“Homer The Great” features what is, in my mind, the perfect distillation of Homer’s base mindset—what’s beautiful about it, and also what’s ridiculous about it, and laughable about it, and just hilariously insane about it. I imagine that pretty much everyone who’s ever watched The Simpsons knows about this episode, the Stonecutters episode, enough to not need more than a basic recap of the plot: Homer discovers a secret mason-like cult in Springfield, becomes a member and then, because of a birthmark, is named their messiah. By the end of the episode, he’s driven the club into ruin and been rejected by its replacement.
At the height of his powers, Homer expresses (with surprise) that it turned out he was God all along, and Lisa wisely warns him about counting his chickens. Then, they have this exchange:
Lisa: Remember, dad, all glory is fleeting.
Lisa: Beware the ides of March.
Lisa: Dad, I know you think you’re happy now, but it’s not gonna last forever.
Homer: Everything lasts forever.
It’s such a bluntly insane comment, willfully ignorant of not only his current situations, but all situations in perpetuity, delivered with such casualness. There’s nothing that makes me laugh more.
It’s hardly surprising that this episode is credited to the great dark genius John Swartzwelder, who eschews the show’s oft-used plot structure and dives right into the concept that pretty much everyone in Springfield who isn’t Homer belongs to the Stonecutters and enjoys special life privileges because of it. Its existence has never been addressed before, and never will be again, obviously, but as they inform us in the Emmy-nominated song “We Do,” they control the British crown, rig the Oscars, hide the existence of Atlantis and Martians, and are responsible for Steve Guttenberg’s stardom.
Patrick Stewart’s performance as Number One, the leader of the Springfield Stonecutter chapter, is one of the most memorable one-shot appearances on the show. He’s tapping into his automatic Shakespearean gravitas for the portentous role (although it turns out Number One is mostly interested in drinking booze and paddling asses) but he does it so knowingly, with such perfect subtle humor, to keep a one-joke character totally transfixing.
The arc of Homer’s rise and fall is predictable, but the joke at the heart of it is the right one—for all their great influence and wide-reaching power, these guys just want to get drunk and play ping pong. What greater freedom is there that the freedom to do basically nothing?
The joke plays out right from the beginning, where Homer realizes that something is up (Lenny won’t stop hinting at things, and Carl has to continually butt in, “shhh…shut up!”) and that’s enough to pique an obsession. Just the fact that everyone’s doing something that he can’t do is understandably fascinating. He dates his experience with such exclusion to childhood, and the treehouse “No Homers” club that was allowed to include one, singular Homer (Homer Glumplich, an utterly memorable Simpsons character even though he never even speaks a line).
Homer finally manages to get in, and is eventually revealed as the Chosen One, which offers unimaginable power, which he quickly finds just as isolating as being rejected from the club in the first place. “Homer The Great” mocks the dumb meaningless rituals of freemasonry and secret societies, but it’s also mocking the very notion of inclusivity and exclusivity as things we crave—Homer’s just as unhappy outside the club as he is leading it. All we really want is to blend into the background.
Take the offense that causes Homer to briefly lose his Stonecutter membership and drag the Stone of Shame before his birthmark is revealed (“remove the stone of shame,” Number One proclaims. “Attach the stone of TRIUMPH!”). He uses the society’s sacred parchment as a bib to avoid making a mess during rib night. Even for Homer Simpson, it’s an absurdly stupid thing to do, but he’s just trying to avoid being noticed, even after he’s been allowed into a club that seems to encourage boorish behavior (I don’t see any women among the Stonecutter membership, which goes in line with most Freemasonry).
So, Lisa’s predictions obviously come true, and Homer is quickly unhappy and bored, and drives away his members with an attempt to seek meaning by bettering others (it doesn’t work). Neither does his attempt at grand performance art (having Colobus monkeys reenact the Civil War). Marge comforts him by reminding him of his membership in the greatest club of all, the Simpson family.
It’s sweet stuff but I’m more interesting the Ancient Mystic Society of No Homers, formed expressly for the purpose of keeping Homer Simpson out (Mr. Glumplich makes it in yet again) but otherwise bearing all the hoodoo mysticism and ritual nonsense of the Stonecutters. Swartzwelder writes such brilliantly cynical episodes that can end on such bitter notes. Marge’s little monologue is nice, but it feels more like a perfunctory button than the more transcendent emotional material this show can be capable of.
That’s fine. “Homer The Great” is supposed to be completely ridiculous. It’s about a secret society of purple robe-wearing men who somehow manage to rob cavefish of their sight (that lyric alone should have netted that song a thousand Emmy trophies). It reveals that when in trouble, you should call 912, and that the signing of the Declaration of Independence featured much beer-quaffing and brawling. At one point, Lenny defends the poor reputation of eggs as giving one high cholesterol, and Homer accuses him of being in the egg lobby, chasing a man wearing an egg suit down a hall. Later, the egg is seen singing “We Do” with the rest of the Stonecutters. It’s as natural a sight as anything.
- Simpsons signage: The family gets a visit from Stern Lecture Plumbing.
- “We Do” lost at the Emmys to “Ordinary Miracles,” a song by Marvin Hamlisch among others, from Barbra Streisand’s 1995 concert movie. I’ve never heard that song but I know this loss was a crying shame.
- Homer’s “revenge list” (which chairmaker Econo-Save gets added to) includes the Bill of Rights, gravity, the Emmys, Billy Crystal, God, “The Boy” and, of course, Stern Lecture Plumbing.
- Marge forbids stalking. “It's so illegal!” So Homer pretends to step out for some other reason. “I'm going...outside. To...stalk. Lenny and Carl. D'oh!”
- Homer is ignoring Grandpa because of self-hypnotism classes. “It's five years later and I still think I'm a chicken. I'm a chicken, Marge!” “I know, I know!”
- Grandpa lists his memberships. “I'm an Elk, a Mason, a Communist, I'm the president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance for some reason, ah, here it is, the Stonecutters.”
- Homer, justly, mocks Number One’s stupid wiener name. “Hello, my name is Number One! ...and so forth.”
- Moe going down a swing is a moment of comic bliss. “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, SOMEBODY GET THE JAWS OF LIFE!”