Homer Simpson: Classic ClownBy Ellen Amy Cohen
Since The Simpsons first aired as a prime-time series on December 17, 1989, millions of viewers have tuned in every week to laugh at and follow the adventures of Homer Simpson. What is so funny about him? Is it his poor health, his stupidity, his often anti-social behavior? Is Homer’s appeal limited to the slapstick of his numerous injuries sustained throughout the series? In Robert Corrigan’s Comedy, Meaning and Form, George Santayana opens his article, “The Comic Mask and Carnival”, with this portrait of the classic clown figure:
The clown is the primitive comedian. Sometimes in the exuberance of animal life a spirit of riot and frolic comes over a man; he leaps, he dances, he tumbles head over heels, he grins, shouts, or leers, possibly he pretends to go to pieces suddenly, and blubbers like a child. A moment later he may look up wreathed in smiles, and hugely pleased about nothing. All this he does hysterically, without any reason, by a sort of mad inspiration and irresistible impulse....He is not at all amused intellectually; he is not rendered wiser or tenderer by knowing the predicaments into which people inevitably fall; he is merely excited, flushed, and challenged by an absurd spectacle. (p. 73-74)
Loyal viewers of The Simpsons can read this passage and immediately call Homer to mind. He is currently the show’s most popular character (having stolen the spotlight from his troublemaking son Bart). Homer can be counted upon to do whatever seems wrong in social situations, and it is his poor intelligence and childlike buffoonery that make for most of his humorous appeal. He also holds an eerie number of parallels with Shakespeare’s Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I, perhaps the most famous clown figure. Homer and Falstaff are two in a breed of comic heroes, and both fit David Grote’s characterization of the sit-com Fool in The End of Comedy: The Sit-Com and the Comedic Tradition: “Sometimes the sit-com hero meets a Fool, but the Fool is an outsider. If the Fool appears regularly, he is never accepted by the other characters but instead is the subject of insult and ridicule.” (p. 85) In the Simpsons episode “Homie the Clown” (hereafter referred to as 2F12, the episode’s production code), Homer takes a part time job imitating Krusty, the professional clown of the series. This episode is a focal point in Homer’s buffoonery, as he gets paid to refine what he has been doing all along; however, many other episodes illustrate his position as the Fool of The Simpsons. Krusty’s clown career is a dark contrast to Homer’s, as Krusty is jaded with the professional side to his work. While Krusty also holds similarities to Falstaff, Homer is the one who can truly be the series’ comic scapegoat. Although Falstaff is approximately four hundred years older, Homer Simpson is just as much a classic clown.
A first glance upon Homer Simpson will indicate his poor physical appearance. He is overweight and bald, and we can see him obsessed with food and drink, much like Falstaff--who always seems to have some sack handy for a quick refreshment. Falstaff’s presence in the Eastcheap tavern is exchanged for Homer’s presence in Moe’s tavern, where he is a regular beer drinker, and his best friend is alcoholic Barney Gumble (who once drank spilled beer out of an ashtray). Homer often makes a fool of himself when drunk, as shown in flashback in “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer” (3F24): he is naked and holding a beer bottle while twirling around in a cotton candy machine, drawling, “Look at me! I’m a puffy pink cloud!” He dismisses the incident in the present, telling his wife Marge, “Oh, well, of course, everything looks bad if you remember it.”
Food is Homer’s greatest obsession, however, and eating his favorite pasttime.
2F12 shows Homer
speeding down a highway on his way to work, screeching his car to a halt to read all the new billboards.
