It’s Debate Day on Trope and Dagger! This week we’re discussing the best episode of The Simpsons. To read Aaron’s mad rantings and ravings, kindly direct thyself here.
Can you believe that there’ve been 565 episodes of The Simpsons? I can’t. It’s the longest running American sitcom, animated show, and scripted primetime series. That’s nuts. It’d be a pretty impressive figure, except for the fact that less than half of those are any good. Despite how crappy the show’s become, there are a staggering number of hilarious episodes in the first ten seasons. But which one is the funniest of them all? Which one makes you bust a gut every time, no matter how many times you watch it? For me, it’s Season 4, Episode 15: “I Love Lisa.”
This episode is the perfect combination of humor and heart. The jokes are some of the funniest in the show’s run, but the plot is touching and driven by relatable characters. Set on Valentine’s Day, the episode revolves around Ralph Wiggum developing a crush on Lisa after she gives him a pity Valentine’s Day card in class. Ralph starts relentlessly pursuing Lisa, much to her dismay. It’s a pretty simple premise for a story, but the writing is top notch and the whole thirty minutes are jam-packed with hilarious gags.
It opens with Springfield’s local morning radio DJs, Bill and Marty of KBBL, accidentally playing the Monster Mash, the perfect song for the perfect episode. Homer, predictably, has forgotten to get Marge a Valentine’s Day gift, and is completely showed up by Ned Flanders, who sings a cleaned-up version of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” to Maude while dressed as a heart. This leads to a great gag where Homer lies and says he has a gift for Marge upstairs. We hear him run up the stairs, climb out the window, and fall off the roof before running away to go purchase an overpriced, dust-covered box of chocolates at the Kwik-E-Mart. So far, off to a great start.
Although the plot centers on Lisa, Bart is the real star of this episode. He absolutely slays me with his holiday-destroying antics, starting with a bunch of fake heart-candies that he paints his own messages on like “Prize Pig” and “U Stink.” Principal Skinner gets so upset that he starts having flashbacks to a particular Valentine’s Day that he spent on a boat in Da Nang, Vietnam. This part destroys me. Skinner’s buddy Johnny is making a Valentine’s Day card for his gal back home, and just as he’s telling Skinner how happy he’s going to be when he returns home, he gets shot about a hundred times by the Viet Cong. Skinner in the present screams Johnny’s name into the school intercom, prompting Bart to say “Cooool. . . I broke his brain.”
Bart really kills it throughout the whole episode. His beef heart prank is awesome, and his antics at the President’s Day pageant are hysterical. First it’s makeuping Richard Nixon’s face onto his ass and stating “I am not a butt,” and then it’s attacking Abe Lincoln with a nerf gun while saying “Hasta la vista, Abe-y.” He’s got almost nothing to do with the overall plot, but he completely kills me everytime he’s on screen.
Chief Clancy Wiggum, however, is a close runner up for funniest character in the episode. He really tries to be a good father to Ralph, even if his idea of helping out his son is rampant police corruption. First he tells Ralph that getting a girl to like you is like cracking a nut, as he cracks walnuts with the butt of his service weapon. . . and then shoots a tough nut that won’t crack. Then he manages to score tickets for Ralph and Lisa to go to Krusty’s Anniversary Special, with a story about running into Krusty at a porno movie theater and pretending it was a bust to shake down the clown. His crowning achievement, however, might be abusing his authority to get Ralph the part of George Washington, booting Ms. Hoover’s car until she gives his son the part. Hey, he cares in his own way!
Of course, Lisa becomes fed up with Ralph’s relentless affections. When Ralph tells Krusty that he intends to marry Lisa, she explodes at him, telling him she only gave him the valentine because she felt sorry for him. Bart later uses the recording to pinpoint the exact moment Ralph’s heart breaks.
The episode culminates in the President’s Day Pageant, kicked off by the awesome Ode to the Mediocre Presidents (you won’t find their faces on dollars or on cents!). The pageant finale is Ralph and Lisa’s turn as George and Martha Washington, where Ralph reveals himself to be a fantastic actor. He channels his heartbreak over Lisa’s rejection into a commanding performance. It’s so good that a stunned Groundskeeper Willie exclaims “I dinnae cry when me own father was hung for stealing a pig, but I’ll cry now.”
Ralph and Lisa reconcile on the playground after the show. Lisa gives Ralph a card that says “Let’s bee friends,” featuring a picture of a bee, which Ralph adores, predictably. Chief Wiggum watches them happily, and when his police radio starts blaring about crime in progress he says, “Not tonight,” and changes the station to KBBL. Marty plays the Monster Mash again, bringing the episode full circle.
There are so many really great one-liners and gags in this episode, from Krusty dumping snow on Robert Frost’s head (“We discussed this and I said no”), to Kearny exclaiming “To the library!”, to Rex calling Ms. Hoover a deceitful cow. I could spend all day listing them, but the point is this episode has more great laughs per minute than any other episode of the show.
But it’s more than that. Beneath the torrent of hilarity is a really touching undercurrent of a dim schoolboy’s unrequited love. He displays a talent that no one believed he had, and we get a genuine emotional catharsis at the end. In today’s The Simpsons, the episode would end with an irreverent slap in the face, but back then the writers were still able to tug on our heartstrings once in a while. For “I Love Lisa” to pull it off and at the same time manage to be uproariously funny is a true achievement, and is what makes this the best episode ever.