“The Otto Show” (season 3, episode 22; original airdate April 23, 1992)
If Sideshow Bob, the star of last week’s episode, is the most complicated, deep, and Shakespearean of all Simpsons supporting characters, then Otto is perhaps the least complicated, deep, and Shakespearean. They’re both clowns of a sort but Sideshow Bob is at least blessed and cursed with dignity. Otto is not.
Otto is a “rocker” in the prehistoric, devil’s horns-flashing, air-guitar-strumming, stoned, perpetually 1974 sense of the word so it makes sense that he would be the vehicle for an episode starring the most successful fake rock group ever to prominently feature a member of The Simpsons’ voice cast: Spinal Tap.
There is a hint of Sabrina The Teenage Witch getting really fucking psyched about seeing her favorite band the Violent Femmes (Do any of y’all remember that episode?) in Bart’s not entirely convincing love for Spinal Tap. Is that really the music Bart might gravitate towards? Is that the music that would speak to his soul? It seems more likely that Homer would dig Spinal Tap, since his taste in music seems to have atrophied since he graduated from high school. His taste in beer seems to have atrophied around the same time, which helps explain why he’s the only person alive still excited about discovering a long-lost can of Billy Beer.
Marge expresses a desire that “The Spinal Taps” don’t play too loud, proving yet again that the unnecessary inclusion of “The” makes everything funny (see also, “The Batman”). But it’s really all about the ritual of the rock concert: finding the perfect T-shirt/jacket combo, hooking up with friends, saying goodbye to parents. The rock world in “The Otto Show” is depicted in a manner at once loving and irreverent; Shearer in particular knows this world like few others, both as a longtime disk jockey and as a fake rock star.
“The Otto Show” has a lot of fun with the cornball rituals of the rock concert, from an early incarnation of Comic Book Guy sadly selling a “classic” T-shirt of Spinal Tap kicking Gaddafi’s ass to a radio interview where Spinal Tap provides not so snappy answers to stupid questions.
Some of the rituals are a little more verboten than others, as evidenced by the guy so fucked out of his mind on something that he barely notices that Bart hit him in the head with a frisbee, or that Bart exists, or that he’s attending a rock ’n’ roll show.
“The Otto Show” gets much of its mojo from This Is Spinal Tap, but it’s still hilarious watching Spinal Tap attempt to salvage a performance mishap by getting the audience to salute its “half-inflated dark lord.” Alas, the show ends as all troubled endeavors in Springfield must: with a full-blown riot. There is always a riot going on somewhere as far as Springfield is concerned. Triumphant sports fans don’t riot half as much as the inhabitants of Springfield. Professional rioters don’t riot half as much as the inhabitants of Springfield.
While Springfield burns something glorious happens: we learn the lyrics to “Little Spanish Flea.” Who even knew it had lyrics? “The Otto Show” is both entertaining and edifying. Seeing Spinal Tap incites Bart’s nascent rock star dreams, but the focus of the episode soon shifts from Bart to Otto, who is revealed to be both a secret guitar god and a bus driver without a driver’s license.
Otto’s uncomplicated life becomes very complicated very quickly. Principal Skinner replaces him as the school bus driver only to discover that driving an all-terrain vehicle in Vietnam doesn’t qualify him for the fresh hell that is driving pre-pubescent little monsters to school. The look in Skinner’s eyes during his ill-fated stint as a bus driver devolves from misplaced confidence to worry and then to abject, soul-consuming terror.
Otto moves in with the Simpsons and proceeds to do what he does when he’s not working: nothing. Bart is infected by his apathy. In one of the show’s great reverse teachable moments, Bart answers Homer’s question about why he doesn’t see him with his guitar anymore by conceding that he wasn’t good at it immediately so he quit. In any other show other than Strangers With Candy, this would lead to a lecture about not giving up. Here, it leads to kindly paternal advice to always give up whenever something appears difficult. “If something’s hard to do it’s not worth doing.” Homer tells Bart with the perfect note of misplaced pride before gently beckoning him to watch TV. When Bart asks what’s on, Homer replies with beatific grace, “it doesn’t matter.” It doesn’t matter what you watch; just that you seize the day by watching as much TV as possible.
Bart learns the wrong lessons about giving up and Otto ends up finagling his way out of a tricky situation for equally wrong reasons: his contempt for Homer makes him a favorite among Homer’s sisters-in-law over at the DMV. Otto succeeds not because he did the right thing but because other people behaved wrongly in ways that benefited him.
With “The Otto Show,” The Simpsons stretched its legs a little and devoted much of an episode to a one-note supporting character. It’d return to the Otto well at least a few times too often but he carries the show with surprising confidence here; he may be a cartoon stoner, but in its heyday at least The Simpsons excelled in finding the humor and the heart in the cliche.
- Why isn’t Milhouse wearing a T-shirt under his leather jacket?
- “This is a bleeding rock show, not a splish splash show.”
- “Good night Springton. There will be no encores!”
- Milhouse never should have taken off his shirt
- “I stand by my record: 15 crashes and not a single fatality!”
- “Otto. That’s one palindrome you won’t be hearing soon.”
- “You were born a man, right? You can tell me. I’m open-minded.”
- “Wow! I have mustard!”
- “You missed every segment and misspelled ’bus’ on your application.”
- “There’s plenty of money out there for a guy who can fake his own death.”
- “I’ve never been called an adult before. I’ve been tried as one.”