The “Love-Matic Grandpa” portion of "The Simpsons Spin-Off Spectacular" episode affords us a brief, tantalizing glimpse of what a Simpsons spin-off centered around Moe’s tragicomic existence might look like. The segment is a spoof of high-concept 1970s sitcoms and the notorious Jerry Van Dyke vehicle My Mother The Car but it made a sitcom centered around Moe seem surprisingly palatable.
There’s something very Norman Lear about Moe, something very Paddy Chayefsky, a pervasive sense of working-class despair. Put a rose in his hand and a hopeful gleam in his eye and Moe becomes Marty, the troll-faced sub-everyman in a desperate, inherently doomed quest for love.
Moe behaves abysmally to his customers and his friends but his neediness and vulnerability make him ingratiating. Underneath all the sour misanthropy, criminal business practices and sexual creepiness lies a desperate and humanizing need for approval, validation, attention and love that often leads in ugly directions.
In “Flaming Moe’s”, Moe’s need for validation leads him to instantly betray Homer when a customer compliments a homemade concoction Homer calls the Flaming Homer for reasons that should be obvious and Moe re-christens the Flaming Moe for reasons that should be equally obvious.
Moe doesn't hesitate to sell out his best customer and probably his best friend. There’s not a moment of doubt. This highlights the underlying pragmatism of Homer and Moe’s relationship. They’re horribly co-dependent: Moe fuels Homer’s alcoholism. Homer keeps Moe in business. Moe fills the most important conceivable role in Homer's life: he gets him drunk.
Their entire relationship is predicated on Homer never taking the steps he needs to get better, or even acknowledging the depth and extent of his problem. Yet we like Moe because we see so much of our own weakness and frailty and need for approval in his gargoyle-like visage.
Some of my favorite moments in the episode riff on Moe’s preternatural lack of bartending skills. I particularly like when he takes out an ancient list of drink recipes and utters the words “Gin” and “Tonic” quizzically and with genuine bafflement, as if encountering each for the first time in a way that made them hard to comprehend individually and impossible to even consider in combination.
Homer and Moe’s co-depen-friendship is fucked up and rooted in addiction and dysfunction under the best of circumstances. It becomes raw, almost John Cassavetes-style psychodrama here, as Homer is literally driven insane by his anger and resentment towards Moe when the Flaming Moe makes Moe's establishment the hottest bar in town and a popular hangout for the rock band Aerosmith. In a sequence that foreshadows the “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich” scene in Being John Malkovich, Homer hears and sees Moe everywhere he goes. Moe is everyone. Moe is everything. Moe's success makes Homer feel like a failure.
The episode does a good job establishing Homer’s gradual psychological deterioration. At first he’s angry. That anger manifests itself in one of my favorite sequences in the history of the show. In it, Marge tries to make the best of a bad situation by suggesting that while obviously it'd be preferable if Moe shared the proceeds of The Flaming Moe with him, Homer can at least derive some satisfaction from knowing that something he created was making people happy.
This inspires a glorious orgy of bitter sarcasm as Homer frolics about in a mincing, fanciful burlesque of manic happiness while mock-enthusing, “Ooh, look at me! I'm making people happy! I'm the Magical Man from Happy-Land, in a gumdrop house on Lollipop Lane!”
I imagine that if you were to ask people, especially of my generation (I'm 35) what springs to mind when they think about sarcasm that intricately worded, beautifully acted sequence would be a popular answer. It’s the perfect distillation of sarcasm at its most basic.
While Homer devolves further into madness, life at what has been re-christened Flaming Moe’s becomes an elaborate if rather clumsy Cheers parody/homage with Moe falling into a love-hate relationship with a classy blueblood overtly modeled on Shelly Long’s character in Cheers. There’s even a groaner about the waitress leaving the bar to pursue a questionable film career (cue rimshot).
“Flaming Moe's” ends with Homer repaying Moe’s betrayal with a climactic betrayal of his own. In his guise as the half-assed, home-made Phantom of Flaming Moe’s Tavern, Homer appears climactically to announce that the secret ingredient of Flaming Moe’s is not love, as Professor Frink’s machine had foolishly suggested, but rather cough syrup. Plain old simple fuck-your-ass-up cough syrup.
Moe hurts Homer so Homer hurts Moe. But the two men share a bond bigger than jealousy or resentment: the codependent bond of an alcoholic and an opportunistic enabler. So when all is said and done Homer is back at the bar, grateful just to get a free drink. The cycle of dysfunction and addiction continues unabated. In the sad, sour world of Moe’s tavern, that constitutes friendship.
The secret ingredient in the Flaming Moe is the same active ingredient as what is colloquially known as Drank or Sizzurp: cough syrup. So its popularity is presumably linked to its mind-warping powers, just as much of Coca-Cola’s early zing was taken from its use of cocaine. Homer however offers another explanation: fire makes it good. "Flaming Moe's" is undeniably good but its unrelentingly cynical take on Moe and Homer's friendship of convenience leaves a bit of a weird, bitter aftertaste. Not, I imagine, unlike an actual Flaming Moe. I mean a Flaming Homer.
—"The secret ingredient is love?"
—It's telling that Moe loses Homer as a customer conclusively specifically because he's unable and unwilling to listen to him.
—Hugh Jass seems like a very pleasant man. I suppose you have to be either very patient or perpetually apoplectic with a name like that.
—Krusty's pimp game looks fierce over at Flaming Moe's
—I also enjoyed the Tipsy McStagger representative's quietly disgusted response to Moe's questions about the real Tipsy McStagger
—"Store bough drollery" Gorgeous turn of phrase
—"Increased job satisfaction and family togetherness are poison for purveyors of mind numbing intoxicants like himself."
—"If it wasn’t for the Junior High school next door no one would even use the cigarette machine."