“Homer Vs. The Eighteenth Amendment” (originally aired 3/16/1997)

In which SCTV is on the air (in Springfield)…

The most successful foray into television production from venerable sketch- and improv-comedy institution The Second City, SCTV ran for eight years on no less than five networks across North America. Neither the generation-defining phenomenon of Saturday Night Live nor the nerd-culture paragon of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, you might not be able to pick SCTV out from the TV-sketch herd—but you know the show without really knowing it. You’d recognize the core cast: John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Rick Moranis, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, and Andrea Martin. You might even be aware of their most famous SCTV creations, like Ed Grimley, Edith Prickley, or Guy Caballero. And since you’re reading these words, you’re definitely familiar with SCTV’s proudest offspring: Matt Groening has said on multiple occasions that his vision for Springfield was inspired by SCTV’s own dynamic setting, Melonville.

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In content and casting, “Homer Vs. The Eighteenth Amendment” is The Simpsons’ strongest tribute to one of its biggest influences. It’s an episode-length version of the type of thing SCTV sketches are known for: Working from the legend of anti-bootlegging federal agent Elliot Ness and the TV and film adaptations of The Untouchables, “Homer Vs. The Eighteenth Amendment” so thoroughly remixes and remakes its source material that The Simpsons essentially takes ownership of the concept. You don’t need to have a background on Ness’ gang-busting heroics to enjoy the story of Homer’s transformation into “The Beer Baron,” just like a schooling in Cape Fear or the films of Alfred Hitchcock isn’t a prerequisite for “Cape Feare” or “Bart Of Darkness.”

Bolstering the Springfield-Melonville connection, SCTV alum Dave Thomas stops by to play the aggressively square Ness to Homer’s bowling-alley-and-bathtub Al Capone, channeling Robert Stack’s Untouchables persona as the hilariously humorless Rex Banner. The Simpsons’ eighth season is a bonanza of one-off guest characters, and Banner stands tall within a pantheon that includes Hank Scorpio and Frank Grimes. (I’ll also stump for the Simpsonized version of John Waters from “Homer’s Phobia,” though Dennis Perkins already did a splendid job of that.) Called in to enforce Springfield’s rediscovered prohibition law, he’s an outsized symbol of law and order drowning in a sea of jabbering yahoos.

Thomas is a master impressionist, but like any of the Simpsons regulars, he goes beyond mere caricature to bring something new and weird out of Banner. Speaking in the same sort of staccato, angry-typewriter cadence as Dan Castellaneta’s “Homer Vs. The Eighteenth Amendment” narrator (itself an impression of Untouchables narrator Walter Winchell), Thomas embodies a character who’s too straight an arrow to be an effective cop. Bob Anderson’s direction follows suit, giving Banner sharp, severe edges where other Springfieldians are curvier and more cartoonish. Banner’s dialogue is the cherry on top of this banana kaboom, full of outdated slang and purple prose that the Simpsons staff would’ve picked up from years of sitting too close to the TV.

Because “Homer Vs. The Eighteenth Amendment” isn’t an extended SCTV sketch or a direct parody of The Untouchables—it’s a Simpsons episode, and it sprung from a script by that most distinctive of Simpsons writers, John Swartzwelder. (You can tell it’s a Swartzwelder, because the politics of the rest of the late ’90s staff don’t align with a line like “We’re patriots… like all of those people in jail.”) On a joke-by-joke basis, “Homer Vs. The Eighteenth Amendment” is quintessentially Swartzwelder: The writer has an uncanny knack for stating the obvious without being obvious, as when Marge, laundry basket in hand, notes the multiple “Do Not Enter” signs on the basement door with “That’s funny: I used to be able to go down there.” The episode is littered with these impressively constructed, effortlessly silly punchlines, like Homer’s echoing rejoinder to a promise Banner makes to himself (“You’re out there somewhere, Beer Baron—and I’ll find you.” “Nooooo you woooon’t.” “Yes I will.” “Won’t!”) or the customers of Moe’s toasting “the best damn pet shop in town” with the beers they were just holding behind their backs.

There’s a hum to the jokes of “Homer Vs. The Eighteenth Amendment,” showing off an ear for heightened genre dialogue. This is another place where the episode shows its SCTV heritage: That show and this episode thrive on what their writers absorbed from TV, movies, records, and radio—the good stuff as well as the bad—repurposing it in ways that celebrate its conventions (tommy guns, hot jazz, car chases through cemeteries!) and satirize its clichés. Banner’s chatter is all G-man jargon, but Thomas holds his own with mouthfuls of colorful language like “Listen, rummy, I’m gonna say it plain and simple: Where’d you pinch the hooch? Is some blind tiger jerking suds on the side?”

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The most legendary of Swartzwelder’s post-Simpsons TV projects was a failed pilot for a Western comedy; he’s since written a series of novels starring a private detective named Frank Burly. Clearly, the man is at home in frameworks established by pop culture’s past, and a condensed version of The Untouchables is a steady scaffolding on which to pile “Homer Vs. The Eighteenth Amendment”’s screwball punchlines and broad swipes at controlled-substance legislation. (Suffice it to say: As soon as the Duff Brewery closes its gates, it’s only “a scary couple of hours” before the booze is flowing freely once more.) Springfield temporarily transforms into gangland Chicago or Boardwalk Empire Atlantic City, and there are enough different types of characters populating any given Simpsons episode to fill the roles created by that scenario. Helen Lovejoy heads up the temperance movement. A succession of bootlegging enterprises is set in motion by Fat Tony. Mayor Quimby ably plays the politician eager to look the other way. All that’s missing is the Eliot Ness figure, the part Rex Banner plays until he’s no longer needed—and is summarily catapulted out of town. Eight years is a long life for a TV series—it’s as long as SCTV lasted—but not every show that’s run that long has used that time to build such an intricate, fascinating, entertaining ecosystem.

Stray observations:

  • This week in Simpsons signage:

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  • Of all the great little pieces of animation in this episode, my absolute favorite is Homer rubbing his stomach when the beerless Beer Baron offers Moe some “caulk, delicious caulk.”
  • Some more great work from director Anderson: The gangster-picture-spoofing post-St. Patrick’s Day massacre that finds Homer, Moe, Barney, and Bernice Hibbert splayed on the floor like murder victims, pools of liquor pooling around the barkeep and barfly.

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  • Chief Wiggum argues on behalf of Lady Liquor: “All our founding fathers, astronauts, and world series heroes have either been drunk or on cocaine.”
  • Rex Banner’s warning to the customers of Moe’s Pet Shop perfectly encapsulates his condescending, authoritarian style of policing: “All right, but you people remember: Baby turtles and alligators may seem like a cute idea for a pet, but they grow up.”
  • The best bit from Dan Castellaneta’s narrator is pure, uncut, unstepped on Swartzwelder: “Dateline: Springfield: The elusive Beer Baron continued to thumb his nose at authorities. Swaggering about in a garish new hat, he seemed to say, ‘Look at me, Rex Banner: I have a new hat.’”
  • Rex Banner isn’t good at his job: “I’m happy to report that the flow of illegal liquor seems to have dried up. Public drunkenness has ceased, and those mysterious liquor clouds over Evergreen Terrace are gone.”
  • And, of course, the Simpsons sign-off that would become one of its most enduring contributions to the lexicon: “To alcohol: The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”

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Next week: Mrs. Krabappel and Principal Skinner were in the closet making babies and Erik Adams saw one of the babies and the baby looked at him! All this, and more, in “Grade School Confidential.”