“Well, you’re not Thomas Edison.” – Marge Simpson
“Marge, that’s it! That’s why I haven’t done anything with my life, I need to be more like Thomas Edison!” – Homer Simpson
“Whatever.” – Marge Simpson
The tenth season, which ran from the fall of 1998 to the spring of 1999, saw perhaps the biggest single season-to-season change in the tenor of The Simpsons. Everything that had been slowly eating away at the show became more common. Homer began getting hurt more frequently and more gruesomely; celebrities began appearing as themselves more often; and the stories became shallower and less plausible. It was also the last time Phil Hartman would appear. His final part was a Troy McClure filmstrip28 in “Bart the Mother”, just the third episode of the season.
Most notably, more and more episodes fell back on the idea of Homer getting newer and more outlandish jobs. “Homer gets a new job” had been an occasional story line since Season 1, but it had been used sparingly, a couple of times per season at most. In Season 10, a third of the episodes feature Homer working outside of the nuclear plant. (The plant itself fails to rise even to the level of afterthought in many episodes, with Homer’s new occupation displacing his regular one without so much as a mention of good old Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.) That year alone, Homer became an inventor, a long distance truck driver, a bodyguard, an artist, a spring salesman, and a personal assistant twice, once to Mr. Burns and once to Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger (voicing themselves). “Homer gets a job” had established itself as the diminished show’s favorite plot gimmick.
A few years later, in Season 13,29 the show acknowledged this by having Homer recite a list of the jobs he’d had:
“You know, I’ve had a lot of jobs: boxer, mascot, astronaut, imitation Krusty, baby proofer, trucker, hippie, plow driver, food critic, conceptual artist, grease salesman, carnie, mayor, grifter, bodyguard for the mayor, country western manager, garbage commissioner, mountain climber, farmer, inventor, Smithers, Poochie, celebrity assistant, power plant worker, fortune cookie writer, beer baron, Kwik-E-Mart clerk, homophobe, and missionary.”
Homer rattles off twenty-nine jobs there, including his standard gig at the nuclear plant. (Though a couple of them seem questionable as “jobs”, in particular “homophobe”, which hardly seems like gainful employment.)30 Excluding the power plant and charting the remaining twenty-eight jobs by season produces this stark image:
The number of times this gimmick is used explodes in Season 8 and later (the same time the audience approval and writer experience graphs were collapsing). Season 10 easily tops the chart with seven episodes in which Homer gets a new job and the larger pattern of an increasing number of new jobs each season is undeniably clear.
But the chart actually understates the case, because the list Homer recites is hardly comprehensive. A few jobs could be added to the earlier seasons (Homer was a monorail conductor in Season 4 and a barbershop quartet singer in Season 5), but the real additions come in the double digit seasons.
Season 13, in which Homer gives his employment soliloquy, should properly be increased from one new job to around five. For starters, the episode in which Homer gives the speech (“Poppa’s Got a Brand New Badge”) isn’t included, but right after giving it he becomes a private policeman. Elsewhere in Season 13, Homer works as a bartender, a smuggler, and a cartoon character (literally).31 The number for Season 12 omits full time occupations like Homer becoming a chiropractor, mayor of half of Springfield, and a daycare owner,32 as well as more borderline positions like the time he created a successful gossip website or went on a public hunger strike to save the baseball team.33 Season 11′s total doesn’t include Homer becoming a celebrity, a racehorse owner, or a movie producer (with a self voiced Mel Gibson). The “Homer Gets a Job” episodes got so undeniably out of hand that at one point in Season 12′s “HOMR”, after Homer dashes out of the power plant break room in pursuit of another scheme, Carl turns to Lenny and asks, “So, does he still work here, or what?”.
Even Season 10, already towering above everything that came before it on that chart, could rise a little higher if one included the time Homer became Mr. Burns’ assistant (again) and the time he spent most of the episode trying to sell springs. Beyond episodes where Homer acquired a full blown new job, Season 10 often had him pick up a big hobby or otherwise radically upend his life. In “Homer to the Max” he changed his name and his entire lifestyle; “Homer Simpson in: Kidney Trouble” saw him literally run away from home and land on a merchant steamer. In plenty of other episodes Homer’s antics reached equally erratic heights: skyjacking a plane, raising a lobster as a pet, and breaking into the Super Bowl.
