Season 3: Episode 10. Original airdate: November 21, 1991.
I am still very much an outsider when it comes to the history and lore of The Simpsons. Mind you, I’ve been doing this less than two months, but I still feel as if there’s thousands of tidbits I’ll never learn, and all I have are the commentary tracks, interviews I can scrape up, and the episodes themselves. That’s a long way of saying that I don’t know what happened behind the scenes 20 years ago, and I don’t claim anything I say to be definitive fact. Still, there’s such a deep mythology to “Flaming Moe’s” (is mythology the right word?) that’s been collected through interviews with various folks associated with the show that I can’t ignore it. This is an episode that takes the real-life woes of the creative forces behind the show and creates a passive-aggressive masterpiece with those raw emotions.
The man at the center of this particular drama is Sam Simon, who I mentioned a few days back while previewing this season. He was one of the three central minds behind the show’s creation, along with James L. Brooks and Matt Groening. There’s a reason we hear far more about the latter two nowadays, and it’s because Simon left the show during Season 4, despite his name still appearing in the credits. He is largely credited (depending on who you talk to) with forming the characters we’ve come to love, as well as being the most hands-on with the writers. Simon claims that most of his beef was with Groening, who received the most spotlight for the show, despite the argument that he wasn’t involved much in the creative day-to-day.
If all of that is true, it’s more than likely that “Flaming Moe’s” is a representation of Simon’s doomed relationship with Groening. Even though the episode is credited to Robert Cohen, Simon had a big presence in the writers’ room, and I’m sure the feud was a well-known issue among the staff. The episode itself puts Groening and Simon in the Moe and Homer roles, respectively, but even if Moe is meant to be somewhat villanized here, the episode does a great job fleshing him out and turning him into an integral part of the supporting cast.
Before this episode, Moe was just an angry bartender, an archetype he didn’t do much to transcend. Most of his lines came from Bart’s silly prank calls to the bar, and he didn’t have much of a personality. Here, though, he is portrayed as a profoundly sad man, a guy who goes through the motions, having settled for a life of mediocrity (sound familiar?). He and his regulars have a lot in common, but the thing that separates Moe is his lack of a support system, or a family to go to. He is alone, and he’s the kind of guy who really just needs a win.
He gets one when Homer visits the bar, only to discover there’s no beer. He shows Moe a special drink he created, called the Flaming Homer, a hodgepodge of liquors mixed with Krusty’s Kough Syrup. In itself, it’s disgusting, but there’s a secret ingredient, as Homer succinctly put it— “fire made it good.” In all honesty, the drink seems a lot like purple drank, or sizzurp, and it even shares the purple hue, but I digress. When a customer asked who invented the drink, Moe doesn’t even hesitate to yell his own name, before Homer can take credit for himself. It’s a dick move on Moe’s part, especially given that Homer is his best customer, and probably friend, but the man is desperate.
The drink turns out to be a massive hit on an unheard of level. The bar changes its name to Flaming Moe’s, and becomes a hotspot catering to the likes of Aerosmith (which marks the first band cameo on the show). Homer is left out in the cold, and having lost his drink, his bar, and his friend, has to go elsewhere for beer, the nectar of his soul. At Moe’s, the episode becomes a parody of Cheers, complete with a blue-blood waitress that’s a dead ringer for Shelley Long’s Diane. There are many nice nods to that show, and I appreciated all of them because I LOVE ME SOME CHEERS, but the redone version of the theme song takes it home for me. Even if the rest of the Cheers stuff seems hackneyed (which the dig at Shelley Long towards the end absolutely is), the “Flaming Moe’s” song is a beautiful, pitch-perfect parody, and I think it’s the first song of its scale the show has done so far.
There’s still an emotional core at the center of the episode, and Homer eventually decides to take down the bar by revealing the secret ingredient, Phantom of the Opera-style. Moe loses the opportunity to sell the drink for millions, even if he didn’t initially want to, and imitators pop up all over Springfield. The era of Flaming Moe’s is over, and life returns to normal, with Homer and Moe once again relying on each other for beer and companionship. In driving a wedge between the two, this episode gets to a theme Cheers itself was all about—we have our families, but we also create “found families” in unexpected places that we go to for a release and comfort. For Homer, Barney, Lenny and Carl, that’s Moe’s, and Moe needs them as much as they do him.
This episode truly has it all. It’s got a strong emotional core, it develops a side character deeply, it has celebrity cameos, it satirizes and parodies the culture of the time…and it’s riotously funny. I might go as far as to say it’s the first perfect episode I’ve seen so far. I’ve loved many of them, but this might be the best distillation so far of everything the show does right. In other words, I absolutely, unequivocally loved it. After all, happiness is just a Flaming Moe away.