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“Best. Episode. Ever!” Toonzone Talks “The Simpsons”

by on April 29, 2010

Welcome to the very first “Best. Episode. Ever!” feature at the Toonzone blog! Rather than offering the usual ranked list, for this feature our goal was very simple: get a bunch of the Toonzone staff together and let them briefly reminisce about their favorite episodes from great cartoons. No ranks, no winners and losers, just a simple symposium where animation fans appreciate animation that deserves it.

For an event like this there is no better place to start than The Simpsons, and that’s not just because of a certain catchphrase we’re subverting! For more than twenty years now, The Simpsons has entertained America and made itself beloved and famous around the world. The Simpson family is without a doubt one of the most famous on television, and whenever it finally ends it will be justifiably considered one of the greatest sitcoms ever for a very, very long time. The show’s wacky sense of humor and the even wackier denizens of Springfield have helped us laugh about a host of things, including ourselves.

With such a long and illustrious history there are no shortage of great episodes for a person to choose from, and unsurprisingly many of us had our own ideas about a personal favorite. Now that we’ve made up our minds and spoken, it’s your turn next. What’s your “Best. Episode. Ever!”?

Speedy Boris’ Choice: “Homer at the Bat”

Written by John Swartzwelder

Directed by Jim Reardon

Plot Synopsis:

Mr. Burns has a million dollar sports bet with a fellow power plant owner, so Burns recruits nine real-life baseball all-stars to play as ringers for the power plant softball team. This causes most of the regular players to be benched, including Homer. However, a series of last-minute accidents cause most of the ringers to be unavailable for the big game.

Why I Love It:

When I think of top Simpsons episodes, this season 3 outing almost immediately springs to mind. Which is interesting, because if one were to look at the outline without having seen the episode, it doesn’t look so hot. It has a large amount of guest stars, it has a deus ex machina-ish ending (Homer wins the game for the team by accidentally being hit on the head by a pitch, thus earning a walk), and the rest of the Simpson family is practically absent from the story so it’s not a good ensemble piece.

But Homer at the Bat is executed so well that all of these factors are non-issues. First of all, the guest stars play a pivotal role in the story. They’re not of the “Look! It’s _____!” variety, where they exit as quickly as they’re introduced. There’s imagination in how each of these star players is unable to play in the big baseball game. My personal favorite is Ozzie Smith vanishing from the face of the earth by falling into the Springfield Mystery Spot, truly an “out there” moment.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, it’s just downright funny. Everything from Darryl Strawberry sucking up to Burns, to the running gag of Burns ordering Don Mattingly to trim his sideburns (even though he has none to speak of, making it all the more surreal), to amusing sideline jokes like Bart telling Marge when Homer is done scratching himself so she can put the camera back on him (which takes a really long time), to the hypnotized players replying to a hypnotist in unison that it’s impossible to give more than 100%, to one of the players somehow mistaking Homer for Ken Griffey Jr. when he said Homer made the cut, all the jokes here hit the mark.

Lord Dalek’s Choice: “Cape Feare”

Written by Jon Vitti

Directed by Rich Moore

Plot Synopsis:

A mysterious stalker has been sending Bart threatening letters written in blood. Unsurprisingly, the culprit is none other than Sideshow Bob Terwilliger, the former Krusty second banana that Bart sent to jail on two previous occasions. When Bob is released on parole and begins to get dangerously close to Bart, the Simpson family is forced into witness protection in the picturesque community of Terror Lake.

Why I Love It:

A better question is: why wouldn’t I choose it? Because Cape Feare is quite simply an all-out epic of comedy. At its heart is a strong enough send up of the original Robert Mitchum film noir classic (as well as its not-so-classic Scorcese remake) CapeFear, with shots lovingly xeroxed from both films. Alf Clausen does his best Bernard Herrmann impersonation with the episode’s Emmy nominated soundtrack (still probably the single best score written for the entire series), and the voice acting, especially that of reoccurring guest star Kelsey Grammer, is even more top notch than usual.

But what really makes Cape Feare the single greatest Simpsons episode of all time is that EVERY. SINGLE. JOKE. WORKS. These days if just half the jokes work on a Simpsons show then it’s considered one of the best of the year. But Cape Feare is one of the very few episodes where not only every joke is funny, its really funny. The infamous rake gag in the middle (which has since made appearances in more recent Sideshow Bob episodes, as if they’re trying to reclaim past glories) seems randomly stupid at first. But after the joke gets started, you start to laugh like you’ve never laughed before. It’s just that flat out brilliant.

