“Mr. Plow” (season 4, episode 9; originally aired 11/19/1992)
Sometimes the most sublime Simpsons moments are also the smallest. The classic episode “Mr. Plow” has more than its share of belly laughs and unforgettable moments but my favorite moment in it is so small and subtle that it’s easy to miss. The episode finds Springfield in the midst of a hellacious blizzard that, not surprisingly, brings out the joker in the town’s resident morning zoo proprietors Marty and Bill. Marty kicks things off by saying, “Take it easy, folks. It’s snow picnic out there” with a noxiously self-satisfied chuckle but when Marty answers with, “I snow what you mean” Marty giggles his usual cackle before the tone in his voice undergoes a radical transformation and he coldly tells his partner, “You’re dead weight, Marty.”
In that glorious little moment, the wacky, cheerful façade of Marty and Bill’s relationship dissipates to reveal two grown men whose zany banter clearly masks deep-seated resentment and simmering professional competition. The genius of the line and especially longtime radio personality Harry Shearer’s delivery of it lies in the surreal disconnect between the cheerful inanity of the duo’s material and the unlikely seriousness with which Bill, at least, treats it (as previously established, Marty is dead weight).
In its God-like prime, The Simpsons attacked well-worn satirical fodder from unexpected angles, finding fresh laughs in the hoariest of subjects. It would be difficult, for example, to imagine a bigger, more obvious subject for comedy than the laughable self-delusion of washed-up celebrities, especially if the washed-up celebrity in question is Adam West, a camp icon who can go toe to toe with William Shatner as the king of winking self-parody.
Half of the comedy in West’s self-deprecating appearance on “Mr. Plow” comes from the veteran actor’s purring, self-satisfied delivery as he tells a deeply unnerved Bart and Lisa of the newfangled, less groovy cinematic Batman, “Michelle Pfeiffer? Ha! The only true Catwoman is Julie Newmar, Lee Merriweather or Eartha Kitt. And I didn’t need molded plastic to improve my physique. (taps chest) Pure. West. And how come Batman doesn’t dance anymore? Remember the Bat-U-Si?” Even the blithely unselfconscious Homer is more than a little freaked out by West’s private reverie, and encourages his spawn to move slowly away without making eye contact with the crazy man.
West delivers the lines as if he’s having a private, confidential conversation with the voices inside his head that other people inexplicably can overhear. He’s wrapped up snugly in a cozy bubble of self-regard, talking for his own sake more than anyone else’s. West isn’t just in on the joke: he’s in on the joke in a way that expands and improves it.
Ah but we are once again getting ahead of ourselves. In “Mr. Plow” Springfield is buried in a snowstorm before Homer goes to the aforementioned car show and discovers the vehicle that will change his life forever, at least for the purposes of the episode: a twenty thousand dollar snowplow a sleazy salesman is able to manipulate him into purchasing by repeatedly making a whip-cracking sound when Homer sensibly says he should probably ask Marge before buying such an expensive item.
Purchasing a snowplow transforms Homer into a new man. Mr. Burns' laziest employee suddenly becomes an ambitious self-starter who buys ad time on local television at 3:17 A.M (prime viewing hours, Homer gingerly volunteers, for everyone from alcoholics to the unemployable to garden-variety angry loners) and makes a homemade commercial costarring his family.
“Are tired of having your hands cut off by snow blowers? And the inevitable heart attacks that come with shoveling snow?” Homer asks a home audience presumably mangled and hospital-bound from their innocent attempts to clear their driveways of snow. The clip is so adorably homemade and low-budget that when Bart impishly asks Homer, “You are fully bonded and licensed by the city, aren’t you, Mr. Plow?” (he’s obviously not) the exchange somehow makes it into the commercial all the same.
Homer’s entrepreneurial spirit proves altogether overly infectious. Homer gives Barney a pep talk when he encounters him dressed up like a baby handing out fliers (Barney in humiliating costumes=always funny) and it isn’t long until Barney has purchased a truck of his own and set up shop as the Plow King. Almost as an afterthought, we’re given an origin story for Barney’s alcoholism: he was once a sober, studious, Ivy League-bound high school scholar before Homer forced a beer on him that transformed him into a drooling, slurring, out of control rampaging id.
Barney tells Homer that a little healthy competition never hurt anyone, then proceeds to shoot out the wheels of Homer’s snowplow. The best of friends become the worst of enemies when Barney makes a hilarious attack ad where he viciously pummels a cardboard cut-out of Homer before special guest star Linda Ronstadt joins the fun to both continue the attack on the helpless Homer stand-in and croon a slanderously accurate, insanely catchy jingle about how “Mr. Plow is a loser/And I think he is a boozer.” In one of the most memorable cameos in the show's history, Ronstadt really throws herself into the rivalry between two small-time business, even offering to record a Spanish-language version of her Plow King jingle for her next album.
It’s character assassination of the basest, bluntest and most hilarious sort and it spawns an all-out war between Homer and Barney, or, as they would prefer to be known, Mr. Plow and Plow King. In “Mr. Plow”, capitalism brings out the best and worst in everyone. It gives a pair of drunken bums direction, purpose and thriving small businesses but it destroys their friendship and warps their morals in the process.
“Mr. Plow” closes with a Deus Ex Machina of the most brazen variety. Homer and Barney agree to put their differences aside and join forces after Homer tricks and sabotages his professional arch-rival, vowing that when friends team up not even God can stop them. God takes offense to Homer’s blasphemy and a plague of sunshine and beautiful weather descends upon Springfield. In an eerily prescient bit, Kent Brockman laughingly quips that if seventy degree weather in the winter is the Gashouse Effect in action, he doesn’t mind one bit. “Mr. Plow” isn’t just spectacularly funny and filled with classic bits: it also foretells the future. Not bad for an animated cartoon from the 1990s.
- Marge being turned on by Homer in his Mr. Plow jacket isn’t spectacularly funny but it is a nice character detail that reinforces how much Marge genuinely loves and is attracted to Homer despite everything.
- Admiral Stockdale jokes are always funny, regardless of the context.
- How adorable is Ronstadt here? Answer: extremely.
- The “Thank you for not discussing the outside world” sign outside the nursing home is hilarious and tragic in equal measures.
- I would pay good money for a Watch The Throne album-length collaboration between Barney and Linda Ronstadt.
- Next up is "Lisa's First Word." If memory serves, it's a good one.