All are food-related except the billboard advertising Krusty’s clown college, which he originally dismisses
by reasoning, “You can’t eat that.” At his work station, he is surrounded by several food purchases,
proclaiming, “Well, I got everything I was supposed to get. I’m not going to enroll in that clown college,
though...that advertisement had absolutely no effect on me whatsoever.” He slips into a daydream of himself
sleeping and dreaming of himself eating a sandwich, but this soon gives way to an image of the clown college
billboard, featuring the pictured clowns dancing to circus music. This is a rare moment for Homer, in that
he temporarily abandons his obsession with food. The two obsessions coincide, however, after Homer is
working as a regional Krusty, and is asked to appear at a new Krusty Burger restaurant “to help introduce
our fantastic new burger--the one with ketchup”:
Child: It’s the Krusty Burglar! Homer: Ohmigod! He’s stealing all the burgers! Why you little-- [jumps Krusty Burglar, starts pummeling him] Emcee: Oh, Homer, it--it’s all--it--it’s all j--jus--just an act! Child: [crying] Stop! Stop, he’s already dead. [two men drag Homer off] Emcee: Er, Krusty the Klown, everybody! [a few children clap; the rest are too horrified] Burglar: Please look at my Medic Alert bracelet...
Homer, who often shows childlike logic, cannot tell reality from fantasy and believes that the Krusty Burglar is a real thief. He is so angry and frightened that hamburgers will be stolen that he jumps to defend the food; unfortunately, beating the burglar into critical condition is not a socially acceptable way to perform for a group of small children.
Many other episodes feature Homer’s obsession with food. The opening of “Boy-Scoutz N The Hood” (1F06) shows him sitting on the couch for “a little quiet time to read some of my old favorites. ‘Honey Roasted Peanuts. Ingredients: salt, artificial honey roasting agents, pressed peanut sweepings!’ Mmm.” Bart joins the Junior Campers (similar to the Boy Scouts) and practices his animal trapping methods by leaving food around the house for Homer as bait. When Homer and Bart mistakenly drift out to sea on a rafting trip with next-door neighbor Ned Flanders and his son, Homer uses up the water rations to wash his dirty socks (repeatedly) and eats almost all the food rations in a frenzy. He then uses a Krusty Burger placemat with a map of all the restaurant’s locations to lead the dying group to a restaurant built on an oil rig. The fog rolls in, but Homer tracks the smell of hamburgers to lead the way.
Food is Homer’s greatest motivator. In “Homer Badman” (2F06), he is accused of sexually harassing feminist graduate student Ashley Grant, who has been babysitting his children while he and Marge have attended the Candy Industry Trade Show. Homer brings Marge to the show for the sole purpose of filling her pocketed raincoat wih several pounds of candy samples. However, they must exit quickly after Homer steals the prized gummy Venus de Milo, which ends up stuck to Ashley’s backside when Homer drives her home. As she gets out of the car, Homer sees the gummy Venus, drools and peels it off of Ashley. When she feels a pinch on her posterior, she turns around to see Homer drooling. His innocence is proven by Willie (the stereotypical Scottish janitor and groundskeeper at Bart and Lisa’s elementary school), who secretly videotapes couples in their cars, and his tape clearly shows Homer peeling the gummy Venus and promptly eating it without a second thought.
In “Homer Loves Flanders” (1F14), Homer becomes attached to his neighbor Ned Flanders, whom he normally hates, after Ned brings him to a local football game and buys him a nacho hat--a giant nacho shaped like a sombrero and filled with some sort of dipping sauce at the top. In “Lisa the Vegetarian” (3F03), he decides that the best way to win friends in the neighborhood is to hold a huge barbeque with plenty of meat and a roasted pig, much to the distress of his daughter Lisa, a budding vegetarian. Homer explains, “You don’t win friends with salad.”
In “King-Size Homer” (3F05), Homer decides to gain sixty-one pounds, since he can qualify for disability if he is three hundred pounds or heavier. From the first conception of his idea to the entire weight-gaining process, Homer shows a genuine excitement over the project. Inept physician Dr. Nick Riviera advises him to “be creative. Instead of making sandwiches with bread, use Pop-Tarts. Instead of chewing gum, chew bacon.” Homer soon learns, however, that his obesity attracts prejudice and insensitivity. When he goes to a movie theater and is informed that the seats are too small to accommodate him, the manager offers to treat him to a garbage bag full of popcorn, which he angrily refuses.
