“Marge Vs. The Monorail” (season 4, episode 12; originally aired 1/14/1993)
On the audio commentaries for The Simpsons, the writers and producers of what I and many others consider the unassailable apogee of American television—if not American pop culture as a whole—talk about Conan O’Brien with the kind of open-mouthed awe and reverence Deadheads might use to discuss running into Jerry Garcia at a diner after a show or Juggalos might use to recount a chance encounter with Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J.
Even within a staff full of super-geniuses, Conan O’Brien stood out as a bottomless font of creativity and hilarity. On the audio commentary for “Marge Vs. The Monorail,” the writer-producers talk so extensively and admiringly about O’Brien’s genius that it becomes a running joke. According to his bosses and co-workers, O’Brien wasn’t just a hilarious writer: He was hilarious in every facet of his being. He was hilarious right down to his DNA. O’Brien didn’t just write brilliant scripts or contribute genius gags: He put on a show every single minute of the workday, even if it was just doing shtick for an audience of one or none. He was and remains compulsive in his creativity and insatiable yearning to entertain: there’s a reason the documentary about his live tour was called Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. (Incidentally, I sincerely hope the makers of that film follow it up with a sequel called Jay Leno: For The Love Of All That Is Righteous And Holy, Please Stop.)
If O’Brien was so hilarious in the break room of The Simpsons that his colleagues still lovingly recalls specific bits and gags he did for them more than a decade later, you can only imagine how brilliant he was when actually writing for the best show on television. O’Brien has gone on to become one of most consistently funny people in the world but if he died the day he left The Simpsons he would already boast a formidable legacy in the form of his scripts for “Homer Goes To College” and “Marge Vs. The Monorail”, episodes that, as standout episodes in The Simpsons’ golden age, qualify as the best of the best.
In “Marge Vs. The Monorail” Mr. Burns and Smithers are caught trying to hide containers of toxic waste inside trees at a local park after their previous dumping ground—the playground—resulted in altogether too many mysteriously bald children. The park where Burns and Smithers now stow their toxic waste has undergone some strange mutations of its own. A tree rich in toxic waste has developed unnerving octopus arms while a mutated squirrel now boasts such special features as glow-in-the-dark radioactive eyes and lasers it uses to collect nuts. Both of these mutations are so lovingly animated and beautifully, morbidly conceived that it’s a shame they’re merely throwaway gags. Then again, it’s a testament to the depth and richness of the fourth season of The Simpsons that it could come up with something as awesome as a mutated squirrel with laser eyes solely for the sake of a three-second gag.
When Burns’ bad behavior results in a $3 million fine, a town hall meeting is called to discuss what to do with the unexpected windfall. The Simpsons have some ideas of their own: Bart wants to use the money to build an army of giant killer mechanical ants to do his bidding, Lisa wants to use it to add virtual reality to her classes, Homer thinks a giant billboard reading “No Fat Chicks” should be constructed with the funds while the eminently reasonable Marge thinks the money should be allocated to fix up the town’s pothole-ravaged Main Street.
Such sensible thinking and solid planning have no place in Springfield, a town ruled by groupthink. The madness, arrogance and shortsightedness of crowds has long been one of The Simpsons’ most resonant and recurring themes. That’s especially true here. The good folks of Springfield are at least savvy enough to see through Mr. Burns’ ruse when he shows up at the town hall meeting wearing a preposterous fake mustache and introduces himself as “Mr. Snrub,” an emissary from “someplace far away” before proposing that the money be re-invested in the power plant—but when Grandpa sarcastically proposes that “we could fix up mainstreet. We could put all our eggs in one basket” they agree so quickly to what they think he’s proposing that they don’t even give him time to make his point or finish his argument.
Then, a mysterious stranger appears with a snappy red bow tie, vest, straw hat, and a sexier and more exciting proposition. He seems like a figure out of time because he is a figure out of time. His name is Lyle Lanley, a loving parody of The Music Man’s big-hearted flim-flam man Harold Hill, voiced with the perfect note of oily, ingratiating charm by the late, great Phil Hartman.
