Compare & Contrast: Burns’s Childhood Trauma


“Wait, you forgot your bear! A symbol of your lost youth and innocence!” – Papa Burns 

First, a brief update: I have been pedaling around the Midwest for a couple weeks now. After six days on the road, I departed my home state of Michigan on a ferry to Wisconsin, then went south through Chicago, across Indiana, and made it into Ohio last Saturday. For the last few days I’ve been staying with Mad Jon and his wife here in Cleveland.

The most obvious mistake I made in planning this trip was to massively over-estimate how much free time I would have. It turns out it’s not just the biking itself that takes a while, it’s also things like making and breaking camp, finding food on the road, and simply figuring out where to go and how to get there. Add in an hour or two per day spent remoting into my useless real job and my fantasy of watching Simpsons episodes in sunlit parks died a harsh death on the road. It didn’t help that the bicycle mode on Google Maps is the best route to your destination . . . not always.

Yesterday I did make time to watch the season premier of Zombie Simpsons, “Monty Burns’ Fleeing Circus”. It is every bit as boring and formulaic as we’ve come to expect. There’s lots of pointless exposition, jokes that get explained and pre-explained, characters that act nothing like themselves, and lots of loose plot threads. For those of you with the good sense not to have watched it, a brief synopsis follows.

The town is destroyed by a laser like sunbeam that somehow reflects off of a concrete sculpture. The Simpson family then goes to Burns Manor to beg Mr. Burns to rebuild the town. He agrees to rebuild on the condition that he can stage a variety show at Springfield Bowl. (Why he wouldn’t be able to just do this anytime is never explored.) Over the course of about half a dozen flashbacks, we see that Burns himself had performed at the Bowl as a child and been humiliated, and this new show is some kind of redemption, or something. Meanwhile, since no one is in charge at the nuclear plant, the employees throw a days long party and it explodes.

There are, naturally, a lot of plots and stories that get swiftly forgotten as soon as they’re off screen. First and foremost is the aforementioned destruction of the town. We see it in rubble, and then never again, though apparently the school and the Simpson home were unaffected since we see them. Further, “wait, what?” type moments include the apparently harmless explosion at the plant, characters like Lenny both being in Burns’s show and partying at the plant, and the complete disappearance of the audience at Burns’s show, which was such a whopper that they actually felt compelled to mention it:

Lisa:  Wait, where did they go? How did 15,000 people leave so fast? Hey, uh, wanna see me do a cartwheel?

The truly hacktacular part of this episode was Burns’s childhood trauma. It’s the ostensible reason he’s putting on this convoluted variety show, but despite all the time they spend expositing about it and flashing back to 1913, Burns’s motivations are left remarkably vague. To see what I mean, consider the flashbacks in sequence.

1. Child Burns backstage, wordless and expectant:


2. Later, during auditions that involve the Crazy Cat Lady being carried around by her cats, Burns says, “This isn’t right. This isn’t how it was at all. I remember that night so vividly.”:


We then see Burns’s mother tell him it’s time to go on stage, he says he won’t let her down, and then she licks his face extensively. It’s weird. Then Burns declares he wants everything like it was back then.

3. The next flashback is Burns yelling at Lisa, “And what part of what I’ve never told you don’t you understand?”:


We then see Burns getting laughed at, looking sad, and being told by Mommy Licks-a-Lot that he’s a “laughingstock”.

4. After Lisa visits Burns Manor, Smithers shows her an old time film reel where we see Burns’s performance. His pants fall down:


After that we see Burns looking at an old time movie projector to see title cards of people laughing at him, and there might have been another one but I don’t care enough to look again.

Back in the present, Burns eventually goes on stage himself and . . . has his pants fall down, rendering the entire story pointless. It’s not as weird as Burns’s mom licking him for ten seconds, but it’s pretty weird.

Compare that hamfisted mess to the two quick flashbacks we get in “Rosebud”, which not only shows us a childhood trauma far faster, but only one of which even involves Burns. Instead of wasting time destroying the town and then forgetting all about it, “Rosebud” opens with Burns dreaming about the day he lost Bobo:

Young Burns: Tralala-lalala, tralala-lala, I’m the happiest boy there is! Aren’t I Bobo?
Ma Burns: Happy, come here, happy!
Young Burns: Yes, Momsy?
Pa Burns: Happy, would you like to continue living with us, your loving, natural parents? Or would you rather live with this twisted, loveless billionaire?”
Young Burns: Let’s roll.


After that, we see Pa Burns run after the limo and describe Bobo as, “a symbol of your lost youth and innocence!”, which is the kind of functional, meta-joke exposition that is well beyond the skills of Zombie Simpsons.

Not only is this scene shorter and more contained than the sprawling collection of flashbacks Zombie Simpsons does, but it also uses Burns the kid to explain Burns the adult. Burns didn’t become a twisted, loveless billionaire because of some trauma or accident, he actively chose it, instantly dropping his beloved bear without so much as a second thought. Even at this tender age, Burns was always more interested in money and power than happiness, he just later wanted his bear back.

Contrast that with Zombie Simpsons, where Burns gets humiliated as a child and then for some reason decides that the way to heal this decades after the fact is to take all the townspeople he hates and put them in a similar show. Even on a surface level it doesn’t make any sense. But it really falls apart when they stoop to explaining it:

Lisa: I think you’re trying to make up for what happened to you then by putting on a perfect Bowl show now.