Homer is like Falstaff in that both are always associated with food. When Falstaff asks Hal the time of day in Act I, scene ii, the Prince tells Falstaff that he should have no reason to ask, unless “hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons...”. Falstaff’s weight is often mentioned throughout the play, and Poins even calls him “Sir John Sack and Sugar” and “chops”, accusing him of selling his soul to the devil “on Good Friday last for a cup of Madeira and a cold capon’s leg” (I, ii). Falstaff later compares Poins’ valor (or lack thereof) to that of a wild duck (II, ii); Hal comments upon Falstaff’s hasty escape from the Gadshill robbery by illustrating, “Falstaff sweats to death and lards the lean earth as he walks along. Were’t not for laughing, I should pity him.” (II, ii) Hal later compares Falstaff’s appearance to a sweating lump of butter and goes on to admonish him that “thy lips are scarce wiped since thou drunk’st last.” (II, iv)
Falstaff’s sweaty image calls to mind the beginning of “The Springfield Connection” (2F21): when Marge chases after a purse snatcher, Homer runs after her to stop her, but wheezes for air and passes out on the sidewalk after running about fifteen feet. When Homer is brought in a squad car to Marge several blocks away, after she has apprehended the thief, Homer is still wheezing and sweating as he staggers out of the squad car. She becomes a police officer in this episode and has to reprimand Homer for spraying his eggs with her pepper spray. He takes a bite of them and his eyes tear as he drawls, “Mmm...incapacitating.”
Homer’s willingness to eat unlikely foods (and in some cases, the inedible but non-toxic), and
his tendency to participate in unbelievable schemes, are symbols of his gullibility and low intelligence.
This is where he parts with the quick-witted Falstaff, who always has a wise remark to escape an
uncomfortable or dangerous situation (such as his famous “Was it for me to kill the heir apparent?
Should I turn upon the true prince?” in II, iv). When Homer is captured by mobsters who mistake him for
gambling-addict Krusty in
2F12, Homer is unable to talk his way out of the situation:
Homer: But wait...you can’t kill me for being Krusty the Klown. I’m not him... I’m Homer Simpson! Tony: The same Homer Simpson who crashed his car through the wall of our club? Homer: Uh, actually, my name is Barney. Yeah, Barney Gumble. Legs: The same Barney Gumble who keeps taking pictures of my sister? Homer: Uh, actually, my real name is, uh--think, Krusty, think!--Joe Valachi! Louie: The same Joe Valachi who squealed to the Senate Committee about Organized Crime? [Later] Homer: Benedict Arnold! Legs: The same Benedict Arnold who plotted to surrender West Point to the hated British? Homer: D’oh!
This dialogue comes after Homer realizes that, because of his resemblance to Krusty the Klown, he can escape a speeding ticket from Police Chief Wiggum (who once got drunk with Krusty and released some beavers in a pine furniture store); Homer then uses his appearance to get a free bucket of house paint, reduced merchandise at the Kwik-E-Mart convenience store, and the best table at Luigi’s Restaurant. Homer is spotted by the mobsters while he is demanding a free car at a dealership. When the hood of the car is riddled with bullets (the mobsters are, fortunately for Homer, poor marksmen), the dealer tells Homer that the marks are “speed holes. They make the car go faster.” Homer is later seen using a pickaxe to make some speed holes in his own car at home. He also shows his gullibility at the beginning of 2F12 with his willingness to follow the advice of all the food-related billboards. “Whatever you say, Mr. Billboard!” he announces happily.
Dan Castellaneta, who provides the voice of Homer Simpson, was asked in an Australian magazine, TV Hits, why Homer was getting more stupid with each episode. “Well, they’re thinking of devoting an episode to that,” he said. “They think that it might be because he’s got radiation poisoning. However, that was just an idea, it hasn’t actually been written yet.” In fact, much of the Homer-related humor revolves around references to his having sustained brain damage from numerous head injuries, chemical experiments, lack of oxygen and, yes, radiation poisoning.
