal with the consequences of choosing family over self-gratification, and in this case it’s even sweeter because the family really could use whatever Burns has to give (though that didn’t work out last time). Even the traditional Simpsons angry mob can see why Homer can’t bring himself to upset his daughter. In the world of The Simpsons, family is what it’s all about, though the potential corniness is avoided by leaning into it until it becomes absurd (“Hey everyone, let’s go sing at the hospital!”).

Next to this is the righteous anger at Mr Burns, cleverly done by showing things from his perspective. His Citizen Kane-esque drive to find Bobo is initially sympathetic, but even before he sets out to ruin Homer’s life for it, Burns takes out his bad mood on everyone around him (favourite detail in this vein: the dystopian goon squad that breaks up the party), and his wrath is downright apocalyptic. Burns also had the choice between family and money, and he chose money a very long time ago (“Let’s roll!”); the episode gets a lot of jokes out of how powerful and selfish Burns is, with my favourite in this vein being Burns claiming to be short of money, only for a pile of gold and treasure to collapse on him (“As you can see, this old place is falling apart.”).

What’s interesting is how this anger at the unfairness of Burns’ actions is never allowed to get in the way of his story. Again, there’s a genuine compassion for Burns’ need for his childhood bear, and when he relates to Maggie as a fellow human being, she gives him Bobo for no reward whatsoever, and it feels right and appropriate, despite, as Homer points out, not fully squaring together into a happy ending. This ending is really a redo of “Blood Feud”, where the Simpson family puzzle over the meaning of the events of the episode before giving up. It’s more succinct, and to my mind more profound because of it; “It’s an ending. That’s enough,” is something I end up telling myself when a situation feels like it lacks any emotional closure but I have to move on anyway. Sometimes life is messy and difficult.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family find their doubles already sitting there

This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Wes Archer. This is the first episode David Mirkin produced, and the jokes really have that style beloved commentor Corporal Hicks observed last week, seeming to set up one joke only to take a hard left – my biggest laugh in particular has that feel. Originally, Bobo’s backstory had more elements, including Bobo being part of JFK’s assassination, but they were cut for being in bad taste. The futuristic ending (which totally freaked me out as a kid) not only calls forward to Futurama, with Burns’ head pickled in a jar, a deleted aspect involved the world being overrun with spotted owls, which would become a classic Futurama background joke. Hold onto your good ideas, kids.

The Ramones cameo as the Rolling Stones. Large parts of this episode parody Citizen Kane. Guards outside Burns’ house sing and march like the guards in The Wizard Of Oz. The ending parodies Planet Of The Apes. Burns and Smithers trying to sneak into the Simpson home parodies Mission: Impossible. Iconically, Burns and Homer reference The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo. Mr Burns is apparently related to George Burns.

I didn’t go into it much, but the whole first act delves into Homer’s terrible sense of humour, which always gets a big laugh out of me.

Iconic Moments: 4. “Bring back Sheriff Lobo!” | “Have the Rolling Stone killed.” | “Sixty-four slices of American cheese.” | “Smithers, I’m home!” / “What? Already?” / “Yes.”
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This is another wonderful moment of me not only laughing myself sick when I saw it as a kid, I laughed myself sick every time I remembered it, and laughed myself sick seeing it again, and laughed myself sick getting the images. It’s partly the line zagging instead of zigging (and yet still being exactly what Homer would do), partly the wonderfully startled animation, partly the dramatic coaxial cut, partly the editing making it too fast to predict what’s going to happen, and partly Dan Castellanetta genuinely stressing the last line the hardest as if Homer was startled by a realisation.