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“Burns, Baby Burns” (originally aired 11/17/1996)

In which Mr. Burns’ long-lost son don’t get no regard—no regard at all…

Over the course of 26 seasons (and counting), The Simpsons has greeted all sorts of guest stars. The ones who stay for more than a line or two generally shake out into one of two categories: Those who blend into the fabric of Springfield (your Dustin Hoffmans, Glenn Closes, and Albert Brookses) and those bend the show around their established personas (your John Waterses or Ricky Gervaises). Rodney Dangerfield’s eighth-season appearance belongs to the latter category; “Burns, Baby Burns” is as much a Springfield-set retelling of Caddyshack or Back To School as it is the story of Mr. Burns reconciling with his long last son Larry (played by Dangerfield). At this point in his career, Dangerfield was the type of comedy legend who commanded such accommodation, which The Simpsons gave him in the form of a loving, if somewhat lopsided tribute.

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Having played one of the most-quotable characters in one of the most-quotable film comedies of all time, Dangerfield was granted plenty of leeway with his “Burns, Baby Burns” dialogue. Director Jim Reardon and the Simpsons art department could easily make Larry Burns a physical match for the comic, with the same spazzy dance moves; the greater challenge lie in creating jokes that authentically mimicked the man’s “no respect” punchlines. And so Dangerfield did his own punch-up work, suggesting alternate lines and changing a word or two to better resemble something that he might say on stage or on film. Season eight co-showrunner Josh Weinsten kept Dangerfield’s script, and on the “Burns, Baby Burns” audio commentary, he talks about the notes left in the margins, reportedly written with a souvenir from the most appropriate of old-fashioned showbiz destinations: the Honolulu Hilton.

With Dangerfield fully in control of the greatest character he would ever play—himself—it falls to the Simpsons regulars to play straight men and women to Larry’s always-on shtick. It’s an amusing gag that the character comments on during a particularly long joke run: Walking up his father’s luxuriously long driveway, Larry stops his rambling color commentary to wonder, “Hey, who am I talking to?” The residents of Springfield are at a similar loss in dealing with Larry’s nonstop observations, greeting the new guy in town with incredulous reactions and bone-dry recitations of his more pointed jabs. The best comes from another pair of outsiders: The folks from Yale admissions. Even from the son of a proud alumnus, Yalees don’t take kindly to being told their motto should be “semper fudge.”

Larry’s boorishness finds him an easy friend in Homer Simpson, who gives one of the first matter-of-fact responses to the character’s stand-up setups. (“Wow, that is lazy,” Dan Castellaneta says, voicing the inner thoughts of every Dangerfield audience since 1967.) But as much as he’s a product of Dangerfield’s comic alter ego, Larry is still a Burns—an impression Jim Reardon and team leave by introducing the telltale Monty Burns nose, overbite, and posture to an otherwise straightforward Rodney Dangerfield caricature. (In a brilliant piece of showing rather than telling, Papa Burns confirms Larry’s lineage by unveiling the family birthmark hidden beneath his hair.) The tension between Rodney Dangerfield’s blue-collar image and Larry Burns’ blue-blood heritage forms the episode’s primary conflict, an internal snobs-versus-slobs comedy that greatly disappoints the elder Burns.

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Burns’ bachelordom and loneliness are often used to humanize the richest man in town, but he’s squarely in the Judge Smails position here. As evidenced by Homer and Larry’s kidnapping hoax—which is just another form of a kid running away to teach his parents a lesson—there’s a big difference between missing your son and missing your son. Larry’s reappearance is initially presented as the only thing that can cheer Monty up after another Yale drubbing at the hands of those no-good cheaters from Harvard—but you can put as many Burns-like features on Larry and he’d still let his old man down. The black-tie fiasco (“The food ain’t great, but the portions are terrific”) and the disastrous Yale interview put Burns in the odd position of sympathizing (facetiously, at least) with Homer Simpson, who ends up ragging on Milhouse without realizing he’s actually talking about himself. (Another fantastic detail in an episode full of them: In a failed attempt to get on his son’s level, Burns stoops to serving chicken drumsticks and french fries in his extravagant dining room.)

Fittingly, the character Mr. Burns can most closely relate to in this scenario is actually his son; Larry is a father, too, and having disappeared from scenic Waynesport for a full week, he also has children who are disappointed in him. As Burns’ Caddyshack counterpart declares, some people simply do not belong, and Larry isn’t the type of tourist who can make Springfield a permanent fit. He leaves an impression on the regulars (both Bart and Lisa wind up borrowing his patter and cadence, with the former even trying on Dangerfield’s signature necktie tug) and steals the entire episode, the sort of thing you expect from a charismatic solo performer with Dangerfield’s résumé. That makes for storytelling that doesn’t fully satisfy on an emotional level, and the only way out of the kidnapping plot requires booze and Journey singles of a mysterious origin. (Well, the Channel 6 computers have some endings for that scenario, but nobody wants to see those play out.) The episode is 100 percent Larry’s journey, which makes “Burns, Baby Burns” this particular type of Simpsons guest shot: A story that’s best viewed as a celebration of a comedic genius, appropriately topped off with a party thrown in his honor. So what? So let’s dance!

Stray observations:

  • This week in Simpsons signage (Now with bonus writers’ room shoutout):

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  • If the ID number is to be believed, Ned Flanders is the very first person to buy a season pass to Mt. Swartzwelder Historic Cider Mill. Come to think of it, there’s lots of great, brief visual humor in this one, like Burns extinguishing a candelabra when he slams the door. My favorite, however, is Barney belching up a fish skeleton. (In a definitive ranking of cartoon props, “fish skeleton” finishes second, after an owl-sized graduation cap but before a grocery bag with a baguette and carrot greens sticking out the top.)
  • And one from the aural humor file: The sound of Homer being bludgeoned to death by baseballs in a Channel 6 computer simulation.
  • In a Simpsons universe with real-time continuity, Mr. Burns would’ve attended his 100th college reunion this year. And you’d better believe that he’d live long enough to attend it, too.
  • Marge goes on a mispronunciation tear in the early scenes, landing on this fantastic kicker: “I can’t excape Lisa, our little walking libary.”
  • “A powerful telescope” is a such a wonderfully Simpsons turn of phrase: “If Mr. Burns ever wants to see a stranger, he will observe him through a powerful telescope.”
  • Mr. Burns will not be disturbed during cocktail hour: “You’re interrupting my lime rickey.”
  • The Simpson matriarch has a very particular taste in literary genres: “Marge, you’ve been reading too many hideout books.”
  • Scintillating dialogue from Too Many Grandmas! (starring Olympia Dukakis and Bo Derek: “Drive faster, Grandma! Grandma’s gaining on us!”

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