After a hit-and-miss first season and a second season that was still finding its way, The Simpsons really hit its stride in Season Three. The season delivered classic episode after classic episode, and while the Simpson family had been pretty much figured out by this time, it was during the third season that the writers dove deeper into the city of Springfield and its countless bizarre and hilarious characters. Krusty the Clown reunited with his Rabbi father, Milhouse fell in love, Otto moved in with the Simpsons, Ned Flanders opened the Leftorium and Moe Szyslak, Springfield’s bad-tempered barkeep, hit it big with a drink called “The Flaming Moe.”
As The Simpsons writer, producer and show-runner Mike Reiss once explained in a DVD commentary, “Flaming Moe’s” was one of the first “big” episodes of the series. The plotline of “Flaming Moe’s” took the simple premise of Moe stealing a drink idea from Homer, and exploded it into a story in which the drink became a worldwide sensation. Moe’s bar even became a trendy hotspot where Aerosmith would put on live performances. By having a story that ventured outside of Springfield — and getting the real-life members of Aerosmith to guest star — “Flaming Moe’s” stretched the boundaries of what a Simpsons story was, setting a precedent for episodes to come.
The episode aired on November 21, 1991 and, more than 30 years later, “Flaming Moe’s” is still considered a classic, but it’s not a typical classic Simpsons episode in that it’s not remembered for a specific quote or moment, nor has it spawned any truly significant Simpsons meme. Instead, “Flaming Moe’s” is mostly remembered for the image of that fiery purple drink and for just being a damn good episode.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about the success of “Flaming Moe’s” was that it was not written by a regular Simpsons writer. While Robert Cohen would go onto a prolific writing, producing and directing career in a great many successful TV comedies, “Flaming Moe’s” was his one-and-only episode of The Simpsons. For Cohen, his time writing on The Simpsons represents just a few weeks of his life, yet “Flaming Moe’s” is still inspiring Simpsons merchandise to this day. And, if you head to the “Springfield, USA” portion of Universal Studios theme parks, you can order yourself an actual Flaming Moe, which Cohen himself has done — even if the bartender didn’t believe that he really wrote the episode.
“The Flaming Moe dates back to my forefathers who were bartenders to the czar…”
Robert Cohen, writer of “Flaming Moe’s”: I was a production assistant on The Tracey Ullman Show — which started The Simpsons off — and when Tracey Ullman got canceled, they moved us all over to The Simpsons. I was just 24 and really wanted to break into writing, so I wrote a spec episode of The Simpsons — it was basically a Die-Hard parody, where bad guys took over the nuclear power plant and Homer was, accidentally, the hero of it all. They really liked it, but there was a strange rule at the time that they couldn’t hire people internally for writing jobs, so they couldn’t do my script. But they approached me later and said, “We have this one-liner idea, would you want to write that?” And I said, “Absolutely.”
I don’t know who came up with the initial idea for the episode, all they had when they assigned it to me was an index card that read, “Homer invents a drink and Moe steals it” — that was it. They just gave me the index card and said to go off and think about it. But as a production assistant, I knew how things worked there and how the writers all worked together on the episodes. So being a bit young and cocky, I said I wanted to be involved in every step of the process. They said, “Sure,” and couldn’t have been more cool and inclusive. Me and a few other writers broke the story together, and it was great. I can’t credit the writers there enough because it all came together in a really simple way, especially for a guy who, back then, was so young and inexperienced.
The show was already a phenomenon by this time, but around Season Three is when they were looking to expand those side characters. So, this episode is really all about Moe, how he gets literally everything he could have possibly wanted, but at the expense of his friendship with Homer. On top of that, there’s just a ton going on in the episode, and all of the writers threw in some stuff. It was Wally Wolodarsky who came up with the idea that the secret ingredient Homer used was cough syrup, and I think it was Wally or Sam Simon who came up with the line, “I don’t know the scientific explanation, but fire made it good.”
The flaming drink thing was something I’d seen in Vegas, and the story about Moe’s becoming this hotspot was somewhat based on the Coconut Teaszer, which was this cheesy, horrible tourist-trap bar in Hollywood where people had bachelorette parties and you’d always see people puking out front. They had these crappy drinks and Day-Glo T-shirts and it was just awful. We wanted Moe’s to be a bit like that, and we wanted it to become so big that Homer wouldn’t even be allowed inside (which, of course, would increasingly drive him crazy, since Moe had already stolen the drink).
Jeff Martin, The Simpsons writer: There was a definite feeling that it was going to be a good one. I remember we got quite giddy coming up with “All work and Mo play makes Mo a Mo Mo.”
Cohen: There was so much in this episode that a few things had to be cut. There was this whole romantic storyline with Moe and the waitress he hired, but most of that was left out. There was also a whole B-story where Bart kept crank-calling the bar.
“Will somebody check the men’s room for a Hugh Jass?”
Cohen: I spent a whole day writing crank calls for Bart — I still have the list somewhere. It was going to be 10 or 15 phone calls throughout the episode. Some jokes didn’t make it past Standards and Practices, while others were cut for time. Ultimately, just one made it into the episode, and it was when Bart calls and asks for “Hugh Jass.”
