How "The Simpsons" Celebrated Summer
On May 19, 1996, the Fox television network aired two back-to-back episodes of its flagship animated series “The Simpsons” for the finale of its seventh season. Since network sitcoms run from September to May in any given season, it’s rare for a show to touch upon summer story lines. However, the last two episodes of “The Simpsons” that year tackled two summertime staples: music festivals and beach house vacations. Both episodes have gone on to be fan favorite classics but it is worth revisiting the two as celebrations of summer time fun.
In “Homerpalooza,” Homer feels depressed about being old and no longer feeling connected to what it is considered “cool” in youth culture. While driving Bart, Lisa, Milhouse, and Nelson to school, he is scolded about his “stupid dinosaur music” playing on the radio. After visiting a record shop and realizing his favorite music is no longer cool, he decides to win back the kids’ respect by playing hooky from school and going to the Hullabalooza Festival (an obvious reference to the Lollapalooza Festival). Unfortunately for Homer, the old man at the rock festival is automatically labeled a “narc” by the crowd of Generation X-er’s. However, after angrily kicking a prop canon used for Peter Frampton’s set, an inflatable pig shoots out at rocket speed into Homer’s stomach with no pain whatsoever. Luckily, the festival head witnesses this and immediately hires Homer to join the festival’s traveling freak show as the man immune to cannonballs. Just as Homer was making a celebrity out of his freaky talent, the cannonballs were taking a toll on his body and he was advised by his doctor to stop immediately. Wanting to keep up the fame and adulation, Homer decides to perform the stunt when their next stop was his hometown of Springfield. It isn’t until the last second that Homer bails in favor of staying alive.
Considering this took place at a music festival, it gave the show the opportunity to bring in cameos by the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Peter Frampton, and Cypress Hill. Sure enough, the musicians were able to poke fun at themselves, such as Cypress Hill who may or may not have been stoned when ordering the London Symphony Orchestra to accompany their performance. When Homer decides to return to a life with his family, self-aware Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan says, “We envy you, Homer. All we have is our music, our legions of fans, our millions of dollars and our youth. ” Sonic Youth even contributed their heavily-distorted cover of the Simpsons’ theme song for the end credits.
Much of the humor from the episode stems from both Homer’s disconnect from youth culture as well as a satirical jab at Generation X and the corporatism that was able to profit from their angst. Concertgoers were bombarded with advertisements and high-priced food and merchandise. Before Cypress Hill took the stage, they announced there was a reported lost child… “If she's not claimed within the next hour, she will become property of Blockbuster Entertainment.” Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth ironically added towards the end of the episode that, “Hullabalooza isn't about freaks. It's about music, and advertisement, and youth-oriented product positioning.”
Considering this aired in 1996, Generation X was still widely characterized as apathetic, angst-ridden slackers who rejected corporate America but still bought into the capitalism of big music festivals. While amongst the crowd, Bart and Lisa notice that the audience is quite caught up in the music (which shows the young people swaying back and forth with frowns on their faces). Bart remarks, “Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel.” Before writing the episode, Brent Forrester attended a Lollapalooza show for research but found himself hating it. Much of the bad experience Homer received at the beginning of Hullapalooza was reflective of what Forrester endured during his experience. Looking back, even if the music and references feel dated, the episode still remains a fan favorite and holds up as one of the most memorable episodes.
Coincidentally, the follow-up episode also deals with a character longing to be considered “cool” and accepted by others. In “Summer of 4 Ft. 2,” the family is offered to stay at Flanders’ beach house in Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport since the Flanders family was unable to travel. On the final day of school, Lisa sadly learns that she is unpopular after no other students would sign her yearbook. “I don't get it. Straight A's, perfect attendance, bathroom timer. I should be the most popular girl in school.”
As they get ready to vacation at the beach house, Bart is allowed to bring Milhouse but unfortunately, Lisa doesn’t have any friends that she could invite. “Friends? These are my only friends. Grownup nerds like Gore Vidal, and even he's kissed more boys than I ever will.” At the last minute, Lisa decides to reinvent herself and discards all the books and dorky clothes she was originally planning on bringing. Once they get to their destination with no wardrobe, Lisa convinces Marge to buy new, cooler clothes in hopes of attracting new friends. While walking the boardwalk, Lisa spots a group of kids and tries to acclimate herself with her newfound persona. Actress Christina Ricci guest starred as Erin, Lisa’s new friend unaware of her nerdy past. As Lisa’s acceptance into the cool group continues, Bart begins to sabotage Lisa’s popularity. Just as Lisa and her friends were enjoying the Fourth of July fireworks, Bart stops by and shows the group Lisa’s yearbook and all of her nerdy accomplishments. Devastated at the loss of friends, Lisa holds a deadly grudge against Bart which hampers the rest of the family’s vacation. On her way home alone from the carnival, Lisa spots her friends decorating Homer's car with sea shells in her honor. They tell her that they don't care that she's smart because she's a good person and they learned from her. “Look, we don’t care who you were and you can’t fake the kind of good person you are,” Erin parts on Lisa. Fortunately, Bart redeems himself by getting Lisa’s friends to sign her yearbook with pleasant memories and saying they’ll miss her.
In a terrific homage to Cape Cod, the fictional Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport is filled with authentic-looking storefronts (Tern for the Wurst Delicatessen; Beachcomber Barber Shop) and beach houses with outdated board games. The locale and its design was modeled after Cape Cod since many of the writers had vacationed there as children and background designer Lance Wilder grew up in that area. In addition, the writers pay tribute to the classic film “American Graffiti.” First, Homer replicates the liquor store scene from “American Graffiti” when he buys some embarrassing products at the convenience store in order to get some illegal fireworks. The episode is capped off at the end as The Beach Boys’ “All Summer Long” plays during the end credits, which mirrors the end to “American Graffiti.”
What makes this a memorable episode as an ode to summer is that it perfectly encapsulates the excitement and experiences on the last day of school as well as experiences as a kid going on vacation with your family. As a grade school student, your self-esteem is tested when you try to obtain as many signed memories in your yearbook while saying goodbye to your friends and schoolmates. Once summer vacation gets in full swing, kids get used to sleeping in every morning and wasting the day watching TV, playing video games, or playing outside in the perfect weather. But for most families, there’s always that week or two spent in a rented house near the beach or at a lake. In these vacation communities, you get the chance to meet new people your own age who know nothing about any embarrassing stories that may have happened in your hometown. This was the case for Lisa Simpson, who sought to make new friends by creating a new persona. However, she learned that it doesn’t matter if she had a nerdy past. All that was important was that she was a good person that made her accepted by her new friends.