Homer works at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant as safety inspector and is responsible for most of the accidents. In 2F12, while he is daydreaming about the clown college billboard, his co-worker Lenny enters the work station. “Hey, Homer,” he says, “the section you’re supposed to be monitoring is on fire.” Homer looks at Lenny and sees him as a clown dancing to circus music. Homer then sees four clowns roll in through a safety door; they proceed to dance sitting down. In actuality, they are four of his co-workers, on fire and desperately trying to put out their burning clothes. The scene is gruesome, but Homer only sees the clowns and hears circus music. He chuckles to himself and murmurs, “Clowns are funny.”
In 3F05, he looks for shortcuts whenever possible while monitoring his section of the plant from a computer at home. When he discovers that he can type “Y” instead of “Yes”, he smugly informs Marge that he has tripled his productivity. He leaves a novelty bobbing-head bird at the keyboard to take the place of his fingers while he goes to the movies, and is horrified to learn, upon his return, that the bird has tipped over and the plant’s reactor core is about to explode. His co-workers, Carl and Lenny, walk past the core and see it swelled to twice its normal size, rumbling and about to explode with radioactive gas. They ignore it, since “that’s Homer’s job.” Homer must hijack an ice cream truck to get to the plant to vent the gas manually; the terrified ice cream man sees a hyper-obese, incoherent and wild-eyed man and climbs out of the truck, insisting, “Take whatever you want!” It is Homer’s obese body that seals off the release of the radioactive gas, as he falls halfway into the reactor core. Lisa finds an ironic note in that a thinner man would have fallen to his death. Bart sarcastically notes the irony in that, for once, “Dad’s butt actually prevented the release of toxic gas!”
In “Homer Goes to College” (1F02), he first causes a meltdown during a test in a simulation van provided by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; the agents express astonishment, since no actual nuclear material was contained in the van. Homer later causes a meltdown during a demonstration in the nuclear physics class he must pass to keep his job; the emergency response team that shows up in protective suits is on a first-name basis with him.
Despite all Homer’s obvious faults (he is captioned on the local television news as “Homer Simpson, local boob”), and the many insults he receives from friends and family, he is never actually rejected from their society. In “Lisa’s Wedding” (2F15), Marge has obtained a court order to prevent him from participating in their daughter’s wedding plans, but when Lisa’s snobbish English fiancé, Hugh Parkfield, hurts Homer’s feelings, Lisa breaks the engagement. Hugh snubs Homer’s heirloom gift of a pair of pig bride-and-groom cufflinks that his father gave him on his wedding day; Lisa is insulted that her family’s traditions, as silly as they may seem, are unimportant to Hugh. The episode takes the form of a flash-forward; when the setting flashes back to present day, Lisa runs off to find her father, hugs him tightly and walks off holding his hand, excitedly pressing him for every detail of his day.
“Homer’s Enemy” (4F19) is perhaps the greatest example of how close Homer comes to being discovered (unfortunately, I do not have this episode on videotape). Frank Grimes is a new worker at the plant who has struggled to succeed his entire life: he was abandoned at the age of four; he made his living as a delivery boy, bringing toys to other children; he schools himself at home and gets a correspondence school diploma in nuclear physics, “with a minor in determination.” Frank resents Homer, whose poor job performance and lazy attitude go unnoticed in the plant and throughout the neighborhood, yet Homer still enjoys more worldly comfort, success and acclaim than Frank can ever hope to see in his lifetime. In the plant’s cafeteria, Frank saves Homer from drinking a beaker full of sulphuric acid; Frank must knock it out of Homer’s hand, melting a hole in a nearby wall. Frank screams at Homer, “Stop laughing, you imbecile! Don’t you realize how close you just came to killing yourself?”
Homer never seems to understand Frank’s admonishments, although the Simpson family sees his point when they invite him over for dinner. Frank sees lobsters on the table of a beautiful, spacious house; he admires the neatness and good manners of Homer’s wife and three children; he stares in disgusted amazement at a wall of framed photographs picturing Homer with various celebrities. When Homer mentions that he was once an astronaut (“Deep Space Homer”, 1F13), Frank can bear no more and proceeds to berate Homer for coasting through life with no real sense of responsibility or maturity. He storms out of the house; when Homer looks to his family for reassurance, they squirm uncomfortably.
