One of the many things I love about baseball is its leisurely, laconic pace. It’s not one of those infernal sports that works itself into a frenzy trying to be “exciting” and “fast-paced” and “not mind-numbingly dull.” It’s a game of pauses and dead time. Instead of backboard-shattering slam dunks, baseball is confident enough in its appeal and its history to devote time and energy to the very minor pleasures of a hitter stepping out of the batter’s box, swinging his bat absent-mindedly and staring off into the distance at nothing much at all.
That helps explain the uncharacteristically leisurely pace of “Dancin' Homer.” It’s one of the first, if not the first show to ply Homer away from his day job at the nuclear power plant and give him an exciting new temporary profession. Homer has cycled through so many professions by this point—astronaut, barbershop crooner, Mr. Plow and at least one or one hundred others—that his constant professional upheaval has become a running gag.
Like the previous episode, “Dancin' Homer” is focused on a single overarching narrative. There are no b-stories or subplots, just the sad saga of how, for a brief, shining moment, people weren’t laughing at Homer; they were laughing in his direction. In a delightful paradox, Homer wins his son’s respect—albeit temporarily—and finally conveys hard-earned dignity by throwing himself into a profession with no use for dignity and/or self-respect: the baseball mascot.
“Dancing Homer” begins with a despondent Homer drowning his sorrows at Moe’s and regaling his friends with the tale of how he gained, and then lost, a tiny little subsection of the world. It all began with Mr. Burns taking the plant to a minor league baseball game as one of his intermittent attempts to bond with the ignorant rabble he calls his employees.
Homer worries that being seated next to Mr. Burns will hamper his ability to have a good time but Mr. Burns proves a surprisingly good sport, even joining in on the heckling with some zingers he once used to antagonize Connie Mack. Incidentally, you young people out there (by which I mean anyone under twenty-five) do you get a lot of Mr. Burns’ old-timey references? Or are they little Easter eggs for old-timers like me? Is Connie Mack the young people's favorite these days or have they moved on to the flashy, newfangled Minnie Minosos and Gorman Thomases of the world?
In a bid to get the crowd excited and amp up a losing/hopeless team, Homer begins acting a fool by dancing exuberantly on the Isotopes’ dugout. He instantly becomes addicted to the applause and the attention. Before long he’s hired on as the official mascot of the Springfield Isotopes, the town's minor-league team.
It’s a testament to the episode’s willingness to echo the rambling rhythms of baseball that Homer doesn’t actually don his mascot costume until the show is half over. The show is willing to take its time; it doesn’t have quite the comic density of later episodes but when it takes its time to deliver a rather involved gag it scores huge laughs.
Take, for example, the Simpsons’ introduction to Capital City, the New York-like metropolis where the family moves after Homer is called up to the big leagues. There’s a glorious extended sequence where the Simpsons ooh and ah at the depressing realities of a big city life rife with street crime and unsavory sorts.
Special guest star Tony Bennett commemorates the Simpsons’ move from the small to the big time with a pastiche that riffs cleverly on “My Kind of Town” and “New York, New York”. Bennett pays tuneful tribute to a city where a man can feel like a king and a king can feel like some sort of coo coo crazy super-king.
Alas, Homer is not meant for the big time. Despite kind words and sage advice from the Capital City Goofball (think the San Diego Famous Chicken) Homer is booed off the field and must return home disgraced. Yet Homer manages to glean small moments of triumph from failure.
Homer has finally found something he’s good at. Dancing like an idiot taps into Homer’s natural exuberance and lack of shame. He takes his job seriously. Some of the episode’s biggest laughs come from Homer talking shop with the Capital City Goofball, who takes his job just as seriously as Homer. They both agree, for example, that “Elephant Walk” is the mascot’s best friend.
“Dancing Homer”, finds our hapless hero once again trying to impress his son. This time he succeeds, though the victory is only temporary. It always is. At the episode’s close, however, Homer has scored the consolation prize that, more often than not, comes with flamboyant, extravagant failure; he may not have succeeded, but he at least got a hell of an anecdote (and the show got a nifty episode) out of his high-profile humiliation.