“Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala-D’oh!-cious” (originally aired 2/7/1997)

In which the Simpsons get a nanny who appears slightly familiar…

“Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala-D’oh!-cious,” while one of the most successful Simpsons parodies, points to a universal truth as only The Simpsons can: Taking care of kids is the hardest job in the world. They really will ask you for a tissue when they have a Kleenex box in their lap. They wait until you sit down to demand yet another milk refill. Once my son smashed a box of chalk in our stairway with a ball-peen hammer, turning everything pink. I blame myself for putting the chalk and the ball-peen hammer in the same hemisphere.

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I mention these fun facts only to offer sympathy to both our main maternal characters this episode: Marge and Shary Bobbins. Lord only knows how Marge has kept her hair before this, with this house of ingrates. The plight of Marge Simpson is certainly relatable to all of parenthood in this episode, even those who don’t have Bart Simpson for a mischievous offspring. Moms know the mother who never sits down at a meal in The Christmas Story is not a parody, but a reality.

So when Marge’s hair starts falling out from the stress in her household, Simpsons producers Al Jean and Mike Reiss decide the time is right for a Mary Poppins spoof. Although Julie Andrews had to turn down the spoof of her Oscar-winning role (she was on Broadway at the time), regular Simpsons player Maggie Roswell does a bang-up job as Shary Bobbins, who gets her own life force sucked out of her by the Simpson family.

Mary Poppins is ripe for parody. Although it was Walt Disney’s favorite of his own films, it’s seemingly the longest family movie ever. You think you’re at least halfway through, and they’re still having tea on the ceiling. But its length means that it has many musical numbers, which work well in the Simpsons universe, from the saccharine nanny request in the kids’ letter that beckons Shary Bobbins, to the horrific bird lady from “Feed The Birds (Tuppense A Bag)“ turning into Barney begging for “Two Bucks A Beer”: “In the front of a tavern / Flat on his face / A boozehound named Barney is pleading his case.” Dan Castellaneta has a lovely singing voice, not only as Barney as he begs for his beer, but in Homer’s response line to Bart, who asks, “Can I be a boozehound?” Homer sympathetically sings, “Not ’til you’re 15.”

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Dick Van Dyke’s one-man band is transformed into Groundskeeper Willie’s park version of “Maniac,” complete with dousing water bucket. And kudos to Willie for facing the unresolved chemistry between Mary and Bert in the film: kept simply platonic there, at least The Simpsons addresses the couple’s possible romantic past.

The musical high point: “Spoonful Of Sugar”’s conversion into “Cut Every Corner.” With lines like “Don’t pout, don’t sob, just do a half-assed job,” it’s surprising that Shary Bobbins didn’t last longer with The Simpsons, she sounds perfect (although Bart shows some effort in that clean-up scene by putting the wadded-up paper in the wastebasket before throwing it out out the window):

The original Mary Poppins had a beautiful, nonconformist message at the end of the movie: Mr. Banks leaves behind the cookie-cutter executives working at the bank to go fly kites with his family. The Simpsons honors this with a kite-flying nod that actually gets Mr. Burns’ heart to beat again (along with a quick Oliver! dig with Principal Skinner and Jimbo: The appearance of Shary Bobbins is a strong enough force to turn everyone in Springfield an anglophile for a week).

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The Simpsons musicals are usually awesome, and this Mary Poppins parody is no exception. It also appears rather slight at first. Even Jean and Reiss admit on the commentary that they had the show wrapped up about halfway through, which is why Shary Bobbins inexplicably and redundantly has to come back to re-wrangle the Simpsons again: They had no act three.

The difficulty of crafting an actual plotline for Shary Bobbins also explains why many of the aside sketches are so long. But that’s fine, actually, because most of them are pretty entertaining, like Krusty’s disastrous comedy special Krusty’s Komedy Klassic (The Simpsons adds some meta-commentary with Bart’s aside, “These specials get worse every year”) and the Itchy & Scratchy Quentin Tarantino parody.

The addition of the third act, with Shary Bobbin’s descent into the Simpsons’ madness, turns out to be a master stroke, because there’s no way the family could maintain that high level of English behavior. Another parenting (and life) lesson: Superheroes like Shary Bobbins don’t exist. Unlike the movie, which featured Mary Poppins possessing a bit of magic, here Shary Bobbins is only a normal human (although one with umbrella-flying and uphill-bannister-climbing skills), so she is susceptible to the Simpsons’ overwhelming sloth and ennui.

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But it’s far from Shary Bobbins’ fault: As Marge points out, nothing can change the Simpsons. And Marge realizes that a few clumps of hair is a small price to pay for keeping her family intact. So the Simpsons will maintain their substandard way of life, because they’re happy just the way they are, and this parody turns out to have a valuable lesson for all parents who strive for impossible-to-achieve perfection. As Marge tells Shary, “just sit back and enjoy the ride,” even when your hair is falling out, the dishes aren’t done, and your stairway is full of chalk dust.

Stray observations:

  • If you don’t like Krusty’s Mad About Shoe sketch, you’re probably not going to be crazy about his NYPD Shoe sketch either.
  • Eric Stefani, animator and former No Doubt member, helped stage the Shary Bobbins musical numbers.
  • Some nice Grampa moments this episode: using the remote and an iron for a phone to call Gert, taking off with Shary Bobbins’ umbrella (which finds him later crashed into a tree). And when Shary Bobbins offers to change diapers and sing songs, he requests one of each.
  • Before They Were Famous: Rainier Wolfcastle’s faux-Oscar Meyer commercial is perfect, right down to his squirmy little foot.
  • Things that get Homer in the mood: a couple of beers, watching women’s volleyball on ESPN.
  • “If you cut every corner, you’ll have more time for play / It’s the American way!”
  • Ways the Simpsons will raise the money to pay for the nanny: Lisa will quit buying Malibu Stacy clothing, Bart will take up smoking and then quit, and in the best nod of all, Homer will give up his Civil War re-creation society role as General Ambrose Burnside. The lineup also features Barney as Lincoln and Apu as Stonewall Jackson: “The south shall come again!”
  • If Shary Bobbins’ episode-ending demise appears rather harsh, it’s because Jean and Reiss first wrote that bit for the shaper-edged The Critic.

  • I like when Shary Bobbins finally snaps: “I’ve been singing you songs all day, I’m not a bloody jukebox!”

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Next week: Erik Adams explores how The Simpsons took on their own network critics with the brilliant “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show.”