How to Make a Simpsons Episode

By Steve Williams and Ian Jones

First published May 2002

Is it possible to break down your superior Simpsons episode – the kind where you’ve laughed several times and then checked the clock and realized that it’s only been on for two minutes – in order to locate the formula that makes it so great? It’s perhaps true that a lot of the weaker episodes of the show are those where they try to “do something different” – whether it’s leaving Springfield or introducing a new character. So what aspects turn an otherwise run-of-the-mill episode into one that you’re happy to watch over and over again?

“Ah, every week there’s a canal”

Most obviously, the episode needs a cracking opening. A spoof TV show normally tells you that the next 22 minutes are going to be worth sticking with. Basically this is the excuse for a series of quick one-line and visual gags – note “Homer’s Enemy”, which starts off with the Eye on Springfield sequence, including the first double-decker toilet (“Oh God, no!”); a seaside edition of The Springfield Squares in “Krusty Gets Kancelled” which gets inconveniently interrupted by a 50-foot tidal wave; and of course the seminal Knightboat in “And Maggie Makes Three” (“Quiet – I will not hear another word against that boat.”)

It’s also very useful for explaining the plot without having to spend ages on it. It can set up a neat parallel with what’s to come – “A Streetcar Named Marge”, “Last Exit to Springfield” – or a total contrast – Cops in Springfield in “Homer’s Triple Bypass”, which scores higher for having its own suitably needling theme tune (while later in the same episode comes the legendary People Who Look Like Things, featuring a cash register, a palm tree, a brush, a jack-o’-lantern and a teapot.) The actual main plot needn’t begin for a good few minutes; even an episode as complex as “The Springfield Files” starts with a lengthy sequence of one-shot jokes with the cast leaving work on a Friday (notably Homer’s attempt to knock off early with a fake security video).

One thing that’s completely essential is that Bart must be clever and witty. In the early episodes, of course, Bart was simply a naughty boy, but this meant it was terribly easy to get annoyed with him. In the later, better episodes, Bart’s a likeable and intelligent character, and is all the stronger as a result. As the man himself said in “The Canine Mutiny” when pressed over the chaos caused by Santa’s Little Helper, “This is just mindless destruction, with none of my usual social commentary.” In an episode like “Bart on the Road” he’s consistently smart, whereas in “My Sister, My Sitter” he’s an idiot, and the show suffers as a result. The audience has to like the main characters, and when Bart’s on form, the show is on form.

If there are other, secondary storylines then they must sit comfortably alongside the main plot. They don’t have to necessarily gel and connect – think of “The Front” where Homer and Marge’s high-school reunion is an unrelated yet somehow perfect counterpoint to the chief business involving Itchy & Scratchy. In fact sometimes a particularly lame attempt to tie everything up together detracts somewhat from the preceding events (the way Lisa, Bart and Maggie just happen to end up down by the waterfront promenade where the entire population of Springfield are assembled in “My Sister, My Sitter”). The ultra-clever episode will have a motif that turns up incongruously at the opening but doesn’t make sense or really hit its full comic potential until the climax (the inanimate carbon rod in “Deep Space Homer”, the inflatable mooning Skinner in “Bart’s Comet”).

“All those bald children are arousing suspicion”

A great episode must also include appearances from Police Chief Wiggum, Professor Frink, Troy McClure, Comic Book Guy and Moe – characters who aren’t particularly complex but just exist to trigger jokes. Wiggum particularly is always worth watching, notably in “Mother Simpson” making phone calls on his wallet, or singing his own rendition of Jammin’ in “The Canine Mutiny”. Mr Burns is also always welcome in an episode, but especially so when he’s pathetic (“Homer the Smithers”) rather than genuinely nasty (“Who Shot Mr Burns?”)

Then there’s a brief fantasy sequence. Not your familiar “Mmmm … ham/organized crime/erotic cakes” style drool from Homer, ace as that is; this has to be cued off by some sudden dilemma or circumstance that trips Homer’s brain into a surreal flight of fancy. Particularly fine examples are his solution to facing charges of sexual harassment in “Homer: Bad Man” (“We’re going to start a new life – under the sea”); sizing up what has been the best day of his life so far in “Homer the Heretic” (marrying Marge? Dancing in a fountain of Duff spewing from an overturned beer lorry? Or finding a penny on the living room floor?); and of course his vision of “the land of chocolate” in “Burns Verkaufen Der Kraftwerk”. Alternatively you could have Bart escaping into his own imagination, whether it be a Mark Twain-esque rural utopia (“The Boy Who Knew Too Much”) or a nightmarish torrent of destruction enacted upon Springfield Elementary, preferably involving giant mechanical ants (“Marge vs the Monorail”).

“‘But Main Street’s still all cracked and broken’/'Sorry mom, the mob has spoken!’”

A song is also a welcome addition to the show, if only because it confirms that you’re watching something that’s a labour of love, and that weeks and months are spent on each episode. In episodes like “Bart After Dark” and “Homer and Apu” the songs are normally great, and “A Fish Called Selma” features, in “Dr Zaius”, a song that overshadows virtually everything else. Even the otherwise fairly dreary “Round Springfield” and “Bart Sells His Soul” (with In The Garden of Eden) have great songs in them. “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” is jam-packed with musical numbers, and simply proves how well-written and clever they are.

There should also be self-referential jokes, or better still, jokes taking the piss out of Fox. The “mid-season” stuff at the start of “Homer to the Max” is incredibly clever, but we’ve got a soft spot for “Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming” which goes as far as ending with a comment about how derivative Fox’s sitcoms are. The parody of Married With Children in “Marge in Chains” is also great, and there’s also Marge’s remark in “Lisa’s Wedding”: “Fox turned into a hard-core porn network so gradually, I didn’t even notice!”

If there’s room, then a pastiche dated public information film is always a good thing, ideally one with earnest educational aspirations compromised by laughably outdated visuals and idents. These have to be presented by Troy McClure (“You may remember me from such educational films as Lead Paint: Delicious but Deadly and Here Comes the Metric System”) and must be along the lines of Alice’s Adventures Through the Windshield Glass (“Duffless”); The World Without Zinc (“Bart the Lover”) and Fuzzy-Bunny’s Guide to You-Know-What (“Bart’s Friend Falls In Love”). If Troy’s unavailable, a catchy song will more than suffice (I’m an Amendment-To-Be in “The Day the Violence Died”).

Guest stars have been a feature of the show since almost day one. While some of the stars-playing-themselves episodes do work – Mel Gibson is great in “Beyond Blunderdome”, as is Dennis Franz in “Homer Bad Man” – sometimes it’s particularly hard for a British audience to actually understand them; such as Ed Begley Jr’s appearance in “Homer to the Max”. Sometimes it also blunts the satire; Michael Jackson’s appearance in “Stark Raving Dad” is nowhere near as entertaining as it could have been if some other bloke had done his voice, and Paul and Linda get to do what’s virtually an advert in “Lisa the Vegetarian”. Better are the episodes when a guest voices a character with virtually no fanfare – such as Patrick Stewart in “Homer the Great” and Anne Bancroft in “Fear of Flying”.

“Everything really wrapped up nicely – oooh, much quicker than usual”

Last but in no way least, make sure there’s a proper ending; not simply a load of orientals and mafia fighting each other (“The Twisted World of Marge Simpson”), or Homer winding up owning the Denver Broncos (“You Only Move Twice”), or even the promise of spending a weekend in a haunted old country house (“Homer Loves Flanders”). There has to be some resolution. After all, it’s better to end with a “one-dimensional character with silly catchphrases” (“Bart Gets Famous”) than to have no ending whatsoever (“Das Bus”).