The Simpsons, Season Seven, Episode XX, “Mother Simpson”

You know, I never actually thought about how the Sixties hang over The Simpsons before now. In fact, a lot of the imagery and ideas it riffs on are hangovers from the Fifties – the house in the suburbs with 2.5 kids and a white picket fence and a perfectly manicured lawn and all that jazz, as well as the Wholesome American TV Family (though to be fair, that’s also an Eighties phenomenon). And my stance is that the show isn’t so much liberal as it is burned out on conservative ideals drawn from that era. But I suppose you could also interpret the show as being set in a world that remembers the hippies of the Sixties, and remembers their failure. Hippies are the absolute bottom of the pop culture food chain – a shot so cheap and easy that even members of the Gang on Always Sunny are allowed to own them without complication. It worth contrasting this episode with Futurama’s general attitude. If The Simpsons is a disaffected leftist Boomer, Futurama is the disaffected Gen X-er, too young to remember hippies personally but old enough to resent living in the world they left behind (“You can’t own property, man!” / “I can! But that’s because I’m not a penniless hippie!”). I don’t have any pop culture to refer to here, but my personal experience is that Millenials use hippies as a cheap punching bag but have lost any specific feeling towards them, like Americans who use the French for joke fodder despite the fact that relations between the countries have been stable for decades.

This episode, though, presents Mona Simpson as an embodiment of the spirit of the Sixties. It makes jokes about the details of her arc – her awakening coming because of Joe Namath’s sideburns is great – but she’s a genuine positive force in the world, both generally and within the Simpson home. It’s most visibly obvious in her instant rapport with Lisa, but I like that her story has something to appeal to every family member; Marge is delighted (kinda) to have a mother-in-law, making her a little more normal, and Bart would surely get a massive kick out of a grandma who lived a life of crime. Mona is a brilliant anti-authoritarian idealist with boundless maternal and avianal warmth who rejected the average family life in favour of a greater good; she’s the Simpsons equivalent to Obi-Wan, a distant source of goodness and wisdom, and she’s a specifically Sixties-flavoured example of goodness. Her failure isn’t so much because of the flaws of her ideals or the execution of them, it’s that big business and industry – as represented by the infinitely old, infinitely evil Mr Burns – is just that big and unstoppable. Later generations would dismiss the hippies as an inherently bad idea; the Boomers that made The Simpsons were more sympathetic.

Of course, Mona is also a representation of the warm family life Homer missed out on. I actually like that this doesn’t really serve as an explanation for him so much as highlighting the clear hole in his life; it would be easy to say Homer missed out on X, Y, and Z, and that’s why he’s an impulsive hedonist, but aside from a stray “D’oh!”, the episode never even considers using her to explain Homer (in fact, it spends more time explaining Lisa!). Instead, this acts as another expression of Homer’s big heart. This is famous as an episode that makes people cry, and it’s because of that same quality that keeps Homer sympathetic through his broader comedy: he’s so sincere and straightforward about what he wants. In this case, what he wants is entirely fair and hurts nobody, so it’s impossible not to feel heartbroken when he loses it. That’s why the final shot hit people right in the soul. Aside from faking his own death to get out of work, Homer did nothing wrong the whole episode and still lost. He couldn’t overcome Burns any more than his mother could. The shot frames him as tiny within a large, empty universe – a small and very sad speck who can only witness his insignificance. We’ve all been there.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family are planted in by a bowling pin machine.

This episode was written by Richard Appel and directed by David Silverman. Appel named Mona after his wife at the time. Glenn Close guest stars as Mona, and she brings so much warmth and kindness to the role (though my favourite line reading is the horror and disgust she puts into “Oh Abe, you’ve aged terribly!”). Harry Morgan guest stars as his character from Dragnet. The joke about Homer inexplicably knowing who Walt Whitman is is one of David Silverman’s favourites.

I ran right over that whole first act, but it’s some downright comic brilliance – I love that they can reduce a satire of both corporation pushing a false image of social awareness and the lazy destructiveness of the individual down to a few lines: (“I can’t believe I’m spending my Saturday picking up garbage. I mean, half these bottles ain’t even mine!”), and there’s a magnificent riff on the “That’s good, that’s bad” joke where the final punchline feels like it breaks the rhythm hilariously (“And stealing his pants!” is like throwing an extra two beats on a measure at the end of a verse). And Homer’s eventual decision of what to do with his Saturday is so weirdly specifically inane!

 Three songs are used to sell us on the Sixties: “Sunshine Of Your Love” by Cream, “Blowin’ In The Wind” by Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along The Watchtower”. Mona read Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman. Mona mentions having worked for Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, and Tom Hayden. The radicals use a Siro Agnew alarm clock for their bomb, which apparently did exist. Burns’ headgear when chasing down Mona is based on a photograph of Michael Dukakis. Burns’ tries to storm the Simpson house to “Ride Of The Valkyries” in reference to Apocalypse Now, only for it to turn out Smithers accidentally taped “Waterloo” by ABBA over it. Maggie’s fancing is a reference to Laugh-In.

Iconic Moments: 3. “Yes, I’d like to send this letter to the Prussian consulate in Siam by aeromail. Am I too late for the 4:30 autogyro?” | “Do I know what rhetorical means?” | Homer sitting on his car at the end.
Biggest Laugh: I get why people cite “Four Krusties!” as a perfect gag, but this is definitely my Platonic ideal of a joke. Not only is it my biggest laugh of the episode, it might be one of my biggest Simpsons laughs ever, putting in the running for one of my biggest laughs ever.