A Streetcar Named Marge

A Streetcar Named Marge

My Recollection.

I remember having some of the references to the episode’s namesake explained to me, but even as a child, images of Stanley crying for Stella were common sights on various VHS promotional materials to help some of them land. I remember it for that season-four energy and confidence, this is a season that does some odd things at times and the Birds reference with Maggie and the room full of babies is burnt into my mind as a perfect example.

It’s familiar, and I expect to enjoy this episode.

The Episode

This is a pretty realistic painting of a tiger. One can look at it and intuitively know it is one without having to tilt their head and wonder if the artist is using a series of geometric shapes to suggest tigerishness. It has volume, some accurate anatomical details, and is in a pose one can immediately recognise as common to the species. About the least realistic thing you could notice is that it’s a bit too yellow.

Oh, it’s also vomiting another tiger.

The thing about surrealism is that the unreal can only stand out when juxtaposed with an established real. A canvas painting is already very unreal. I could scribble away and create a nominally similar work to this, but my total lack of basic artistic technique would leave the end result falling short of the genre, regardless of the oddities presented. The canvas is a world within which my art’s failure to perfectly represent reality could simply be a conscious decision, and after all, a lot of art doesn’t look like what it is. Most of the great surrealists were incredibly technically proficient artists, because for a tiger issuing forth from a pomegranate to be unusual, both tiger and pomegranate must look perfectly usual.

The result of this clash of usualness is something more than the mere oddness created through a mess of abstraction. Excellent technique combines with conceptual absurdity to create a dreamlike sense that the absurdity isn’t just real, but perfectly sensible. Grotesque yellow banana golems with distended mantis eyes are fundamentally unreal, but The Simpsons juxtaposes them against ideas, roles, and situations that certainly are.

Surrealism is a taste that mass audiences of the early 90s were scarcely ready for, let alone interested in. Modern audiences are global and modern programs walk a path beaten by shows like The Simpsons. In this environment, bigger stars and larger studios are willing to produce things like the upcoming Kevin Can Fuck Himself, which aims to explicitly juxtapose a sitcom and a drama, with all the accompanying changes in cinematography, to comment on the “long-suffering wife” trope. In the 90s, Marge was just a long-suffering wife and there was no single camera escape for her.

Marge suffers because a well-meaning attempt at positive representation, blended with a comic inversion, dumped all the negative personality traits into her husband. She suffers because her universe is one where her husband can’t grow. She suffers because, as he can’t grow, neither can she, so she can never really leave him. This generates a pressure that is toxic to herself, her husband, and her narrative world. When a work can’t manage characters that anyone can care about, they lean into the size of the threat said characters are dealing with. Saving one person means you have to care about that person; saving the world… well, that’s where I live. Works like 90s sitcoms have fundamental structural components that thwart small character work. You have 20 minutes. You have to make people laugh. These are grotesque yellow banana golems.

Marge lives in an early 90s comedy, so her focal episodes generally use this pressure to create explosions of madness, with all their accompanying opportunities for the funny behaviours usually reserved for her wacky husband. The pressure gets relieved, Homer can go back to being an idiot, and Marge has gotten one back on her husband. But simply inverting an injustice isn’t justice. Marge’s explosions are just her getting to be Homer for a day, because a world that can’t grow offers the possibility of little else.

A Streetcar Named Marge has explosions, but it is not about one. It is about the pain of a woman who is bound by her world, but also by herself and her feelings for a man whose cruelties are mostly outside of his capacity to perceive.

But this is dangerous territory. The War of the Simpsons brought things to the fore and all it did was rub this absurdity in our faces while making Marge look like an idiot. This was because the episode delved into ugly reality—through Homer’s grotesque and tonally discordant ogling of Maude—and realistic consequences—Marge’s demand for marriage counselling. These realities lacked the boundaries of a canvas and had a logic that demanded addressing. The resolution failed because it didn’t deal with that logic at all. If one of your elements is poorly drawn, the surrealist effect is lost, and with that goes your cohesive message. You just look like a poor artist.

The episode begins with beauty queens singing At Seventeen, a harrowing song by Janis Ian about being one of the girls that guys don’t write songs about. The beauty queens sing that love was meant for them, while Marge, who was not a beauty queen, scratches at the side of her husband’s mind for even the tiniest piece of recognition. She is ignored, she is dismissed, she is gaslit, her feelings are mocked, and her anger is thrown aside. She’s doing a play, not because of some deep interest in performing, that motivation is reserved for her art, but simply to meet some other adults. Note that it’s not to make friends, she can’t even dream that far, just to meet other adults. This is where her life is, but as she wilts in the face of an obviously wrong husband, she doesn’t even know it.

That Marge has to grow within the episode just to realise she is angry is another risky choice. It helps frame the episode but making it about even standout examples of her husband’s general neglect reaches beyond the canvas in ways major events don’t. It has the advantage of avoiding a problem War of the Simpsons had, in that the narrative issue being Homer in general frees the story from a binding logic a singular event would create, but it tilts the story toward a resolution that would hang on tacky tropes to work. Then we get, “Oh! Streetcar!”

 A Streetcar Named Marge brandishes its intertextuality aggressively with the title, core narrative, and various direct references aligning for a purpose distinct from the series’ other stray comic uses. It’s a method of narrative dimensional transcendence that uses understandings of the referent text to express a large amount of narrative in a small amount of space, and, in this case, create an illusion of depth in a canvas that’s less than a millimetre thick.

