“A Streetcar Named Marge” (season 4, episode 2; originally aired 10/01/1992)
With apologies to Leslie Knope, Maude, and other distinguished broads who stood up for their rights and refused to back down in the face of male oppression and shit, Lisa Simpson is television’s greatest and most enduring feminist in part because her mother represents such a tragicomic example of a smart, beautiful, passionate, and idealistic woman sacrificing her own needs to serve the needs of an oafish brute and his unappreciative brood. Marge stands as a harrowing cautionary warning of what happens when a remarkable woman accepts society’s retrograde notion of how a wife and mother should behave rather than pursuing her own passions.
Lisa’s personality is in many ways a reaction and a response to her mother’s smiling servility, her self-negating willingness to suffer so that her children and her husband never have to. Lisa is a strangely passive presence in “A Streetcar Named Marge.” She even vacantly watches a beauty pageant without complaining about its sexism or objectification of women. Then again, she does also have a weakness for Malibu Stacy and she is, it should be noted, also a little girl.
If Lisa is on the sidelines for most of “A Streetcar Named Marge”, Marge’s personal and creative frustrations take center stage. This is dear, sweet, saintly Marge we’re talking about, so she expresses her growing dissatisfaction with sacrificing her own happiness for the needs for a nearly sub-verbal man-gorilla largely by sublimating it into what can generously be called “art.”
According to writer Jeff Martin, the original idea for the episode that would become “A Streetcar Named Marge” was for Homer to do some community-theater acting. Then James L. Brooks proposed an altogether more ingenious idea: Marge would essentially become Blanche DuBois in an episode that focused on the parallels between Marge’s life with a drunken Neanderthal and Blanche’s tussling with brutish brother-in-law Stanley. It was a brilliant substitution that ensured that “A Streetcar Named Marge” would be emotionally resonant in addition to being hilarious from start to finish and bracingly smart and literate in a way that seldom calls attention to itself.
The episode opens with one of The Simpsons’ specialties: a succinct setpiece that satirically eviscerates a cultural institution in just a few perfect minutes. In this instance, the corrupt cultural institution is a beauty pageant where women duded up in outrageous burlesques of their local industries and/or claim to fame perform an impossibly cheery version of Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen.”
Ian’s version of “At Seventeen” is a tremblingly earnest, achingly emotional, even maudlin outsider’s anthem sung from the perspective of an ugly duckling contemplating with anguish, barbed jealousy and self-pity the manicured lives of homecoming queens and popular girls with perfect, shiny blonde hair. In The Simpsons’ universe, the song’s meaning becomes reversed. It’s stripped of its pain, sadness and authenticity and the line “I learned the truth at 17/That love was meant for beauty queens” is transformed from a morose outsider’s lament into a glossy celebration of the glamorous lives of beauty queens.
It’s a smart joke that subtly sets up one of the show’s central comic conceits: glibly transforming a depressing meditation on loneliness and despair into crowd-pleasing entertainment through wildly inappropriate showmanship that completely negates the original’s underlying message. The beauty-pageant defilement of “At Seventeen” is audacious and hilarious but it’s nothing compared to what a demented community-theater director does to Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.
“A Streetcar Named Marge” is so dense with ideas and jokes that it all but buries some of its funniest sight gags—like a super-fast pan across the beauty contestants that reveals that Miss Vermont is wearing a hat designed to look like a stack of pancakes and maple syrup atop her head, Miss Maine is duded out like a lobster, Idaho is outfitted as a human potato, Alaska is a human oil pipeline, and Miss Illinois is a cross-dressing Abraham Lincoln.
The beauty pageant is but a distraction to the real action of the scene: Marge talking cheerfully about her upcoming audition for a role in a community-theater musical based on A Streetcar Named Desire. In a preview of what’s to come, Homer, Lisa, and Bart are too transfixed by the exquisite banality of the beauty pageant to pay attention to Marge and her humble show-business aspirations.
At the auditions we are very dramatically introduced to one of the greatest one-off Simpsons characters of all time: impetuous community-theater auteur Llewellyn Sinclair, a mountain of a man perfectly voiced by the great Jon Lovitz in grand-dame mode.
Boasting of his credentials, Lovitz as Llewellyn booms, “While directing Hats Off To Chanukah I reduced more than one cast member to tears. Did I expect too much from fourth graders? The review: “Play enjoyed by ALL speaks for itself!” It’s a hilarious line that cuts to the heart of the director’s hilariously inflated self-regard but Lovitz’s incredibly dramatic, involved pronunciation of “Chanukah” alone is guffaw-inducing.