Other episodes (Mr. Plow, Crepes of Wrath, Rosebud, Marge Vs. The Monorail, Last Exit to Springfield, etc.) may hold more popularity through constant top 10 lists, but Cape Fearetruly is The Simpsons’ finest half hour. Funnily enough, it also creates a bit of a paradox as to which season is the best. The show was aired as the second episode of Season Five but originally made as part of Season Four (some older episode guides based entirely around production order even include it with the previous season) with that season’s production team leaving after it was made. So if the “Best. Episode. Ever!” was aired during Season Five than that’s the best season ever, but… it was going to be the finale of Season Four so THAT’S the best season of all time.

Wait… what? Nevermind, Cape Feare rocks. End of story. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Move along.

Jeff Harris’ Choice: “Marge vs. The Monorail”

Written by Conan O’Brien

Directed by Rich Moore

Plot Synopsis:

The citizens of Springfieldare at their rube-like best. After the EPA forced Monty Burns to pay the town $3 million, a shyster, played wonderfully by the late, great, sorely-missed Phil Hartman, plans to manipulate the easily-manipulated with dreams of greatness that could only be achieved by a monorail. Marge protests that the money could be better used to fix the roads but, as Bart noticed in the insane Music Man-parody “Monorail!,” the mob had spoken. Comedic chaos ensues as Homer, who somehow becomes the conductor of the monorail, takes it on its inaugural (and only) voyage.

Why I Love It:

Season four was just plain awesome, but Marge vs. The Monorail is what I think of when I think of The Simpsons. This episode, written by Conan O’Brien (who hosted a late-night talk show months later), showcased his own sense of humor throughout the episode. There were numerous references to the aforementioned Music Man, Star Wars, Star Trek, Beverly Hills Cop, The Untouchables, Them!, the ’89 Batman movie, and Silence of the Lambs throughout the episode without being dumbed down to brief manatee scenes that adds nothing to the story at all. It’s a textbook example of a great Simpsons episode that actually created brand new standards for the series.

It’s also because of this episode that I whenever I see my small seaport locale with a Triple-A minor league baseball team (whose team president also serves the same role of another team), a nuclear plant, a theme park once ran by a globally-known brewery, and terrible pothole-covered main roads talk about Maglevs, light-rail, and other hair-brained schemes I think about Lyle Lanley and his silver-tongued brethren looking to rob the rubes of their monies by filling their heads with pipe-dreams of grandeur.

Marge vs. The Monorail was the episode that changed The Simpsons forever.

Martianinvader’s Choice: “22 Short Films About Springfield

Written by Richard Appel, David S. Cohen, Jonathan Collier, Jennifer Crittenden, Greg Daniels, Brent Forrester, Rachel Pulido, Steve Tompkins, Bill Oakley, and Matt Groening

Directed by Jim Reardon

Plot Synopsis:

Loosely based on the then-recent indie film 32 Short Films About Glen Gould, but only in name. Rotating around the town of Springfield, it takes the basic idea of stitching shorts together into a feature.

Why I Love It:

As the seasons went on and the supporting cast grew and fleshed out, the show became less about the Simpson family and more about the town they inhabited. 22 Short Films About Springfield was the moment that came to an apex and Springfield truly became a living, breathing town.

The writing is absolutely flawless. The citizens get some of their most golden material in the series’ history out of their one-minute appearances. Burns and Smithers’ bike ride is sadistic humor at its finest. Dr. Nick’s diagnosis of Abe Simpson, while spoofing ER back then, still works today on its own. Nelson’s comeuppance is the perfect payoff not only to this episode but to his character as a whole. And just try to think about the phrase “Steamed Hams,” even after 500 viewings, without at least an involuntary smirk.

Neo Yi’s Choice: “Lisa on Ice”

Written by Mike Scully 

Directed by Bob Anderson

Plot Synopsis:

Lisa signs up for a PeeWee sports team in order to pass gym. Jealous, Bart rivals his sister in an all-out hockey war between the two.

Why I love it:

As much as The Simpsons are known for their humor, the series also had a hand on delivering emotional needs to the audience. Nothing exhibits it better then Lisa-centric episodes, but despite the title Lisa on Ice focuses on Bart as much as his sister. The episode immediately sprung to mind because it contained an array of difficult situations between the brother-sister pair that culminates in one of the most heartfelt conclusions for the show.

Everything they do to each other is intense: personal insults, fist-fights, Lisa stealing Bart’s thunder (and the attention of his peers and parents), Bart trying to one-up Lisa by taking her cherished role as gifted student, only to realize he can’t even do that, and of course, chopping off the head of Mr. Hunny Bunny (“You inhuman monster!”) The solution literally comes out of nowhere like a deus ex machina when Bart and Lisa spontaneously flashback to precious memories of their camaraderie. It’s a complete cop-out, but it’s a satisfying conclusion after 20 minutes of heated drama.

