“Duffless” (season 4, episode 16; originally aired 02/18/1993)
“Duffless” forthrightly acknowledges what’s been apparent to fans of The Simpsons fans since the Tracy Ullman Show days: Homer isn’t a bit of a drinker or a man who enjoys a Scotch every now and then. No, Homer is an alcoholic, a drunk, a rummy, a certified, died-in-the-wool boozehound. This has been the source of much mirth and merriment over the course of the show’s run, as there are few things in the world funnier than booze and drunks, even if there are few things in the world sadder than alcoholism and drunk driving. Homer’s alcoholism would probably register as more problematic or disturbing if Barney weren’t on hand to make Homer look like a teetotaler by comparison, at least at the beginning.
The Simpsons famously posited alcohol as “the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems” in the 1997 episode “Homer Vs. The Eighteenth Amendment” but in “Duffless,” as in life, alcohol definitely causes more problems than it solves. In “Duffless,” drinking alcohol only solves one problem—the problem of sobriety—but that’s all Homer needs it to do.
Booze is such an inexhaustible source of hilarity for The Simpsons that “Duffless” returned to its highly fermented well just a few episodes after a nightmarish trip to Duff Gardens cured Selma of her desire to have human children. “Duffless” even boasts a Duff-themed setpiece that bears a more than passing resemblance to the Duff Gardens sequence in “Selma’s Choice” though the episode manages to spin some fresh laughs out of very familiar, well-worn subject matter.
“Duffless” opens with Homer and Lisa atwitter with anticipation for very different reasons. Lisa is excited about showing the world a super-sized tomato she grew for the school science fair using steroids (“The kind that help our Olympic athletes reach new peaks of excellence?” Bart asks brightly if a wee bit uncharacteristically) while Homer is overjoyed at the prospect of ducking out of work early to go on the Duff Brewery tour.
The Duff Brewery tour never reaches the heights of the Duff Gardens sequence—it’s hard to compete with rapping robotic Presidents and Lisa having a full-on, Technicolor freakout—but it scores some big, knowing laughs at the expense of highly alcoholic “tonics” that skirted prohibition laws by not technically being booze (merely booze-based), the Kennedy-Nixon debate (when JFK and Nixon take a break to extol the virtues of sponsor Duff beer, Kennedy’s grinning endorsement is rapturously received, while Nixon’s creepy praise is met with scowling disdain and Homer indignantly countering, “The man never drank A Duff in his life!”) and bogus 1950s commercials that posit alcohol consumption as vaguely healthy using meaningless but impressive-sounding jargon about how Duff’s “fills your Q Zone with pure beer goodness.” What’s a Q Zone, you ask? Why, the part of your body just begging to be filled with pure beer goodness of course!
After the tour, Homer is pulled over by the cops and acquits himself quite nicely in the verbal and physical part of the sobriety test—Homer has clearly been driving drunk long enough to get quite good at it, one of the many overlooked upsides to having a Herculean tolerance to alcohol—but fails the breathalyzer test and has his driver’s license temporarily revoked.
When a quick survey reveals Homer to be a classic alcoholic, Marge persuades him to stop drinking for a month to prove he’s capable of stopping. It is then that Homer makes a horrifying discovery: Life can be pretty goddamned boring without alcohol to blur its harsh edges and make the excruciatingly dull somehow bearable. Without the sweet elixir of alcohol to muddy up the senses, Homer comes to realize that baseball is boring and family obligations like a Tupperware party can be unendurable.
“Duffless” conveys the positive side of giving up drinking. Without alcohol to bloat the body and deplete the checkbook, Homer loses weight and begins saving money but temptation looms around every corner: in beer ads, of course, but also on blimps, on the sides of freight trains, and even in a science-fair project where a car runs on alcohol. It isn’t until alcohol has been placed maddeningly outside his reach that Homer comes to realize how central it is to both his life and the cultural life of Springfield.
Homer really should stop drinking due to his alcoholism and all, but The Simpsons hedges its bets a little by having Homer win an important battle with the bottle while simultaneously conceding that he has lost the war. Homer proves to Marge and to himself that he’s capable of living without alcohol—albeit with incredible effort and no small amount of misery—but the moment the 30 days are up Homer proudly proclaims, “Marge, I’m goin to Moe’s! Send the kids to the neighbors. I’m coming back loaded!”
“Duffless” flirts with a truly downbeat ending when Homer returns to an even-more-depressing-than-usual Moe’s (no mean feat considering that even at its liveliest and most upbeat, the bar is a pit of bottomless sorrow) to the bitterness and resentment of Moe and the sour apathy of the barflies Homer deludes himself into thinking are his friends, even if they can’t be bothered to remember his name.
The episode pulls back from that bleak void, however, by having a humbled and at least slightly wiser Homer turn down the beer he’s been lusting for, temporarily of course, so that he can go bike riding with Marge to the gentle strains of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.” It’s a bit of a cheat, since we know that Homer’s sobriety is only temporary. Then again, it was awfully ballsy for an animated family sitcom in 1993 to make an entire episode around a lead character’s alcoholism and drunk-driving conviction so the show can be forgiven for not being quite as uncompromising in its depiction of Homer’s alcoholism as it could be.
Homer’s battle with sobriety is so funny and compelling and beautifully observed that a B-story involving Lisa’s science project comparing the relative intelligence of Bart and a hamster—after Bart ruins her prize tomato by hurling it at Skinner’s butt—can’t help but feel like an afterthought by comparison, albeit one with its share of amusing elements. When an episode tackles something as heavy as alcoholism with such a light, irreverent touch, a thread involving a wacky rodent and interspecies competition can’t help but seem silly and insubstantial indeed.
- How horrifying is the Tupperware party? The image of the grotesquely contorted Selma will haunt my nightmares.
- I love the matter-of-fact way Homer says, “I would kill everyone in this room for a drop of sweet beer.”
- “Every good scientist is half B.F Skinner and half P.T Barnum!”—Seymour on the oft-overlooked role showmanship plays in science.
- The visual gag of Homer on a pink girl’s bike never stops being funny.
- Next up is “Last Exit To Springfield.” If memory serves, that’s a good one. One of the best.