A Streetcar Named Desire is a social realist play/film about a pair of sisters, Stella and Blanche, who were once among the aristocracy of the American South. Their wealth now gone, Stella has relaxed into a lower-class existence in a tiny flat with her horny thug husband, Stanley, while the older Blanche, more familiar with what was lost, flees reality with ever sadder attempts to feign the hallmarks of her lost social position. The play ends with Stanley raping Blanche, causing her to give up her last grip on reality, and Stella choosing to remain with him despite this.

Through upbringing and education (and probably family finances) Marge is several classes above Homer. She wants to be one of the nice families who do nice things, which shows in her aspirational disappointment in her family’s frequent classless behaviour. She is also happy chugging champale in a windmill with Homer, serving her children microwave meals, and wolfing down food in front of the television. There is a fundamental tension between these aspects of herself, as there was between Blanche and Stella. Stella is happy with Stanley in her tiny flat. Blanche is shocked by the flat and disgusted by Stanley. Stella is controlled by Stanley, with her assertive outbursts being just forgotten noise as she slumps back into his arms. Blanche stands up for herself and resists Stanley at the cost of her sanity.   

Marge’s better moments, such as the conclusion to Life in the Fast Lane, are usually unseen. She’s much smarter than her husband, whose Labrador-based personality allows for a kind of raw love that never needs explaining. Marge thinks about herself and her life, the audience knows this and thinks about these things too, but we never see it. Marge can never rationalise her love because love is irrational. Homer makes seeing this easy, but Marge makes seeing it annoying. The first thing the Streetcar parallel hints at is something the 90s sitcom can’t quite: a physical component. Homer and Marge fuck a lot, just last episode he creeps into the shower with her, and there’s a sense of value that comes from a still dynamic sexual relationship we only see through the Marge/Stella parallel. It’s easy to forget it amongst Homer’s various comic shenanigans, because of the asexuality of the art style, or because the show can’t explicitly say it, but it’s there and it matters.

Blanche isn’t so easily amused.

Marge arrives at rehearsals as Stella. She’s scared of Llewellyn Sinclair. She not only crumples at the first sign of rejection, but immediately runs to Homer and admits that “outside interests are stupid”. She lets Homer walk over her. Finally, she makes a point about her own character with the lines, “I just don’t see why Blanche should shove a broken bottle in Stanley’s face. Couldn’t she just take his abuse with gentle good humour?”

Through this scene, Marge is struggling to find the courage within herself to lend some to Blanche. Homer arrives to abuse Marge and expect little more than gentle good humour. It doesn’t get much less subtle than Homer’s boorishness hitting a revelatory crescendo while Marge is acting the role of a woman defending herself from rape. Flanders/Stanley morphs into Homer/Stanley, allowing Marge/Stella to find her anger and become Marge/Blanche.

Whereas the Marge of the first half of the episode admitted that outside interests were stupid and didn’t see what was so bad about Stanley while rehearsing the scene where he rapes her character, the Marge of the latter half isn’t just assertive, but dominant. She loses her temper with Homer’s stupidity instantly, and dismissively, by telling him he can open his own can of pudding. She calls him a big ape and challenges him to keep yelling. She checks for Homer in the audience after kissing Apu/The Paperboy. Marge’s explosions of madness are robbed of their emotional weight because becoming Homer for a day also means she has the emotional intelligence of a turnip. Marge/Blanche’s anger is purposeful, righteous, an opposite reaction equal to years of action.

Stanley doesn’t learn anything at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire and there is no reason to assume Homer will either. The longer the series runs, the more it runs into the issues baked into its foundation. Marge has screamed at Homer about specific things and demanded specific changes, all to no effect. As the episode’s third act fills itself with “Oh! Streetcar!” time runs out for a satisfying conclusion.

But Homer is a lot like that Stanley guy.

The Marge/Stella/Blanche trinity was always going to be a more complex thing than the Homer/Stanley binary, so it gets more time and focus. Homer screams like Stanley outside a window, but it’s a joke that Marge’s emotional development isn’t. Beyond narrative flavouring and character enhancement, the way A Streetcar Named Marge interacts with A Streetcar Named Desire affords them a fascinating opportunity for something as impossible as a pomegranate vomiting a tiger: Homeric growth.

Homer being like Stanley is what is torturing Marge, as the parallel narratives show how that drives Blanche to madness, Homer recognises that and grows in a way that Stanley doesn’t. Homer comes to the same realisation as Marge, on his own, but as a direct result of Marge’s performance. She didn’t have to yell at him or do anything directly, giving Homer’s realisation genuine depth and avoiding the issue of needing him to intellectually grasp his wife’s issues.  

When Homer throws General Sherman back in the lake, he does so as a deliberate attempt to achieve a known goal. When he expresses to Marge how the play made him feel, he is doing so without the possible taint of intent. Marge softens instantly, not because a sitcom needs her to, but because her husband figured something out on his own.

As with Marge’s best moments being unseen, many of Homer’s best moments have to find ways to occur around him. His touching proposal to Marge in the back seat of his car in I Married Marge were words beyond his capacity to express. Having Marge find and read the note let them exist as his but without the incongruity of hearing them come from him. Smart that doesn’t clash with his stupid. Homer can’t just learn a lesson and change because the show can’t change, and too much of that makes bitter poison of the promise. The play’s parallel narrative works like the found letter, a secondary source of realisation that doesn’t clash with his inability to come to realisations. As he walks to the car with Marge, he doesn’t even realise he saved his own day.

