108. Sideshow Bob Roberts

(originally aired October 9, 1994)
This is the first of a few times we see the Springfield Republican Party headquarters, located in a creepy castle on a haunted hill, where seemingly demonic rituals and dastardly plans are formulated. Even Dracula himself is one of the representatives. What’s so amazing about this that, at least to me, this reads two ways: it’s poking fun at conservatives, but simultaneously poking fun at itself. This set piece is so ridiculously over the top that it’s laughable, but the nugget of satire works against its seeming target, and those who would bash said target. This episode aims at Democrats and Republicans, and pretty much everyone gets their head in a proverbial noose… but in a mostly harmless, mostly hilarious way.

We open with Rush Limbaugh wannabe Birch Barlow spewing his brand of conservative garble over the Springfield airwaves, who makes a call to arms to free a political prisoner, one Sideshow Bob. After Bob’s knock at Democrats at the end of “Black Widower,” it only makes sense he would be revealed a diehard Republican, but only to reach his own means. Also ironic his prior comments about Democratic leniency on prisoners got him out of jail multiple times at this point. Anyway, Bob is selected by the Republican party to run for mayor against incumbent Joe Quimby. Satire of general elections and currying public favor has been done, and quite expertly, in “Two Cars in Every Garage,” but we get varying kinds of bits here, like Bob being fed questions that will make clever sound bites, and a neat nod to the Kennedy-Nixon debates featuring a prim and proper Bob against a direly sick Quimby.

Bob wins, of course, but Lisa remains suspicious (“I can’t believe a convicted felon would get so many votes and another convicted felon would get so few.”) She and Bart helm an investigation on the election results, which is neat, harkening back to “Krusty Gets Busted” and “Like Father, Like Clown” when the two would tag team for a common goal. The reveal of stuffing the ballot with deceased voters is really great; Bart gets a classic line (“Oh my God. The dead have risen and they’re voting Republican!”) Bob’s undoing is also absolutely perfect; when Lisa fabricates that Birch Barlow was behind the election tampering, Bob’s pride gets the better of him and he gives a bombastic confession. I guess given the subject matter people may have been expecting a more vicious political satire, but to me, this is really just a damn good Sideshow Bob episode.

Tidbits and Quotes
– Harry Shearer does a great job voicing Birch Barlow, not really imitating Rush Limbaugh exactly, but mimicking his rhythm and vocal tics. I don’t think we ever heard from him again, but I wish we had.
– Kind of like showing Bart holding a bong in “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet,” I’m surprised they got away with showing Quimby watering a pot plant in his office.
– I like that “St. Elmo’s Fire” is among Lisa’s music of choice.
– Great opening line by Bob, and reveal of just his voice over the radio, with a line that proved to be just as relevant many years later (“Kudos for bringing the public back to the Republican party. It’s high time people realized we conservatives aren’t all Johnny Hatemongers, Charlie Bible Thumps, or even, God forbid, George Bushes.”
– Great quick appearance by Dr. Demento, who is apparently Bart’s other mortal enemy. It’s another great joke that leaves you to draw your own conclusions on where the rivalry came from. We also get Larry King hosting the mayoral debate. These guest roles may be small, but at least they’re funny and make sense. It’s not like Britney Spears randomly appearing to host a Springfield award show, or a celebrity randomly appearing on the street.
– Moe apparently has a drawer full of grenades under the bar, which he can pull out at a moment’s notice (“Hey, who pulled the pin out of this one?”)
– Fabulous line by Quimby responding to the Bob protests (“If that is the way the winds are blowing, let no one say I don’t also blow.”) Also great that this is part of the plan, they used Quimby’s to get Bob out so they could take his title.
– I really love the scene where Bob uses his show business training to entertain the children. It’s a side we don’t see of him too often, he’s trained as a physical performer, as well as a thespian. I also like Bart and Lisa’s return fire of acting like cloying adorable children, bullshitting how Quimby said kids are the city’s most important research (Kent Brockman increduously asks, “More important than coal?!”)
– The campaign commercials are amazing: Quimby’s jingle and the slogan (“Quimby. If you were running for mayor, he’d vote for you”) and then Bob’s ad condemning himself, but placing the blame on Quimby.
– Great bit with the bullies mummifying Milhouse with bumper stickers and pushing him down a hill in a shopping cart. Milhouse’s screams and small animation of him being flung from the cart at the very bottom makes it even funnier.
– Barlow lobs Bob a softball question, then hits Quimby hard (“Mayor Quimby, you’re well-known, sir, for your lenient stance on crime. But suppose for a second that your house was ransacked by thugs, your family tied up in the basement with socks in their mouths, you try to open the door but there’s too much blood on the knob…”) Quimby interrupts asking what the question is. Barlow says it’s about the budget.
– The second act break is one of the best, featuring the greatest of all Bob laughs. It’s funny enough that it’s his victory speech, that he approaches the podium, ruffles his papers, then lets loose the most evil, maniacal laugh ever. Then even funnier when Kent comments, “And just look how happy he is!”
– Homer reacts to the house shaking violently: “It’s the Rapture! Quick, get Bart out of the house before God comes!”
– I love the Flintstone phone. It seems like one of those must exist, and if so, I want one. Also I’m not sure who did the voice of Fred Flintstone (I think Hank?) but it’s pretty spot on.
– Something I love about the classic episodes: callbacks. A joke’s good enough for one laugh, you can bring it back for another. Homer getting thrown on his ass by the Archie gang is funny, then seeing him grumbling in the car reading an Archie comic is even funnier. Then you can make something that wasn’t too funny funny. At the opening we get a quick bit with a man opening the card catalog at the library and bats fly out. Not too funny. Later during their investigation, we take a quick trip to the old Springfield library. This is seventeen minutes after that original joke, so we forget. So establishing shot of the library. Lisa opens the catalog and bats fly out. Cut to them leaving. Get the joke, get out. A random joke at the start comes back to a twofer, making it even funnier.
– Just as we’ve seen George Washington and Albert Einstein are apparently buried in Springfield (a Treehouse of Horror, so not canon, but whatever), Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper are also buried there too (love the inscription of the latter: “Goodbye, baaaaaaaby!”)
– Brilliant quick use of Lionel Hutz: “Mr. Mayor, did you rig the election?” “No, I did not.” “…….kids, help.”
– Bob quotes A Few Good Men, but unlike Homer’s ramblings in “Successful Marriage,” he twists it around and makes it funny: “No truth- handler, you. Bah! I deride your truth-handling abilities!” When asked why he did it, Bob explains, in one of the best monologues of the series: “Your guilty conscience may force you to vote Democratic, but deep down inside you secretly long for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule you like a king. That’s why I did this: to protect you from yourselves!” He’s then arrested (“What? Oh yes, all that stuff I did.”)

