82. Homer’s Barbershop Quartet

(originally aired September 30, 1993)
There aren’t many shows are multi-layered as The Simpsons. That’s why it manages to entertain all age groups. This is an episode that is basically one big Beatles parody, but as a kid I was still able to enjoy it on a story and character level, with the references still being humorous because they weren’t overt and didn’t stand out from the flow of the plot. The idea of the barbershop quartet mirroring the career of the Fab Four is interesting, and the writers certainly took the ball and ran with it, but while a lesser show (or modern Simpsons) would blatantly hit you over the head with it, here it’s done with a bit more tact. Even when the winks and nods get very familiar, like Barney coming in with a Yoko Ono-type, they’re still funny. “Number 8” was funny to me then, and now it’s even funnier that I know of “Revolution No. 9.” The point is that even in a reference-heavy episode, classic Simpsons still has a resonance even if the culture is beyond your years.

At the local swap meet (home to a series of great gags), Bart and Lisa discover a record with their father’s face on it. Homer recounts the great tale of his past, when he, Apu, Skinner, and Chief Wiggum were part of a barbershop quartet. They were relatively small-time before an agent offers to represent them, in exchange for booting Wiggum out for Barney, who is revealed to have a gorgeous singing voice. Barbershop music seems like a peculiar choice, but it’s all part of the joke (Homer recounts: “Rock and roll had become stagnant, ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ was seven years away; something had to fill the void. That something was barbershop,”) and plus a vocal harmony group makes more sense than them donning instruments. It also gave us “Baby on Board,” one of the greatest songs of the entire series. It’s so simple and brilliant; when I was learning to play ukulele, it was the first song I played. The song was the band’s first #1, and their launch to super stardom had begun, from winning a Grammy to meeting George Harrison (though Homer is more interested in the brownie he’s eating.)

Even throughout the music parodies, the show manages to sprinkle an emotional shade in Homer’s growing disconnect with his family whilst on a world tour. You even feel a little bad for Wiggum, the Pete Best of the group, in his desperate attempts to rejoin. The episode ends on a sweet note as the Be Sharps reunite on the rooftop of Moe’s, where it all began, to belt out “Baby on Board” one more time (George Harrison, acknowledging the reference, dismisses, “It’s been done.”) It’s a swell episode even with its reference-heavy, ridiculous plot; there’s a great scene where Bart and Lisa question the loose ends of the story, and Homer chuckles them off, saying he’ll save them for another night (episode.) It expands the backstory of the show, its characters and its whole crazy world, and gave us one of the greatest Beatles TV parodies ever. That and the Powerpuff Girls episode “Meet the Beat-Alls,” an exercise to see how many Beatles references could be jammed in 11 minutes. But that’s for another blog.

Tidbits and Quotes
– The swap meet is yet another Simpsons set piece full of great bits: Quimby’s utter contempt about being there (“Human roaches, feeding off each others’ garbage! The only thing you can’t buy here is dignity,”) Bart, Milhouse and Nelson’s enthusiasm about religious trading cards (until they realize they’re learning,) Skinner’s enthusiasm of finding his old Vietnam prison helmet, and Homer’s tossing off various valuable historical artifacts as junk (“Stradi-who-vious?”)
– The Dapper Dans, most famous for performing on Main Street at Disneyland, provide most of the vocals for the Be Sharps’ songs. Way back when I went on vacation to the West and went to Disneyland, I was hoping they’d be there and I could request they sing “Baby on Board.” Alas, they were nowhere to be found.
– I like Nigel changing Apu’s last name to “de Beaumarchais,” shortening it to fit on a marquee, when it’s really not much shorter than “Nahasapeemapetilion.” Also Apu’s response is classic, “That is a great dishonor to my ancestors and my god, but okay!”
– Love the quickness of Wiggum’s mob turning on him. A mere ten seconds into the band’s first number with Barney, they are immediately swayed, and apparently have prepared signs that praise Barney and defame Wiggum, as the chief sheepishly leaves the bar. We also get the first “Huh?!” from Moe, which is sorta kinda his catchphrase.
– Really surprised they could get away with showing a bong on TV, let alone Homer identifying it as such.
– Love Homer’s writing what he knows in composing a hit song (“There was nothing in Al Capone’s vault, but it wasn’t Geraldo’s fault...“) I also love the quick line Marge gives regarding the ‘Baby on Board’ sign (“Now people will stop intentionally ramming our car!”) which is one of those great bits of dialogue that says a lot in a little.
– The press conference in New York is a trifecta of perfect jokes: Apu’s defense of accusations that he is Hindu, Skinner confirming he’s the funny one of the group, and Barney revealing he was found on the men’s room floor (complete with a single tear.)
– Never got the writers’ continual bashing of the Grammys. They bash most award shows for being superfluous, but the Grammys has gotten considerable scorn over the years. Maybe it’s because it’s one of the few awards the show hasn’t won.
– I love that ALF is on the cover of the latest TV Guide, and Skinner’s grim announcement that on the “What’s Hot and What’s Hot,” the Be Sharps are “not.”

12 thoughts on “82. Homer’s Barbershop Quartet

  1. Sigh. A near-perfect episode! And I think the writers bash the Grammys so much because there are SO many categories (and therefore opportunities to win) in the Grammy awards. Only the more popular categories like “best album” are broadcast on TV. The whole awards ceremony encompasses incredibly specific categories (“best spoken word beatnik album for children” type stuff). So they’re probably poking fun at how seemingly easy it is to win a Grammy and therefore how worthless an award it is.

  2. Also, I love the Beatles/Be-DULLS / Be-Sharps duality, it’s genius. That and the fact that there’s no such note as a “b-sharp”. That and it just works as a catchy name… “be sharp” … with an S. Just brilliant on many levels, mindblowingly brilliant and multi layered… and it’s just one (arguably 2) words!

    1. Well, there technically IS such a note as a B Sharp, but it’s just the same as a C. You’ll only usually see it when the person writing the music is trying to be clever…

    1. I second that as it’ll also be fun to see how Mike’s attitude might change post-movie due to the new design and whatnot.

  3. I’m always conflicted on this episode. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hilarious, the jokes work on multiple levels, etc.

    But this marks a place where the Simpson family’s backstory goes from a realistically sweet but sad story of how they got from teenagers to the family we started watching on TV to…something else. It’s such a break from the realism from before and just impossible to credibly assert that this is a heretofore completely unmentioned part of Homer and Marge’s story. (Yes, i know there’s a joke about that, but still…)

  4. The Bigger Than Jesus bit is down right hysterical. This whole episode is so damn good and I know next to nothing about The Beatles, but that is irrelevant as this episode hits everything it needs to hit.

    There are so many funny jokes and bits but I think my favorite is how Homer couldn’t care less about George Harrison as there are brownies needing to be eaten. lol

  5. A near-perfect episode, the only thing that always bugged me was when they showed Santa’s Little Helper in the flashback when Bart and Lisa where younger.

    1. The thing that irrationally bugs me is that this episode is said to take place in 1985, but a bunch of the pop culture things it makes passing reference to (Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault, the Statue of Liberty centennial, ALF) happened in 1986. But I’m a dork like that

  6. A pretty stellar episode. Again, great jokes abound (“Number 8” (belch)”, the Baby on Board song, Homer loving Brownies more than meeting George Harrison, “It’s been done”, the album cover, the questions at the B Sharps (Skinner’s the funny one), Wiggum being turned against, then his raise at television (use the remote)).

    It works well as a Beatles parody, too. It took me a little bit to notice they were referencing their career when I first watched the episode, and even if you know nothing about the Beatles, the episode still works.

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