Homer enters a mid-life crisis after realizing he’s exactly half as old as the life expectancy for the average American male. “I’ve wasted half my life,” he laments, feeling he has done nothing of worth. “Half my life gone and I’m only guaranteed 38 more years.” His family tries to cheer him up with a party and a movie of his life’s highlights, which fails to cheer him but thanks to a series of contrivances, he walks away with a new and tedious-to-everyone-else fascination with Edison. He decides he will make his life worthwhile by becoming an inventor.
After a considerable amount of struggling, Homer debuts four of his inventions. None of them impress the family, two actively piss off the faimly, and one – an electric hammer – nearly kills Homer himself. Only by mistake does he show them his only competent product: a chair with two additional hinged legs that prevent the sitter from falling backwards while tipping. Homer believes he has found a product to rival any of Edison’s, instead to realize that Edison had created a chair just like his own.
In a fit of rage, he travels with Bart to the Edison museum to destroy the only copy of Edison’s chair. Upon arriving, he discovers that as much as he wants to catch up with Edison and his accomplishments, Edison wanted to catch up with Leonardo da Vinci, and never did. “This old-timey nerd and I have suffered the same frustration and heartache,” Homer rationalizes. “We’re not rivals. We’re just a couple of dreamers who set the bar a little too high.” He and Bart leave more or less happy, discussing which inventor’s museum they should trash instead.
In what amounts to a stinger, a news program reveals that Homer’s escapade has led to the discovery of Edison’s chair, as well as to the attribution to Edison of the electric hammer, which Homer left at the scene of the crime.
What if Jerk-Ass Homer is merely part of a bigger problem? When we talk about the Flanderization of Flanders, we mean that a few of his character traits have been magnified and expanded upon at the expense of other traits, and that his character has become far less nuanced. What if Homer has been Homerized?
I don’t mean to imply that he was ever a man of subtle details. But latter-day Homer is almost fully defined by the dizzying highs and terrifying lows, when he used to be more capable of creamy middles. He’s never just Homer any more – he’s always Homer to the Max. And it’s nearly impossible to wring anything more than perfunctory drama out of a character who doesn’t experience conflict so much as he vacillates between polar extremes.
In this episode, for example: he hits low points when he discovers he’s mathematically middle-aged, when his invention demonstration goes poorly, when he realizes Edison invented the six=legged chair first, and when he sees that Edison posthumously stole his hammer. He hits high points when he becomes fascinated with Edison, when he thinks his chair is a scientific breakthrough, and (to a lesser extent) when he finds a quantum of solace in Edison’s own shortcomings. No shades of gray at all.
Besides that, there’s the problem that as much as Burns is infinitely rich, old, and evil, Homer has over the years become infinitely dumb. It’s a great source of gags, but it completely robs him of his ability to grow. (It’s telling that one of the best Homer episodes of the post-golden era, HOMR, features Homer temporarily un-dumbing himself before he can have any kind of meaningful insight.) The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace ends with Homer learning absolutely nothing, because he’s been written to be incapable of learning, and any potential for pathos is wiped away.
But Is It Funny?
It really is! A few gags fall flat, but the ones that work are strong enough for me to give this one a recommendation.
The clear highlight is the invention demo in the way it shows how Homer’s shortcomings as an inventor. The hammer creates some terrific physical comedy as it punches holes in the wall and attempts to attack and dethrone its creator; it also does a poor job of solving a problem nobody has. The “everything’s okay” alarm is a UX nightmare, loudly providing information when none is needed and providing no information when it’s needed most (and it breaks easily). And finally, “for the woman who only has four-fifths of a second to get ready,” there’s the make-up gun.
As a stupid American man, Homer is exactly the kind of person to think a gun will solve all his problems. We saw that earlier in The Cartridge Family, and earlier in And Maggie Makes Three, when he uses a shotgun to entice people to go bowling. So for him to not only invent a make-up gun, but to design to closely resemble a shotgun, is exactly what we might reasonably expect from him. His inability to read the room (“This time, try to keep your nostrils closed … oh, look what you did. Now I have to go get my cold cream gun”) solidifies this as a pinnacle in Homeric obliviousness.
Ned: “No, Homer wasn’t a great man … nor even an adequate man, and he certainly never accomplished anything. Uh, President Lenny, you have anything to say?”
President Lenny: “Nah.”
Ned: “All right. Fair enough. Toss ‘im in the hole, boys.”
Lisa: “There you are in outer space. That’s pretty impressive.”
Homer: “Eh. All we did was grow some space tomatoes and sabotage Mir.”
Bart: “Remember when you almost became heavyweight champ?”
Homer: “… no.”
Marge: “All right already! Everyone knows the man accomplished a lot. Maybe because he didn’t spend every waking moment talking about Thomas Edison.”
Homer: “Oh, that’s where you’re wrong, Marge. He was a shameless self-promoter.”
Marge: “I brought you a tuna sandwich. They say it’s brain food. I guess because there’s so much dolphin in it, and you know how smart they are.”
Homer, pulling out of the driveway: “Taking Bart cross state lines. Back soon.”
Homer, peeling away: “I took your wallet!”
Tour guide: “How many geniuses does it take to invent a lightbulb? Just one: Thomas Edison.”
Tourist #1: “That’s very good.”
Tourist #2: “And that’s true too. It’s funny and true.”
Tour guide: “Now behind that door is Edison’s actual preserved brain. Ordinarily, folks, tour groups are not allowed to see it … and of course, today will be no exception. Now no tour would be complete without a visit to Edison’s boyhood gift shop.”
I skipped the toilet chair because it’s not very funny. And the episode’s last gag is particularly uninspired – have you ever been so angry you shit? Neither have I. And he didn’t even pull his pants down – good for us as viewers, but it eliminates the chair’s only benefit. I mean, you can crap your pants anywhere.
I like the idea of Homer usually consoling himself by eating a bag of sugar, but deciding he would settle for a bag of flour instead as punishment.
Homer’s repeated refusal to consider the raising of his three children an accomplishment is moderately funny, but also lies on the jerkier and less pleasant side of his personality.
Homer’s incessant talk of Edison interrupts Lenny’s story immediately after the line “So this broad stands up in the ocean, and this big wave knocks her bathing suit off.” I think we can all be glad he didn’t get the chance to finish that one.
I wouldn’t have objected if Homer’s surprising amount of knowledge on Edison became a running gag, in the style of his inexplicable obsession with Supreme Court justices.
“Dad, women won’t want to be shot in the face.”
Bart learns something about caring for a monster in “Bart the Mother.”