What Your Opinion About a Controversial Simpsons Joke Says About How You Perceive Comedy

By

In a recent BuzzFeed article titled "This One Episode of The Simpsons Can Tear Friendships Apart," writer Kat Angus explored a throwaway joke from the eighth season of The Simpsons and the debate it has caused. In the classic episode "You Only Move Twice," Homer is hired to work for the Globex Corporation, requiring his family to relocate to Cypress Creek. Upon arrival, Globex Corporation chief Hank Scorpio (voiced by Albert Brooks) greets the family. Hank, with his version of intense friendliness, has this exchange with Homer:

Hank: Hey, look at my feet.
Homer: Okay.
Hank: You like those moccasins? Look in your closet; there's a pair for you. Don’t like them? Then neither do I! [Throwing moccasins out the door] Get the hell out of here! Heh, ever see a guy say good-bye to a shoe?
Homer: [chuckling] Yes, once. 

"[Chuckling] Yes, once" is the line that has everyone all riled up.

It seems innocuous, but it has split a very specific portion of the internet apart: Some people think Homer is laughing at the shoe he just saw thrown, while others hold that he is thinking about a shoe-throwing from a completely different time. In a poll with over 100,000 voters, the results were split, with 46 percent saying he's laughing at a different shoe and 42 percent saying he was laughing at Scorpio's thrown moccasin.

I believe both are right.

The divide speaks to the way people perceive jokes: Are they created by omniscient writers or by their characters? I've written before about "writers' jokes," which are jokes that feel like a writing staff speaking instead of the character, since they "include information that the character saying it wouldn't know." The Simpsons, because it is so joke-heavy and a cartoon, is arguably the standard-bearer of the form.

"Yes, once," is not necessarily a writers' joke, but it is important to view it in this context. There are many fans who know the writers of classic episodes by name, who view the golden-era Simpsons writers as sort of all-powerful gods, imparting perfect jokes to these hand-drawn characters. These fans are epitomized here by DJ Poladian, who wrote on Facebook (via BuzzFeed):

Ahem.

In the Tomacco episode, Homer tells the country folk outside the door he got his shoes from a hobo. He doesn't a [sic] specify when, but it's the same shoes he always wears. Ergo, he saw a hobo say goodbye to his shoes, which Homer immediately took and found his favorite pair of shoes.

Drops mic.

Now, as was pointed out on Facebook, the Tomacco episode occurred in season 11, which means either "Yes, once" was an incredible call-forward or Poladian is incorrect. But in his incorrectness he does represent the desire for comedy to hold up to science-fiction-like scrutiny. For these people, "Yes, once," needs to be rational and intentional. In this regard the line makes "joke sense" since the joke is a clear misdirect:

1. Hank asks if Homer ever saw someone say bye to a shoe.
2. Hank and the audience think that no one has ever said bye to a shoe.
3. Homer defies this expectation by saying he has, ultimately putting the comedy on the craziness of the show's world instead of on Homer. In other words, Homer imagining another time when he saw someone say good-bye to a shoe makes sense and The Simpsons makes sense. 

The counterpoint is that the comedy is specific to Homer. Hold onto your hats, I'm going to say something truly bold: Homer Simpson is dumb.

While the "writers write jokes" group of viewers knows Homer is supposed to be dumb, they are willing and conditioned to believe there's wiggle room for the joke. The other group of viewers is, for whatever reason, more likely to stay in character — they start from Homer and his established traits and work out from there. Homer is not rational, he's instinctual, and so him saying, "Yes, once" to the thing that just happened seems completely in the realm of possibility.

Adding to this point of view is Homer's behavior in the scene up until that point: As Hank talks, Homer is stunned, silent. So, when Hank asks about the shoe, Homer doesn't have time to think, he just reacts and answers literally. The joke is simply about how Homer is stupid. That might not be as elegant, but is undeniable. 

It was revealed to Angus, the BuzzFeed writer, that Dan Castellaneta, the actor who has always voiced Homer, actually improvised the line. "Albert Brooks always improvised whenever he did the show," he told BuzzFeed. "That line was a reflexive response to Albert’s improvised line about seeing a man say good-bye to a shoe. I probably thought it was a previous time but it is funnier if it means he saw it at that moment."

The emphasis is my own here, as to further underline the point here: In the moment, Castellaneta was acting both as Homer and as the thoughtful Simpsons writing staff he had internalized through years playing the character. Who knows how much of each went into this one joke. Maybe it is, in fact, 46 percent one, 42 percent the other. In truth, there is no correct answer. Or rather, as I said earlier, there are two.