“Burns’ Heir” (season 5, episode 18; originally aired 04/14/1994)
When controversial boy-evangelist-turned-hippie-badass Marjoe Gortner left preaching for a career as an actor and pop star, he named his debut LP Bad But Not Evil, an evocative phrase that conveyed that while Gortner realized he had strayed far from the spiritual path of his childhood there was still good in him. He was a charlatan and a charismatic con man and a false idol, but underneath the lies and flash he was a decent human being trying to make the best of the very strange deck life dealt him. Gortner was a bad boy, but he was not an evil man.
The “bad versus evil” distinction is similarly useful when considering the respective legacies of Bart Simpson and Mr. Burns. As has been indelibly established, Bart is a quintessential bad boy, the self-styled Dennis The Menace of the 1990s and an inveterate troublemaker, but his rebelliousness seems attributable to his age and irrepressible energy. He makes a mess and destroys things and antagonizes authority figures and gives his parents hell because that’s what spirited young boys do, not because he is a psychopath or future felon.
Burns, on the other hand, is a fundamentally evil person. He is not without his echoes of humanity or his moments of vulnerability, but on a primal level he’s just plain rotten to the core. It’s not his parents. It’s not mental illness. It’s not drugs that drive Burns to behave so abhorrently. It’s just that he’s just plain evil when it comes right down to it, he’s just kind of warped and wicked and weird and largely devoid of redeeming qualities, beyond an ongoing concern for the reputation of eggs.
Even when Burns has an ostensibly noble aspiration, like his seemingly altruistic desire to find an heir to give his vast fortune to in “Burns’ Heir,” there is a dark undercurrent of self-obsession. There’s an unmistakable element of narcissism to evil people who breed—or, having lethargic sperm and hectic schedules, leave the breeding to the more potent—so that their genetic material and some element of their souls can ricochet through the ages, ensuring that their innate horribleness does not need to end with their own awful, awful, ill-spent lives.
“Burns’ Heir” chronicles the strange bond of convenience of a naughty little boy and a fundamentally evil man, but it also features Burns at his most vulnerable and, by extension, his most human and relatable. In “Burns’ Heir” a near-death experience in a bath (though, given Burns’ advanced age and regrettable health, merely waking up every morning constitutes a near-death experience) causes his life to flash before his eyes, leading to one of my all-time favorite Simpsons gags. In it, Burns rips off a ridiculous disguise while onboard a Greenpeace ship and proudly informs his colleagues, “It was I, you fools! The man you trusted wasn’t Wavy Gravy at all. And all this time I’ve been smoking harmless tobacco!”
There are so many things I love about that joke, but more than anything I love the singsong way Burns pronounces “Wavy Gravy” as if encountering those words for the first time. With Burns, half of the humor generally comes from Harry Shearer’s delivery.
Burns’ near-death experience awakens him to his own mortality and engenders a fierce determination to find a surrogate child to pass his vast fortune down to. Burns casts as wide a net as humanly possible in his search for an heir, even invading the coming attractions of Siskel & Ebert: The Movie so that he can plead with the public for worthy candidates.
Burns’ plea takes the form of a parody of the once-famous teaser trailer for Toys where Robin Williams jibber-jabbered nonsensically for a minute in a way that was ostensibly supposed to lure audiences to the film. In this version, Burns is joined by costumed characters representing the various items available at the concession stand, and, because it would be rude to do otherwise, joins them in the well-known little ditty about going to the concession stand to get some snacks.
The Simpsons gets away with an awful lot because it’s animated. It would be hard to imagine a live-action comedy featuring an extended sequence where parents take turns essentially pimping their children out as potential heirs to the richest and most evil man in town. However, The Simpsons makes a glorious se-piece out of Milhouse, Martin Prince, and Nelson Muntz all auditioning for the dream/nightmare gig of Mr. Burns’ heir in ways that reflect their fundamental character. Milhouse radiates off-putting neediness, Nelson impresses Burns with his propensity for threats and physical attacks, and Martin Prince sashays his way out of competition by being excessively precious and fancy.
This leaves Bart, who demurs that he doesn’t even want to audition, and there’s a fire he started that he really should keep an eye on, a revelation he drops as casually as an engineer might mention there’s a spreadsheet he really should get started on. Homer is having none of it, however, and even Marge, generally the voice of reason, is able to justify it to herself and her family by saying that it won’t be permanent and could provide for a future where he graduates from Harvard and she runs away with 1980s-era Lee Majors (though the Lee Majors part doesn’t really have anything to do with Bart).
Bart stumbles onstage and awkwardly blurts out the words Homer, who is apparently either dyslexic or a secret acolyte of Yoda, has written: “Hello Mr. Kerns, I bad want money now. Me sick. So pick please me, Mr. Burns.” Homer is so overjoyed with the fumbling, barely coherent manner in which Bart reads the words that he enthuses, “Ooh, he card-read good.”
Bart does not make a good impression in his attempts to make a good impression, but when he starts hurling rocks at Burns’ estate in disgust he impresses the tycoon with his impressive capacity for mindless destruction. Burns decides that he likes Bart’s spunk so he pegs him as his heir.
Bart then faces a Faustian bargain: He can have anything he wants as long as he agrees to join forces with a joyless, evil old man or he can retain his freedom and his self-respect. “Burns’ Heir” features its title character in an unusual, if not unprecedented predicament of wanting to win the affection and even love of another human being. There’s a gentleness in Harry Shearer’s voice when Burns interacts with Bart in this episode that’s strangely poignant. This episode provides a long glimpse at Burns’ little-seen softer side.
Burns wants so desperately to win over Bart that he hires a group of actors, including Michael Caine, to impersonate the Simpsons in a video he shows Bart to prove that his own family has forgotten him. It’s an impressively audacious, outrageous gag fortified with neat details like Lisa learning a lot about the culture of the little person who plays her in the video.
Bart ultimately chooses good over evil, or at least his intensely imperfect family that is trying to do good over the wholly evil Burns. For in the end, Bart is bad, not evil, and even the naughtiest bad boys sometimes grow up to be decent men.
- Has any wage slave ever genuinely thought to themselves, as Homer does here, “This may be a dirty job but the big guys at the top work even harder?” I’m guessing not.
- Milhouse’s simultaneously defiant and pathetic delivery of, “My mom says I’m cool!” is beyond perfect.
- I love how Homer isn’t entirely sure what his boss is named.
- “Kids, you tried your best. And you failed miserably. The lesson is, ‘never try’.”—more solid existential wisdom courtesy of Homer J. Simpson
- Burns flagrantly defies Occam’s Law when a stone crashes through his window and he immediately guesses, “A bird has become petrified and lost his sense of direction.”
- Also genius? Krusty rerunning an episode from the 1980s where he receives a news flash and informs his audience, “Children. Remain calm. The Falkland Islands have just been invaded. Repeat. The Falkland Islands have just been invaded.”
- This is also the episode that introduced the concept of dogs with bees in their mouth so when they bark they shoot bees at you. It boasts such an embarrassment of riches.
- Incidentally, next up for My World Of Flops is The Yellow Album. If memory serves, that’s a bad one.
- Next up is “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.