“Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” (season five, episode one; originally aired 09/30/1993)
The fifth season of The Simpsons opens with “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet,” a holdover from season four that had one huge advantage over “Homer Goes To College”—the classic Conan O’Brien-penned episode Fox strongly considered as a season-five opener: “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” has a Beatle in it. Beatles are like royalty only better, because they ascended to rarified heights through talent, hard work, and will rather than being born into a powerful, powerfully inbred family.
The Beatles connection goes far beyond George Harrison’s brief but central cameo as himself. “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” is a swooning yet irreverent valentine to Beatles mythology—an inspired, episode-length riff on the rise, fall, and glorious afterlife of what we can all agree was the single greatest rock band of all time. As these first two paragraphs betray, I, like seemingly every other human being on the planet, am a huge Beatles fan—albeit not anywhere near as big as Simpsons scribe Jeff Martin, whose deep love and understanding of The Fab Four informed every loving gag and winking homage in this season première. (Quick sidenote to folks in the comments who might be all, “The Beatles sucked,” or “The Beatles weren’t that great,” or “The Beatles are overrated”: With all due respect, and with full acknowledgment that art is inherently subjective, fuck you, you’re wrong, The Beatles are great and you’re just being an asshole contrarian).
Instead of serving his Beatles parody/homage straight-up, Martin perversely but ingeniously paired a thorough and meticulous take on The Beatles with a fictional barbershop-music revival and cheeky 1980s nostalgia. “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” unfolds largely in flashbacks, but it opens in present-day Springfield with an inspired swap meet set piece where Mayor Quimby condescends to the filthy rabble (“Human roaches, feeding off each other’s garbage. The only thing you can’t buy here is dignity.”), Moe sells oyster shells hand painted to resemble Lucille Ball, Flanders tries to trick children into learning about religion via biblical trading cards, and Skinner has a surprisingly tender reunion with the helmet he was forced to wear in a prisoner of war camp in Vietnam. Harry Shearer’s delivery as he reflects that the old baby still fits is a masterpiece of gloriously misplaced nostalgia.
Ah, but it’s all an elaborate preamble to the Simpsons making a most curious discovery: Homer’s face on an album cover as one quarter of Grammy-winning barbershop quartet The Be Sharps. We then flash back to the halcyon days of 1985, when, in Homer’s words, “a maturing Joe Piscopo left Saturday Night Live to conquer Hollywood, People Express introduced a generation of hicks to plane travel” and he was in a barbershop quartet alongside Apu, Skinner, and Chief Wiggum.
Homer’s barbershop quartet’s soothingly old-fashioned song stylings quickly conquer Springfield and it isn’t long before an oily agent is promising Homer a rocket ride to the top as long as he gets rid of the dead weight of Chief Wiggum, deriding him as “too Village People.” This renders Wiggum the Pete Best of the group, the human footnote discreetly pushed out of the picture before the band hit the big time.
The pony-tailed agent quickly sets about transforming the rough clay of four weird, middle-aged men into the preposterous stuff of teenybopper dreams. He boots Chief Wiggum from the group, gets Apu to adopt the stage name “Apu de Beaumarchais” and, because it’s important for fans to imagine they at least have a shot at bedding Homer, hides his marriage to Marge from the world. As the final piece of the puzzle, an unexpectedly golden-voiced Barney replaces Chief Wiggum.
All that’s left is to settle upon a name. On my deathbed I will probably forget my children’s names, the cities I’ve lived in, and great chunks of my past, but I very much suspect I will remember that Principal Skinner pushed for a name “that’s witty at first but that seems less funny each time you hear it.” That’s how deeply The Simpsons has gotten under my skin and the skin of much of my generation. Seemingly throwaway lines from a cartoon are as deeply ingrained in my psyche as my most strongly held convictions.
The group settles on the perfect name in The Be Sharps. Now, it needs a timely hook for its breakout hit. Homer tries to write a timely ditty about Geraldo Rivera’s disastrous opening of Al Capone’s empty vault before Marge accidentally inspires The Be Sharps breakout hit when she shows Homer a “Baby On Board” sticker she crows will “keep people from intentionally ramming our car.”
The Be Sharps are just a montage sequence away from stardom. “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” is filled with genius gags that have nothing to do with The Beatles—Grandpa happily acquiescing to the radio at the nursing home being changed from The Be Sharp’s “Baby On Board” to Paul Harvey dramatically proclaiming “And that little boy whom nobody liked grew up to be Roy Cohn!,” for instance, or the Sea Captain and his Moby Dick-like arch-enemy sharing a sweet moment of togetherness. While listening to The Be Sharps, the captain confides, “Aw Squiddy, I got nothing against ya. I just heard there was gold in your belly.”
The Be Sharps hit the big time, performing at the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, where Homer’s wisecrack about dedicating “Baby On Board” to a woman who’s 100 years old and 200 tons inspires a panicked onlooker to scream, “This enormous woman will devour us all,” cracking up journalists at a press conference like the one immortalized in A Hard Day’s Night. The group then wins a Grammy for “Outstanding Soul, Spoken Word, or Barbershop Recording,” and even rubs shoulders with Beatles when Homer meets George Harrison at a Grammys after-party.
Ah, but there’s a reason The Beatles are not together anymore and The Simpsons is not a show about a successful barbershop singer and his family. Fame and fortune conspire to break up The Be Sharps, with a little assistance from Barney’s new Japanese conceptual-artist girlfriend.
The end of The Be Sharps’ unlikely ascent and more predictable fall borrows several moves from Let It Be—the documentary about the soul-deadening recording of Let It Be—like the exhausted, world-weary body language of The Be Sharps as they grind their way through recording their final album and the climactic sequence where the Be Sharps put aside their differences to perform a concert on top of Moe’s Tavern à la The Beatles’ legendary gig on top of their Apple Corps headquarters.
In the punch line to the episode, Harrison passes the rooftop performance and observes dismissively, “It’s been done.” That’s true of most of what “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” satirizes. The Beatles had been spoofed before “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet,” most notably in Eric Idle’s All You Need Is Cash. Eighties nostalgia jokes had been done before. But Beatles parodies and 1980s pop-culture jokes had seldom been done with such wit, affection, and hilarity. And think, friends, this is only the beginning!
- The vocals of The Be Sharps were a combination of the voices of the cast and The Dapper Dans, a veteran barbershop quartet that still plays at Disneyland, where, not surprisingly, they are regularly inundated with requests for “Baby On Board.”
- “It is a great dishonor to my ancestors and my God but okay!”—Apu on changing his name
- Dammit, if Homer had just pushed on a little harder I’m sure “There was nothing in Al Capone’s vault/But it wasn’t Geraldo’s fault!” could have been the start of a brilliant song.
- “By the many arms of Vishnu, I swear it is a lie”—Apu pretending not to be Indian.
- Not enough bands title albums Bigger Than Jesus. That takes admirable chutzpah.
- Next up is “Cape Feare.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.