We get so used to two dots and a line making a face that we see them everywhere. This is how grotesque banana golems can emotionally resonate with our reality while also breaking many laws of it. The tension between the real and unreal breaks most shows eventually, but episodes like A Streetcar Named Marge demonstrate how The Simpsons managed to thrive into seasons that were the nadir of many others.

Marge’s emotional story is treated as real. Maggie’s reference-heavy pacifier quest is treated as real. The absurd musical, its deranged director, and its demented ending are treated seriously. Each a sophisticated representation of what it is. When intertwined through boundaries and narrative, the combination stops being just a mess of lines on paper and becomes a new reality.

Yours in thinking that Mr Takahashi’s a lunatic, Gabriel.

Jokes, Lines, and Stray Thoughts.

1:30. The TV as a focal family point is often used well in The Simpsons, as whatever they’re watching can serve as the ridiculous joke/commentary without having to damage the story world. Now that I no longer bother plugging my TV into the aerial, I wonder if the lounge TV still gathers families or if the abundance of screens has brought an end to that.

1:38. Having a pile of beauty queens singing At Seventeen is such a brilliant joke. The song itself is worth listening to or at least reading the lyrics of because it stands out among even modern forms of anti-pop for its unflinching sorrow. There’s no sense of the “power through difference” theme that’s the core of so many other songs. Janis Ian simply says that being the ugly, the unwanted, the last picked is a miserable affair. The beauty queens singing it is both not impossible for one of those shows, resonates with the underlying themes of Marge’s life, and turns the song into an intensely cruel bullying ballad.

1:49. I don’t watch any beauty queen things as the homogeneity of the women limits even the male gaze value of them, but I don’t recall the national/state costume bits being this “costumy”. That said, I could imagine them being pretty dumb back in the early 90s.

1:52. Lisa has a pencil and notepad here, and it doesn’t come up at all. A beauty pageant seems an odd interest for Lisa here, so I’ve assumed it to be part of some school assignment thread that never got picked up.

2:09. “Isn’t that exciting” (silence) “If you ask me, they’re all winners” is another great use of the TV as joke vector. It serves as the line delivery system when the family can’t respond. The change in Marge’s expression from wide-eyed anticipation of acknowledgement to suppressed disappointment is effectively depressing.

2:18. There’s a remarkable level of detail to the background characters at the beauty pagea—NECK MONSTER! NECK MONSTER!

2:29. Man I miss Phil Hartman.

2:40. Bart’s line, “He’s such a bitch” is among a few that pop up from time to time that are outside of his general vernacular. I like them, as they indicate a porousness to softer television influences that’s true to his character and even noticeable in Homer.

2:48. Homer, still as a Hanna-Barbara background shot while Marge talks, and the robotic, repeated “Sounds interesting” whenever she finishes talking is great. Particularly when the second one comes after the line, “…sometimes it’s like I don’t even exist”.

3:03. The TV also provides a good cut point, giving the viewers something to go back to so the show can skip less interesting action or jump ahead in time.

3:14. Holy shit, it’s Marge playing the piano! This comes up approximately never, so I always forget it’s there or that Marge is supposed to play. It sort of fits, not her character exactly but elements of the archetype that form it. I can see her being made to take piano as a leftover from when women of polite society were taught tricks to make them more appealing.

3:17. Marge does have an awful singing voice, though. She sounds like one of those canned moo toys.

3:34. I vaguely remember hearing something about the Deborah Jo Smallwood UN reference, but I can’t remember or find anything on it now. She was voiced by then assistant, former beauty pageant contestant, and current screenwriter/producer Lona Williams.

3:39. Nice combination of Maggie being oddly smart with Homer being typically stupid. Bart and Lisa’s little foot game was something I’d do with my brother, but it would always devolve into a game of “Who Can Jam Their Heel into the Other’s Testicles the Most Accidentally”.

3:45. Shifting Homer’s behaviour from neglectful to basically abusive is both darkly funny and useful for the plot. It wraps what could have easily been a series of basic gags into an overall theme, exaggerates them, and demonstrates to the viewer how much Marge puts up with.

3:56. “I mean, I’m not an idiot”

3:58. A few seconds ago, Marge was demonstrating actual signs of anger, and rolling her eyes at her obviously wrong husband. She buckles even before the kids have backed Homer. Speaking of which, that both adds to her pain and keeps her from having any outlet in the home, focusing her emotional story onto the play.

4:03. The kids don’t even look at her, like Homer didn’t earlier.

4:06. “We’re none of us perfect” is a great cap on a scene that makes you really hate Homer. The genuine, but entirely unearned graceful victory is wildly infuriating.

4:14. The piano practising tune fits well with Wiggum’s vocal warmup nicely. Wiggum’s got one of those voices that makes him saying gibberish inherently funny and memorable. According to the Frinkiac, he says “♪ Me-may-mow-mo-moo ♪” which is interesting as often these little things are listed as “(singing)”. It and his off-key singing to the dogs are things that I remember in perfect detail.

4:15. Conan O’Brien looking weirdo in the background here.

4:15. Jasper with the flex. Reminds me of the artist meme that went around that I suspect was just an excuse to draw anime vulvas. Moments like this let you really see how odd the Simpson physiology is.

4:20. A startled Jasper leaps away like a gazelle as Flanders approaches. I like little gags like this because they are odd, but not impossible, as Jasper could well have spent time doing ballet.

4:23. I’ve always appreciated the detail with Flanders’ glasses slipping whenever he faces down and his automatic repositioning when he looks back up.

4:27. If forced transvestism was the worst thing to happen to Flanders at his all-males religious school, then he was lucky.

