723. The Sound of Bleeding Gums

Original airdate: April 10, 2022

The premise: Lisa is outraged that one of Bleeding Gums Murphy’s songs is being used for a lottery commercial. She is later shocked to find out that Murphy has a deaf son, and goes on a crusade to get the rights to his father’s music back in his hands.

The reaction: Bleeding Gums Murphy is a really curious character; he feels like such a timeless fixture of the show (especially since he’d appear every week in the opening theme), an integral figure in the first episode to really explore Lisa’s character, but he only really featured in season 1’s “Moaning Lisa,” and in season 6’s “‘Round Springfield,” where he was killed off. We actually learned a lot about Murphy in his second outing, almost purposefully to give more weight to his upcoming death; his mentor, Blind Willie Witherspoon, his possible relation to Dr. Hibbert, his fledgling mainstream success appearing on Steve Allen and The Cosby Show, and his crippling Fabragé egg habit. All of these bits, in addition to being funny, further served to flesh Murphy out and make him feel more like a real person. So here, posthumously, we have a chance to learn more about him, so what’s up? Well, despite Lisa priding herself to be the biggest Bleeding Gums expert around, she’s stunned to discover he had a son. And a wife, apparently, who we see only in pictures in his house. So where were these two when he was on his death bed? What’s the story there? We’re never told, with our only flashback involving Murphy taking his son to the doctor to find out he’s deaf. Who was his wife? Is she still alive? In the last episode, we had an extended flashback sequence of Cletus and Brandine’s courtship, but we can’t delve into this material? Whatever. Monk Murphy is a deaf man with a healthy relationship with his deceased father, and Lisa pries her way into his life to try to get the rights to his father’s music back. Lisa is in 100% insufferable idealist mode here (“I was destined to find you. My new mission in life is to make you happy! You’re my new cause!”) The point of the episode is that Lisa’s childlike optimism hits hard against the harsh reality, but she’s written less like an innocent child and more like the 30-something grad student persona the writers had spent the better part of the 2000s writing her as. Lisa’s search for answers of who owns Murphy’s music is just so boring. They go to the Jazz Hole to talk to his old colleagues, we have to endure an unfunny scat session, then Lisa happens to look at one of Murphy’s album covers on the wall and they decide to go to the record label’s office. She didn’t think to go there first? It’s not like it was hidden information. For a huge Bleeding Gums expert, she doesn’t seem to know about this obvious stuff. The record label is a humungous scam created to steal shit from artists (as made obvious by endless sign gags), where Monk eventually calls it quits and tells Lisa to just stop bothering her and it’s not her business. Lisa learns a lesson not to pry, I guess, and makes up with Monk, who later gets a cochlear implant, then Lisa plays his father’s record and he cries. Hooray. The thing is that this structure could have actually worked. In her apology, Lisa tells Monk that her father helped her when she was sad, and he wanted to return the favor by helping him. We even see a recreation of “Moaning Lisa” at the beginning of the episode, but it doesn’t feel like it translates to Lisa actively recalling how much Murphy’s kindness meant to her, outside of being a music snob who’s pissed off that Big Lotto is appropriating the music of her people. It all felt like a big wasted opportunity, given how strong the Lisa/Murphy connection is, despite their screen time being so brief.

