Episode 17 - Homer at the Bat
12 January 2011
Synopsis: The Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team suck. Homer tells his friends that this season will be different because he has a secret weapon, a homemade bat. The bat takes 'Homerun' Homer and his team into a showdown with the Shelbyville Nuclear Power Plant to win the league. Mr Burns bets a million dollars with the Shelbyville owner that his side will win. To make sure they do he hires ringers from Major League Baseball much to Homer's distress.
The Good: Guest appearances by celebrities on variety shows, reality shows, sit coms and especially animated comedies are common place in 2010. In 1992 they were not and the writers go all out with this mocking, enjoying and celebrating of both baseball and softball. The willingness of the nine players to allow the writers to create silly personalities and scenarios for each is a credit to them (though some were apparently less helpful than others http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer_at_the_Bat). None of the players overstay their welcome either as future guests do. By keeping their roles short and sweet the writers ensured the jokes just kept coming.
Let's focus on the plot for a second though and one of the reasons this episode is so good is the pacing. We begin with Homer signing up for another season of softball and finish with him unconscious having won the final game. It's a simple and direct storyline, there is no pause in the narrative and the jokes come flying out from every scene. Despite the heavy use of guest stars the simple relatable emotions remain the heart of the story. Homer the working stiff gets his moment in the sun by being the team's star player and is upset that the ringers deny him his chance at glory. It's not the ringers fault though, it's the greed of Mr Burns who demands victory at any cost and who as usual makes Homer's life miserable to get what he wants.
Mr Burns is used to his full effect here as a character and as a source of humour. I love the fact that his desire to win had nothing to do with the million dollar bet. It adds to the sense that he is playing with people's lives for his own amusement that when Smithers asks him what he will do with his winnings, he shrugs and says "Oh I don't know, throw it on the pile I suppose." Burns' ego is what is driving him and a wonderfully simple joke sees him fretting over how to win the game until he instructs Darryl Strawberry to hit a home run. Up against an amateur softball pitcher he of course smashes a ball deep out of the ground to which Burns gloats "I told him to do that!" Burns' ancient age also provides good humour when he unveils his dream team of ringers which includes all retired players including one who Smithers points out had "been dead for a hundred and thirty years!" Undaunted Burns asks him to get some good players from anywhere he can find them "the American league, the National league, the Negro leagues!"
This brings in the ringers who begin working at the plant. The funnier ones are Mike Scioscia (who is thrilled to get away from the pressures of baseball and do something more blue collar) and Darryl Strawberry (who takes Homer's place and sucks up to Mr Burns). His ass kissing is particularly amusing as he tells Mr Burns that his amateur team mates have "No hussle either skip!" when they are left out of the starting team in favour of the professionals. The training montages have several fun gags including a hypnotist instructing the team to give 110% effort. The hypnotised squad reply in unison "That's impossible, no one can give more than 100%, by definition that is the most anyone can give."
Mr Burns amusingly speculates on the odds that the night before the game his ringers might all suffer separate calamities which could keep them from the game. So they all promptly do. Ken Griffey Jr suffers gigantism from drinking too much of Burns' dangerous tonic, Steve Sax runs foul of Springfield's corrupt police department (who we earlier saw ignoring crime to play softball) and Roger Clemens gamely does a chicken impression after being incorrectly hypnotised. Mike Scioscia suffers radiation poisoning from his time in the plant telling Dr Hibbert "Can't...lift...arm...or...speak...at...normal...rate."
A bunch of similarly amusing incidents keep all the ringers from the game except for Darryl Strawberry, leaving poor Homer on the bench and his family disappointed. But then in the final act of foolishness Mr Burns switches Homer in because the pitcher is left handed and so is Strawberry. Everyone is astonished at Burns' decision to follow the text book rather than the obvious gulf in class. That includes Strawberry who incredulously points out "I've got nine home runs today" to which the self assured Burns hilariously responds "You should be very proud of yourself." He then gives Homer a baffling and funny looking list of secret signals which confuse 'Home Run' who gets hit in the head and knocked unconscious. But it counts as a hit and so Springfield win the title.
Throw in a load of baseball gags with super slow mos, large paychecks, overzealous peanut sellers, a George Steinbrenner dig and a parody song to finish the episode and this is tremendous entertainment from start to finish.
The Bad: I would argue that the episode is so well written that if you don't care for baseball you would still enjoy this episode. Being English I feel I can say this with confidence but I suppose non-sports fans might disagree. The episode is of course deeply surreal which some might also find unappealing.
Best Joke: Tough to choose but I have fond memories of giggling at the sheer absurdity of Mr Burns getting angrier and angrier at Don Mattingly's refusal to shave off his non-existent sideburns.
The Bottom Line: Deeply memorable and original, occasionally hilarious, always amusing and very silly, this is a classic episode. Not just of The Simpsons but for comedy in general. The pace, structure and tone are so ideal for a TV comedy episode that it's tough to imagine something in here not making you laugh.
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