4:30. Llewellyn Sinclair is an all-time great Simpsons one-off and a truly fantastic use of John Lovitz. This sequence exemplifies a very Simpsonian joke form, blowing past insane things that tell a deeper joke when pieced together at the end. Llewellyn bursts into the room with the confidence and manner of a seasoned Broadway pro, carried by Lovitz’s natural panache, shouting about a “career” that has seen three production-based heart attacks with “Oh! Streetcar!” being his planned fourth. In the next scene, he directly tells his cast that he is not an easy man to work with but defends this by pointing to his successful record. Said record is an obvious gag, a children’s Hannukah show, but the scene gap and confidence disconnect this detail from two prior ones. His “career” involves only three plays, of which the fourth grade Hannukah play is already one. Llewellyn would be a ridiculous character for anyone outside of theatre, certainly enough to carry the comedy he’s given, but by putting a gap between details and hiding them beneath Lovitz’s performance, an absurdity that would feel forced if direct becomes part of his character quick enough to land.

4:44. “That Mr Takahashi’s a lunatic” is a good use of the unseen to create an even more ridiculous idea that works because it’s whatever we imagine it to be.

4:47 “QUIET!”

4:59. Another part of how Llewellyn works is similar to Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report. Absolute self-confidence becomes the supporting structure for so much ridiculous dressing. A hint of awareness, meta, or challenging doubt from his dead-eyed suburbanites would bring it all crashing down, but when Llewellyn proudly displays his primary school newsletter review, complete with little snowman drawing, it works for us because it works for him. Fake realities need to be taken seriously if you want them to work, and this is true of the realities inhabited by delusional characters.     

5:07. Wiggum makes little “Hmm” noise at Llewellyn’s review and it’s a fun sound. It’s not that he’s instantly wowed, the noise suggests consideration, which is even funnier.

5:15. A lot of interesting Simpsons background character designs here, actually. The teacher from the gifted school is trying out, the actor who played Fallout Boy on the “Radioactive Man” series is returning to the stage, what looks like a prototype version of the fat lady who works at the ice cream store.

5:26. Some lax tattoo continuity for Otto here as we never see it again. “You should see my butt” is a nice line, though.

5:31. BUFF FLANDERS. So he’s in his 60s, has a 12 inch penis, and is pretty ripped. Maude won the jackpot. Part of the plot of A Streetcar Named Desire is tied up in Stanley’s animal sexuality, and elements of it only work if this is expressed in a way that women might actually find attractive. A hideous brute is an easy villain, young Marlon Brando is confusing for a number of reasons. By the time I was around, fat Brando jokes were already common, so eventually seeing this version of him made everything make more sense. Seeing him in his later years, and in films like The Island of Dr Moreau is kind of like watching someone trash a piece of art.

5:40. Witness the glory of WHITE APU!

5:47. Lionel Hutz looking at Apu like he just animorphed back into an Indian guy.

5:48. Every other applicant singing some actual song, and without a rasp, makes the anonymity of Marge’s sad little “Laaa” stand out. It adds to how this episode lets us feel her tiny little world, she couldn’t even think of a song to sing.

5:51. “You’re all terrible!” This man directed three plays and one starred eight-year-olds. It’s like a dash of tabasco that adds a bit to every moment.

6:01. Some of the description of Blanche, and the story in general, really don’t fit. Blanche walked in on her husband with an older man, called him disgusting, and watched as he was run over while fleeing across a street. She then lost her job after molesting a senior student. She arrives at Stella’s as a parasite, with no way left to support herself now that she can’t lure men like she used to, and immediately sets about demeaning Stanley with various racial slurs. She’s a tragic character, certainly, but cunning in her use of her sexuality and frequently feigns delicacy as a manipulative tactic. Stanley is a lout, but not one without a reason to dislike Blanche. When he rapes her at the story’s conclusion, it’s more a factor of how women can be treated generally than it is the inevitable culmination of the story or tactical decision on Stanley’s part. The story isn’t one of heroes and villains, it’s realism, it just shows you people broken by various things and how they continue to hurt each other.

6:10. “Outside interests are stupid” does sound like something Homer would say, as it lines up with his approach to life and other lines like, “Trying is the first step towards failure”. Part of the art of the episode is in that Homer doesn’t even realise he’s been a terrible husband this whole time. He’s just being himself. This line is great, because it’s insanely abusive under the circumstances, but also not.

6:11. To Lewellyn’s credit, he does immediately connect Marge to at least his idea of Blanche perfectly.

6:16. Marge’s downward spiral back to her rut through the grim suburban mundanity of a fried chicken order is a thing of beauty. I love the line “extra skin” as the phrase is fucking demented in nearly any other context.

6:30. That Lewellyn is Marge’s saviour, but a completely hostile one, is a clever way of ensuring that the story remains her emotional growth and doesn’t become about misplaced admiration or affection.

6:39. There’s a whole bit in A Streetcar Named Desire where Stanley confronts Blanche about calling him a Polak and insists that A: it’s Pole, and B: he’s a born American and proud of it. It’s things like that that clash with the episode’s portrayal of the characters. That said, it’s probably all being filtered through Lewellyn who, if the ending is anything to go by, has a fairly wild interpretation of the play.

6:50. The immediate setup to punchline of “Bart, don’t ask stupid questions” and “Is there any frontal nudity?” is great and a personal favourite. I have asked that question in so many inappropriate situations and had anyone else been around to see them, they’d have laughed too. The moment is really made by two factors: the simple smile on Homer’s face, and the specificity of “frontal” nudity. There’s a contrapuntal innocence to Homer’s expression that any lasciviousness would ruin, and “frontal” is an uncommon word, which draws subtle attention to “nudity” and creates a deeper thought behind the question.