There’s still some truly hilarious moments sprinkled throughout. Such lovelies include Homer “accidentally” nabbing a bite out of Marge’s pie, the so-called monster’s island (don’t worry, it’s just a peninsula), and just about every scene of competitive, animal-like violence with the Springfielders over a kid’s hockey game. Homer chanting “Fight! Fight! Fight” while annoyingly switching Lisa’s light, Marge demanding vengeance during the final game when Bart is tripped, and for those who can’t stomach the sentimental finale, the ending finishes with a hilarious riot when the game ends in a tie.

This was Springfield at its finest.

GWOtaku’s Choice: “A Streetcar Named Marge”

Written by Jeff Martin 

Directed by Rich Moore 

Plot Synopsis:

In an attempt to get out of the house and do something new, Marge auditions for A Streetcar Named Desire. Thanks to Homer’s ignorance and indifference to her interests and needs, Marge gains the perfect motivation to play the leading role for the downtrodden and neglected character Blanche DuBois.

Why I Love It:

A Streetcar Named Marge is one of creator Matt Groening’s favorite episodes, and for my part I think it’s definitely a strong effort from the fourth season. At its heart, it’s a good story about Marge independently branching out and Homer actually learning a lesson about paying attention to someone besides himself.

The episode is helped by the fact that Homer is not a jerk here so much as he is inattentive and really, really, really thick. Marge announces her intent to audition for the play more than once early on, only for Homer and the kids to act as if they’d never heard it. More humorous are Homer’s antics during one of Marge’s rehearsals, where interrupts several times and promptly discovers the most incompetent way to use a vending machine. In bed Marge wants him to do lines with her; Homer focuses on a video game and blithely remarks “While you’re off in your own little world, you forget that others have problems too!”

Via the play and its alpha male lout Stanley Kowalski (played by, of all people, super nice guy Ned Flanders), fortunately, Homer is at least capable of comprehending the message and shows character by being clearly regretful. All ends well. Complementing things are the absurdly self-important play director Llewellyn Sinclair, a song that denigrated New Orleans to the chagrin of many, and a truly silly B plot about Maggie in the “Ayn Rand School For Tots” that abhors bottles and actual care in the name of “creating the bottle within.” What’s not to like?

Jave’s Choice: “Homer Bad Man”

Written by Greg Daniels

Directed by Jeffrey Lynch

Plot Synopsis:

Homer becomes the target of ridicule in Springfield when him grabbing a candy out of the family babysitter’s butt is interpreted in the worst possible way.

Why I Love It:

This episode is basically a satire on talk and journalism shows, most notably Hard Copy, a news/talk show that focused on celebrity scandals and often exaggerated what they showed, which “Rock Bottom” is obviously based from. By using an amazing style of humor, this episode does wonders at parodying these type of shows and entertaining the audience. It’s the absolute pinnacle of satire for the show.

When it comes to gags, be it visual or verbal, the episode literally never takes a break. Even if the main plot takes a whole act to establish itself, the entire beginning with Homer and Marge at the candy convention is filled with great gags, from “Wax Lips”, to the Demolition Man parody.

Soon afterward, Homer is accused of sexual harassment, and man does this get hilarious. The “Under the Sea” knockoff, “Gentle Ben”, “Portrait of an Ass-Grabber”, virtually nothing is left unparodied. Oh, and the “The Switchboards are lighting up!” joke. Brilliant timing there. And the ending, while some may think is a little out of nowhere, I think it adds to the surprise. Homer learning absolutely nothing was a great final touch.

This episode is definitely a must for every Simpson fan out there. They don’t make them like this anymore.

Matthew Williams’ Choice: “Lisa’s Wedding”

Written by Greg Daniels

Directed by Jim Reardon 

Plot Synopsis:

In the year 2010, a grown-up Lisa becomes engaged to a charming British lad named Hugh. However, Lisa’s family fails to live up even to Hugh’s low expectations, and Lisa is forced to choose between her family and her lover.

Why I Love It:

Lisa’s Wedding isn’t a typical episode, due to its flash-forward premise. It could have been a foray into wackiness like the Halloween specials, but the writers smartly decided to focus on the characterization first. This may not be an episode about the Simpsons as we usually see them, but I can’t think of any other episode that so skillfully showcases the mixture of humor and heart that made the show the greatest comedy to appear on American television.

Back before Homer had to remember to breathe, and back before the family visited every continent on the planet, this was a show about a fairly realistic human family. There were exaggerations – Homer’s stupidity, Lisa’s genius – but only slight ones. Moreover, it was easy to sympathize with these characters. We see a little bit of ourselves in Homer’s childlike essence, Lisa’s quiet genius, and Bart’s rebelliousness. The drawings may be two dimensional, but the Simpson family is entirely three dimensional.

