“Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?” (season 3, episode 24, originally aired Aug. 27, 1992)
There’s an extended riff in “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?” that illustrates why The Simpsons in its prime operated on a different evolutionary plane than its would-be peers. In it, Mr. Burns offers Homer two thousand dollars in hush money after a physical revealed that years of working around toxic waste has rendered Homer sterile.
Ah, but Homer is an American so this sudden windfall isn’t enough for him. When Mr. Burns hastily improvises that the money is a prize for winning the “First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence” Homer asks/sheepishly demands a fancy awards ceremony to commemorate his achievement in the field of excellence.
In a lesser show, Homer whining about wanting an elaborate awards ceremony to honor his meaningless award would have been little more than a throwaway joke but The Simpsons is animated so it can cut from Homer demanding a fancy awards show to a fancy, extravagantly empty ceremony honoring achievement in the files of excellence and rope a legend like “Smoking” Joe Frazier into the silliness.
In a pitch-perfect parody of awards show banter, “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?” has Frazier recite Webster’s dictionary definition of excellence. Ah, the opening definition: Webster defines it as the ultimate crutch of the lazy student and awards show banter-writer.
With little in the way of screen time, The Simpsons delivers arguably the definitive parody of the self-congratulatory pointlessness of awards show. Granted, that’s a pretty rich, fertile topic but every satirical dart the show’s writers hurl in that bloated institution’s direction hits bullseye.
The Simpsons is too savvy to let a good guest star go to waste so after Homer’s victory, he ends up at Moe’s, where Barney makes the mistake of antagonizing a man who made a fortune pummeling people with his fists. In frustration, Frazier seethes, “Barney, you’ve been riding my back all night. Let’s do it” with the perfect combination of anger, exhaustion and irritation. He also sounds more than a little tipsy, which makes his rage at Barney feel all the more authentic.
In its prime, The Simpsons leaped from peak to peak. It took advantage of the possibilities of animation to create the most ambitious, dazzling and sustained satire of American life of the 20th century but it retained an emotional component that made it more than just a frighteningly effective joke-delivery machine.
Take “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?”, for example. Remove all the jokes and gags from the episode and you have a haunting exploration of family, guilt, shame, responsibility, and second chances. Then again, with The Simpsons, it’s often impossible to separate the comedy from the drama. When the clan’s once-wealthy, now-destitute Uncle Herb answers Lisa’s question about why he never wrote with, “What was I supposed to write? Dear Lisa, last night I used a rat for a pillow thanks to your old man?” it’s funny but it’s also the sad, weary lament of a man who has nothing but shame and self-hatred to share with a family he still hasn’t quite come to terms with. Danny DeVito, as Uncle Herb, certainly doesn’t deliver the line as a big laugh-getter. Like the rest of “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?”, he plays the emotions straight and lets the comedy emerge organically.
As “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?” opens, Uncle Herb has been reduced by circumstances and Homer’s stupidity to the transient life of the contemporary American hobo. Around a hobo fire one cold and lonely night he shares with his contemporaries (including the inventor of New Coke) the tale of how it all went astray. I suspect that if The Simpsons found a way to insert hobos into every episode they’d do so in a heartbeat. Who doesn’t love hobos, with the possible exception of railroad cops?
Uncle Herb punches Homer out upon seeing him again, a subtle indication that he has not gotten over his anger at Homer for costing him his fortune by designing his ill-conceived dream car, The Homer. Even during his hobo scenes, DeVito gives Uncle Herb a real sense of battered dignity. He’s a good, proud man who tries to acquit himself with honor and integrity in a world without much respect for either value.
Herb comes to the Simpson’s home intent on turning his life around. He stumbles onto his next big money maker when he figures out a way to translate the squeaks and squawks of baby-talk into coherent, discernible speech. “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?” gleans big laughs from having Herb’s machine translates Maggie’s decidedly unsophisticated sentiments in the most formal, polite manner imaginable. DeVito delivers the lines, “Oh, there you are. Very amusing” (Lisa’s response to Peek-A-Boo), “I have soiled myself. How embarrassing” and “This leash demeans us both” with a hilariously incongruent sense of maturity.
Homer plans to use his two thousand dollars on a recliner called The Spine Melter 2000 so powerful that turning its massage feature to full power blasts Homer into a psychedelic realm of pure image and sensation. As Homer ascends into a realm of pure visceral pleasure, the animators embrace a simpatico form of pure animation unrooted from the demands of plot and character. They’re able to let their imaginations run wild and the results are impressive.
In the end, Homer must choose between the chair of his dreams and doing right by the brother he has wronged. Homer ultimately chooses to do the right thing and Uncle Herb rewards the rest of the family handsomely but tells Homer that his reward for lending him the money is being able to call him “brother” again with a clear conscience.
The emotional core of “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?” is Herb’s unwillingness to forgive his brother. The episode doesn’t short-change Herb’s anger. Herb is about as saintly as characters get in The Simpsons, but even he can’t resist the urge to punch Homer in the face. So when Herb ultimately relents and gives Homer the damn Spinemelter 2000 he wants so damned much it feels earned. It’s less an obligatory happy ending than the necessary last stop in the road to forgiveness and redemption.
“Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?” is a perfect bookend to “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Herb is such a deep, rich, and dramatic character that it almost seems a shame to relegate him to the sidelines permanently. Then again, there’s something to be said for quitting while you’re ahead. That’s a lesson that didn’t quite take where The Simpsons later seasons are concerned.
- What did y’all think of Burns’ over-the-top rage at his lawyers? I could see what it was going for but it didn’t quite work for me
- I liked Homer’s ridiculously drawn-out obsession with the drinking bird. As a throwaway gag it’s funny. As an extended bit it’s hilarious
- “I’m rich again! USA! USA!”
- “Twin Convention, No Triplets”
- “Discarded pizza boxes are an inexpensive form of cheese.”
- This episode is so ridiculously packed with awesomeness that I didn’t even get to include, “Marge, there’s an empty spot I’ve always had inside me. I tried to fill it with family, religion, community service, but those are dead ends! This chair is the answer” in the main review and that’s one of my all-time favorite Simpsons lines.
- I was genuinely touched by the scene of Ned and his family rapturously receiving Herb as a real-life transient in need of care and nurturing. There’s a real tenderness to it I found disarming.