The Simpsons, Season Five, Episode Eighteen, “Burns’ Heir”

After a few runs of different goofy premises, I love this one for its sheer brazen hackiness and level of fantasy – some rich old man just leaving you his enormous fortune is something every kid and most adults have contemplated and hoped for. Of course, that kind of fantasy means something very specific when it’s Bart Simpson and C. Montgomery Burns, and this show can go some incredibly ridiculous places with it. Right from the opening joke, we get some utterly original absurdity – most shows would do something like Homer ‘winning’ an awful job (though I doubt they’d hit the perfect level of timing); very few would make that job industrial chimneysweep. It’s pretty amazing to me that it then spins that into some prime satire, as Homer decides the bosses must be working even harder, only to cut to Burns smoking a cigar in a bubblebath. Trickle-down economics works, it’s just it’s not money that trickles down, it’s piss. That kind of absurdity is all over this episode.

What makes it work is how the whole thing is rooted in plausible character decisions. Burns has a near-death experience that causes him to reflect on his lack of a legacy (Smithers, naturally, will be buried alive with him – love the tiny detail that the Smithers doll he uses is cowering), and so he decides to hold auditions for an heir. Bart, initially uninterested, ends up impressing Burns when he responds to rejection with his usual level of malevolence, and Burns slowly tries to worm his way into Bart’s heart with a mixture of bribery and trickery. Laid out like that, these beats feel pretty rote; what makes them work is both the warmth and sincerity (random example: Burns laughing waaay too long at the Itchy & Scratchy cartoon) and the brilliant imagination on display. The writers really have a knack now for taking each character’s personal, very strange worldview somewhere hilarious, where something is all the funnier for being exactly something that person would do. Burns has had a lot of PT Barnum to him for a long time, and so exasperatedly performing the “Let’s all go to the lobby!” song with as much sincerity as he can muster kills me; Homer laughing so hysterically at Bart getting kicked in the butt is funny because he really is that lowbrow and insensitive (note: I am also that lowbrow and insensitive. Hehe, right in the butt). Even Marge gets some great absurdity, her fantasy about Bart’s success turning into a fantasy about Lee Majors.

It’s actually really hard to put all of this into any kind of thematic context because the story is so heavily weighted towards just being funny. I can vaguely wave at how Bart is initially seduced by material wealth, is initially upset by Milhouse walking out on him, and can’t bring himself to make his Dad suffer when he’s right in front of him, but that all feels too easy. There’s something more significant to me in how Bart’s justification for turning to Burns at the end is how his destructive side is nurtured; Bart’s particular brand of smarts hasn’t served him well anywhere (great touch that Lisa tries filling the void of destruction Bart leaves behind), and Burns provides one way out of that with his endless greed. But this all feels at minimum like a nice bonus rather than anything highly developed. This is really just a vehicle for some good laughs.

Chalkboard Gag: The pledge of allegiance does not end with Hail Satan.
Couch Gag: The family bounce in like basketballs and fold out onto the couch.

This episode was written by Jace Richdale and directed by Mark Kirkland., with this being Richdale’s only writing credit on the show. Famously, this episode has a deleted scene with a robotic Richard Simmons. originally, Simmons was going to play the part until he found out he’d be a robot, at which point he backed out. The scene was the source of much discussion amongst the staff because they weren’t sure whether Simmons was too easy a target.

Classic Homer lines: “Being abusive to your family is one thing, but I will not stand idly by and watch you feed a hungry dog!” | “I did get Paul McCartney out of Wings.” / “You idiot! He was the most talented one!” I also love his genuine surprise and offence when Burns locks the door on him.

The cinema has a parody of the THX “Deep Note”, which the THX executives liked so much, they made it into an actual trailer formatted for widescreen. Burns ends up referencing A Christmas Carol when he calls out Bart to be his heir. Burns got the idea to put cameras in every house in town from the movie Silver. Bart and Burns catch Moe on camera recreating the “You talkin’ to me?’ scene from Taxi Driver. Homer’s actor is a caricature of Michael Caine. Marge’s actor negatively compares her script to Murphy Brown.

Iconic Moments: 4. “But my Mom says I’m cool.” | “Ooh, he card reads good.” | “Kids, you tried your best and failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.” | “Or what? You’ll release the dogs, or the bees, or the dogs with bees in their mouths, and when they bark they shoot bees at you?”
Biggest Laugh

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