The off-the-wall antics didn’t do much in terms of story or satire, but they did provide plenty of opportunities for Homer to get hurt. By giving him new jobs and hobbies, the writers gave themselves ample opportunity to pound on Homer for extended periods of time and they took advantage of every one. Season 10 is often more gruesome than Halloween episodes from just a few seasons earlier.
While he’s selling springs he manages to get one stuck into his eyeball, where the show allows it to linger and bleed. After he becomes a grease salesman, he uses a hose to suction out a different eyeball before getting badly beaten by Groundskeeper Willie. All the while he just complains that it’s “really painful”.
Twice in Season 10 he falls out of the sky. The first time he crashes through a skylight and lands in bed with movie stars; the second time he falls out of a plane and gets dragged through a field of rose bushes before landing at Marge’s feet, bleeding and broken. A program that once showcased the whole family and an entire city of supporting characters became the kind of one trick showbiz pony it had satirized so brutally in Season 5′s “Bart Gets Famous”. The Season 10 writing staff, largely untested and less experienced than at any point in the show’s history, was increasingly leaning on Dan Castellaneta’s ability to scream.
Even in episodes where Homer isn’t the focus of the story, he manages to land himself in hot water and zany situations. He’s hardly in “Bart the Mother”, but manages to get hit in the head by baseballs, fall down the basement stairs several times, and even get bitten by lizards. “30 Minutes Over Tokyo” sees him strapped to Tokyo Tower and struck by lightning. In “Make Room for Lisa”, he gets dropped in the sewer, buried alive, and washed out to sea. “Marge Simpson in: ‘Screaming Yellow Honkers’” goes so far as to have him attacked by rhinoceroses.
When he wasn’t getting hurt, Homer was acting in increasingly bizarre and, for lack of a better term, cartoonish ways. Homer had always been, in the words of Llewellyn Sinclair, “thoughtless, violent and loud”, but there had also been an underlying decency to him. He repeatedly disappointed his wife and daughter, disliked his son, and was a generally self centered person, but he didn’t go out of his way to torment other people, wasn’t prone to screaming fits, and didn’t suffer from instant mood swings. On the contrary, Homer’s defining traits were his profound laziness and general desire to be left alone.
By Season 10, this new Homer was in almost every episode. Fans dubbed him “Jerkass Homer” after a phrase he used repeatedly while yelling at random people in the Season 9 episode “The Joy of Sect”. Jerkass Homer is the one who, in “Maximum Homerdrive”, is so boastful of his stomach capacity that he gets into an eating contest with a perfect stranger, accidentally kills him, takes over his trucking route, and acts like such an asshole that the other truckers try to kill him before the end of the episode.
Jerkass Homer is invincible and totally self confident, the evil doppelganger of the Homer that had originally been on the show. Jerkass Homer does ugly things like use the sleeper hold he learned in bodyguard training on Marge and Lisa. Jerkass Homer screams and cries and runs away from home, beats up the Emperor of Japan, feels entitled to hang out with A-list celebrities, and goes on wild benders in Las Vegas to show Ned Flanders how to be exciting.
Season 10 Homer was only occasionally the lousy father and put upon breadwinner that had originally made him so funny and so endearing. Now he was his own kind of rock star, a man who knew he could get away with everything and was therefore fearless to do anything. Gradually the entire world of Springfield began to rotate around his indestructible form. Characters that had once been semi-realistic people, seemingly everyone from the mayor and Mr. Burns to the guest stars of the week, let Homer into their lives in ways that never made any sense.
Where Season 9 often had strange endings to otherwise sane beginnings, Season 10 increasingly began with a far-off, fantastic premise and just ran with it from there. Meanwhile, Homer finding new jobs and new ways to get hurt increasingly substituted for the kind of smart, aware and layered comedy that had been the show’s foundation. Fans hadn’t completely turned on the show yet; after all, if any program deserved an off season or just the benefit of the doubt, it was The Simpsons. But the downward trend wasn’t slowing.
Continue to Chapter 11: The Destruction of Springfield.
Notes and Sources