6:52. Marge’s response makes it feel like he’s asked that question before.

6:56. Helen Lovejoy as Stella is a miscast.

7:04. Otto as Pablo is not a miscast.

7:11. There’s a bit in the story where Mitch, a middle-aged single man who lives with his mother, is on a date with Blanche and gets her to punch him in the stomach as a means of bragging about his exercise regimen. The more things change.

7:34. Flanders’ “grrr” as his sexual assault noise is hilariously gentle.

7:41. It’s something that I had no way of knowing when I first watched this, but Maggie interrupts a sexual assault.

7:49. You can tell someone’s a dumbass if they think Ayn Rand was smart; you can tell someone is an irreparable subhuman if they think she was a good writer. Her writing is an atrocious blend of dull prose, awful plots, empty characters, and sledgehammer subtle didactics. Anyone with half a brain would have just written essays, but she was Ayn Rand. The valueless cretin died on social welfare, which her subhuman fanbase would argue was restitution of stolen taxes, naturally missing the point that said welfare wouldn’t have existed under her ideology or that this loophole can apply to any public works. She exists now as a convenient way of knowing when it’s not worth listening to someone.

8:04. Ms Sinclair, who I am only sure isn’t Lewellyn in drag because she is in the audience for the play, works as an absurdity for the same reasons of delusional confidence that her brother does.

8:19. Not “currently” under investigation by the state.

8:34. A tub of used pacifiers has to be goddamn filthy.

8:38. The show was legally prevented from using too many lines of the play, which is part of why it’s a musical. The glimpses of scenes and lyrics we get across the rehearsal scenes are hilariously trite.

8:45. “This man disgusts you”. He’s also trying to rape you. The scene in the play/film is far less subtle.

9:13. At the rate things are going, I’ll live to see a Simpsons episode that covers Lewellyn’s Hannukah play.

9:16. Homer’s weirdly accurate Game Boy bowling game. It looks pretty crappy, but probably wasted the cartridge space on voice lines. Few bowling games, if any, let you steer the ball like this.

9:20. Marge still has those gently sad eyes she spends the first half of the episode with. The ones that implore her husband to be better, for just a moment, so she doesn’t have to completely die inside. They ask because she can’t, and this is part of what makes Homer’s realisation at the end so therapeutic for her.

9:29. I’ve basically been in this situation except it was more a “don’t play games in bed” thing.

9:34. Maggie’s rendition of “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” was meant to be seen as a remarkable amount of intelligence for a baby, whereas this example of genius intellect for a baby is isolated to a pocket dimension that ceases to exist once it’s over. I didn’t dedicate much time to it in the main article because there’s no real point. It’s simple and does its job well, its ridiculousness existing comfortably within the surrealism of the episode, like an elephant with really long legs.

9:40. Strangely meta bit of Maggie sucking on the Bart doll.

9:46. “Helping is Futile” is an hilarious thing to have on the wall of a daycare centre, Rand joke or otherwise. “A is A” is a reference to Rand’s objectivist philosophy, an approach that would have more merit had her initial assumptions not been comically stupid.

10:00. I like the variety in the baby designs.

10:15. You can work out how to stack objects to reach a goal but you can’t tilt the pacifier enough to get through the gap?

10:17. Assuming the fountainhead diet is only eating what a powerful man forces you to eat even though you secretly want to eat it maybe.

10:18. Maggie hanging limply on the locker makes her look like some inanimate wall hang.

10:23. Maggie got dem suck muscles.

10:29. “The box” is a great threat, there’s so much to it but so much left unsaid that the anticipation would be torture itself. Coming after, “we have a place for babies like you” and said in Lovitzian drag makes it even better.

10:35. The ball hitting Maggie in the head as part of its return trajectory always amuses me.

10:45. Lovely shot of Marge as she wilts again. The same begging eyes, this time begging for anything but the anger that will force the reality of her marriage into her mind.

10:55. Lewellyn is me here, listening to a woman not understand why a character would want to bottle someone about to rape them.

10:57. It really is a masterstroke that Homer doesn’t ever become aware of what was going on. It makes his progress genuine character work and not a plot function.

10:59. Here’s Marge’s first demonstration of spine and it’s fascinating to see it happen when she is in front of the three most relevant men in her life. Flanders takes the role of the ideal alternative, the contrast that makes Homer look even worse. Lewellyn is the authoritative outsider, demanding she be Blanche here while unaware she is Stella at home. “I’m asking you for white hot rage and you’re giving me a hissy-fit” is an important line because Marge can’t get angry for herself, she has taught herself to tolerate the abuse to give others what they need. Now an outsider demands the rage.

11:20. I too would be happy to find some quarters amidst the smaller change.

11:24. This run of shots and the scene in general are really well selected and blocked. Little details like Homer running over to the candy machine in the background as the Marge closeup pulls out lend the comedy background routine a naturalness that supports the moment. The episode lays out reality to Marge, and the episode lays out reality to the audience.

11:37. Other realistic details are how Lewellyn’s speech ends before the background’s punchline and how he looks over at the commotion. Within the small scale of a joke, these details are the technical details that enhance the unreal, in this case, comically absurd moments.

11:38. Some great freeze frames of Homer’s flying kick here. I back-kicked a thieving vending machine once and got a few extra drinks as appreciation for my skill.

