Can Greatness Just Be Funny? – The Simpsons and “Marge on the Lam” (s05e06)

 

Mike Scully is, however unfairly, the bête noire of The Simpsons in the eyes of the show’s most ardent fans. Scully was the series’ showrunner for seasons 9-12, and he shoulders much of the blame for the show’s decline. One of the most frequent criticisms leveled against Scully is that he had no mind for story or character. Instead, the episodes under his watch have been slammed as nothing more than joke after joke with no deeper grounding in storytelling or consistent characterization to add color or depth to the comedy.

But Mike Scully was hired by a man who has both faced similar criticisms and presided over some of the show’s peak years. David Mirkin joined The Simpsons as the series’ showrunner for seasons 5 and 6. He brought with him a brand new staff, including Mike Scully, after the departure of most of the show’s stalwart writers from the first four seasons.

Mirkin was known for having few concerns about realism in The Simpsons. His only writing credit on the show is for “Deep Space Homer” an outlandish (and subsequently lampshaded) tale where Homer’s angry crank calls somehow lead to him joining N.A.S.A. and launching into space with Buzz Aldrin. While the show’s most devoted fans look back on Mirkin’s tenure fondly, some of those same diehards point to this lack of grounding and diminish him in comparison to other showrunners from the series history. In fact, a recurring criticism of David Mirkin is that he was merely “Mike Scully with better jokes.”

“Marge on the Lam” was the first episode produced under his watch, and it does little to contradict this narrative of Mirkin leading a “nothing but gags” administration. The episode is jam-packed with jokes, many of them pretty outrageous, and story and heart clearly take a backseat to the humor.

 

Except this scene, which is clearly full of heart and consistent characterization.

 

That’s not to say that the episode doesn’t have a tidy little plot. In the episode, Marge befriends her more adventurous neighbor, Ruth Powers,1 and their girls’ night out hits a speed bump when the two run into trouble with the law. That’s also not to say that the episode doesn’t have solid emotional touches here and there. Homer’s story in the episode centers on his feeling jealous and abandoned when Marge goes off with her new friend, quickly realizing that he’s lost without his best friend and soulmate.

The focus of the episode, however, is squarely on the comedy. The plot featuring Marge and Ruth is a thinly veiled opportunity to thoroughly parody Thelma and Louise. Homer’s plight is an excuse to have him act like a manchild and pal around with the equally bumbling Chief Wiggum. In the process, Homer gets stuck inside two vending machines, Marge visits a diner patronized exclusively be renegade women on the run, and Chief Wiggum survives driving his car off a cliff by landing in a giant pile of solid waste.

And it’s all damn funny.

“Marge on the Lam” is not considered one of The Simpsons’ seminal episodes, but it’s as laugh-worthy a twenty-two minutes as you’ll find in the show’s canon. There’s fun rapid fire gags like Homer’s misguided attempts to arrange his own “girl’s night out” with Lenny (shaving his girlfriend’s legs), Mr. Burns (lounging girlishly on his bedroom floor and saying it “sounds delish”), and even Ned Flanders (who Homer calls, only to immediately realize the error of his ways and hang up). There’s great absurdist humor like Homer picturing the ballet as a bear in a fez driving around a little car and hooting with delight during his daydream. There’s a great performance from the always irrepressible Phil Hartman as Lionel Hutz who declares that he’s “still got it” after negotiating a babysitting fee of eight dollars, two popsicles from the freezer, and an old birdcage he found while rummaging through The Simpsons’ garbage.

 

The joke is that Homer was actually thinking of the opera.

 

There are also lots of great little character moments like a devious Bart telling Homer not to give him the card that reads “always do the opposite of what Bart says” or Marge thinking to herself “say something reassuring but non-committal” and only being able to come up with her trademark disapproving groan. There are great visual jokes like Homer’s grotesque, Seussian conception of Marge based on Wiggum’s description of a perp with a “green dress, pearls, and a lot of blue hair.” There are great one-liners like Homer’s naive attempt to reassure Lisa by asking, “Haven’t you seen Home Alone?  If some burglars come, it’ll be a very humorous and entertaining situation.” There’s even subtler bits like both Homer and Marge obviously answering “your point being?” to otherwise disconcerting statements, and a wacky but hilarious little running gag about using the song “Sunshine and Lollipops” as car chase music.

 

I'm fairly certain I saw this character in Pan's Labrynth.

 

All of this begs the question — can a work be great based on humor alone? In my estimation, the very best episodes of The Simpsons strike a balance between three elements of an episode. They tell an inventive or creative story, they have heart and characterization to ground the comedy, but they’re also chock full of great humor. “Marge on the Lam” presents a different challenge — can a work offer just the basics on story and emotion and still be great by scoring a perfect ten when it comes to the jokes?

I believe it can. The works we think of as “high art” are often the ones that move us, either by the message they present or the characters whose story they tell. But there are multiple paths to greatness. “Marge on the Lam” is not just a glut of comedy; it’s a buffet of it, featuring a robust collection of different kinds of humor that tickle the audience in a myriad of ways. Making people laugh for twenty-two minutes is as much, if not more, of a challenge as making them cry, and it’s as worthy a goal as making them think.

 

Though I'm pretty sure there are some profound philosophical questions raised by this card.

 

Mirkin often gets an undeserved bad rap when it comes to plot and character.2 Yes, the episodes during his tenure certainly skew more absurd, but so do many of the show’s most beloved episodes. “Cape Feare” was the last great triumph of many of the show’s original writers, and it ends with Sideshow Bob pausing his revenge scheme to sing the complete score of the H.M.S. Pinafore. “Last Exit to Springfield” includes a memorable gag about killer robot plant workers rebelling against Burns and Smithers. The climax of “Marge vs. the Monorail” involves Homer stopping a runaway train with a homemade anchor and a giant donut billboard. None of them is any worse for their refuge in outlandishness.

And all of them are incredibly funny. “Marge on the Lam” flies under the radar because its plot is not necessarily the most memorable, and its character treatment takes a backseat to its comedy, but it has as good a laughs-per-minute ratio as any in The Simpsons’ history. Comedy can be an end unto itself. David Mirkin led the series with that idea in mind, and he helped it achieve greatness in the process.

 


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Fans of Parks and Recreation, a show that also features Mike Scully as a writer, might recognize the voice of Ruth Powers as the same actress who plays Leslie Knope’s mom.
  2. It’s a subject worth its own article, but despite Mirkin’s reputation, some of the episodes with the best stories and most heart-felt moments in the show’s history were produced during his tenure, including “Secrets of a Successful Marriage,” “Lisa’s Wedding,” and “And Maggie Makes Three.”

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3 Responses to Can Greatness Just Be Funny? – The Simpsons and “Marge on the Lam” (s05e06)

  1. trent says:

    I used to work with a guy who loved this very episode. He revelled in the “chase music” and once I saw the episode as a rerun, I did as well. I think you are right, some of the most memorable shows are ones that made us laugh non-stop like the Mr. Plow episode. It is quite a feat to bring the laughs every week and I appreciate the jokes even when they are not grounded in a little character development. Good post!

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks, Trent! I definitely go back and watch the show and realize how much of the heart I missed when I was first watching, but still remembered all of the hilarious gags. The comedy can definitely shine!

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