“Homer Goes To College” (season five, episode three; originally aired 10/14/1993)
The Simpsons didn’t invent metatextual humor. Hell, Looney Tunes specialized in shattering the fourth wall. But The Simpsons helped popularize and perfect gleeful post-modernism. The show helped drag the concept firmly into the mainstream. In the process, the show informed the sensibilities of multiple generations of smartasses with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop-culture clichés.
“Homer Goes To College” represents The Simpsons at its most nakedly post-modern. As writer Conan O’Brien giddily enthuses on the episode’s audio commentary, the idea for the episode is that everything Homer knows about college is derived from Animal House knock-offs. Homer doesn’t even derive his wonderfully myopic conception of higher learning from Animal House itself, but rather broad comedies that desperately aspired to be John Landis’ timeless tales of slobs versus snobs.
The Simpsons gives audiences lot of credit. It has the courage to talk up to its audience rather than down to it, to assume that viewers are just as smart and knowledgeable and savvy about pop culture’s past as the show’s prodigiously gifted staff. “Homer Goes To College” assumes that audiences know an awful lot about the beer-swilling, party-down spirit of campus sex comedies but just to be safe it has Homer watch what he assumes to be a realistic, almost documentary-like exploration of the college experience in School Of Hard Knockers, a raunch fest that finds the miscreants of Chug-A-Lug House antagonizing hated authority figure Dean Bitterman (whose surname doubles as a description of his tight-ass personality) with a bra bomb during a campus visit from the President of the United States.
How do we know he’s the president? Well, he is kind enough to tell Bitterman “Dean Bitterman, I hope nothing unsavory happens during my visit. As you know, I am the President of the United States.” The genius of that line is that it’s exposition that simultaneously spoofs the clumsy, unnatural, arbitrary nature of exposition. Bad exposition frequently involves poorly constructed characters telling other poorly constructed characters things they already know, sometimes by actually implementing the phrase, “as you know.” The president’s stern warning to the dean takes this tendency to its ridiculous extreme by having him remind the dean of something he could not in a million years have forgotten unless he’d experienced massive amnesia within the previous 30 seconds.
School Of Hard Knockers slyly serves two purposes. It’s a genius, even defining parody of college sex comedies that’s also a quick primer on the wacky conventions of the college sex comedy that sets audiences up for an ingenious reversal when Homer’s college experience turns out to be the opposite of the anti-authoritarian zaniness of School Of Hard Knockers.
Ah, but we are once again getting ahead of ourselves. “Homer Goes To College” opens with a surprise inspection of the power plant. Burns tries to hide his shame by ferreting Homer and two even dimmer co-workers away from prying eyes but that backfires when Homer gets stung by a bee he’s supposed to protect and yells at the mortified plant inspectors, “The bee bit my bottom! Now my bottom’s big!”
Homer is asked to preside over a crisis in a van devoted to simulating an accident but Homer’s capacity for destruction is so great he nearly causes a meltdown despite the van’s absence of actual nuclear material. It turns out that, in a funny twist, nuclear safety technicians are expected to actually know something about nuclear safety; in fact, they’re supposed to pass a college course in nuclear physics, so Homer heads to college convinced it will be exactly like School Of Hard Knockers, right down to the stuffy, buzzkill dean and endless war between nerds and jocks.
Homer arrives at school intent on shaking things up and offending the snooty blue-bloods, oblivious to the fact that the dean is actually hipper, nicer, and gentler than his admiring students. Instead of a glowering, John Vernon-like tyrant, he’s a former bassist for The Pretenders always up for a jam session or a little hacky sack.
That doesn’t keep Homer from nevertheless perceiving the Dean as his enemy. Homer is equally oblivious to the fact that the three tutors the dean recommends for Homer are nerds, his natural enemy as a self-styled party-hearty jock. Homer tries to teach the nerds how to, in his immortal words, par-tay down, a feat he feels can best be accomplished through the zany stunt of kidnapping the opposing college pig’s mascot Sir Oinks-A-Lot, a perpetually freaked-out looking pig (and forerunner to Spider-Pig of The Simpsons Movie)whose history includes conferring an honorary degree on Matt Groening’s old bête noire Richard Nixon.
Homer’s stunt ends up getting his would-be party protégés expelled, which inspires Homer’s wackiest and most dangerous prank yet: nearly running over the dean with his car so the nerds can step in at the last moment and save the dean’s life. Alas, the nerds are distracted and the endlessly forgiving dean ends up readmitting the poindexters after Homer cops to being behind all the monkeyshines and shenanigans on campus.
Ah, but “Homer Goes To College” is not done lovingly spoofing the conventions of college comedies. When it comes out that Homer still needs to pass the big test (he had conveniently forgotten that detail amidst all the pranks and stunts) he cycles his way through the kind of cramming montage that invariably ends with a proud graduate clutching an “A” paper. However, Homer is denser than most, so even after all that cramming, he still ends up with an “F.” In a glorious closing scene, Homer crows that at least everyone learned important lessons before his family corrects him and points out that nobody has learned any lessons at all, which is the perfect ending to a classic episode that subverts and lampoons every college movie cliché in existence. “Homer Goes To College” is the final episode for which O’Brien received a solo writing credit (he co-wrote “Treehouse of Horror IV”, and he went out on a hell of a high with one of the show’s finest and best-loved episodes.
- How perfect is it that Homer’s three examples of “books” are TV Guide, Son Of Sniglets (if I’m not mistaken, some of the Simpsons writers worked on Not Necessarily The News with Sniglets creator Rich Hall) and Katharine Hepburn’s Me? So gloriously random
- Burns’ escape pod has two seats: one for him, one for his feet
- Does anyone know who currently holds the cabinet position of secretary of partying down?
- “It was the most I ever threw up and it changed my life forever”—Homer putting the finishing touches on the ultimate college essay
- I’m surprised the Chug-A-Lug house is up to antics. They seem like such a responsible and even-handed bunch.
- As great as The Simpsons was in its prime, it would have been even better had Conan O’Brien not left to host Late Night With Conan O’Brien, a process that began around the time the voiceover for “Homer Goes To College” was being recorded. What an insanely exciting, dramatic and terrifying time that must have been for O’Brien.
- The Untouchables parody where Burns attempts to bash in someone’s head with a baseball bat but just ends up tickling them is pretty genius.
- Next up is “Rosebud.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.