11:51. The tension build in this scene is so well plotted. Everything Homer does works on its own but contributes. Finally, more nagging. More nagging after she’s told him to wait just a moment. More nagging she shouldn’t have to be doing because Homer should just know to wait a few more minutes. More nagging even after he got his candy. The puppydog eyes are gone now.

11:53. Buff Homer and then, if you freeze frame it a bit, realistically fit Homer.

11:56. Marge’s shudder as the rage finally expresses itself is a beautiful animation touch. Similarly, Julie Kavner’s voice acting here is excellent, particularly the strained lingering on “face”. Both give the moment a sense of triumph through release.

11:57. The bottle smash getting its own shot is the kind of thing that can sap a moment or veer into clumsily overt. It works here because Marge has earned it, and because the lead-in shudder and scream were effectively emotive.  

11:59. Just fantastic shot of Flanders here. True fear. Also, the music has the “all I want is one embrace” motif to it. Lovely little addition and indicative of the depth of the episode. The shot trucking over to Lewellyn is another piece of quality cinematography.

12:01. Lewellyn taking credit for all this is true to form.

12:03. “Ned, you’re supposed to overpower her”, “I’m trying, I’m trying” is a joke that works even better because of how buff Ned is.

12:07. This reminds me of the time a feral lady tried to stab me with a broken piece of pottery.

12:13. Coming back to dinner is a good choice. The story works by keeping Homer ignorant, and while the reality of the situation makes that functionally impossible—Homer and Marge would have absolutely had some alone time somewhere to argue—the narrative avoids it while seeming normal. Things like dinners provide spaces for the tension to simmer, but not be properly confronted.

12:19. Homer not getting that maybe Marge’s accent has something to do with the play is great. He’s still doing the thing he shouldn’t be doing, but the story isn’t having a character point it out.

12:27. The accent sequence is a goodun. Bart leaping in with the shitty Cockney accent still makes me chuckle, is very absurd, and still very much in character for him.

12:38. Marge wearing a watch! Amazing. It shows up when she passes Homer the salt, meaning they can at least plan one scene ahead.

12:48. Some quickie research suggests the pudding is based on Del Monte’s pudding in a can. I don’t remember anything like this in Australia. There were these things in yoghurt tubs, but they were never called pudding and existed only as mysterious chocolate goo.

12:50. This whole sequence is a good example of Homer’s in-character stupidity making for natural comedy. His sense that he was right about something manifesting as insulting his wife’s assumption he could perform a simple task is great construction. Love the shot of him screaming at the tin lid, too. The pause between the clean break, looking at the broken ring, and finally realising what this means ties a nice 3 beat into a small space.

12:59. Ah drunk dudes screaming into the night. This shot basically copies the Streetcar Named Desire one directly as an overt reference. There’s little extra joke to this, leaning entirely on the fact that it’s Homer doing it to be the joke. This can work fine, but it’s the kind of extremely simple thing that works when it’s a part of a well made whole. Weaker series, and those awful Epic Movie things, rely on this almost entirely and suck accordingly.

13:05. “Keep yelling, you big ape” is a great line. Directed at Homer it’s an outburst and even a valid one of those circles back to being about him. Here, the only person hearing it is Flanders, but the line is for Marge. This is a big part of the difference between this rage and the other kinds.

13:06. The reveal of the still bleeding wound on Flanders’ chest is a work of art and part of what I meant when I was talking about the Homer reference being fine when among stronger work. There was a minute of episode and an ad break between the setup and payoff, and the payoff is so perfectly subtle. The shot doesn’t change, there’s no “HEY LOOK AT THIS” focus pull. It’s not even mentioned. This is tremendous work.

13:02. There’s an exercise bike visible in the corner of Flanders’ room that I only just noticed. Some gentle explanation for his physique.

13:12. Moments like this indicate that Marge is taking her rage out on Flanders, opposed to directing any at Homer.

13:17. The puppydog eyes are back for this scene, as is the Gameboy.

13:27. That there actually is a scene in a bowling alley in the movie (the play is set only in the apartment) turns into such a perfect fit for this scene. Bowling is one of Homer’s dad hobbies that is actually his, too.

13:32. Marge has her puppydog eyes on when she asks Homer why he can’t be supportive and the response she gets is hilarious. Homer outright says he doesn’t care and struggles to fake interests in his wife’s “kooky projects”, which would absolutely either setup for a fight or wound Marge terribly. But then Homer’s own puppydog eyes come out when he says that he never tells her this because “You know I’d never do anything to hurt your feelings”. This is a perfect moment for the story because it deals with the tension of this problem going unspoken, perfectly maintains the anger Marge feels, but also perfectly explains why Homer is being a jerk this episode in a way that doesn’t paint him as a malicious cunt.

13:55. Marge’s long grunt of frustration is the audiences, here.

13:59. “Playing nicely little humans? Good, good” Lovitz is a gem. The Frinkiac says Sinclair says, “Poor little dullard” which makes sense but even with headphones on I can only hear “Poor little dummard” which isn’t a word. There’s really no hint of L to it though.

14:02. The great thing about babies is you can call them names and they don’t know.

14:10. Things like this can easily be a distraction from a good main plot, but there’s no gaps in the Marge story that need the time and Maggie’s thing is self-contained, simple, and largely complete, so the effect is what a B story should be, a light breather from the more emotional Marge plot.

15:24. That said, the last time we see Sinclair is at 15:02 when she’s waddling behind her desk. This doesn’t resolve diddly and some element of the babies locking her in her office would have been nice, particularly given the next scene. It’s not a big issue, though, as the micro-reality of this story is running on far lower standards.

