Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC
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“Nothing turns me on more than basic competence.”

There’s a sweet spot in comedy. There’s an even smaller sweet spot in Simpsons comedy. Expressing a point while getting big laughs in the same fluid motion isn’t something anyone can do, and it’s something even fewer comedy writers can do on The Simpsons, where the need to blend heart, satire, sight gags, wordplay, punning sign jokes, and 30 years’ worth of characterization and baggage can turn a 21-minute episode into a dispiritingly awkward lowlight reel. Swinging for the cheap seats often leaves the show looking desperate and foolish, while overthinking the process can result in the sort of hesitant half-swing that carries its futility in the sweat of its own good intentions. (At this point, I’m going to cop to the fact that January is about when the long, cold, baseball-less winter really starts to get to me.)

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Screw it—The Simpsons is the The Show as far as TV comedy goes. And say what you want about the product the show keeps trotting out there in its 30th season—the theme park commercialization, the high-priced guaranteed contracts that leave the distinct impression of complacent has-beens going through the motions—it’s still the place where a good outing shines like nowhere else. And if, after all that George Will-style pontificating buildup, “Mad About The Toy” isn’t an all-time all-star, the episode (credited to longtime indispensable utility man, Michael Price) is a solidly grounded, entertainingly funny, and assured effort of the sort a solid season could be built around.

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Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

In a show whose patterns are so familiar, you look for nimbleness both in how it sidesteps and subverts cliché. Here, Marge and Homer want a date night and, since they’ve been shunned by all human babysitters, and Homer’s plan to have the Simpsons’ dueling Alexas and Echos take charge just results in Lisa ordering a bunch of nerdy accessories, they turn to Abe. Here, the jokes around the edges serve to liven up the premise, from Bart’s immediate attempt to have one device destroy another (thanks to a handy laser-beam app) to Marge’s adamant pronouncement, “We can’t leave our kids with a greedy tube.” Once Abe gets there, we’re primed for some of the show’s signature rambling old guy jokes, something only ever as welcome as the writers can channel old-timey gibberish as hilariously as Conan O’Brien habitually used to during his time on the show.

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Not bad on that score, either, with the bored kids’ desperate search through the family board games collection being pooh-poohed as either “too new-fangled” or “too old-fangled,” a fine Grampa Simpson construction. Point, too, for Lisa’s annoyed response to Abe’s question “Where’s the castor oil?” (“In the 1940s!”) once Bart spitefully swallows the TV remote batteries to put the kibosh on Abe’s choice of radio-based television programming. There’s a sweet spot to writing Grampa as well, as his position as shambling, slippers-clad Greatest Generation joke must walk the unsteady line between ageist stereotype and put-upon character comedy. Sparking to the kids last-ditch pick of Monopoly, Abe exclaims it’s the only place left where he can say the word “Oriental,” an accurately mean-spirited slash at senior bigotry that, as “Mad About The Toy” progresses, segues rather gracefully into something unexpectedly sweet, and human.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

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Freaking out at Bart’s Tupperware container full of green army men leads Grampa to some good old-fashioned questionable reminiscences, followed by a quick trip to the psych ward of the local VA hospital. Marge’s sincere, “Back to reality, focus on the little green men” is some solid jokes-manship, and Abe’s flashback to his post-war experiences throws in a few funny bits alongside the narrative necessity, something The Simpsons used to be a whole lot better at. The joke that Abe’s smooching a passing Times Square nurse elicits the furious response that VJ Day was two years earlier—and references the fact that the kiss depicted in the famous photo of the actual day was, in fact, more akin to a sexual assault. And, in Dan Castellaneta’s tremulous Abe Simpson recall, the description “I was lying in a puddle of my own dishonorable discharge,” fairly tinkles with laughter. (Apologies, but that made me laugh.)

It’s all leading up to what will be the real narrative meat of the episode—which turns out, in truth, to be a head-fake. The initial revelation that Abe was the sole model for those molded plastic, mass-produced toy soldiers is where it looks like the episode is going to land, with the prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars in likeness rights royalties stakes enough for the average episode. And there’s a little hoard of good jokes to go along with the storyline, an admirable effort even in what turns out to be a comedic red herring. Not that he should give up his night job, but The Last Word host Lawrence O’Donnell does yeoman’s work playing himself, belligerently fending off Abe’s crotchety but accurate assessment that O’Donnell, in fact, always gives himself the last word with his sign off. (“Don’t mess with me, I’m from Dorchester!,” rails the furious O’Donnell in warning as Abe is wrestled offscreen.) That’s after an economically great line reading from Harry Shearer where Kent Brockman, interviewing the suddenly big story of Abe’s possible windfall, seamlessly announces that Abe’s “being airlifted to a much better show.”

