John (John Waters) (Fox)

“Homer’s Phobia” (originally aired 2/16/1997)

In which all you have to do is save Homer’s life…

Identity on The Simpsons is malleable, but grounded. At its heart, the show spins out from a central satire of the American family, so even the most fantastical plots (in theory, at least) remain tethered to the emotional core of the characters and their roles in that family dynamic. Sure, Homer may have learned his lessons (about being a better husband, father, worker, neighbor, friend, functional adult human) a few hundred times over the years, but, in a good Simpsons episode, his single-episode journey is still affecting and thematically potent (and funny). If this means that Homer has to reset back to the point before he learned his lesson in time for the start of the next episode, that’s the nature of the show, and his role on it. Homer is the show’s template of the easily led, slothful, blinkered suburban dad—he has to start out that way for a Homer episode to have its story engine.

That being said, the driving force of “Homer’s Phobia” is still jarring, as Homer’s homophobia (hey, I just got that!) toward local collectable store owner and all-around cool guy John (voiced by filmmaker John Waters) has more intensity than usual. In his uncharacteristically committed and vocal objection to John’s homosexuality, Homer edges closer to another archetypically satirical TV patriarch, Archie Bunker. So while there are huge laughs wrung from Homer’s signature irrational gay panic in the episode, there’s also a harder edge to some of the things he says while warning the affable John away from his family that makes “Homer’s Phobia” feel startlingly potent some 18 years later.

While not the thoroughly disreputable figure he was when he was hanging with Divine, the 1997 John Waters was hardly palatable to the show’s popular audience (or the segment of the show’s audience who knew who he was). In the episode’s commentary, the writers claim that Waters was their inspiration and only choice for the role, and Waters turns in what is easily one of the most uniquely memorable guest performances in the show’s history. Partly that’s just Waters—his droll, twinkly delivery is what continues to make him such an entertaining raconteur. (His one-man Christmas show a few years ago was adorably filthy, if that’s a thing.) Also from the DVD commentary, Waters claims that he was delighted and surprised how well the (presumably straight) writers had crafted his character (he only objected to a joke about John not getting along with his dad, calling the idea too stereotypical). He’s not wrong, as the animated John (a masterfully designed approximation of the real, dapper Waters) could have gone wrong in a myriad ways. The key to the character, apart from how effortlessly he channels Waters’ droll humor, is how formidably unapologetic he is.

John, with his catty witticisms and ironic appreciation of the things that make up the Simpsons un-ironic existence, could have curdled into snarky meanness. Instead, John’s running commentary on the essential cultural mundanity of Springfield partakes of the inherent contradictions that mark Waters’ own work. As he puts it to Homer in a culturally essential definition while defining his love for the tchotchkes lining his store (the delightfully named Cockamamies’) shelves:

It’s camp! The tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic!

John appreciates the world for what it is (a very silly place), and his humor might be at its expense, but he’s developed a way to love it nonetheless.

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In addition, John’s essential rightness throughout the episode could be just as off-putting, an idealized “super gay” sledgehammering well-meaning platitudes of acceptance. Instead, Waters’ performance and the episode’s writing (credited to Ron Hauge) gives John, and the rest of the episode’s gay characters, a specific inner life that transcends stereotypes in the guise of embodying them. So when Homer brings Bart to a steel mill (the butchest place he can think of), only to discover to his horror that literally every one of the buff, burly workers there is happily gay, the workers’ stereotypically effeminate manner coexists with both their obvious competence at their ”manly” vocation, and their equanimity in the face of Homer’s ugly denunciation.

Homer, looking out over the gathered steelworkers: “You’re all sick!”

A hand raises from the crowd and waves dismissively: “Oh, be nice!”

The same holds true for the brief scene where John, after taking Marge, Bart, and Lisa on a tour of Springfield’s scandalous past (Kent Brockman apparently pulled a Rosie Ruiz in a past Springfield marathon), runs into Smithers, who he’s apparently dating (and has blown off with a fake story about a sick mother). Poor Smithers’ barely-closeted gayness has often defined him, but John’s presence in the episode gives him unaccustomed agency, his snappish, dismissive, “I know the Simpsons” to John’s sheepish introduction suggesting, for once, that Smithers has a real existence outside of being Mr. Burns’ lovesick lickspittle.

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John’s drollery also extends to the episode’s denouement, where his heroism in rescuing Homer, Bart, Moe, and Barney from some especially murderous reindeer—granted, Homer was planning to have Bart shoot a couple in order to make a man of him—deconstructs the traditional sitcom happy ending. After setting his grotesque Japanese Santa robot after the reindeer, John’s happiness at Homer’s grateful change of heart is couched in a self-aware bemusement that’s the very definition of “ludicrously tragic”:

Well, Homer, I won your respect, and all I had to do is save your life. Now if every gay man could do the same, you’d be set.

Which brings us back to Homer, whose gay panic throughout “Homer’s Phobia” provides most of the non-John humor. Like the episode’s depiction of John, Homer’s homophobia is presented in a complex, balanced way, alternating big laughs at Homer’s cluelessness with a surprisingly harsh depiction of Homer-as-bigot. It’s a startlingly straightforward attack on homophobia, especially for the time. In the commentary, Matt Groening admits that there were a lot of letters after the episode aired, and that, but for a timely personnel change at Fox, it almost never aired at all. (The two pages of network notes initially concluded with a stark “not suitable for broadcast.”) In his rejection of John (whose amiable charms Homer initially succumbed to), Homer has some signature Homer-esque chucklehead moments (“He didn’t give you gay, did he?”), which the sensible Marge shoots down exasperatedly (“Jeez, Louise, you don’t even know what you’re worried about any more!”) But he also has some especially sharp insults that don’t ring false, as such—Homer gets swept up in various prejudices a lot—but do strike a harsher note than is usual for him. Homer’s long rant to John is full of agreeably silly objections to his fears about gays, but it starts with him snapping, “Look, John. You seem like a perfectly nice guy and all, just stay the hell away from my family.” (John’s measured response indicates just how well he’s adjusted to such insults without becoming bitter himself: “Well, now you don’t get any candy! No, that’s cruel—take a teensy piece.”) Dan Castellaneta’s performance in the episode is great, finding its way to the heart of the issue in his fears about Bart.

John: “Homer, what have you got against gays?”

Homer: “You know—it’s not…usual. If there was a law it’d be against it!”

Marge: “Homer, please, you’re embarrassing yourself.”

Homer: “No I’m not, Marge, they’re embarrassing me. They’re embarrassing America! They turned the Navy into a floating joke! They ruined all our best names, like Bruce, and Lance, and Julien—those were the toughest names we had! And now they’re just…”

John: “Queer?”

Homer: “And that’s another thing. I resent you people using that word. That’s our word for making fun of you! We need it!”

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When Bart starts picking up John’s mannerisms, it’s a function of how little kids ape cool, fun adults, but for Homer, it’s proof that his son is “turning” gay. And while his ensuing freakout is presented as the knee-jerk reactionary prejudice of a working class father, Castellaneta’s performance continually makes Homer’s fear palpable and, to an extent, understandable. If Homer’s the embodiment of the conformist soul of American masculinity (which he is sometimes), then the idea that (in his point of view) he’s allowed something as foreign as homosexuality to infect his son strikes at the very heart of who he is. Being Homer, his solutions are both dumb and obvious (staring at sexy billboards, going hunting), but they also have their own internal logic. And while Bart’s not gay (occasional admissions about being briefly attracted to Milhouse notwithstanding), his increasing attraction to the freer, sillier, more toy robot-friendly model of masculinity that John embraces is enough of a threat to Homer’s sense of normality to fill his admittedly ridiculous quest to “de-gay” the boy with an emotional core. His wrongheaded but sincere lament despairing at Bart’s assumed gayness is improbably affecting: “This is all my fault. I’ve been a lousy dad.” Well, yes, Homer—but not in the way you think.

The episode ends with another brilliantly succinct snapshot of the way people’s prejudices war with the innate decency that underlies the Simpsons’ world, and the accommodations John makes for it:

Homer: “Hey! We owe this guy! And I don’t want you calling him a sissy. This guy’s a fruit! And a fru—wait, queer, queer! That’s what you like to be called, right?”

John: “Well, that or John.”

Stray observations:

  • This week in Simpsons signage:

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  • Signs it’s 1997: Take that, AOL’s slow dialup speed!
  • There’s only one Skinner appearance in the episode, but it’s an all-timer. Looking over a selection of antique political buttons at Cockamamies: “These buttons are all partisan. Don’t you have any neutral ones? ‘May the better man win,’ ‘Let’s have a nice, clean election,’ that sort of thing?”
  • John’s core of kindness emerges as he tries to soft-pedal the bad news that Marge’s family heirloom is, in fact, a kitschy liquor bottle, opening with a gentle, “Hmmm, well here’s the thing on this….”
  • The same goes for his even-tempered response to Homer’s inexplicable anger at his description of Jackie O’s old TV Guide: “You should see the crossword puzzle. She thought that Mindy was married to Mark.” “Hey, give her a break—her husband was killed!” “Oh, I know. Wasn’t that awful?”
  • “Fifty bucks? No kid is worth that!”
  • As Buster Keaton famously stated, “The audience loves the slow thinker.” Case in point: “He prefers the company of men!” “Who doesn’t!”
  • “You know me Marge. I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals flaming!”
  • John, on Bart’s question about the creepy robot Santa’s origins: “Japan. Except over there they call him ‘annual gift man’ and he lives on the moon.”

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  • Homer goes to Moe for wisdom: “Where you been Homer? Entire steel industry’s gay. Yeah, aerospace, too. And the railroads. And you know what else? Broadway.”
  • “Well, let’s see now, time was you send a boy off to war. Shooting a man fix ’em right up. But there’s not even any wars no more, thank you very much Warren Christopher.”
  • “He could shoot a deer. That’s like shooting a beautiful man.”
  • Moe, finding out that, in addition to Bart being (he thinks) gay, Lisa’s a vegetarian: “Oh jeez, Homer, jeez—you and Marge ain’t cousins are you?”
  • Homer logic at it’s finest: “You never went hunting before and you’re perfectly straight.” “Am I, Marge? When’s the last time you had a baby?”
  • “This is about as tolerant as Dad gets, so you should be flattered.” “Great!”
  • Thanks for reading along and keep reaching for that rainbow, everyone. Tune in next week when Gwen Ihnat tries to thwart the “Brother From Another Series.”

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