Well, here we are. When people talk about the wackiness of the Golden Age and season five in particular, this is the one they point to first: the one where Homer goes to space. On paper, I guess you could see it as a betrayal of the show’s exploration of blue-collar ennui, but it really works for me. The whole thing is kicked off with a satirical edge that plays into exactly what this show has always been about; NASA is frustrated with how nobody’s interested in the space program anymore, and decides that America is intimidated by and resentful of successful, intelligent, hardworking astronauts, and to find more of a ‘dumb slob’ style of astronaut. These are two completely different attitudes wrapped up in one joke – on the one hand, the general condescending paternalistic attitude the rich have towards the poor and working class, which the Simpsons crew would have come into contact with a lot via network executives. On the other, the actual specific braindead slobs in the working class represented by Homer, who do actually harbour resentment towards successful and intelligent people.
It’s kind of a cheat to have it both ways (and for me to claim it both ways), but this is a situation where there is a group of people who are poor because they’re lazy and resent the successful for having seemingly magical qualities they do not, but tarring all poor people with that brush is at best not especially helpful. The Simpsons conveys that Homer personally wants some kind of recognition or success for reasons that are both understandable and unjustified – a literal carbon rod is getting an award he isn’t. If you’ll forgive me bringing up America’s first orange president, this is the kind of person characterised as one of Trump’s voters: someone who was told they could be a winner by doing the bare minimum and found it wasn’t enough (the fact that I’m describing a character from a show released in 1994 makes me think this kind of person existed a long time before 2016). This episode shows how ridiculous his desires are, based not on what he needs but on what he wants (Epicurus would be pissed). To put it another way, The Simpsons mocks Homer for his individual flaws, and the society around him for its systemic ones.
Of course, the other reason it works is because it’s all just an excuse for hilarious absurdity. I’m still deeply impressed with how the show can find so many places to put jokes where nobody would even think (“Make-rocket-go-now!”) or extending jokes slightly further than what other shows would (like Homer’s conversation with President Clinton, bringing back his “Shut up!” with perfect timing). The space launch television show is another perfect riff on boringness (“And we laugh legitimately!”); the plot gets some laughs out of showing what Barney might be like if he quit drinking. I think my favourite offhand line in the whole thing is the ants apparently screaming “Freedom! Horrible, horrible freedom!”. For The Simpsons, satire and real emotion are fuel for comedy.
Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: A very fat man is already sitting on the couch, and the family shove in next to him.
This episode was written by David Mirkin and directed by Carlos Baeza. This is Mirkin’s only actual writing credit. It was based on the cancelled Teachers In Space project. Buzz Aldrin and James Taylor guest-star as themselves, and even share killer dialogue together. The potato chip sequence was directed by David Silverman.
The episode is available for astronauts to watch on the International Space Station. You know, if you need to a reason to go. A killer line that only just didn’t make my biggest laugh: “Of course he’ll make it, it’s TV!” There are two ways to take that: my first response was ‘Yeah, this is just a TV show and obviously he’ll make it’, and I had to think to realise that Grampa apparently believed Homer’s disaster to just be a TV show.
There are multiple references to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Homer watches an Itchy & Scratchy episode that references Star Trek, Alien, and 2001.
Iconic Moments: 5. “A shiny new donkey for whoever brings me the head of Colonel Montoya!” | “This inanimate carbon rod!” | “I figured if anyone knew where to get some Tang, it’d be you.” | “In a way, you’re both winners. But in another, more accurate way, Barney is the winner.” | “And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.”