Llewellyn finds his Stanley when he checks out Ned Flanders’ ridiculously chiseled, well-defined pectoral muscles but he’s at a loss for a local to cast as Blanche until he overhears Marge sadly calling Homer to inform him that he was right in asserting that “outside interests are stupid” and promises to bring home fried chicken. As Marge, Julie Kavner’s defeated delivery turns the family’s order at a fast-food restaurant into a litany of sadness and world-weary resignation.
With Marge frequently out of the house for rehearsals, Maggie is left in the clutches of The Ayn Rand School of Tots, where helping others is frowned upon (“Helping is Futile” angrily insists a poster on the daycare center’s wall) and pacifiers are seen as signs of weakness and consequently confiscated. In a parody of The Great Escape, Maggie eventually liberates the pacifiers and shares them with her imprisoned brethren, an act of altruism Rand herself surely would have frowned upon.
At rehearsals, meanwhile, Marge calls upon her buried rage at Homer and his obliviousness and makes a remarkable transformation from meek housewife to a method actress so filled with rage she comes close to stabbing Ned’s Stanley in a fit of barely controlled fury. Watching Marge morph from a sensitive soul who asks Llewellyn, “I just don’t see why Blanche should shove a broken bottle in Stanley’s face. Couldn’t she just take his abuse with gentle good humor?” to a fiery vixen is funny but there’s an awful lot of pain and frustration behind the jokes. In her own cozily domestic way, Marge is a bit of a G-rated Tennessee Williams heroine herself.
Though Homer is such an insensitive, callous beast of a man he doesn’t even bother pretending to be interested in his wife’s new pastime, he does care enough to show up at the grand première. In an opening number riffing on Sweeney Todd, the cast decries the play’s setting with the following, exquisitely nasty lyrics: “New Orleans! Home of pirates, drunks, and whores! New Orleans! Tacky, overpriced souvenir stores/If you want to go to Hell you should take the trip/to the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Mississip/New Orleans/Stinky, rotten, vomity pile! New Orleans/ Putrid, brackish, maggoty, foul/New Orleans/Crummy lousy, rancid and rank/New Orleans!”
Those lyrics, perhaps not surprisingly, were not well received by the inhabitants of New Orleans. These pirates, drunks, and whores were so enraged by the show’s slander of their fair city that they took a brief break from raping, looting, pillaging, and mugging old ladies to write angry letters to their local Fox affiliate and the network was forced to apologize to the city for the song’s brilliantly over-the-top and all-too-accurate summation of the city.
Watching “A Streetcar Named Marge” today it’s important to remember that the episode came out years before Waiting For Guffman and Hamlet 2, at a time when parodies of egregiously awful community theater and questionable musical adaptations weren’t such well-worn fodder for comedy. At the risk of being heretical, I would argue that Oh, Streetcar! is every bit as brilliant a satire as the climax of Waiting For Guffman, if not more so. Waiting For Guffman certainly didn’t feature Blanche DuBois flying around on wires while inexplicably surrounded by laser beams and other flashy, nonsensical stagecraft.
Rather than send audiences home on a bum note, Llewellyn’s defilement of one of theater’s great tragedies ends with a cheery reminder that, “a stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met!”
In the end, the play’s the thing that catches the conscience of The Simpsons’ King Doofus. After curtain call, Homer surprises Marge by discerning the parallels between the play and their own relationship and stating the obvious: Stanley should have been nicer to Blanche, an observation with clear ramifications for their own relationship.
In classic form, The Simpsons tests Homer and Marge’s bond before ultimately reaffirming it in an episode-closing burst of sentimentality. True, Homer behaves even more abysmally than usual this episode, but that closing moment of revelation and emotional growth feels earned.
“A Streetcar Named Marge” is just about perfect, a stunningly assured and consistently hilarious marriage of scathing pop-culture and domestic satire and emotion. By this point, The Simpsons was operating on a higher evolutionary plane than any other comedy on television and its fourth season had only begun. Untold riches lie ahead of us, friends. I can hardly wait.
- “I have directed three plays in my life and I have had three heart attacks! That’s how much I care. I’m planning for a fourth”: No one delivers lines like that with the righteous fury of a Jon Lovitz
- “My mother the actress! I feel like Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill” is such a weirdly great throwaway line. I think the “Luckinbill” part is what makes it so funny
- “I’m filing a class-action suit against the director on behalf of everyone who was cut from the play. I also play Mitch” is such a great Lionel Hutz line. Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman each playing multiple characters in one episode (Lovitz also voices the head of the Ayn Rand daycare): talk about an embarrassment of riches
- “I DON’T like to toot my own horn but we are the only daycare center in town that’s not currently under investigation by the state”; in the 1990s, that really was something to brag about
- It’s not the biggest laugh in the episode, but I love the forlorn way Homer says, “Oh no! My pudding is trapped forever!”
- Next up: “Homer The Heretic.” If memory serves, it’s going to be awesome.