“Marge On The Lam” (season five, episode six; originally aired 11/4/1993)
Revisiting “Marge On The Lam” for TV Club Classic I experienced a dynamic that has re-occurred extensively over the course of this project. I half-remembered “Marge On The Lam” as being merely very good when in fact it is flat-out great, a gut-busting, heartfelt standout that features some of my favorite moments and lines in the history of the show, including sound bites I recycle on an almost daily basis, most notably “Stupid TV! Be more funny!,” which Homer blurts apoplectically in response to the gently narcotizing pseudo-comedy of Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion. It’s a phrase I use in response to, well, just about everything. With some very prominent exceptions, including the show we are currently discussing, stupid TV is almost never funny enough.
My low expectations were prompted by a combination of factors. At best, The Simpsons is timeless, but a plot point prominently involving Crystal Pepsi indelibly marks “Marge On The Lam” as a product of its time. I also remembered “Marge On The Lam” as being Marge-centric, and episodes devoted to Marge and Lisa tend to be more tender, but less funny, than episodes devoted to Homer and Bart.
Thankfully, “Marge On The Lam” is equally devoted to Marge’s ill-fated flirtation with liberation and the effect her wild night out has on the the Simpson household’s fragile ecosystem. The episode plays like a dual buddy comedy with Marge and fiery, rebellious new gal pal Ruth Powers on one side of the gender divide and Homer and moonshine-swilling buddy Chief Wiggum on the other. They’re separated by the law and sex yet united by a fondness for Lesley Gore’s bubblegum classic “Sunshine, Lollipops, And Rainbows.”
“Marge On The Lam” opens with The Simpsons watching a parody of Prairie Home Companion with a combination of befuddlement and anger. Homer is enraged by the very notion that people find Garrison Keillor funny and he’s not exactly pleased when Marge contributes to the public television pledge Keillor has graced with his gently sleep-inducing presence. But Homer cheers up when he discovers that Marge has scored tickets to the ballet in return for her donation.
Why on Earth would an inveterate Neanderthal like Homer be excited about going to the ballet? In one of my favorite throwaway jokes in the entire series, Homer inexplicably but wonderfully thinks that ballet involves a bear in a fez driving a funny little car around in a circle. There is no logical justification for this joke. No American man in his right mind would make it to his mid-30s without having even a vague conception of what ballet entails, and that’s what makes the joke so surreally awesome.
Before he can make it to the ballet, however, Homer gets distracted by a vending machine pimping clear soda pop. “Mmmm, invisible soda,” Homer says dreamily before getting his hand arm stuck inside the soda machine. Not only does Homer fail to disentangle himself from the soda machine; in a staggering bit of stupidity wedded to misplaced determination, he somehow manages to get his other arm stuck in a second vending machine, this one devoted to snacks.
This genius bit of physical comedy captures something wonderful and true about the tragicomic essence of Homer as a man and a pop icon: the rapaciousness, the bottomless hunger, the pathological dearth of commonsense and practicality, and, above all else, the childlike neediness and vulnerability that renders him loveable and relatable no matter how abysmally he behaves.
When left to his own devices, Homer is exactly the kind of man who will figure out a way to get his arms stuck in two vending machines simultaneously, which is precisely why it is so essential that Homer never be left to his own devices (that’s where Marge generally comes in). Fed up with Homer’s neediness and constant demands, Marge ends up going to the ballet with neighbor Ruth Powers, a hard-living divorcée still stinging from a bitter and acrimonious divorce.
Marge and Ruth become fast friends and Ruth shows Marge sides of the town she’s never seen in scenes cheekily spoofing Thelma & Louise. Homer, meanwhile, is lost without Marge. He decides she’s not the only one who can have a girl’s night out but calls to Homer’s circle of friends quickly reveal that these “friends” are not the kind he’d actually want to spend time with, even if they were interested in hanging out with him.
Homer wants to leave the children by themselves while he ventures out into the world in search of companionship. When Lisa objects, he replies, “Haven’t you seen Home Alone? If some burglars come it’ll be a very humorous and entertaining situation.” A less practical and safe option is found when Lionel Hutz agrees to babysit the children with the same competence and care he brings to representing the Simpsons in court. Homer accidentally ends up hanging out with Chief Wiggum and accompanying him on a high-speed pursuit of what turns out to be a car Ruth stole from her ex-husband in retribution for his not paying child support—bringing Marge along as her oblivious accomplice.
When Ruth picks up Marge, she pops a tape into her car stereo to set an appropriately dangerous mood but instead of menacing, badass strains of “Welcome To The Jungle,” it plays “Sunshine, Lollipops, And Rainbows.” Ruth realizes she’s made a mistake and quickly switches the tapes, but when Wiggum goes looking for music to amp him up on a high-speed chase the sunshine strains of “Sunshine, Lollipops, And Rainbows” return. There’s nothing accidental about Wiggum’s selection—a genius payoff for the earlier gag.
“Marge On The Lam” is hilariously funny but it also poignantly encapsulates the intense neediness at the core of Homer’s love for Marge. Throughout the episode, Homer sounds as bashful and ashamed as a small child that has been caught doing something naughty. Without Marge at his side, he’s less a boorish man-child than a scared and overwhelmed little boy. That’s why Homer asking the paramedic about to saw off his arms—to separate them from the vending machine—if his excised appendages will grow back works: An adult would never ask a question like that, but a small child might, and being without Marge for even a little while causes him to revert back to the aggressive helplessness of early childhood. This emotional component helps catapult an episode I had underrated in my memory firmly into the realm of golden-era classics. That, and inspired use of “Sunshine, Lollipops, And Rainbows” of course. Everybody loves that song.
- “Marjorie please, I enjoy all the meats of our cultural stew” may be the most fanciest thing Homer has ever said.
- “Snack-related mishap!” is such a wonderful, wonderfully Homer turn of phrase. Also, a good name for a ska or jam band. Similarly, “Marge, This may be hard to believe, but I’m trapped between two vending machines” is a beautifully written and delivered line. For to be stuck between two vending machines is truly Homer’s existential fate.
- “Look at him! He’s wearing a belt! That’s Hollywood for you!”—Lionel Hutz, television critic, weighs in on L.A. Law
- “At the risk of editorializing, these women are guilty! And must be dealt with in a harsh and brutal fashion”—Kent Brockman, fair and balanced newsman
- Up next is “Bart’s Inner Child.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.