#05 - Saturdays of Thunder
S03/E09 - Not to get too deep with this, but I think I went with this episode largely due to my relationship with my own father. Only in that we didn't really get each other a lot of the time.
As the episode starts, Homer's on the couch watching 'I Can't Believe They Invented It'. Bart asks him for use of the power tools, and Homer carelessly lets his 10-year-old son use them, unsupervised, because Bart's just a distraction from his show.
This eventually leads to Marge bringing home a parenting test, which Homer fails with a 0. The National Fatherhood Institute takes him in for help, and after a pep talk, Homer ends up helping Bart with his soap box racer in an attempt to spend more time with him, and get to know him better.
On the first race, Bart's car, "Lil Lightnin" falls apart upon several attacks from Nelson. Martin wins, only to crash, break his arm and be rushed to the hospital. He asks Bart to use his car, the "Honor Roller" to win, however, and Bart agrees, so long as it means beating Nelson.
When Bart tells Homer about the situation, Homer ends up breaking down. Most would look at this as though Homer was merely being a childish pout about things, but I tend to look at it a bit differently. Homer realizes that he knows jack squat about his son, and in the effort to spend time with him, and be a good father, his son ditches him. But more importantly, he also ditches their father-son project together as well as their bonding time.
It's a funny situation Homer is in here, because for as much as a jerk he's being about his son just wanting to win the race, I can empathize. In Bart's head, he wants to be a winner, and even impress his Dad, who told him winning was important (as Homer probably would). Meanwhile, all Homer's thinking is that his son isn't thinking of him at all. You can kinda see both sides of it.
I'd have to say that this is probably one of the best episodes for any new fathers to watch at some point. It's not like it's a guide or anything, but there are some important basics covered here. Apparently the quiz Homer takes here is based on a real, similar one that producer Sam Simon brought in to the studio to show everyone. That was combined with a Bart line in 'Itchy & Scratchy & Marge' where Bart mentions building a soap box racer. Combined, it makes for one of the best father-son episodes in the show's running.
#04 - Separate Vocations
S03/E18 - In a lot of earlier sitcoms and cartoons, the body-switching and/or role switching idea was a big deal. This is the 'Simpsons' answer to it, but, admirably, it's not so direct with it.
The episode opens with the kids of Springfield Elementary taking the Career Aptitude Normalizing Test (or "CANT"). The idea behind the test is to inform the students, upon completion, what career they'll be best suited for in the future.
Some of the results are pretty funny (Milhouse as a "military strong man" almost always gets a laugh), but when it comes down to Bart and Lisa, they're results say "police officer" and "homemaker", respectively. While Bart ends up getting a taste for police action on a ride-along, Lisa is basically told that she shouldn't bother following her dreams to become a jazz musician due to stubby fingers.
Bart is offered the position of hall monitor at school after he busts Groundskeeper Willie, burning leaves without a permit. Meanwhile, Lisa, having had her dreams collapse on her, begins to rebel. So it's role reversal, but in the extreme. Bart ends up enforcing the school rules while Lisa even manages to outdo Bart (at least up to this point) with her bad behavior.
I went with this episode mostly due to the fun of it. I've always been a bit of a fan of the role-reversal thing, and they're still doing great things with it. Just look at Jack Black in 'Jumanji' as a valley girl. Anyway, I am a big fan of how this was executed. It's not literal, it just makes Bart a good kid, Lisa a bad kid, and goes to certain extremes with them both.
It's also just one of the funnier episodes in my book, and it doesn't end at whatever Bart and Lisa have to offer. Skinner actually gets in on things here as well, sort of becoming teammates with Bart, and they work together surprisingly well. Meanwhile Homer utters another one of my all-time faves (the list is huge) "The army said I was too heavy. The police said I was too dumb" (It's much funnier upon Homer's delivery).
There's nothing particularly special or deep with this one, but in my eyes, it's easily one of the most fun of the earlier episodes. Some of the dialogue Lisa shares with others is actually kinda shocking, considering her character, and you can't really help but laugh at how blunt she can be here. Her moments are few and far between, but this episode shows a side of her we never knew she was capable of having until now.
#03 - Stark Raving Dad
S03/E01 - I dunno if it still happens or not, but at least twice in the early days of 'The Simpsons', people guest-starred, hiding their identities. The first was Dustin Hoffman in 'Lisa's Substitute', and the second was Michael Jackson in this particular episode. These would be referred to later, in the 'Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie' episode.
Here, we open with homer running around in a panic, getting ready for work, not able to find his shirt (as if he doesn't have a closet full, we all know what's up). He finds that his shirt was mixed up with Bart's lucky red cap, turning the shirt pink. He's eventually, unfairly hauled away from work because of this, and thrown into a mental institution.
It's here that he meets Michael - a gentle giant type who thinks he's Michael Jackson, and is ultimately voiced by Jackson, himself. However, his singing parts were done by Kipp Lennon, and his credited name is altered to John Jay Smith, upon request for this episode. Michael was apparently very particular with his demands. He even wanted a full read-through of the script before committing to it, despite being a fan of the show. Eventually, he came through, and the episode was a hit for pretty much everyone.
In the meantime, Lisa is having trouble, feeling overlooked. Bart has this tendency to neglect Lisa when it comes to her birthday, and being the middle child, she's starting to feel kind of alone. Lisa's story, throughout the episode, is completely overshadowed by Homer and Michael doing their thing, though. It even ties in with Bart more than Lisa's story, which is literally all about Bart treating her like she's invisible. This is some very clever writing, 'cause even as the audience, we're not paying much attention to her either.
