“Homer The Smithers” (season seven, episode 17; originally aired 2/25/1996)
In which Mr. Burns learns how to work his own telephone machine, to Smithers’ dismay
As Erik Adams and others have so wisely pointed out, season seven of The Simpsons showcased a lovely symmetry between humor and outright affection (a symmetry sorely lacking in many of the show’s more recent efforts, Dennis Perkins would probably agree with me). So far we’ve viewed the dyadic relationships between Marge and Bart, Homer and Lisa, Homer and his long-lost mother, Bart and Krusty, and in “Homer The Smithers,” one of Springfield’s most enduring love stories: Waylon Smithers’ unflagging devotion for his boss, C. Montgomery Burns.
Burns and Smithers hardly ever part (except for this episode), resulting in The Simpsons’ most symbiotic relationship. Smithers loves to serve Burns; Burns lives to be served. Burns can’t even speak to his employees at a drag-strip outing without Smithers-provided cue cards that say things like “Come in,” and Burns’ own name. As Smithers is the one who helps his boss/idol navigate the frequently terrifying world around him (Duff beer! Pretzeled bread! Someone who wants to use your tongue to paint his boat!), you would think that Smithers would be the member of the duo who could more easily stand on his own. But as “Homer The Smithers” shows us, you would be wrong.
When Smithers freaks out after Burns is accosted by Lenny at the aforementioned ill-fated employee outing, even Burns admits that his assistant needs a break. For a replacement, Smithers has 714 incompetent, lazy, clumsy, dim-witted, and monstrously ugly nuclear plant employees to choose from, but of course goes with Homer Simpson. The running gag continues that Burns can’t seem to identify Homer, “even though all the recent events in your life have revolved around him in some way,” as Smithers points out (and his baby was revealed as the person who shot Burns just as recently as the season premiere).
Most other sitcoms would have turned Homer into Burns’ excellent new assistant, sparking rage within Smithers. But The Simpsons makes Homer so incompetent that Burns eventually has to learn how to fend for himself. It’s actually heartbreaking how much Homer really tries at his new job, getting up at the crack of dawn, trying to cook a variety of breakfasts on a skewer, racing over to Burns’ mansion with one of the best sight gags of the episode to answer Burns’ phone after 48 rings. He even writes an accounting department report; it’s not much of a report, but it’s still a report: “The accounting department is located on the third floor. It’s hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The head of this department is a Mr. Johnson or Johnstone.” The best bit may be this 20-second slice of heaven involving Homer reading Burns some messages about his car:
So it’s understandable that Homer finally cracks after Burns’ constant criticism, (“You’re a travesty of a joke of an assistant!”). He slugs his boss right in the eye, leading to an effective murder-mystery overhead shot of Homer standing over Burns’ crumpled form.
The staff notes on the DVD commentary that this is an “underrated” episode, woven into their season-seven desire to “take the show back to the family.” After a few Simpsons-heavy Simpsons, this episode spotlights some minor characters along with Homer (the family is relegated to the drag-strip outing and only a few at-home scenes). But you could easily make the case that Smithers and Burns create their own tightly wound family unit. “Homer The Smithers” is also a showcase for Harry Shearer, who voices both Smithers and Burns, and even tosses in a scene with Dr. Hibbert as well.
Burns isn’t really a villain with a heart of gold; he’s more like a millionaire with a heart consisting of a pile of sawdust. The staff comments that “We like to write for Burns and Grandpa because of their outdatedness, their old-timeliness,” which leads to Burns’ continued and hilarious befuddlement with devices like the “telephone machine” and snacks including “pretzeled bread.” He has an actual medieval mace instead of spray-mace for self-defense. His dependence on Smithers makes perfect sense.
But all of these elements also contribute to Burns’ ultimate isolation; outside of Smithers, he has no real contact with anyone. He’s terrified by the gratitude offered by drunk Lenny, who Smithers deftly turns away with a mere pat on the back. He dodges phone calls from his centenarian-plus mother. It could be why it’s so heartening to see the mogul learn to finally fend for himself after Homer slugs him: Following a coffee-making session that involves entire bags of coffee beans and mysterious brown stains all over his office, Burns is soon shredding environmental documents (and throwing them out the window) and answering his telephone machine with “Ahoy!” (Alexander Graham Bell’s suggested way to answer the telephone, as opposed to Thomas Edison’s “hello”). A lovable, guilty Homer keeps offering Burns his help (creepily hanging outside under his door), but Burns no longer needs it. He “chauffeurs” his own self home with only a little damage to fire hydrants and garbage cans.
All this leads to Smithers’ own devastation when he returns from his vacation at an all-male resort (according to the commentary, the first outright reference to Smithers being gay). Homer’s temp job is over, but Smithers is no longer needed at all. His followup jobs include a short stint as a piano mover, a too-literal announcer at the dragstrip, and my favorite, a failed attempt as the guy who protects the midnight beer delivery from Barney. But none of these work as well as his perfect position: right by Burns. So he and Homer develop a scheme to get Smithers back in his old boss’s good graces, which of course Homer screws up. The two fight (best bit: Smithers opening a safe to slam Homer with the door), somehow resulting in Mr. Burns and his polar bear falling out the third-story window. An incapacitated Burns then becomes dependent on Smithers once again (who feeds him peanuts in a nod to a similar ending in A Clockwork Orange). Homer gets a fruit basket for his troubles, but by that point he’s back to his indifferent, lazy self, not even knowing if Burns survived the fall.
Episode writer John Swartzwelder, penner of more Simpsons episodes than any other writer (59), offers a sweet overall story here. But what’s really amazing about “Homer The Smithers” is the number of jokes and references that land every nanosecond or so (a long list of laugh-out-loud moments is below). Barney’s fight with the beer man is even off-screen and still works. Balancing a heavy dose of hilarity with an equal amount of heart, “Homer The Smithers” winds up being a perfect fit in sentimental season seven, with a momentarily ambitious Homer and the fitting reunion of one of The Simpsons’ most enduring duos.
- Scrambled words from Mr. Burns’ now-laminated Junior Jumble: “odg,” “eh,” “ti,” “eht.”
- “Can you repeat the part of the stuff where you said all about the things?”
- Drag car sponsors: Duff Beer, Kingpin Malt Liquor, Laramie Cigarettes, Amalgamated Pornography.
- Mr. Burns never forgave his mother for having an affair with President Taft. Homer’s response: “Heh, heh, Taft. You old dog!”
- Mr. Burns’ lunch: a single pillow of shredded wheat, some steamed toast, and a dodo egg. Here’s what a good job Homer is doing: He even knows that dodos are extinct!
- Ways Mr. Burns tried to stop Homer and Smithers’ fight: popping a paper bag, throwing a glass of water on them, poking them with a ruler.
- “Let me put some salt on that eye.”
- Thank you so much to Erik Adams for letting me sit in on this fabulous Simpsons episode. I had no idea I was so invested in the Burns and Smithers relationship.
Next up: The Simpsons (Classic) takes a break for Memorial Day, but Erik Adams returns on June 1 with “The Day The Violence Died,” in which Lisa and Bart’s Itchy and Scratchy cartoons are replaced with lame, nonviolent ones.