Four flashbacks deep, they take the time to spell out exactly what was painfully obvious from the first one. And that’s not even the final, expository reveal of this nonsense. After Burns’s pants fall down on stage in the present, he finishes up by negating everything we’ve seen so far:

Burns: I can’t stay mad at you. At my age I can’t stay anything at anybody. Oh, and you know what, the laughter in my head is gone.

Zombie Simpsons sets the bar pretty high for hack writing, but this is up there with their worst. First it contradicts everything we just saw (he stayed mad about this for decades), and then it wipes it all away as though it never happened (the laughter in his head is gone because his pants fell down a second time?). The episode didn’t make sense before he said this, but this line goes beyond that by admitting that it was pointless even if it had made sense. If they cared in the least about what they were doing, the completeness of its incoherence would almost be impressive. As it is, they just needed a little more filler to wrap things up.

The Burns of “Rosebud” wants his bear back, and is willing to torment the entire town to get it. When he finally gets what he wants, he ever so briefly becomes happy before quickly returning to his old self. The Burns of Zombie Simpsons goes through an elaborate melodrama, involves people he doesn’t like for no reason, and then declares himself happy after re-living the thing that crushed him in the first place.

12 Responses to “Compare & Contrast: Burns’s Childhood Trauma”

  1. 1 ecco6t9@hotmail.com
    2 October 2016 at 3:13 am

    I can’t imagine a mother in 1913 mocking her own child. Society was not like that.

  2. 2 Noah B
    3 October 2016 at 1:25 am

    Not gonna lie, I actually squeed when I saw this. This article, that is–not the pile of hot garbage from Season 28.

    Also, in the sentence“We then see Burns getting laughed at, looking sad, and being told my Mommy Licks-a-Lot,” it should say “by” instead of “my.”

    • 3 Noah B
      3 October 2016 at 1:27 am

      That should be an em dash (—), not an en dash (–). I’m a pretty big Grammar Nazi.

      • 4 Charlie Sweatpants
        3 October 2016 at 5:18 pm

        Fixed my my/by thing. Thanks. (And if you’re that much of a grammar nazi, I’m not sure how the hell you can stand this site…)

        • 5 Noah B
          4 October 2016 at 2:16 pm

          It’s only my own grammar that I’m that worried about. I can tolerate others’ minor mistakes besides typos.

    • 6 Sarah J
      6 October 2016 at 6:34 pm

      Yeah, I didn’t expect to see these again!

  3. 7 Sara_sp
    3 October 2016 at 10:50 pm

    I hope you keep mocking the current episodes. It’s the only way I can get anything out of them.

    The last two segments of the episode felt like the show was begging for the audience to laugh.

  4. 8 The Artist Formerly Known as Bleeding Gums Murphy
    4 October 2016 at 1:02 am

    I watched the episode several days ago and basically nothing made sense, not even inside scenes.

    The only thing I smiled was Smithers demanding Lisa to drop 5 cents inside that old film reel (that’s a Burns/Smithers thing to do/ask for). But even that setup made no sense (why would Burns have old film reels? Why would Burns have a film reel related to his childhood drama only to not watch it and remember how it ended his audition before starting the casting for a new variety show*? Does modern coins work on old film reels?

    *Remember, Burns’ memory gradualy came back while he was preparing his variety show. When he remembered everyone laughed at him, he cancelled the variety show. So the episode makes even less sense than what Charlie described.

  5. 9 Lucy Richelieu
    11 October 2016 at 10:44 am

    I don’t know about this Compare and Contrast, since Mr. Burns’ past has always been inconsistent. Some episodes showed that he’s been rich ever since he was born (Burns’ Heir had him fire his nanny when he was a baby and The Last Exit to Springfield had him dressed like an upper-class child of the early 20th century when he toured his father’s coal plant), but then came “Rosebud”, which was just an excuse for the writers to milk as many “Citizen Kane” references as they could (having Mr. Burns be from a poor family and a twisted, loveless billionaire adopts him).

    • 10 The Artist Formerly Known As Bleeding Gums Murphy
      11 October 2016 at 11:27 am

      Well, that was never important, really. If Lisa was born in 1984, how could she be 8 in 1990? If Krusty was a national figure, why was him located exxclusively in Springfield and why some people didn’t know him in “The Last Temptation of Krusty”?

      The point is that these characters have establised traits, and you shouldn’t screw up with it. “Rosebud”‘s Child Burns choose to be as evil as regular Burns. Child Krusty from “Like Father, Like Clown” may have been nowhere as cynical and self-destructive as regular Krusty, but he also choose to be in the show business.

      Child Zombie Burns instead became evil because.

      • 11 Stan
        11 October 2016 at 1:32 pm

        Moreover, why would you want to show another backstory on the same character? Because the 2010s audience mostly consists of children of the original 1990s audience? Well, that only means one thing: you need to cancel this fucking show because it goes on for way too long.
        And, speaking of royalties and stuff, today’s audience like reboots. Why not have the show reboot instead of letting it linger on screen?

        • 12 The Artist Formerly Known As Bleeding Gums Murphy
          11 October 2016 at 2:05 pm

          >Why not have the show reboot instead of letting it linger on screen?

          “But… hey, we’re making enough money, right?”

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