15:28. From the exterior shot, to the interior one where Bart and Lisa are already looking around, to Homer’s slow turn into the line, “Maggie, time to go to the hwAAAAAAAAH!” this is a near flawless comic moment. This is one of those references that one could easily mistake for original work, were they not familiar with The Birds, but the Hitchcock cameo works to indicate something is up. The pacifier sucking sound and footsteps echoing around the room, the babies everywhere, Homer stepping gingerly around them to fetch Maggie, this scene commits to the absurdity, and it carries as a result. I love this joke, and Homer’s shuddering “babies” line is a goodun.

11:52. Homer backing out, silently and protectively ushering his kids away, and the fact that he doesn’t turn around are so good. So many unique baby designs adds to it too. Reminds me of how the terracotta warriors all have distinct faces.

16:01. Hitchcock reference using his own reference form. Neato.

16:04. The spotlights out for the Springfield Community Centre. More “commit to it” energy.

16:10. The gifted school teacher looks like she had a solid bump a few moments before. Also, I don’t think it’s meant to be, but that really looks like Sideshow Bob down in the bottom right corner.

16:22. “Except you” is a great thing to put at the end of a motivational speech.

16:23. The detail of Lewellyn’s sister being here for the opening night is nice but raises further questions. The fact that her hair is a little disheveled is a good touch. Had they locked the door or something, that could be because she had to climb out her window.

16:40. The only musical I’ve seen live is The Book of Mormon, but I’ve seen enough on video etcetera to get a sense that the songs, and musical genre in general, are insanely formulaic. I mention this because it is tough for me to tell the difference between lines that I think are making fun of musicals from lines that are perfectly natural to them. Wiggum’s “Hear their hellish roundelay” is a perfect example of what I mean. It’s silly, but is it silly for me, silly for a musical, silly for this musical, or not silly at all?

16:47. A whole rotating stage is a pretty impressive piece of kit for a suburban community theatre.

16:52. Also just assuming that every musical has some bit where they rag on New Orleans for a while.

17:16. There was a famous issue with the song and New Orleans, which the show had to apologise for. The commentary track mentions that the song was basically stolen from the opening number of Sweeney Todd which went on about how awful London was. What happened was the show was sent around to critics before the season began, and a New Orleans critic printed the lyrics to the song. Without more context, the locals weren’t happy.

17:18. Homer with the torn playbill here is a direct reference to a moment in Citizen Kane, where a character is bored at the opera. Given that Blanche’s character is in the very opening seconds of the play, he can’t have been bored for long.

17:26. Having watched the film, it is a mad thing to make a musical of. Blanche is so very sad, the scene where she molests the paperboy does contain the line, “kiss you on the mouth” but the moment is dreamlike, lonely, and bleak. It’s a good story and a great film, they shrunk the apartment set across the course of it to add a subtle claustrophobia to Blanche’s paranoia. Stuff like Apu’s focal song are ridiculous to the point of leaning me toward the “this is meant to be stupid” side.

18:47. Grampa, Pattie, and Selma are here too, but don’t get any lines or anything. I like that, as it fits these events as being smaller parts of a whole we are glimpsing into. Homer’s unreadable here, true to character and helps with the ending reveal.

18:54. The screaming for Stella is fairly early in the story and not that dramatic a moment. More sad in the fact that it’s obviously a common occurrence.

19:07. The fact that we see the bottle scene rehearsed 3 times but never see the scene is both a good way of getting around the unpleasant reality of it and as a kind of structural gag itself. Like how The Big Lebowski builds to several climaxes, but has none, with even the much talked about bowling tournament never getting resolution.

19:18. Her descent into madness, or, OR, Stanley throwing her about the apartment.

19:24. More of Homer either absorbing this completely or not understanding a thing. I’d probably go to more local theatre if there were lasers and flying. Alright, that’s a lie.

19:34. This reminds me of the bit in Hot Fuzz where Nicholas and Danny go to the Romeo and Juliet performance, and it ends in that batshit musical moment. Makes me wonder if local theatre musicals putting dumb songs over sad or unpleasant moments is a bigger cultural thing than I’m aware of. Simon Pegg’s face in that scene is an all-timer.

All that said, this is definitely a joke, as the actual scene is brutal. Stella and Stanley are dumping Blanche into some kind of home, and given the era there is no way it’s a good place. Stella chooses Stanley over her own sister easily, just another bruise in a life full of them. Turning the moment into a song about how great strangers are is really funny.

19:59. You know, I’ve never noticed the Squeaky Voiced Teen in a fucking bear costume on the right in this shot. The leotard clad trio is equally confusing. But this is another great way of doing a big joke without having to do it. We’re left to assume something weird.

20:11. Pursuant to the ongoing point about how taking the stupid seriously helps carry it, that the entire audience was thrilled by this embarrassing spectacle helps keep the comedy something I can enjoy, as opposed to turning it into that kind of awkwardness porn that abounds these days.

20:15. We don’t see much of this angle of Homer, largely cause it looks like a bastard to draw well, and the slight head tilt is very smoothly animated. That this shot has to convey something very tricky for him, boredom or sadness, is why it gets this treatment. It’s better the viewer be off put by the odd and the new than come down hard on either side. Marge’s expression is probably more tempered by being on stage than anything else but does have to convey a specific something.

20:18. Lewellyn having changed outfits would often be an example of animator laziness, and probably is that here, but it also fits well with the idea that he changed in the brief moments between final curtain and here.

