#7: The Call of the Simpsons

Season 1: Episode 7. Original airdate: February 18, 1990.

It’s increasingly become a rite of passage for Hollywood stars to lend their voices to a guest role on The Simpsons. Accordingly, as the show itself has become more strained for stories, it has relied on those guest stars to hold up what may be a flimsier plot than normal. Those guests can usually boost ratings if they’re heavily-promoted, which has caused even The Simpsons to fall victim to the practice of stunt casting. Back in 1990, though, recording a spot on an animated sitcom wasn’t just uncommon, it was a risky move that could reek of desperation to the those in the industry. The guest stars that did appear during the first season tended to obscure their identity on the show, which brings me to “The Call of the Simpsons'” big-name feature, a certain “A. Brooks.”

That A. stands for Albert, of course, one of the most gifted and iconic comedians of all time. For Simpsons aficionados, he’s among the most highly-praised guests in the show’s history. For the amount of kudos Brooks gets for his parts in the show, I expected his credits to rival Phil Hartman or Kelsey Grammer’s contributions. Instead, I found only six episodes with “A. Brooks” in the credits, most notably Season 8’s “You Only Move Twice,” in his famous Simpsons role as Hank Scorpio. On top of those six episodes, Brooks voiced the main villain in The Simpsons Movie, but his selectivity in voice roles perhaps adds to his mythos as a performer in the series.

“The Call of the Simpsons” features Brooks as Cowboy Bob, the used-RV salesman to end all used-RV salesmen. The episode opens with a “keeping up with the Joneses Flanderses” story in which Homer is jealous of his neighbor’s new motorhome. He is especially perturbed because, from his habit of reading Flanders’ mail, he knows that their paychecks have less than $30 in difference. Flanders informs him that he was able to pay for it with credit, a mystical buzzword for Homer, who immediately rounds up his family to get their own, preferably fancier, RV.

Enter Cowboy Bob. Brooks is one of a select few voice actors allowed to improvise in the booth for The Simpsons, and it pays dividends here. Brooks brings a specific energy to his roles that makes them instantly iconic. In this episode, he was allowed to mumble and ramble as much as he saw fit, and he certainly saw it very fitting. It’s impossible to truly capture in writing the pure, Albert-Brooksy essence of these lines, so I have no choice but to embed a clip of this hilarious scene:

(Okay, so embedding isn’t happening right now—I’M WORKING ON IT—but for now, I have to outsource the link to Hulu)

Watch: Cowboy Bob’s RV Roundup

It’s the funniest scene so far in the series (by a large margin), but it ends a quarter of the way through the episode. Even some of the greatest Simpsons episodes would pale in comparison to Cowboy Bob, so saying “The Call of the Simpsons” doesn’t again reach that potential isn’t competely damning it with faint praise.

Once Homer is outed as credit’s greatest enemy, and Cowboy Bob sells the family the worst possible RV, the episode sends the Simpsons into the woods. This story is straight out of Sitcom 101, and the show doesn’t do much with the potential of stranding its characters in the wilderness. The men and women of the family split up, with Bart and Homer searching for help and Lisa and Marge staying at camp. Maggie’s story ends up being the most interesting, and adorable, involving the infant’s encounter with a grizzly bear. She abates the bear by giving it an extra pacifier, which serves a peace offering and makes her the honorary Queen of the Bears. The scenes involving the bears are too cute not to love, but they’re an unmistakably slight aspect of an overall slight episode.

From what I can gather via an extensive Wikipedia search, FOX was airing a metric butt-ton of Bigfoot specials, which gave the Simpsons writers an opportunity to satirize the phenomenon. Unfortunately, the Homer-as-Bigfoot story runs out of steam shortly after the visual gag of him covered in mud runs its course. The media frenzy surrounding the affair is impressive on an animation level—the show hasn’t done anything as visually impressive thus far—but it’s trite compared to the mob scenes The Simpsons will be perfecting in the near future.

I don’t want to seem as if I’m condemning this episode too much. It really has its share of funny moments, and the Maggie story ranks among the cutest things I’ve seen in a while, but nothing reaching the astronomical heights of Brooks’ scene. It’s a fine Simpsons episode, but it lacks the pathos that have made the last few so wonderful. I still can’t complain though; this is still a show working out its kinks. I’ll cut it a little slack for having an off episode, especially when that episode features the marvelous Albert Brooks.

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