To expose Homer’s stupidity, Frank tricks him into entering a children’s contest to design a nuclear power plant. While Homer works on his model at home, Marge tells Lisa, “He says it’s really high-tech stuff that we wouldn’t understand.” Homer appears in the kitchen and asks, “Marge, do we have any elbow macaroni and glue-on sparkles?” His final entry is a duplicate model for the existing power plant, with a racing stripe down the side and paper wings taped on. Despite the fact that he is obviously a grown man participating in a children’s contest, Homer is awarded first prize. Frank is livid. He attempts to draw his fellow employees’ attention to Homer’s stupidity, but he is ignored. In the final moments of the episode, Frank finally goes mad and runs around the plant imitating Homer: “I’m peeing on the seat. Give me a raise! Now I’m returning to work without washing my hands. But it doesn’t matter, because I’m Homer Simpson! I don’t need to do my work, ‘cause someone else will do it for me. D’oh! D’oh! D’oh!” Frank is then electrocuted when, as Homer, he grabs some wires marked “High Voltage” with his bare hands. The final scene is Frank’s funeral. As the reverend eulogizes him, Homer is heard audibly snoring, sound asleep and drooling in his chair. No one wakes him; instead, everyone laughs and says, “That’s our Homer!”
As father figures, Homer and Falstaff have one difference: Homer’s children obviously love him
in return, while it is uncertain that Hal has the same affection for Falstaff, his doting mock-father. Bart
and Lisa can outsmart their father whenever they want, and baby Maggie prefers Marge’s care to Homer’s
(he uses a staple gun to close her diaper when changing her in “Homer Alone”,
8F14, and eats most of her
baby food himself), but all three defend their father against outside influences. The children support
Homer in the face of sexual harassment allegations in
2F06, and Bart and Lisa miss him terribly in “Home
(3F01). In this episode, Marge and Homer are declared unfit parents by the
county welfare office, and Bart, Lisa and Maggie are taken in as the foster children of Ned and Maude
Flanders. When Bart and Lisa are put to bed in the same room while the sun is still out, they reminisce
about their lives with Homer and Marge:
Lisa: You know, Maggie hasn’t been a Simpson as long as us. I think she’s beginning to forget Mom and Dad. Bart: Remember how Mom used to microwave our underwear on cold days? Lisa: Or the way Dad used to call the radio station with fake traffic tips? [They both laugh, then sigh.] They’re ten feet away, and we can’t even talk to them. I wish I could tell them how much I miss them. The Simpson parents, meanwhile, sit at home and miss their children. Marge: It’s so quiet here without the kids. Homer: What I wouldn’t give to hear Lisa play another one of her jazzy tunes. [Talks into her saxophone to the tune of “Beethoven’s Fifth”] Saxama-phone! Saxama-phone! [Sighs] Oh. Marge: I miss the way Bart would say something, and then say “dude.” Homer: I wish I knew something about the baby I could miss now. Marge: You mean Maggie? Homer: [happy] That’s it.
Bart then contrives to leave a novelty newspaper, from young Rod and Todd Flanders’ toy newspaper press, on the Simpson doorstep. The headline is “Simpson Kids Miss Mom & Dad”. Marge and Homer hold each other sadly and gaze out into the night. Homer later races with Marge to the Springfield River to prevent Ned Flanders from baptizing Bart, Lisa and Maggie; he shoves Bart out of the way and is doused with the holy water himself, thrashing around in the water as if he has been burned. Bart’s admiration is similar to one who has been pushed out of the way of a speeding bullet.