Three items of note:
– This episode got some minor buzz for featuring deaf actors playing Monk Murphy and the characters at his non-profit, as well as featuring sign language (which must have been a challenge adapting to the four-fingered characters). In principle, I’m all for the inclusion of more kinds of people on any kind of show. It’s also fortuitous for the show that this episode is coming off of CODA winning Best Picture at the Oscars; as we saw in that film, as well as Troy Kotsur’s speech after his Best Supporting Actor win, there’s plenty of ways to be humorous with deaf characters, and the subject matter itself. But Monk Murphy, much like almost all one-off characters this show creates now, is pretty uninteresting. It’s not entirely his fault, as he basically functions as the silent tagalong as Lisa drags him around to fight a cause he doesn’t even care about until he puts his foot down. But finding out more about him and his father would have been interesting, and he could have had some funny moments along the way, but he just doesn’t. The closest we get is when he tells Lisa he can just tune her out at will by closing his eyes, as he won’t be able to read her lips, which he demonstrates. It’s not a bad joke, but it reminds me too much of a much, much funnier real life story from my wife about one of her students, who happens to be deaf. In class, the girl was getting annoyed by some other students who were being loud and obnoxious, who insulted her when she asked them to be quiet. She then shot back herself, saying, “I don’t have to listen to this,” then turned her cochlear implant off. What an absolute badass moment. It’s pretty much the same as the joke done here, but not as cool. Anyway, the writer of this episode, Loni Steele Sosthand, pulled this story practically out of her real like: she had mixed race parents, a father who loved jazz music, and a deaf brother, all of which were made part of this story. The golden years of this series were built on the writers remembering elements of their childhood and amplifying them to comedic purposes. A stable of younger writers could definitely harness this power again to create new and different stories like this one to breathe life into this decayed husk of a show, but for whatever reason, it’s just not coming to life for me.
– I think Kevin Michael Richardson did a pretty solid job voicing Bleeding Gums here, especially with the “Moaning Lisa” recreation (in 4:3, no less), and even with Richardson repeating some of Murphy’s other previous lines (“You’ve made an old jazz man happy, Lisa!”) It’s not a perfect match, but like Grey Griffin’s Martin Prince, it captures the essence of the character enough to work. Also, this is the first time that I haven’t been bothered by his Dr. Hibbert. It still doesn’t sound like Harry Shearer at all, but my brain has just stopped hitting the brakes whenever I hear it at this point, so that’s progress, I guess?
– There’s a bit late in this episode that feels like the most damning example that this show should just never, ever do pop culture references ever again. The spirit of Bleeding Gums tells Lisa that he’s always magically here for her, citing The Legend of Bagger Vance and Driving Miss Daisy as examples, basically labeling himself as Lisa’s Magical Negro. Before we get into the actual scene, this set-up feels off to me. Lisa is a little girl who loves jazz, so it feels appropriate she would look up to and idolize an old jazzman. In his two appearances, it never felt like Bleeding Gums filled the Magical Negro role at all, other than just being a black man who “helps” a white person. He acted as a sympathetic ear in “Moaning Lisa,” and gave Lisa his saxophone on his death bed. That’s all. But whatever, from there, we cut to a recreation of Miss Daisy featuring Bleeding Gums and Lisa, where they do a really annoying joke where Lisa just says what happens in the movie (“Teach me about equality and civil rights in a way that doesn’t make me feel too guilty. In return, in thirty years, I will ask you your last name.”) Wow, way to take down a prime target for ridicule, Driving Miss Daisy, a film over thirty years old that nobody really cares about anymore. Would you believe that it’s outdated in its racial politics? Just as I mentally griped about the show carting out such an old reference, Murphy’s car slams into that of Frank Vallelonga from 2018’s Green Book, helpfully holding up a copy of said book as he’s driving. Even being a four year old movie, this feels super outdated too; everybody already had their fill ragging on Green Book when it was out, many of which were parallels to films like Daisy. Even outside the age range of the references, the pop culture jabs are always just so surface-level, stuff that has been observed and ridiculed millions of times over already. Then we get stuff like the scene over the credits, where a black-and-white Lisa, Bleeding Gums, his son and the whole band of jazz musicians and deaf kids sing at a jazz club. The other Simpsons are in attendance, Bart complains to Lisa, and Lisa makes him disappear by nodding his head, in an I Dream of Jeannie reference. I Dream of Jeannie! A show that went off the air over fifty years ago. Who is this joke for? Despite featuring more and more scripts written by writers in their twenties and thirties, this show still manages to make time for jokes that only appeal to people in old age homes.