This realism and emotion forms the core of Lisa’s Wedding. It may be set in the future, but it’s not simply about “what Springfield and the Simpsons would be like in the future.” Instead, it’s about what would happen if Lisa fell in love, and the conflict between her ideal lover and her less than ideal family. Moreover, it’s true to the characters: it may be a 20-something Lisa, but it’s still unmistakably Lisa. The same goes for Homer and Bart – older, wider, but the same. And the Hugh character – Mandy Patankin in one of the show’s great guest performances – works much better as an infiltrator and critic than later attempts (mainly Frank Grimes).

But for all of its emotional depth, this is one funny episode. The jokes do not stop, and nearly all of them connect – the writers seem to be energized by the premise. There are jabs at media consolidation, the treatment of celebrities, European driving habits, school overcrowding, and robots. There are some great character bits – Otto owning his own cab company (for which former Mayor Quimby is a driver), Maggie as a rebellious teen who can’t shut up (but we never hear her voice), and Mr. Burns waiting to be cryogenically unfrozen after they find the cure for 17 stab wounds in the back. (Well, they’re up to 15.) But perhaps the best bit is a particularly brutal skewering of advertising in schools – an overcrowded classroom witnesses a math lesson become an advertisement for Pepsi.

This could have been lame. This could have just been mindlessly funny. But it’s funny and emotional, and that’s what makes it great.

Super Leviathan’s Choice: “Treehouse of Horror V”

Written by Greg Daniels, Dan McGrath, David S. Cohen, and Bob Kushell

Directed by Jim Reardon

Plot Synopsis:

A trilogy of horror stories enacted by the Simpsons family. In “The Shinning”, Homer is driven to the brink of murderous insanity by a lack of TV and Beer. In “Time and Punishment”, Homer, first unwittingly and then intentionally, screws up the time stream with the advent of a toaster capable of time travel. In “Nightmare Cafeteria”, the Springfield Elementary faculty discover cannibalism and devour the student body.

Why I Love It:

This is the first Simpsons memory I have concrete memories of; it is also probably the scariest, the most credible, and the most laugh-out-loud funny Treehouse of Horror segment of them all. Instead of going for more fantastic horror elements such as alien abductions or vampires, this special goes for a more realistic kind of horror that grabs attention on a primal level.

The “Shinning”, of course, spoofs “The Shining.” Some of the humor is pretty conventional, but the rest of it is macabre to an extent I’ve never really seen from the Simpsons, such as Mr. Burns being unfazed by a gushing torrent of blood coming out of one of his elevators. The visual acting here is also sublime, such as when Marge confronts the fully homicidal Homer. He “goes crazy” and flashes one truly deranged facial expression after another before passing out at his own mirror reflection.

The second segment, “Time and Punishment”, is more traditional, with Homer repeatedly invoking the butterfly effect in his travels. The best parts of this one are the cameos of fellow cartoon time-travelers Mr. Peabody and Sherman, but in terms of horror, it’s actually pretty mild. Supreme Overlord Ned Flanders ordering lobotomies from his underlings is probably the most disturbing part, since we see we see a childlike Moe baby-talking to the removed portion of his brain, and the rest of the Simpsons clan in an almost zombified state. The infamous scene with the James Earl Jones-voiced Maggie axing Groundskeeper Willie is also a cut-up.

“Nightmare Cafeteria” just makes my flesh crawl, but in a good way. This short really plays up the horror of schoolteachers cannibalizing their students, and although the carnage is more implied than depicted, images such as the grossly fat Ms. Krabappel and the detention kids locked in cages barely larger than them are unforgettably evocative. Skinner almost lustfully saying how he’s finally going to fulfill Bart’s “request” of eating his shorts is also a nice ironic echo of a cherished Simpsons trademark.

The single most horrifying part of the entire special is without a doubt the ending, where the whole Simpsons family is turned inside out by a mysterious fog. They sing twisted lyrics to the song “One” from “A Chorus Line” while the now bloody and pink Bart is mauled by Santa’s Little Helper and presumably dragged off to dispatch. Given how mild and unfrightening animated Halloween specials usually are, I think it’s absolutely heartwarming how the Simpsons writers felt it necessary to close out the special with a prime cut of High Octane Nightmare Fuel.

This is also probably the goriest The Simpsons has ever gotten outside of Itchy and Scratchy. I was surprised that this was not only deliberate, but also series runner David Mirkin’s way of thumbing his nose at bored Congressmen whining about the level of violence in The Simpsons. It’s rare that an insider tidbit can make an already great episode even better, but there you go.

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