The story of Lisa on The Simpsons is, in many ways, a tragic one. More than any other character on the show, she does not really fit into Springfield. That means that when she’s facing the type of complex problems that bother a sensitive young woman like herself, there’s little hope for a helping hand from someone who could address those problems with a level of understanding beyond her own.
Bart loves his sister, even if he can only admit it in a roundabout way, but he’s a brat whose bad behavior draws his parents’ attentions away from a child who needs it just as much, if not more. Homer, as Lisa acknowledges, means well and cares about his daughter, but he’s in so far over his head when it comes to the big questions nagging at her that he’s not much help beyond a good hug. That leaves Marge, perhaps the least-regarded member of The Simpson family among the show’s fans, as the only character on the show who “gets” Lisa.
Marge’s connection to her daughter makes her the emotional core of episodes like “Moaning Lisa”, particularly within the more grounded confines of The Simpsons’s first season. Even if Marge is, at times, a little too provincial to truly connect with her daughter’s world-weary concerns, she understands that Lisa is a remarkably precocious child, and that along with the insight and intelligence that will hopefully give her a better life someday, Lisa’s greater potential comes part and parcel with a greater set of challenges as well. The throughline for the episode, heavy stuff though it may be, is Lisa and Marge working through these types of challenges.
Let’s be frank here — the first season of The Simpsons, and this episode in particular, are not as funny as the show would become in later seasons. But it’s not trying to be. The tone of this episode is very different from what was to come. To the point, the folks behind the scenes joke about how people started saying that the show was going downhill as early as Season 2, but it’s easy to see how someone who fell in love with the series’s more down-to-earth first season would find even one of the show’s smaller, if still outlandish episodes, produced just a few short years later, incredibly dissonant when contrasted with something like “Moaning Lisa”.
That’s not to say the episode isn’t still very funny, albeit in a different kind of way. Matt Groening’s contributions to The Simpsons have been somewhat marginalized among the show’s hardcore fans, partially because he tends to get full credit for a series that has had a plethora of creative voices make it into the masterwork it became. But the same cynical worldview and wry humor that were the defining characteristics of Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip are palpable in “Moaning Lisa”.
When Lisa describes her unprompted bit of improvisation in the middle of band practice as standing for “the homeless family living out of its car, the Iowa farmer whose land has been taken away by unfeeling bureaucrats, the West Virginia coal miner, coughing up–” only to be cut off by her music teacher’s rejoinder that “none of those unpleasant people are going to be at the recital next week,” it’s not a laugh-out-loud joke or the kind of quotable line that made the show famous. But it’s pointedly funny in how it shines a spotlight on the absurd way in which people shuffle the world’s real problems, which are neither particularly fun to think about nor easy to address, off to the side, in the shadow of more prosaic concerns like an elementary school music show. The humor in “Moaning Lisa”, like the humor in Life in Hell, is a little bit dark, but it’s also incisive in a way that was nearly unprecedented on television before The Simpsons.
Make no mistake, while relatively unheralded, “Moaning Lisa” was a groundbreaking episode that still resonates today. Few shows on television now, let alone in 1990 when this episode aired, would explore these kinds of emotions in an eight-year-old child–existential despondency if not outright depression–in such a stark if comedic way. When Lisa asks “What’s the point? Would it make any difference at all if I never existed? How can we sleep at night when there’s so much suffering in the world?” she’s not playing the standard sitcom rugrat; she’s asking questions that have troubled philosophers and religious leaders and deep thinkers the world over.
“Moaning Lisa” doesn’t try to answer to these questions, but it does suggest a couple of ways to cope with the strain of those weighty thoughts. The first one comes from Marge herself. The series has done very few flashbacks to Marge’s childhood in the course of the show, and they almost uniformly involve some unfortunate moment from the poor woman’s life. In this episode, Marge recalls her mother saying to her, “Before you go out that door, let’s put our happy face on, because people know how good a mommy you have by the size of your smile.”
It’s easy to forget, especially when it comes to a show that’s currently rounding out its third decade on the air, that the maternal reference point for The Simpsons’s writers, who were around Marge’s age when this episode was produced, was more likely to be someone like Betty Draper–a woman raised to project perfection to the world–than someone like Lorelai Gilmore. The show is tangling with compartmentalization here, with the troubling idea that children, let alone adults, are encouraged to set aside their negative feelings so as not to rock the boat, but also that there’s a certain generational inertia that makes the practice all the more pernicious.