Lanley proves a quick study at manipulating the preternaturally gullible residents of Springfield. He plays to their competitive streak and foolish pride by suggesting that what he’s proposing really is more of an idea for the forward-thinking people of Shelbyville. Mayor Quimby immediately takes the bait by angrily barking in response, “We’re twice as smart as the people of Shelbyville. Just tell us your idea and we’ll vote for it.”
Lanley isn’t just a smooth-talking businessman. He’s also a consummate showman. Why simply tell folks an idea when you can sing about it? Sure enough, Lanley soon has the entire town singing and dancing in assent to his plan to bring a glamorous monorail—yes, the very same technology that put Rockaway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook on the map—to Springfield.
This mysterious Mr. Lanley is very good at what he does. Unfortunately for the people of Springfield (and also Rockaway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook), that’s manipulating suckers for money rather than building safe, affordable lines of transit. When Lisa asks why on earth a town like Springfield would need a monorail the con man completely disarms her by saying that he could tell her but they’d be the only people in the classroom who’d understand the answer—including the teacher. Lisa may not be a gullible rube like so many of her fellow townspeople, but even she is susceptible to flattery, especially when issued by such a smooth operator.
Soon everyone in Springfield is caught up in Monorailmania, especially Homer, who finally, if temporarily, earns the respect of Bart after he becomes a monorail conductor after finishing an intensive three-week course that consists entirely of Lyle explaining that “mono” means “one” and “rail” means “rail.”
Marge is seemingly alone in her suspicions of Lyle and his motives. She visits his “office” to investigate and stumbles upon a notebook containing a crude stick drawing detailing Lyle's plans to fleece the suckers of Springfield with a defective monorail system, then flee with the ill-gotten loot before anyone catches on.
This leads Marge to travel to North Haverbrook, a semi-ghost town driven half-mad by the failure of its malfunctioning monorail system. Marge’s drive back to Springfield features one of my favorite Simpsons gags: a character replaying over and over again in their mind something that’s bothering them, along with a bizarre non sequitur. In this case, the non sequitur happens to be one of my all-time favorite lines on the show: Homer telling Marge “I call the big one Bitey” after a family of possums is discovered in the monorail.
At this point “Marge Vs. The Monorail” segues from an extended parody of The Music Man to an equally inspired disaster-movie spoof, complete with a runaway vehicle that threatens to leave mass devastation in its path (in this instance the monorail) and some weirdly integrated star power in the form of a hilariously self-deprecating voice turn from Leonard Nimoy as an endlessly self-absorbed would-be mystic who bores strangers with the mundane details of making Star Trek and generally behaves as if he is Mr. Spock, and not just an actor who played him. This extends to mysteriously disappearing after cryptically telling Barney that his work is done after Homer saves the monorail with some utterly uncharacteristic quick thinking.
“Marge Vs. The Monorail” closes with a flurry of gags the commentators on “Marge Versus The Monorail” concede are among the weirdest and most out-there in the show’s history: Leonard Nimoy disappears into the ether, a skyscraper is built out of popsicle sticks and Springfield residents plunge into the abyss after riding an escalator to nowhere. It’s possible that other writers came up with those bits but they feel very Conan. “Marge Versus The Monorail” gave Americans an early glimpse inside the beautiful mind and wonderfully warped sensibility of a comedy icon who would go on to become the most successful Simpsons alum of all time (with the possible exception of Brad Bird) as well as a goddamned American treasure.
- “Oh Andy Capp, you wife-beating drunk!”—Homer Simpson, comics critic
- I don’t know why, but Mr. Snrub might be the funniest fake name ever. And that includes McLovin.
- I love Dan Castellaneta’s ornery, old-timey delivery of “I ain’t fur it! I’m again’ it!”
- “You know, a town with money is a little like the mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it.” It’s funny because it’s true.
- “And let me say, “May the force be with you!”—Mayor Quimby introducing Leonard Nimoy, who he vaguely misremembers as one of the Little Rascals.
- The exchange where Homer asks Marge if Batman will save him is all kinds of awesome.
- Early warning, folks: I am getting married early next month (yay!) and embarking on a honeymoon so I will be taking a few weeks off Simpsons Classic duty in the near future.
- Next up is “Selma’s Choice.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.