Okay, let’s get the gimmick out of the way first.
The much ballyhooed, three-minute “Homer comes alive” segment at the end of “Simprovised” was more adorable than hilarious. No doubt an enormous pain in the ass to make work technically, the bit saw Dan Castellaneta winging it as Homer took phone calls from the hotline set up for the episode while the onscreen Homer sat mostly motionless behind a desk. Sure, his mouth moved more or less in time with Castellaneta’s off-the-cuff Homerisms (thanks to motion capture technology), and there was plenty of pre-animated silliness going on around him at points (Bender called for more Futurama, which, sure, why not). And Homer set out to prove the live-ness of the stunt by saying that Drake did a terrible job on last night’s Saturday Night Live. (Drake was maybe a little disappointing, but I respectfully disagree with Mr. Simpson.) As to the riffing, Castellaneta—a veteran of Second City, which gets name-checked in the episode proper—probably dreams as Homer Simpson by this point, but he handled the no-doubt stressful assignment with aplomb. None of the responses were laugh out loud hilarious, but they all emerged as recognizably Homer Simpson. (The West Coast broadcast promises a fresh batch of calls.) Like I said—as far as the history of Simpsons gimmicks go, this was a charming, if forgettable, novelty. And if all the press it’s generated buys The Simpsons a few more eyes this week, I say that’s a good thing. This season has seen the show pull out some good episodes—even a legitimately great one—and “Simprovised” is another solid late-game Simpsons, gimmick or no.
Credited to John Frink, “Simprovised,” in keeping with the call-in idea, sees Homer joining an improv group after his big speech at the power plant goes especially badly (due to stage fright and Mr. Burns stealing his always-killer “Get a half-life” putdown). Finding people responsive to his talent for stream of consciousness riffing gives Homer the confidence to put his own troupe together and take the prime main stage gig at the Springfield Fringe Festival. There—with some customary moral correction from Lisa after he contemplates having Moe feed him pre-planned scenarios—he finds his courage again and wows the assembled crowd with his killer “Marlon Brando at the drive-thru” material.
There’s a lot of improv-bashing of the type that only could come from a writers room filled with improv vets, an “inside baseball” familiarity that makes Homer’s foray into that world confidently silly. Anyone who’s seen a lot of improv knows that it’s mostly awful, occasionally transcendent, and freaking everywhere. Hearing the improvisers she’s taken Homer to see eagerly pitching their expensive classes, Marge asks, “Couldn’t people just form their own groups for free?” (“And scene!,” the improv leader says hurriedly, shutting the stage curtains.) When Homer’s spinoff troupe announces their name as “Premises, Premises,” Comic Book Guy checks his phone and announces there are over 5,000 improv troupes with that name already. And, preparing for their debut at Moe’s, Homer and the troupe are excited that the improv reviewer from the local paper is there—although not the improv reporter, or the writer responsible for all the improv thinkpieces. (My A.V. Club brain nodded in well-zinged recognition to that one.) Even when Homer’s up on stage, his triumphs and disasters aren’t appreciably different, although he does crack the professional troupe’s never-solved “Queen of Norway buys a car” premise. (“I can’t a-fjord it.”) Again, the joke isn’t that improv is an unworthy pursuit so much as that there’s an ungodly amount of it, and that audiences perhaps cut improv performers a lot of slack due to the perceived degree of difficulty involved. (Hey, sort of like my response to the episode’s live gimmick. What are the odds?)
What’s so entertaining about Homer’s journey in “Simprovised” is how it grows out of his character. Sure, the episode is pretty streamlined, since those last three minutes were set aside for the big ratings-grab, but lopping off the opening credits entirely helped. There’s even time for a truncated but effective B-story, with Marge getting pissed at Bart for not appreciating her building him a new treehouse. Honestly, underdeveloped, gag-happy storylines are a sad fact of life in modern-day Simpsons, but “Simpsonised” proves that—even when compressed—a simple story well told and rooted in the characters can be both funny and affecting.
There are some great gags throughout this one, none of which violate the spirit of the show for cheap laughs, most of which spring from the characters’ identifiable drives. Homer’s anxiety at doing well at work is universal enough for Castellaneta’s performance to register, while the gags about Burns’ turning up the “footstep amplifier” to increase Homer’s fear, and siccing the friendly “therapy hounds” on the fetal Homer, only to then release the actual hounds, all were just plain funny. Plus, there’s something about Homer’s realization that his improv skills rise from escaping who he is that’s sort of poignant. (“That’s the secret to life—don’t be yourself.”) Carl and Lenny are supporting all-stars tonight, their inextricably contentious relationship seeing them bickering at the improv show (“All they did was ask for two premises,” ”That’s more than you’ve asked for”) and turning to high comedy once Lenny allows himself to be swept up in the performance. (Carl bails in deadpan disgust at Lenny’s rapturous, “They’ve pulled back the bow, now let the arrow take flight!”)
Homer has some great “dumb Homer” moments, while never veering too far into “jerkass Homer” territory. Even though he gets a little full of himself over his success, his fear of failing on the bigger stage remains resolutely identifiable. Meanwhile, spying the plate of cookies Marge has abandoned at the foot of Bart’s new treehouse upon hearing him dismissing her efforts, Homer wonders at the Keebler elves being real with endearingly Homer-esque awe. Plus, when Bart, at dinner, scoffs, “Jeez, who ordered the crab?” at Marge’s hurt feelings, Homer can’t stop absentmindedly asking if there’s any more crab—before improv-ing some. And the scene with Marge and Homer correctly intuiting each others’ feelings while second-guessing their behavior toward each other is a little masterpiece. Ending with them both internally screaming in synchronized, guilty terror while keeping forced smiles on their faces is as deft a piece of comic timing as it gets. They’re all little touches that just feel right for the characters.
Being so compressed, the emotional beats, when they come, are told in shorthand, but they worked on me nonetheless. Bart’s surprise gift of breakfast and heartfelt apology to Marge (even if Homer penned the slightly inappropriate coda from his card catalogue of Marge apologies) is genuinely sweet. And Lisa’s shock and disappointment at Homer’s plan to betray his newfound talent sees Homer, as ever, finding the courage to do the right thing by seeing himself through her eyes. “Simprovised” might have sprung from a stunt, but it stands on its own just fine.
- Marge, responding to Homer’s worries about downtown addicts: “The city cleaned them up and made them comics!”
- The signage game was pretty solid this week. At the comedy club (“22nd City”): “Occupancy: 150 Guests, 0 Hecklers.” “Because of complaints, we no longer make fun of: Religion, politics, weight problems, the state bird, Pearl Bailey, hillbilly culture.” And, under a picture of Krusty: “Is no longer allowed on the premises. He is wanted for: Stealing material, ruining stolen material, fouling bathrooms, groping waitstaff (men and women), drunkenness, nudity, offensive suggestions, pickpocketing, suspicious fires, corncobbing (don’t ask).”
- Bart, to Marge’s offer to build his treehouse: “But you’re an inside grownup!”
- Also seen at the Springfield Fringe Festival: A booth called “Luigi’s Medical Marinara.”
- Homer: “Cheating at improv? What would Del Close say?” Moe: “He’d say listen to Moe and shut the hell up. Who’s Del Close?”
- Moe again, claiming that award shows are all planned out beforehand: “Why do you think the losers never show up?” Homer: “Maybe they have scheduling conflicts.” Moe: “Yeah, Dave Franco has a scheduling conflict.”
- As far as “bad improv” scenes go, it’s hard to top The Office’s version (although that’s more about Michael), or especially Mystery Science Theater 3000’s more pointedly ludicrous version, Anyone For More Fruitcake?