2.11 One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish
Homer eats a poisonous fugu fish and is told he may have 22 hours to live. He makes a list of things he wants to do before he dies.
This is a great example of an episode that perfectly combines sentimentality and laughs with just the right amount of absurdity.
It begins with Homer’s gluttony and impatience, as he can’t wait ten seconds for meatloaf to come out of the microwave for dinner. The table banter is very funny, with Lisa philosophizing about the mundanity of meatloaf every Thursday and pork chops every Friday.
Lots of funny stuff when the Simpsons go to a sushi restaurant, too, where Japanese characters are (mercifully) played by Japanese actors (including George Takei!). Bart and Lisa singing the Shaft theme in the karaoke section is hysterical. The head chef making out with Edna Krabbapel is fantastic. There’s something of the mundane in much of this episode, so having Homer’s near death experience be the result of two people he never interacts with making out in the back of a car is fitting.
The “uh-oh you experienced another culture now you’re gonna die” thing seems like a bit of covert xenophobia, and I think the writers could have done a wee bit more to address it. Oh well.
Homer learns from Dr. Hibbert that he may have 22 hours to live, and Homer goes through the five stages of grief in ten seconds. Besides being hilarious, it’s thematically consistent with the mundanity and thoughtless haste explored in this episode. It’s also a great satire of cookie cutter, one size fits all pop psychology
One of the many things I love about this episode is that it gives Homer a perfect blend of sincerity and buffoonery. For example, his advice to Bart, who doesn’t realize it may be the last thing he hears from his father: “Here’s three little sentences will get you through life. Number one: Cover for me. Number two: Good idea, boss. Number three. It was like that when I got here.”
One of my favourite George Carlin bits involves him saying he wants his epitaph to read, “George Carlin: He was here just a minute ago.” It’s equal parts mundane and touching, much like this episode.
This episode is one of those rare times that I’m consistently behind Homer as a character. Like when he promises to bring steak to Flanders’ BBQ the next day when he knows he’ll already be dead. Or when he makes a video for Maggie, and does spooky ghost sounds from beyond the grave. Homer is funniest to me when his obtuseness comes out of a place of sincerity and even partial intelligence. Late-era Homer goes beyond imitating humanity well; here, he does a bang-up job.
I can’t think of another primetime animated show that has dealt with terminal illness and the certainty of death as well as this episode does. The writers are bold enough to cast a pall over the entire 22 minutes, and yet they manage to be consistently funny without ever being flippant or syrupy. Homer listening to the Bible in what might be the last moments of his live is poignant stuff. If you’re an atheist (as I am) and don’t find that touching, that’s on you, not this episode.
As as I often point out, the acting in The Simpsons is hugely underrated. Julie Kavner (Marge) stands out in this episode, particularly when she’s reading her poem to Homer. Yeardley Smith (Lisa) and Nancy Cartwright (Bart) beautifully convey the children’s innocence and worry as they wonder why Marge seems so morose in the hours before Homer’s near death.
Usually when Marge and Homer are wrapped up in something, Bart and Lisa will have a better understanding of what’s going on than their parents do. In this episode, though, the writers stratify the adults and the children much more, which makes the narrative all the more jarring and real. That’s some good writing.
But what really steals the show here is the sound design.
As Homer completes his list of things to do before he dies, there is always some kind of lively background sound. Not necessarily in order: Lisa’s saxophone, a TV in the background, sounds of water in a creek, a police radio, music playing at Moe’s, a car engine, Maggie sucking on her pacifier, and dramatic music throughout. Then when Homer takes out the Bible (in audio book form) and sits down to listen to it, there is a sustained background silence, with crickets ever so slightly audible in the background before they too fade away as the Bible plays.
All that aural stimulation followed by silence provides finality and yet a profound sense of peace and acceptance. It’s a truly beautiful take on death, and it doesn’t even sacrifice laughs, as Homer fast forwards through the ‘begats’ in Genesis.
And the ending…fuck me sideways. Still-alive Homer says, “From this day forward I vow to live life to its fullest,” and then it cuts to Homer eating pork rinds while watching bowling on TV. Not football or anything exciting, but bowling. The writers could have addressed the complications caused by Homer being so loving to people on his final day, but instead they wrap around to Homer’s gluttony from the beginning of the episode, and do so with powerful simplicity.
Looking back at the chalkboard gag, even it isn’t wasted, thematically. Bart writes, “I will not cut corners” followed by quotation marks down the board. Talk about a (comedically unlearned) lesson in haste and throwing away of the present moment.
Best Moment: Homer goes through the five stages of grief in ten seconds.
Best Quote: “Thursday. Meatloaf night. As it was, is now, and ever shall be.” -Lisa