It's not until the end of the episode that it all comes together. Bart gets a call from "Michael Jackson", telling him Homer is coming home, and bringing Michael with him. He spreads the word, but everyone expecting the pop star is thoroughly disappointed when a random, big, white guy shows up who seems to believe he's Michael Jackson. The town is understandably upset at Bart, thus making Bart angry at Michael for lying to him.
Michael, however, is staying with the Simpson family, and notices Lisa writing some pretty nasty things about Bart in her diary. This prompts Michael to try to help the siblings out, by writing a birthday song with Bart, and performing it for her. We all know it - "Lisa, it's your birthday. Happy birthday, Lisa".
The real lesson to be taken away from all of this, at last for me, is that people aren't always who they seem to be. Here, it interestingly works both ways though. Leon Kompowsky (Michael's real name), clearly was never really Michael Jackson, thus showing a sort of betrayal. But at the same time, this man still wants to help, and without him in the picture, Lisa was pretty well ready to just write Bart off. He's not doing it because he's feeling bad about lying or anything either, he just genuinely wants to do good. So the guy you think sucks because of one thing, might actually be a good person in several other ways.
Michael would continue doing a bit of work for 'The Simpsons', as he also write a good portion of 'Do the Bartman' (you can hear him quite plainly in the chorus). He decided one day that Bart needed his own song, and here we are.. This could eventually be found on 'The Simpsons Sing the Blues', and can currently be rocked out to via YouTube. Check it out, it's actually kinda catchy.
#02 - Flaming Moe's
S03/E10 - For me, this is just another cleverly, comedic episode that tries a few new things. It's always stuck out to me as a strong episode, focused largely on a secondary character.
Homer ends up heading to Moe's after Lisa's slumber party becomes a bit too much. I don't do the opening sequence justice, though. The whole build-up and payoff to Homer leaving is pretty hilarious, in my humble opinion.
Business is slow for Moe, as he can't compete with the healthier lifestyle people are starting to lead (in 1991). Homer then introduces him to a drink he invented, while Patty and Selma were showing the family a slideshow. He mixes a concoction of whatever's left in several liquor bottles, and in his haste, adds some Krusty Brand cough syrup. It's okay at first, but it turns out that if set on fire, it gets much better. It's called the "Flaming Homer", and Moe steals it just about as fast as I'm revealing he does.
Business really takes off for Moe. He hires a new bartender named Colette (Jo Ann Harris), and the place becomes a new hangout for Aerosmith, thus making it the place to be in Springfield altogether. But while Moe is living the dream, Homer is distraught at the fact that his invention was stolen right in front of his face. It results in Homer leaving Moe as a customer, and a clever tribute to 'Cheers'.
All the while, some corporate fat cats are trying to buy the drink, but Moe refuses to sell. They even go so far as to warn him that if he doesn't sell, they'll figure it out on their own anyway. The only ingredient they can't seem to figure out is the cough syrup.
This is an episode that ends on a bittersweet note, which is one of the many reasons I chose it for this list. It goes through the idea that even a close friend can stab you in the back, especially when money's involved. This episode was kinda like 'The Social Network' for the early 90's. In fact, I remember once relating it to the film in a conversation.
I also mentioned that they do a few new things with it. Really, it's one thing in particular that stands out, as one of Bart's famous prank phone calls backfires. Moe's is busy enough that one of Bart's fake names comes into existence, named Hugh Jass. The exchange he has with Bart makes for a good laugh, and up until this point, those phone calls were just a running gag. So good on them for giving it a twist.
#01 - Homer at the Bat
S03/E17 - For me, this was probably one of the most impressive episodes 'The Simpsons' managed to accomplish. The big deal being that they managed to bring in a good handful of pro baseball players to do their own respective voices.
Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Ken Griffey, Jr., Steve Sax, Ozzie Smith, José Canseco, Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry and Mike Scioscia all guest starred here as themselves. Every one of them does a great job, too, because every one of them has something to laugh about in their respective characters.
Softball tryouts have started at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Most of the employees are reluctant to sign up, at first, due to the previous year's abysmal failure. Homer, on the other hand, has faith that his secret weapon will lead them all to victory - a lucky bat. It turns out that Homer's bat really seems to do the job, however, and the team is lead to the championship game against Shelbyville Nuclear Plant.
Mr. Burns makes a million dollar bet with Shelbyville Plant Owner, Aristotle Amadopolis, that his team would win against theirs. Burns being Burns doesn't wanna take any chances, and seeks out all nine of the previously mentioned players, with Smithers' help. The idea is to give them "token" jobs at the plant (security guard, cashier, etc.) so they can play on the team without any trouble. This, however, pretty well boots everyone else off the team, including the now well-respected "Home Run Homer".
The real laughs come into play as seven of the nine players end up unable to attend the championship game. I'd go through them one by one, but then we'd be here all day. Best to just watch the episode and find out for yourself what happens if you haven't watched it yet. The only players to make it to the game end up being Mattingly and Strawberry.
Mattingly is yelled at, and kicked off the team for not trimming his sideburns (the end result is pretty funny), and Strawberry is the only one of the pros allowed to stay on. This is partly due to his character being a brown-noser. However, he's still in Homer's position, so Homer's still out of the game while everyone else gets to play.
What really makes this episode for me are these players, playing themselves, having fun with it, and seemingly being able to laugh at themselves. Most celebrity guest stars need to be able to do that, I'd imagine, but I'd also imagine that the voice experience must be different for an athlete than a TV or movie personality. I can't help but give them credit for just making this episode a lot of fun. And much like my #1 from Season 2, that's exactly why this sits at #1 for me here. There's no real deep, hidden message here, it's a lot of laughs all the way through, it's just plain fun.