That’s part of what makes it so meaningful when Marge recants after having shared the same type of encouragement with Lisa. When Marge takes back her prior advice to, “Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down, past your knees, until you’re almost walking on them,” and instead tells her daughter, “Always be yourself. You wanna be sad, honey, be sad. We’ll ride it out with you. And when you get finished feeling sad, we’ll still be there,” it’s not merely poignant; it’s triumphant.
It’s triumphant for Lisa, who is finally handed a candle in the darkness, given permission to express the sadness she’s been feeling, and offered acceptance even where there’s not understanding. But it’s also triumphant for Marge, who finds a way to both help her daughter and push past the well-meaning if damaging lessons her own mother passed down to her. In this vein, “Moaning Lisa” is a forerunner to the recent, stellar Pixar film, Inside Out, which also features a mother telling her daughter to put on a happy face, and yet eventually stands for the idea that sadness and pain are worthwhile emotions that shouldn’t be suppressed, because they can shade even our positive experiences and make us better, stronger people.
But “Moaning Lisa” also offers a second response to the kind of profound sadness Lisa is experiencing — the catharsis that can come from artistic expression. Bleeding Gums Murphy (Ron Taylor) doesn’t offer the most cheerful or encouraging take on that kind of catharsis when he tells Lisa, “The blues isn’t about feelin’ better. It’s about makin’ other people feel worse and makin’ a few bucks while you’re at it.” But he does show Lisa that the instrument she’s playing is more than a mere tool for making music; it’s also a release valve.
There’s some clear symbolism at play in Lisa’s scenes with Bleeding Gums Murphy. Early in the episode, Lisa has what her music teacher, Mr. Largo, derisively calls an “outburst of unbridled creativity.” Mr. Largo shuts Lisa down, and sets out to confine her in one of those drab, lifeless renditions of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” that anyone who’s attended middle school has had to suffer through at some point. It’s a metaphor for the larger call and response Lisa consistently experiences in the episode, where she’s hurting and feels the desire to express herself, but then some authority figure, even one as generally ineffectual as Mr. Largo, tries to box her in.
But Bleeding Gums Murphy lets Lisa’s spirit, beleaguered though it may be, run wild in the free-roaming blues riffs he shares with her. He admits that he can’t help Lisa with her problems, but he can jam with her! His gift is helping her to channel those feelings of woe and, most importantly, express them.
It dovetails nicely with Lisa’s breakthrough with her mom. Even when the music isn’t as simple or happy or regimented as an elementary school version of “My Country Tis of Thee”, there is beauty in the messier, uglier side of expression as well. And those works–like “Moaning Lisa”, which can be considered The Simpsons’s equivalent of a blues number–are all the more meaningful and vital and beautiful for it. And even if they don’t make the pain feel better, they make the pain itself into something better.
Odds and Ends
- Yet again, I’ve neglected the B-story. While Homer has a solidly funny supporting role in Lisa’s journey, his main business in the episode consists of getting consistently clobbered by Bart in a Punch Out meets NFL Blitz-esque boxing video game. Homer eventually resorts to taking lessons from an expert ten-year-old digital pugilist at a local arcade (kids, ask your parents what an arcade is) in order to exact his pixelated revenge. There are some cute moments in the story, and there’s even a hint of emotional heft with Homer interpreting those defeats as a sign of his growing older and being surpassed by his son, but for the most part it’s a pretty conventional plot that isn’t one of The Simpsons’s most memorable side stories. Notably, Bob’s Burgers took a similar idea and made much more out of it in “Burgerboss”.
- The visuals were a little jarring for a longtime watcher of The Simpsons when returning to the show’s first season, before the series had settled into the designs and animation style that would become its standard. Seeing a different painting behind the Simpsons’ couch, for instance, or the way the interior of Moe’s looks different, threw me off. That said, there’s something endearing about the more fluid style of animation the show employed in these early installments. The contortions of Bleeding Gums Murphy in particular are funky and fun.
- Another great bit of work from the animators — the clearly visible strain in Lisa’s forced smile after Marge tells her to put on an outward air of happiness.
- The show eventually sanded down the edges of Bart so much as the series went on that I forget how much of a constant brat he is in these early episodes. The outrage from when The Simpsons began over Bart as a bad role model seems very quaint today, but it’s interesting to see how the show’s early outings really commit to depicting him as, as Marge diplomatically puts it, “a handful.”
- I love the scene where Lisa tries to explain what’s bothering her to Homer, and all he can muster in response is, “Come on, Lisa. Ride the Homer horsey!” It’s such a hilarious but sweet little moment of well-meaning, if wholly-inadequate parenting. God bless him; he tries.