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The Simpsons (Classic): “Rosebud”

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“Rosebud” (season five, episode four; originally aired 10/21/1993)

The Simpsons has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to turning pop-culture references into comic gold, whether that means impishly inserting cheeky nods to the half-forgotten likes of Sheriff Lobo into multiple episodes or painstakingly crafting episode-length spoofs of cinematic staples. Hell, the pop-culture-crazed, intensely metatextual nature of so much contemporary comedy (Community, cough, cough) is in many ways a product of kids who grew up worshipping The Simpsons and its love-hate relationship with pop-culture, learning along the way the value of a smartly employed cultural reference. I would go so far as to venture to say that even Seth MacFarlane may have been influenced by The Simpsons’ pop-culture spoofery.


But even by The Simpsons’ standards it’s bold to make two of the first five episodes of the show’s fifth season elaborate parodies of/tributes to movies. True, Cape Feare” was created as part of the fourth-season production cycle, but it aired just two weeks before “Rosebud,” an episode-length homage to Citizen Kane that represents the consummation of the show’s longstanding love affair with Orson Welles’ towering masterpiece. (Season five’s cultural homages didn’t stop with movies: “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet”, the season opener, is a loving tribute to the mythology of The Beatles.)

Like “Cape Feare,” “Rosebud” foregoes B- and C-stories in favor of a single central narrative derived from its source material. As David Mirkin—who took over as showrunner with “Rosebud”—notes in the audio commentary, it’s an episode that humanizes Mr. Burns as never before while still luxuriating in his exquisite evil by essentially giving him the same backstory as one Charles Foster Kane.


Mr. Burns was once a playful little boy who treasured nothing more than his beloved toy bear Bobo. In the words of his loving, modest parents, Bobo represents the symbol of his “youth and innocence” after Burns chooses to leave the family homestad to live with a “twisted, loveless billionaire” who obviously raised the child in his own image.

Burns accidentally leaves Bobo behind when he departs for his new life as a joyless, hateful scion of privilege, but he never stops pining for his lost pal. Meanwhile, Bobo goes on adventures of his own. Famed aviator and alternate-universe President Charles Lindbergh takes him on his landmark trip aboard the Spirit of Saint Louis and Bobo ends up in Hitler’s bunker toward the end of World War II before finally making a strange, circuitous trek back to Springfield, where he ends up in the loving arms of Maggie Simpson.


A depressed Burns, meanwhile, obsesses about his lost little buddy as he prepares for a birthday his employees and various former presidents are forced to celebrate despite their raging contempt for the miserly, misanthropic billionaire. Before the big bash, Burns spies Homer accidentally making his co-workers laugh with his haplessness and mistakes him for someone capable of making people laugh intentionally. “I must harness his fractured take on modern life” Burns brightly informs Smithers.

Homer isn’t the only entertainment on the bill. The Ramones turn in one of the all-time great Simpsons rock-star cameos as themselves, sneering punk rockers who treat Burns with the same smart-ass belligerence they treat everything else. Burns is not amused and, in one of my favorite lines in the history of The Simpsons, coldly orders Smithers, “Have the Rolling Stones killed.” Smithers tries to correct him but Burns will have none of it. “Do as I say,” he hisses forcefully.


It’s the very definition of a tough room even before Smithers takes to the microphone to inform the crowd that a “small puppy, not unlike Lassie, was just run over in the parking lot.” An appropriately funereal pall falls over the “celebration” and Homer’s performance, which climaxes with his pulling down his pants and mooning the crowd, is, to put it mildly, poorly received. It ends with the party coming to an abrupt halt and robotic thugs beating the assembled crowd senseless for no discernible reason beyond Burns’ inveterate sadism.


Without his Bobo, Burns is inconsolable. Smithers tries to cheer Burns up by dressing up like Bobo in a sequence that suggests that Smithers and also possibly Burns are secret furries. Burns is appalled by Smithers’ attempt to replace his beloved childhood companion, but not so much that he doesn’t coldly and creepily demand that Smithers give him the bear costume for purposes best left unknown.


When Burns embarks on a public crusade to find the heavy-handed symbol of his lost youth and innocence, Homer realizes that Maggie possesses the treasure for which the richest man in town is searching. After fumbling early negotiations, Homer agrees to part with it for $1 million and three of the non-shitty islands of Hawaii—but when Maggie refuses to part with her bear, he has a change of heart. Burns then turns his ferocious focus to getting Bobo back by any means necessary, even if it means depriving Springfield of the two things that make life worth living: television and beer.

Burns and Smithers take over the airwaves, appearing on a Soul Train-like dance show, Barney, and a sitcom. “Is it my imagination or is television getting worse?” Lisa asks Homer when the airwaves are suddenly flooded with nothing but Burns and Smithers, to which Homer dryly answers, “Eh, it's about the same.”


“Rosebud” gets a lot of comic mileage from both Burns and Smithers’ television takeover and the incredible desperation of a town that will do anything to get back its beloved beer and television. Naturally, that means becoming a lynch mob and threatening the Simpsons with violence. Not that it takes much to transform the populace of Springfield into an angry mob: A stiff wind or the sun setting will do the trick in most instances.


In the end, it’s not intimidation or force that reunites Burns and Bobo (which sounds like a vaudeville duo) but the kindness of Maggie, who sees that Bobo means even more to a sad, miserly old man than he does to her. She gives of Bobo freely and while Burns promises to be good and kind to everyone in appreciation for his unexpected bounty, he seemingly forgets his vow the moment it leaves his mouth.

As Marge notes, “Rosebud” has a weirdly ambiguous ending. A horrible man gets what he wants and instead of $1 million and a big chunk of Hawaii, the Simpsons end up with nothing but the satisfaction of doing the right thing. Ah, but the inspired pop-culture references do not end with the resolution of the central climax. A hilarious epilogue riffing on Planet Of The Apes finds a robo-Burns and Smithers in a distant future controlled by super-intelligent apes still locked in a cycle of losing, then finding their beloved Bobo.


“Rosebud” is as much an homage to Citizen Kane as a spoof. The more you know about Citizen Kane the more you get out of it, even if a lot of the most brilliant scenes and gags aren’t Citizen Kane-based. It’s filled with great digressions like Homer becoming fixated on a box that brings him boundless fits of child-like joy and Bart scheming to get as much money out of Burns as possible by sending him pieces of the bear, bit by bit. As the first episode of Mirkin’s term as showrunner, “Rosebud” established an almost impossibly high standard the rest of the season remarkably maintained.

Other shows might have done pop-culture references and elaborate homages before it, but none did them better than The Simpsons—nor were any of them more influential in their obsessive relationship with the sum of pop-culture.


Stray observations

  • It might not be the most highbrow gag in the world, but Homer saying “Lobo” always makes me laugh. I imagine most people know the show exclusively as a pop-culture reference on The Simpsons
  • “Ah, these minstrels will soothe my jangled nerves”—Mr. Burns slightly misjudging the music of The Ramones
  • Another genius gag: Burns owning “the only existing nude photo of Mark Twain and that rare first draft of the constitution with the word ‘suckers’ in it” but deriving no joy from them, nor from the entire populace of Australia spelling out his name with lights.
  • Another cool legacy of the episode: Matt Groening says the epilogue was one of the inspirations for Futurama
  • Burns orders the Ramones killed. Now 75 percent of the band’s are original members are dead. Coincidence?
  • Next up is “Treehouse Of Horror IV.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.

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