9 thoughts on “723. The Sound of Bleeding Gums

  1. To be fair, Jeannie is still in reruns on FeTV, which is available through some cable services.

    Also, this episode did just as much nothing for me as well, even with having a deaf sister myself (who is actually about to get an implant herself, to add to the coincidence) to back for it. It honestly feels like yet another idea the show in its prime could’ve slayed, but now we’re just left to wonder what might have been.

  2. Every time news sites report on episodes like this, it feels like the show is doing nothing but screaming, “LOOK AT THIS THING WE’RE DOING! PAY ATTENTION TO US!!!”

    1. Congratulation, you just figured out a mainstream show is advertising itself. Good job on just discovering this fact. Maybe one day, you can come up with a deeper observation.

  3. “…other than just being a black man who “helps” a white person.”

    Thing is that he had no real raison d’etre besides that, which is what they’re getting at. Personally I’ve always loved Bleeding Gums and his two starring episodes, but I find it hard to dispute that there was an element of the Magical Negro in him. As a character, he existed exclusively for the benefit of Lisa and her personal growth; even the whole business with getting his record played on KJazz was rooted more in her learning how to navigate through grief than in enabling BGM to fulfil any outstanding personal ambitions (it’s not as though he’d expressed any before he died, after all).

  4. DAY 17

    Feeling like watching Round Springfield again

    Well this was certainly a very special episode. The son of a deceased and obscure jazz musician having this little girl who was a huge fan of his father’s that tries too hard to make him be just like his old man. Sounds kind of bare bones and the sterile writing does exactly that. What a yawner this was. I guess the nod to the deaf community was kinda nice… Yeah, I really don’t have much for this one. Like “Lisa’s Belly,” this one was so boring I just can’t even have the motivation to complain about it like the godawful previous two episodes. At least it’s better than that godawful Season 27 episode where Lisa tries to make a homeless woman a successful musician. Well, in a couple of weeks we’ll be entering the home stretch of Season 33. When is Milhouse gonna get those damn contact lenses like the show advertised?!

  5. I haven’t seen the episode, but there’s nothing wrong with old references if you know how to use them. Despite being in its prime in the 1990s, classic Simpsons was heavily influenced by things happening in the 70s and 60s and 50s, because those decades reflected the formative years of the writers. I think Bill Oakley even said as much. Entire episodes were built off older pop culture like “Rosebud.” Krusty the Clown was based off of a real-life 1950s character that Matt Groening grew up watching. The show could be contemporary, but it never relied on that. Its style always felt like it came from a different time.

    The problem now is that The Simpsons is further and further removed from its influences. When the show started, it was informed by things that were at most thirty years old. Now, those things are sixty years old, and it’s well-documented that scripts get heavily rewritten all the time so it’s not like the younger writers are putting these references in. The show has struggled with being out of time for years now, and it’s only going to get worse. There was a recent episode of Family Guy that addressed this directly, talking about how 80s references don’t work anymore, but the show is going to continue referencing the 80s because that’s what it was informed by.

    I would say the show could start referencing more pop culture from the 90s and 2000s, especially since the writers are getting younger and can incorporate that stuff better than the older ones. But we’ve seen how the show makes those references and……..that’s not the solution, either.

    Bottom line, the show is just awkward when it comes to referencing pop culture. Doesn’t matter if it’s with I Dream of Jeannie or with Supreme.

  6. I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one either. By and large, it was just another boring half-hour of nothingness.

    I will say that I kind of liked the little flashback to Moaning Lisa, complete with 4:3. Thought that was a neat touch, reminded me I could be watching that instead. And I guess the ending credits song wasn’t too bad either.

    May we all have a happy, Zombie Simpsons-free Easter.

  7. God, I really hate these one-note gag characters that they use as filler in scenes. They exist primarily to be referred to by their super-silly-super-funny nickname, to do their one gimmicky trait, and then never appear again for the rest of the episode.

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