H.K. Duff, Homer (Fox)

When Homer becomes the new Duffman—Homer becomes the new Duffman. That happens. No doubt about it.

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Plenty of (or perhaps most) Simpsons episodes are based on an easily summarized premise like that. But a good Simpsons episode can’t be summed up with the same sentence after watching it. “Springfield gets a monorail.” “Homer becomes an astronaut.” “Lisa gets a substitute teacher.” Any Simpsons fan can read those brief descriptions and rattle off lines, jokes, and fond memories culled from those episodes decades later. But “Homer becomes the new Duffman” inspires not much beyond what it is—an adequate jumping-off point from which not much is jumped off.

Sitcoms live on such premises, especially non-serialized sitcoms like The Simpsons where reality resets at the beginning of each episode (apart from the bits of character continuity the writers choose to retain). That’s far from a criticism of the show—at its best, The Simpsons has utilized its elastic reality to transform those minimalist concepts into all-time classic television comedy. Sometimes it’s done so by grounding the week’s outrageous premise in its characters, the combination of silliness and heart making for improbably potent humanity in the midst of the comedy. Other times, the writers have used the premise as a comic springboard for the best possible jokes to be found therein. Neither category is mutually exclusive—in an all-time great Simpsons, the balance between character and gags engenders the giddy joy of watching invention at its most inspired.

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And then there are episodes like “Waiting For Duffman,” where, premise firmly in place, the show simply exists, a functional space-filler in a long season. Homer’s decision to try out for the injury-vacated post of Duff spokesman neither illuminates anything about Homer’s character, nor acts as the inspiration for original jokes. Homer’s discovery that alcohol can ruin lives comes quickly, his crisis of conscience and its resulting denouement quicker. Homer’s adventures as Duffman are the impetus for some decidedly average commercial parodies and jokes at the expense of corporate advertising—and beer companies specifically—none of which find anything either insightful or simply funny enough to be memorable. Indeed, Homer’s long Game Of Thrones succession ceremony and an extended old school Duff cartoon aren’t distinguished enough to justify their running times. Duffman himself (there have been several Duffmen, but this is the series’ main Duffman, Barry Duffman) has been a reliably funny character in small doses, thanks both to his position deconstructing the morally questionable position of kid-friendly corporate shill, and Hank Azaria’s always energetic performance. Here, however, Barry essentially disappears after his over-energetic signature pelvic thrusts dislocate his spine, and Azaria’s intensity with it.

As Duff chairman H.K. Duff, returning guest star Stacy Keach proves, as he did in another role in this season’s “Bart’s New Friend,” that his imposingly gravelly voice is a perfect vehicle for unexpected comedy, but Duff’s lines here aren’t particularly memorable, with one exception. After finding that Duff’s first choice for the new Duffman has another beer’s logo tattooed on his back, Duff snaps, “Reverse the confetti!” Once Homer is chosen and asks for the confetti to be re-deployed, Duff concedes with, “One confettus!,” the sort of esoteric, Latinate joke that the Conan O’Brien Harvard-heavy writer’s room would have delighted in.

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There are a few funny lines scattered throughout “Waiting For Duffman” which provide exactly the quantity of laughs necessary to mark this as a serviceable Simpsons episode, without doing anything to rise above that standard. (And one cruelly obvious one, with Bart and Lisa’s Duff t-shirt cannon fight landing right in Ned Flanders’ house, his peaceful contemplation of a roomful of pictures of Maude shattered along with his window.) Homer’s decision to flee NASCAR fans furious over his substitution of non-alcoholic Duff around a circular racetrack smacks of quintessential Homer logic. (Cue Barney’s offscreen, “Then what am I throwing up right now?”) Azaria gets in another great, odd line, when his smooth-voiced Duff blimp captain picks one of Homer’s pre-nicknamed autographed pictures for his son, saying, “Give me a ‘Red’— I’ll start calling him that and then give it to him on his birthday.” And the reveal that Lisa apparently derives reassurance from an imaginary, supportive child psychologist is the one darkly affecting moment of the episode. (The sequence of Marge ironing both her ironing board covers vies with her aversion to answering Homer’s, “Marge, have you ever wondered if you’ve made a terrible mistake in your life?” for second place.) It’s not much, but an episode as undistinguished as “Waiting For Duffman” encourages viewers to pick out their pleasures where they can find them.

Stray observations:

  • Homer has a tattoo that says “Marge Madness.” Timely.
  • Kent Brockman follows his extended coverage of the new Duffman with a tossed off, “In other news, the Chinese land on Mars. Also, no more elephants.”
  • While I continue to pointedly have no opinion about anything related to reality television, the reference to tonight’s other guest voice as “the inescapable Cat Deeley” is appreciably humorous.
  • Duff slogan after Homer’s golf-related commercial: “It’s below par which is good in golf.”
  • Homer, after finding out his Duffman duties mean he can never drink again: “You wouldn’t tell Batman he can’t eat bats!”
  • “And I trusted you after you snuck up on me and injected me without my consent!”
  • The Sam Simon tribute at the end of the episode called the late Simpsons co-creator was touching. “One of the great comic minds ever.” Indeed.

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