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But when the blissfully hopeful Simpson clan jets to New York with thoughts of army man green marching in their heads, we discover that Abe’s distress doesn’t stem from the lost riches it turns out he’s not going to get (he never signed his contract), but from how he inadvertently outed the gay photographer putting him through his bazooka-toting paces. And here’s where the sweet spot comes in.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

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Any comedy that’s lasted as long as The Simpsons (a tiny and rapidly dwindling list) has to own up to its evolving social consciousness. The Simpsons, coming of age as it did at the tail end of 80s, has some stuff to retcon, readjust, deconstruct, or simply brush under the rug and never talk of again, but it’s tribute to the comedic founders and foundations of the show that, for a 30-year-old sitcom, its track record is as good as it is. (The recent, grossly self-justifying defensiveness concerning a certain problematic racial stereotype notwithstanding.) And The Simpsons’ comedic evolution has seen the show’s humor incorporating the issue of homophobia with admirable grace at times. 1997’s “Homer’s Phobia” was head-on blunt and funny about that particular societal prejudice in a way that had the Fox switchboard humming, and, in recent years, the way that the show has handled Waylon Smithers’ integration as a fully rounded, out gay man in Springfield has resulted in some genuinely heartening and heartwarming (and funny) moments.

Still, there’s a matter-of-fact kindness to the twist in “Mad About The Toy” that broadens the series’ character comedy in an unexpected way. Coming from Abe as it does, the plot development might appear to be an effortful attempt to shoehorn message into the mirth, but it doesn’t play out that way in practice. There’s a canny little touch early in the episode where Homer notices that Abe has tossed his wedding picture with late wife Mona in the trash. Questioned, Abe talks resignedly about the need to move on (partly, you know, because Mona left him in frustrated disgust decades before she died), a melancholy echo that reverberates through what could have been just another “Abe as old-person joke piñata” of an episode to help land the tricky theme of an old man’s buried regrets.Because Abe’s homophobic freakout to the photographer’s misconstrued kiss led to the man being immediately fired (“This is the 40s! Guys like you don’t exist!”), Abe’s repressed guilt makes his repeated, toy-based, present-day freakouts play subtly differently. It helps that the photographer, Philip Hefflin, is cannily cast with Bryan Batt in the role, the resonances of Sterling Cooper art director Sal Romano turning Abe’s journey to make amends into what turns out to be something akin to a best-case scenario of poor, closeted, unjustly terminated Sal’s unrevealed future.

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Traveling to Philip’s hometown of Marfa, Texas (“the art capital of Texas!,” excitedly explains know-it-all, Lisa), Abe anxiously seeks out the photographer, only to find that the town is festooned with the happy artist’s line of brightly colored, Abe-faced toy soldier art. Here again, the lead-up isn’t just rushed through to get to the payoff, as Abe’s worried ditty sees him forgetting to be worried as he gets caught up in the irresistible “Yellow Rose Of Texas” melody, and worried about both being “punched in the kisser,” or “kissed in the puncher.” Eventually finding Philip in his thriving art gallery, Abe is shocked, then delighted, by Philip’s revelation that getting fired was the best thing to happen to him, since the harsh reality of coping with reactionary, knee-jerk bigotry left him determined to be who he was without apology. (“My wife took it okay,” he explains, while, in flashback, we see that, she, too, was living the same unhappy lie.)

It’s a risk—not for addressing homosexuality, but for putting the story in the hands of Grampa, a supporting character used most often for the sort of quick-hit swipes at reactionary codgery mocking internet memes were invented for. But few characters on The Simpsons exist just as their initial stereotypes at this point, and there’s a longer-than-most history of the show finding just the right touches of grudging humanity in the old coot to make “Mad About The Toy” work. (Anyone who doesn’t get misty at the end of season two’s “Old Money” is very, very different from me.) It might sound a little forced for Abe to tell his family on the way to Marfa, “Maybe a man can love different things and still be a man,” but that doesn’t make it any less touching when Abe, awash in relief and gratitude at Philip’s forgiveness, muses, “Maybe it was my life that was ruined that day,” and belatedly returns Philip’s long-ago kiss on the lips. It doesn’t take (he pronounces himself “as straight as Gomer Pyle,” to Phillip’s knowing chuckle), but, as we see when Abe puts a photo of himself and Philip in place of the one from his own misguided and mismatched wedding, it’s never too late to find someone that makes your world a little less lonely. That’s the sweet spot.

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Stray observations

  • Homer, anticipating a life as Abe’s trust fund kid, immediately fumes that Abe won’t pay for his trip to Aspen.
  • Sign at the VA: “Our draft-dodging president salutes you!”
  • Abe: “I’m as sane as the next guy.” Marge: “There’s no one there.” Abe: “Uh-oh.”
  • Price’s script never loses sight of the fact that Abe’s WWII career was, let’s call it checkered: “What secretly helped me was I enjoyed killing strangers!”
  • “Texas? That’s where my friend Louisiana Joe is from!”
  • Abe, excitedly responding to Philip’s claim that a Cornell study had proved that no one is 100 percent gay or straight: “Is it peer reviewed?”

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