20:29. More of shot to shot Homer and Marge, this time with Marge’s puppydog eyes back, which I’d rate as a bit of a mistake. It gives the impression that she is softening on Homer already, when her dialogue in the next scene says otherwise.

20:34. “Hey, look at me! I’m Blanche DuBois!” reminds me of “I’m Alfred Packer and this is my horse, Leanne” from Cannibal: The Musical. Bart takes that fall like Bull Nakano missing a leg drop from the top of the cage.

20:41: See, Marge’s almost immediately aggressive tone here is in keeping with the plot, just not that last look on stage.

21:02. Homer forgetting Blanche’s name is a great character quirk that helps keep the moment as his and not a writer’s.

21:12. Marge’s shoulders drop the moment Homer demonstrates that he actually was paying attention and was moved by the play.

21:27. “I have a history of missing the point of stuff like this” is basically Homer in a nutshell. It’s the reveal that he was genuine when he thought he wasn’t hurting Marge by not telling her he doesn’t care about her odd hobbies. It recontextualises the preceding events in a way that, while the bite still hurts, sucks the venom out. Homer’s ignorant, but he’s not cruel.

Frist Annual Gabriel Morton Awards for Outstanding Achievements in the field of Simpsoness.

Best Line.

Any show with Jon Lovitz in it is going to have a competitive field when it comes to good lines, and this is no exception. The Sinclair siblings are wild characters that give Lovitz all the room in the world for great deliveries like “I am a leech” or “the box!” Each of these is a different angle on Ms Sinclair, slow venom and percussive assault, which Lovitz nails. Pretty much everything Lewellyn says is fantastic, but “Did I expect too much from fourth graders” is both an hilarious piece of writing and a masterwork of subtle delivery. The line is the perfect example of how a character taking themselves seriously can carry something ridiculous. Marge had a lot in this episode, but really only “Let’s rehearse the bottle scene” stands out, as the bulk of her work is in an internal journey. The kids had little to do at all, but Bart’s “Look at me, I’m Blanche Du Bois” is great on concept alone. Homer, naturally rounds things out with his reactions to the baby horde, his assertion to Marge that, “You know I would never do anything to hurt your feelings”, and finally a simple question regarding frontal nudity.

The winner is…

Every time I think about how good these lines are, I keep thinking it’s a close competition, and then I think of this. Lewellyn’s fourth graders line was a close second, but it’s the fact that this line does so much work by itself that got it over. It’s like drawing a perfect circle freehand. The setup is so obvious that the relative subtlety of the line’s language catches you off-guard. Add in the fact that you can repeat it anywhere you don’t mind getting in trouble and you have a perfect Simpsons line.

Best Sight Gag

The parts of this episode that weren’t grounded were built on an absurdity that needed seriousness for the joke to work, so there weren’t a huge amount of sight gags, but what’s there is still good. Marge standing for a whole, terrible second after desperately begging her family to acknowledge her is crushing but hilarious. Jasper’s wild flexibility is a classic, but a bit simple. Homer fighting the candy machine in the background is a gem, blending the natural with the cartoony in the end for a bit of zest. But the winner is…

Each baby is unique. There are no animation shortcuts here. Dozens of babies were designed and drawn for this scene and this scene only. I’ve never seen any of them repeated. This is an important detail for how this reference gag pays off and goes to the broader point on the nature of surrealist realities. Any shortcuts would have ruined it. It has to be a room full of actual baby looking babies to drive home the insanity of a The Birds-esque room of babies.

Best Overall Joke

It can’t be anything else. Jokes work on surprise which is why the setup-punchline structure is inherent to all of them because there needs to be something before there can be something silly. These patterns can become predictable, and so comedy evolves to outwit its viewers. The setup for this starts at 12:05 with something that is already presented as a standalone joke: Flanders struggling to repel Marge. One whole minute and one second of show time and an ad break later, and Flanders drops the script to reveal the wound.

With humour being based on surprise, what this does is recontextualise what we just saw, like a good movie twist. The result is the surprise and the setup are successfully delivered at once. Lastly, the concealment and reveal both occur naturally to the scene and shot, no attention is paid to it. This adds a third level of surprise to the joke, that we have to discover it ourselves. It’s the comedy equivalent of when Agent Kujan realises Verbal is Keyser Söze.

Best Shot

This is another instance where there is some really good cinematography to the episode, but a lot of it isn’t theirs. Moments like Homer howling at the window or some of Maggie’s pacifier liberation are great shots, but are other people’s used as intertextual signals. The tub of pacifiers is a nice one for the use of the locker interior hammering the prison-like daycare centre home. The view of Marge rehearsing from the seats is another good one, but also common to the situation. I love Homer staring at the ring pull, and it was close, but this is Marge’s episode so I went with this one of her after Homer’s line about never doing anything to hurt her.

There’s not much to it. The lighting is depthless sitcom blaze, the composition is basic, there’re no clever tricks hither or thither, but it so perfectly sums their relationship up that I kept coming back to it.  

Freeze Frame Fun.

Liked it? Take a second to support Gabriel on Patreon!

3 Replies to “A Streetcar Named Marge”

  1. As it turns out, there is an opera adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, which is basically just a fancy musical without the silly bits. Curiously, it was made *after* this episode.

    The joke about giving a sad song to the paperboy reminds me of the Groundhog Musical, which gives big dramatic songs to Ned Ryerson and the woman Phil pretends he went to school with. That’s way more recent but I wonder if the Apu thing is parodying a trope of giving big songs to minor characters from whatever’s being adapted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *