The Simpsons, Season Eight, Episode Four, “Burns, Baby Burns”

This episode has a lesser reputation than most Golden Era Simpsons – if people talk about it at all, it’s to complain about Rodney Dangerfield coming in and taking over the show. That’s how I remembered it, so, as often happens with this show, I found myself more impressed than I expected when looking under the hood. This show has often spun a Simpsonised genre story – usually adventure stories, but also a romcom and a college comedy – and this is simply a more specific example of that. This is a Rodney Dangerfield comedy set in Springfield, not just with his typical humour, but with a slobs vs snobs dynamic, a wacky caper, and, of course, a dance ending. In fact, I would describe it as what TV Tropes would call a deconstruction of Dangerfield’s whole comic persona. Ordinarily, people use ‘deconstruction’ in that sense to mean ‘showing the realistic effects of acting like you’re in a genre story’ (and most often they use it to mean ‘genre characters are bad or stupid people’), but in this case, it’s a little more interesting than that in that it literally just pulls apart his sense of humour and explains how it works; there are a few jokes that point out the absurdity of many of the things Dangerfield does (“Hey, who am I talkin’ to?”), and there are scenes where Dangerfield ruins his relationship with Burns because of his jokes, but I really like the scene where the family start roasting Marge in his style, and then end with flattery and applause for her. Taken as a whole, this plot lays out the whole appeal of Dangerfield’s comedy: he points out the quirks of the people around him, not out of cruelty, but because it’s a funny thing that everybody ignores, and he follows his jokes up with flattery to let you what he’s pointing out is irrelevant to his overall opinion of you. It’s like a how-to guide to being Rodney Dangerfield.

(It’s funny to compare him to Jimmy Barrett on Mad Men, who is a riff on similar comedians but only apologises when someone gets angry as opposed to pre-emptively calming his target down)

At the same time, I find it charming how much “Burns, Baby Burns” genuinely works to merge it with the tone of the show in a way that doesn’t feel like oil and water (the way Hank Scorpio is completely cut off from everyone else in “You Only Move Twice”). It helps that there is already a slobs-vs-snobs dynamic in how Homer is a slob and Burns is infinitely rich; the plutocrat’s early scenes in the train are obviously setting up Larry’s boorishness interfering with his life, but they’re also perfectly in-character for who he’s been all this time, and Homer engages in destructive wacky schemes basically every other episode (thinking about it, this plot is quietly elegant in its construction). It’s one of those strange, beautiful contradictions that the show’s strong sense of individual self allows it to seamlessly play the part of someone else. This is one of the reasons I cite the show’s worldbuilding as its most underrated virtue; that ability to forge its own sense of humour out of the remnants of older senses of humour means it can recognise and incorporate specific and more complex sensibilities into itself without missing a beat. Larry Burns was always out there, and it simply took until now for him to wander into view. One of the things this all means, though, is that this is an episode about Rodney Dangerfield, and I can recognise how that might limit its appeal; not everyone has as much fun breaking down comedy as I do, so I can see why the thematic thrust might not appeal to the majority, though I do think there’s enough broad entertainment to appeal to those sitting in the cheap seats. 

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family are bubbles that float in and pop.

This episode was written by Ian Maxtone-Graham and directed by Jim Reardon. Originally, the plot was to be Burns and Grampa being in love with the same woman during WWII and that woman to have a love child, which eventually developed into “Raging Abe Simpson etc”. Dangerfield made a few changes to the script, and producer Josh Weinstein kept the annotated script, considering one of his three most prized Simpsons possessions. Larry Burns was designed to be the perfect midpoint between the real Dangerfield and Mr Burns. 

There’s something endearing about Marge genuinely having fun at the cider mill. I enjoy the unspoken detail of the cinema having disgusting sticky floors. 

The title is a reference to the Trammps song “Disco Inferno”. The cider mill is named after Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder. Homer has a puzzle of Snoopy from Peanuts. The character who recognises Burns from Yale is a reference to Dink Stover of the book Dink Stover At Yale. Several scenes riff on Caddyshack, especially the end.

Iconic Moments: Zero!
Biggest Laugh: This is an episode with a lot of little lines that caught me off-guard, like “Looks like some kind of couch.” The line that got me the most was the most casually tossed off: