“Homer’s Triple Bypass” (season 4, episode 11; originally aired 12/17/1992)
“Homer’s Triple Bypass” has the potential to be the most depressing episode in the history of The Simpsons, if not television as whole. It is, after all, about a 36-year-old husband and father staring down death and the prospect of leaving his wife a young widow and his small children fatherless. It’s an episode about the perspective mortality provides and the bittersweet nature of saying goodbye to loved ones en route to an uncertain future. The episode has a gravity and dramatic heft that sets it apart but its pathos areearned and its emotions genuine.
The episode begins with a lifetime of junk food, beer and no exercise catching up with Homer in the form of painful heart contractions. At work Mr. Burns spies Homer munching complacently on a donut and hisses that each donut Homer shoves into his fat face brings him one donut closer to the poisoned donut Mr. Burns has ordered thrown into the mix as a form of culinary Russian Roulette, only to learn from Smithers that the plant’s lawyers ultimately nixed the poisoned donut plan because “they consider it murder.”
Mr. Burns consequently resorts to more direct form of making Homer’s life miserable. Burns calls him into the office for a tongue-lashing that, like so many Simpsons exchanges, is pure vaudeville. While a terrified Homer sits mortified in his chair, Mr. Burns steadily transforms every seeming compliment and pleasantry into an insult. He begins by telling Homer that he simply called him into his office for a friendly hello—and goodbye!
The magic of animation allows us to see inside Homer’s malfunctioning heart as it responds dramatically to every sharp linguistic turn Mr. Burns takes, like when he “praises” Homer for being very skilled—“at goofing off!” Continuing a theme, Burns tells Homer that he’s “the kind of guy I could really dig” before lowering the boom with, “a grave for!”
The scene’s cadences and structure recall the similarly awesome Gremlins homage from “Clown Without Pity,” right down to an ending where Homer is flummoxed by a fancy word. In “Clown Without Pity” that fancy word is Potassium Benzoate. Here, it’s Mr. Burns finishing his rant by telling Homer, “Your indolence is inefficacious” before explaining, “That means you’re terrible!”
It’s a sequence that’s no less hilarious for being cheesy and transparent. Burns, for example, would never conceivably tell an underling he’s the kind of guy he could really dig unless it was a prelude to an insult but it’s laugh out loud funny all the same thanks to the exquisitely expressive animation of Homer twisting and contorting into a pretzel of shame and panic with each successive insult.
Burns’ verbal abuse briefly kills Homer but he returns to his body when Burns orders Smithers to send a ham to his widow. Homer ends up in the hospital under the expert, if inappropriately giggly care of Dr. Hibbert, who tells him that he’s weak as a kitten, then toys with Homer mercilessly in his weakened state. Homer has seldom, if ever, been as vulnerable as he is here. Physically and emotionally, he’s diminished in a way that puts him in touch with what’s truly important in life.
Hibbert wants $40,000 to perform the triple bypass surgery, which is roughly $40,000 more than Homer has at his disposal so he visits Reverend Lovejoy to hit him up for the money and makes the mistake of conceding, “When you’re up there blah blah blahing I’m usually doodling or mentally undressing the female parishioners” in his run-up to begging for money. Homer isn’t any more successful hitting up Rabbi Krustofsky for the potentially life-saving cash.
Thankfully a solution presents itself in the disreputable form of quintessential quack Dr. Nick Riviera (hi Dr. Nick!) who makes his first appearance here as the sketchball who will perform the surgery for well under two hundred bucks. In the hospital before his surgery, Homer is confronted by the ghoulish visage of Krusty The Clown, who explains that he’s only there as “part of my public service for my glug, glug, vroom, vroom, thump thump.”
“Homer’s Triple Bypass” does a deft job of balancing the heartbreaking with the hilarious. Late in the episode, Homer calls Lisa and Bart to his bedside to say goodbye. Homer has trouble finding the words to express the depth of his feelings so he has Lisa whisper into his ears what he should say to Bart before having Bart do the same for Lisa. It’s a veritable emotional circle jerk as Bart and Lisa use their dad as a mouthpiece to indirectly but powerfully express how they feel about each other.
“Homer’s Triple Bypass” is tender and sweet but also littered with brilliant absurdist gags, like the home where Edgar Allen Poe was born (the eternally cursed Hans Moleman is transporting it from one place to another, appropriately enough) hurtling off a cliff and bursting into flames (Conan O’Brien was apparently the driving force behind random things exploding for no discernible reason in season four, a running gag that never gets old) or Homer telling Bart and Lisa that Abraham Lincoln only died because he “sold poisoned milk to schoolchildren.”
A crisis brings out the best in everyone in “Homer’s Triple Bypass”, especially Homer. The episode’s superb writing, voice acting, and animation don’t just make an animated sitcom about a man on the brink of death palatable; the make it consistently hilarious and ultimately quite moving.
- I wasn’t crazy about the COPS parody that opens the episode but I did enjoy Snake’s cattle-rustling operation
- I love the tender, pleading way Homer delivers the line, “Remember your Hippopotamus Oath!”
- “I do enjoy a snifter of port at Christmas”’—Homer’s revisionist take on his drinking habits
- “If it isn’t my old friend Mr. McCraig with a leg for an arm and an arm for a leg!” is a line worthy of Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstien
- One of the things that makes Homer endearing in spite of himself is the child-like joy he derives from the simplest of pleasures, like his hospital bed going up, then going down in a hypnotic rhythm
- Next up is “Marge Vs. The Monorail.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.