The unwieldy behemoth known as The Simpsons has had a massive, indelible impact on popular culture. Its characters are iconic, and to many embody particular archetypes of characters you find in the world of comedy. There are so many great characters on the show who deserve to be lauded to the heavens, but there is one character I would like to focus on: Milhouse Van Houten.
Milhouse is so perfectly indicative of a particular brand of comedic character I go as far as to call such characters “Milhouse-ian,” though that may also be owed to the amount of time I’ve invested in the world of The Simpsons. Barney Gumble isn’t the first comical drunk, but he’s the first thing I think of when I think of such characters. Milhouse lives an existence that can only be described as tragicomic. He is perpetually beleaguered and put upon by a cruel, uncaring world, a world that includes his closest (and perhaps only) friend Bart Simpson. In a world currently (and hopefully temporarily) swept up in Charlie Sheen’s bizarre preoccupation with the concept of “winning,” Milhouse certainly could be held up as a manifestation of “losing.”
Milhouse-ian characters are almost always getting the short end of the stick, and through no fault of their own I might add. Things often went wrong for George Costanza, but they were usually not only his fault, but the results of his actions were generally a well deserved comeuppance. That is not the case for the Milhouse Van Houten’s of the world. Milhouse doesn’t deserve to be bullied or to be mistreated by Bart. He doesn’t deserve to be the son of perhaps the most pathetic person in town, Kirk “Can I Borrow a Feeling?” Van Houten. Yet, this is his lot in life.
Of course, things simply going poorly for a character is not in and of itself humorous. It’s a testament to the writers of The Simpsons that they’ve been able to mine the bleak, sad existence of Milhouse for so many great jokes. You need not look further than the episode “Lisa’s Date with Density” for a virtuoso Milhouse episode, and he’s merely a side player to Lisa and Nelson’s dating. There are his awkward conversations with Lisa, which includes him agreeing to help Lisa out with the words, “What’s a big sister for?” He also gets pummeled by Nelson when he mistakes a note from Lisa as being from Milhouse. Perhaps it is all best boiled down by Mr. Largo exclaiming, “Nobody likes Milhouse!”
Within the world of The Simpsons, that may nearly be true, but he certainly deserves to be admired as a comedic character. The greatness of Milhouse-ian characters only increases as more and more unfortunate events befall them. It is in the absurd nature of their perpetually uncommonly unfortunate lives that laughs are generated. Then, when the Milhouse’s of the world revel in the efficiency of their flood pants, we can revel along with them.
That’s another important aspect of the Milhouse-ian character. They don’t just simply stand on the sidelines and get put upon, but they are characters you can root for as well. Homer Simpson is, in my opinion, the greatest comedic character in the history of the medium, but he’s also a truly awful human being. He’s a great character to watch, sure, but how anybody could ever root for him is beyond me. Milhouse, on the other hand, is somebody you wouldn’t mind seeing score a win for once in his life. Then again, on the occasion that things have gone better for Milhouse it’s usually fallen flat to me. Of course, on one of those occasions he was suddenly a stereotype of an Italian man, so it was probably more in the execution than the concept of Milhouse succeeding and being happy. Nevertheless, I will always prefer the Milhouse whose doctor tells him the best he can ever hope for is to be used romantically by a girlfriend looking to cause jealousy in an old beau.
Milhouse may be the best, or at least my favorite, example of such characters, but you can find them elsewhere in the world of comedy. Staying in the world of Matt Groening, Dr. Zoidberg from Futurama is another fine example. Things go so poorly for him that the only time he had a proper home it burned down underwater. Jerry from Parks and Recreation seems to be filling the Milhouse-ian role nicely, though he also seems more resigned to his lot than other such characters. Rickety Cricket on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia sort of fulfills the role, though he’s been a bit more involved in his own misfortune than the Milhouses of the world. The character of Butters from South Park takes the archetype to it’s grotesque extreme, because taking things to their grotesque extreme is the modus operandi of Trey Stone and Matt Parker.
It’s also quite possible, if not likely, that Milhouse didn’t originate this character type. Although, I personally can’t think of an earlier character that held the same niche that Milhouse does in their show, and I wanted so much Nick at Nite as a child that I’m probably one of the few people my age that’s seen an episode of Phyllis. The character of Agent 13 on Get Smart had kind of a similar role, but he was more of a roving sight gag than anything. He certainly didn’t have the substance to his bleak, miserable existence that Milhouse has.
Creating a character like Milhouse is a tight rope walk, because if you go too far it becomes mean spirited, but if you don’t go far enough it will lack the impact and underlying of bleakness to be funny. When you laugh at Milhouse, you are laughing at things that would be sad were they to happen in real life, particularly to a 10 year old child. However, laughing at things in comedies that would elicit negative emotions in real life is a huge portion of the genre, and perhaps part of what makes Milhouse such a thoroughly glorious character. Milhouse’s absurdly misfortunate life, and the lives of all similar characters, gives you the chance to laugh at the cruelties of life. Milhouse will always bounce back to be knocked back down again, and as long as he and other Milhouse-ian characters are filling their roles as secondary characters who rarely, if ever, catch a break, I will have a great appreciation for their existence. Everything’s coming up Milhouse, indeed.
Chris Morgan has written for Cracked, Examiner, McSweeney’s, and Overthinking It, amongst others. You can follow his adventures in writing and international espionage (but mostly writing) on his Twitter.