3.1 Stark Raving Dad
Homer is wrongfully institutionalized, and ends up bringing home a man who claims to be Michael Jackson. The townspeople are furious with Bart, who has told them the King of Pop was coming to Springfield.
(Cue the greatest birthday song ever made)
This is one of those episodes I remember all the kids at school talking about. It was 1991; Grade Two, and my fellow primary schoolers were positively agog about Michael Jackson having appeared on The Simpsons. We were split on whether it really was Michael Jackson (he was credited as Jon Jay Smith), and had no IMDB to settle the argument. We jokingly sang “Lisa It’s Your Birthday” when someone had a birthday. “Stark Raving Dad” was a significant cultural moment for us.
So if you’re looking for impartiality, it’ll be hard to find here. In reality, the plot is kinda thin and contains a whole pile of mental illness stigma.
Crucial to a re-watch of this episode is remembering that everyone knew Michael Jackson was going be in the season 3 premiere, and that most of the fun came from anticipating how the show would use him. Seeing Homer moonwalk with MJ was a moment where you were like, “Wow, The Simpsons has truly arrived.”
The bits in the mental institution are problematic, let’s be very clear. The Simpsons is guilty of under-representing people with disabilities, so when they reduce an “idiot savant” character to a multiplication gag, it’s super uncomfortable. The joke about institutions where “rich women lose weight” in particular has not aged well.
I do appreciate the episode’s satire of pop psychology, as Homer is forcibly incarcerated based on a 20-question personality test. The moment with the Chief character from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest finally speaking because someone actually talked to him is great, too. Had the writers made more of the humour this sophisticated it’d be a better episode. As is, they rely too heavily on flimsy stereotypes, and there isn’t enough acknowledgment of how mental illness often amounts to a lack of adjustment to a profoundly sick society.
The birthday song and all the MJ stuff leading up to it is delightful. This episode marked the end of an era for The Simpsons, as the producers decided that future celebrities appearing on the show would have their own name credited. They’d still make excellent use of celebrities, mind you; I just like the pseudonyms myself. (Incidentally my favourite Simpsons in-joke is in “Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie,” when Lisa says the movie had celebrities who lent their voice under an assumed name but “you knew it was them.”)
24 years of social progress have certainly exposed this episode’s problem with ableism. Lisa saying “You’re a credit to dementia” to the faux Michael Jackson at the end is, for me, the single most cringe-worthy moment up to this point in the series, and that’s including the many problems in “Homer’s Night Out” and “The War of the Simpsons”
Best Moment: “Lisa It’s Your Birthday,” obviously.
Best Quote: “I can’t wear a pink shirt to work. Everyone wears white shirts. I’m not popular enough to be different.” -Homer