Like Homer, Falstaff has a fatherly affection, and this is for Prince Hal; though not his biological son, Hal inspires a tenderness in Falstaff that he shows with no one else. In II, iv, when Falstaff role-plays the part of King Henry IV, and then plays the part of Hal, he urges the prince to hold on to his old, albeit imperfect, friend. “If that man should be lewdly given, he deceiveth me; for, Harry, I see virtue in his looks....there is virtue in that Falstaff. Him keep with, the rest banish.” These words he speaks in the role of the king. Even after Hal, who then switches roles with Falstaff, calls his old companion “a devil...in the likeness of an old fat man...that trunk of humors, that bolting hutch of beastliness, that swoll’n parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years”, still Falstaff responds tenderly. “If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked!...If to be fat is to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine are to be loved....but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world!” Hal’s only response is the prophetic “I do, I will.” The most outward sign of tenderness that Hal shows Falstaff in return is in V, iv, after Falstaff is on the ground, apparently dead: “What, old acquaintance? Could not all this flesh/Keep in a little life? Poor Jack, farewell!/I could have better spared a better man.” His later agreement, upon learning that Falstaff is alive, to let the latter take the glory in having killed Hotspur, is as close to a show of love and respect as Hal can ever grant. “For my part, if a lie may do thee grace,/I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have.”
Homer and Falstaff are both overweight, gluttonous creatures of luck and sources of entertainment, mostly at their own expense. Could Homer play Falstaff if auditions were held in Springfield? If he was given a brief description of Falstaff’s role, he would consider himself tailor-made for it: a fat and witty clown who drinks, eats and steals, but is always bailed out of trouble by his friend, the prince and future king of England. Homer would look at the script blankly and yell for Marge or Lisa to translate it for him, perhaps with some visual aid. He would find one of the many references that Falstaff makes to food and sack, often drooling and getting hungry during rehearsals. Homer would probably misunderstand the meaning of “sack” and be found in some corner of the house with a mouthful of burlap. While he does not have the wit to engage Falstaff in any form of wordplay, as Hal does, Homer does have the spirit necessary for a clown to give, and to have, a good time. He will be kept close by friends and family to ward off the evil eye. Falstaff was created to save the reputation of the real Prince Hal, who could be seen drinking, robbing, and spending his time in taverns. Homer was created for everyone to seem intellectually, and often morally, superior by comparison. His childlike good humor lends him an innocent, hyper-sensitive side that his family cannot resist. He makes us laugh, as every good clown does.
A special acknowledgement is due to the users of the alt.tv.simpsons newsgroup, who created and contributed to The Simpsons Archive, and who have many insightful comments to make about Homer Simpson, the quality of the Simpsons episodes, the real-life location that may have inspired Springfield, the sexual preference of many main and supporting characters, and so on.
I refer to page 236 of The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family, to my own memory (this was one of my favorite episodes), and, parenthetically, to an e-mail message I received from alt.tv.simpsons newsgroup contributor M. Sossoyan. I was unable to obtain his permission to quote him, but his message brought that particular episode to mind for use in my discussion:
You know the episode about Frank Grimes, a nuclear expert who comes to work at the Power Plant and realizes that Homer is lazy, slooby [sic] etc....Grimes gets mad at everybody in the plant for liking Homer, laughing at what he does and still keeping him around. Well, I think that is the producers telling us that we (Homer fans) are in love with a guy that is the complete opposite of what the ideal [A]merican man (like Grimes) should be: hardworking, independent, resilient, autonomous, everything Homer is not and Grimes is. Yet, according to the producers, we continue to venerate Homer as [some] sort of Hero instead of having heroes like Grimes.
At the time I received this message, the controversial 200th episode of the series, “Trash of the Titans” (5F09), had just aired, and many contributors to the newsgroup had been writing about what was wrong with Homer’s character as of late. Ondre Lombard, who contributes to The Simpsons Archive and to a Frequently Asked Questions website known as The LISA, described Homer as “Stupidity combined with arrogance and stubborn abrasiveness.” Just as many literary critics cannot get themselves to enjoy Falstaff, many television viewers have mixed feelings about Homer Simpson.
© Ellen Amy Cohen, May 1998.
Last updated on October 13, 1999 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)