7 thoughts on “108. Sideshow Bob Roberts

  1. They only technically got away with Quimby watering marijuana in the original network broadcast. In syndication he’s scrubbing his bathroom.

  2. Barlow’s question to Quimby is based on a real debate question posed to Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential election. Also, Sideshow Bob’s ad with the revolving door prison is also based on an ad run by the George Bush campaign in 1988 against Michael Dukakis. At the 1988 debate, Bernard Shaw from CNN asked, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis replied, “No, I don’t, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life”. That was taken as a fatal response to his candidacy because he didn’t react emotionally to the idea of his wife being raped and murdered. The whole crime and punishment issue and the idea that Democrats are soft on such is an image that really was crystallised as a result of that presidential election.

  3. Man, just like “Two Cars,” this episode seems even more relevant now. What the fuck?!

    Anyway, another solid Bob episode that tries to do something completely different from his previous appearances. I love how they come up with something new every time.

    I love Bart’s comment about the dead voting Republican, but moreso the entire Republican headquaters bit. Such a shame that a sweet man like Dr Hibbert is actually a fool who drank the Kool-Aid. Then again, he’s a doctor, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

    One of my favorite scenes you didn’t mention is when Smithers is trying to be all secretive and Homer ends up shining the lights on him, so he says, “Well you might as well give me a ride home.”

  4. This is probably my favorite episode of the series up to this point! Yeah, it’s kind of astounding how it feels so timely and relevant even today. The commercials are my favorite bits, but the whole thing is brilliant. And how can you mention the grenades without pointing out Barney’s observation about the true meaning of Bob’s words? Out of character to just the extent that it’s hilarious.

  5. One of the biggest casualties of later Simpsons is how lame the satire became. As a result, it’s always refreshing to watch an episode like this, which perfectly satirizes politics. It’s over the top in the way it does it, but it also knows it’s over the top and pokes fun at itself in a way. It’s a great example of satire that this show knew how to do in its earlier days.

    As a Bob episode, it works perfectly. It seemed completely natural for him to want to run for office and have a foot over Springfield. It’s so in his character to do this, and he thwarts himself yet again because he outsmarts himself. That happens pretty often, doesn’t it?

    As if this episode weren’t great enough, there are plenty of funny jokes, too. I love Bob suddenly falling into the water, for one. I also love the part where Homer says they can change stations when Lisa’s driving. Then they suddenly switch spots in the car. Hilarious. And the many great bits: “I am NOT illiterate!”, Moe’s grenades (who pulled the pin on this one?), Dr. Demento, Barlow’s interview with Quimby (it’s about the budget), “Just look how happy he is!”, Hutz’s defense (kids, help), and, one of the greatest Simpsons moments of all time, Sideshow Bob’s political speech at the end. It’s still true to this day. In the end, with the funny moments, excellent satire, and Bob in a great role, it’s safe to say that this is one of the all time greats.

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