Neil Arsenty, creator of On This Day in Simpsons History on Twitter: “Hugh Jass” is so funny! There’s actually a guy at the bar named “Hugh Jass,” and he’s such a nice man! It’s definitely one of the best — if not the best — phone gag they’ve ever done.
“At Flaming Moe’s, where liquor in a mug can warm you like a hug, and happiness is just a Flaming Moe away.”
Cohen: Jeff Martin was the one who wrote the Cheers parody song for the episode. He always excelled at musical parodies. When they played it for me, I thought it was so great. Plus, with the stylized Cheers opening, it was hilarious.
Martin: It was a very straightforward assignment: “Write a parody of the Cheers song.” I just took the themes of that tune and pushed them to an absurd level. Instead of needing a break from all his worries, the singer is actually contemplating suicide, and the panacea isn’t being in a place where everybody knows your name, it’s buying some liquor and drinking your misery away.
“How about a warm, Flaming Moe’s welcome for Aerosmith!”
Cohen: Originally, they wanted Bruce Springsteen for the band, and I foolishly put my foot down and said that it has to be a band that’s equal parts really awesome and kind of cheesy. You had to believe that they’d be playing at Moe’s. Plus, I love Aerosmith, so it was the one thing I really went to the mat for.
Al Jean, showrunner, writer and producer on The Simpsons [excerpt from DVD commentary]: [Mike Reiss and I] were going back to Boston, it was our 10th college reunion, and Aerosmith is obviously based in Boston, so we said we’d direct them there. Hank Azaria flew out to join us and record with them, which was a huge help. It wasn’t such a big thing for rock stars to do The Simpsons at that point — but this was the first one. They were really nice, but they couldn’t have been more like rock stars. I remember Steven Tyler drove up in a car that looked like a shoe.
Mike Reiss, showrunner, writer and producer on The Simpsons [excerpt from DVD commentary]: It was a roadster, and he had a driving scarf on and a Klaxon horn. The other funny thing was they were all going through AA and Narcotics Anonymous at the time, and part of the therapy was to talk through your problems and the bad things they’d done. It took about six or seven hours [to record]. We were a couple of guys they’d never met, [and they were] just pouring their hearts out, talking about all the drugs they had taken and how happy they were to be clean and sober.
That was my favorite day in show business — hanging out with them, recording with them. They couldn’t have been nicer guys.
Cohen: I was supposed to be there for the recording session, but on the way to the airport, I got sick. I was puking my brains out and couldn’t get on the plane. But when Aerosmith came to Los Angeles, I went backstage and hung out with them. They could not have been cooler guys.
“I had decided to mix the little bits that were left in every liquor bottle. In my haste, I had grabbed a bottle of the kids’ cough syrup.”
Arsenty: There are a lot of good jokes and references in this episode. Cheers is obvious. Homer also references Phantom of the Opera at the end when half of his face is covered and he exposes the secret ingredient in a Flaming Moe to everyone. But the most famous thing about the episode has got to be the Flaming Moe itself. It’s never mentioned again in the entire run of The Simpsons — trust me, I checked — but yet, the Flaming Moe is still incredibly well-known. There are even guys on YouTube recreating it and making their own versions. The Flaming Moe has a life of its own.
Greg Titian, host of How to Drink on YouTube: In the episode, the ingredients you can make out for sure in a Flaming Moe are tequila, crème de menthe, peppermint schnapps and cough syrup. Aside from that, you can see seven other bottles. While you can’t be sure of the ingredients, from the shape of the bottles, I’d say they were gin, coffee liqueur, vermouth, unflavored brandy, two different types of flavored brandy and vodka. Yeah, there’s just no way that’s going to taste good, not even with fire.
To make my own version, I wanted to be somewhat faithful to the taste of cough syrup, but also to stay with the theme of it having little bits of everything, just like Homer does in the show.
How to Drink’s Flaming Moe Recipe:
One dash of Absinthe
Two dashes of Angostura bitters
15 milliliters grenadine
15 milliliters Punt e Mes
8 milliliters Chambord
8 milliliters Drambuie
30 milliliters rye
30 milliliters Rhum Barbancourt White
Shake and pour. Garnish with a flaming sugar cube, lime boat and cinnamon.
Nick Fisher, author of Cocktail Chemistry: The Art and Science of Drinks from Iconic TV Shows and Movies, host of Cocktail Chemistry on YouTube: Using the ingredients we can see on screen, I made a Flaming Moe with tequila, crème de menthe, peppermint schnapps and, of course, the cough syrup. It was god awful — it had this intense, sweet, minty flavor. Also, it wouldn’t catch on fire, not unless you amped it up with a lot of high-proof spirits.
To make the drink better, I went for a classic cocktail that was a deep purple and that you could light on fire. I made an evolution of a drink called The Aviation, which involves a liqueur called crème de violette. That’s where you get the purple from. The other ingredients are Cointreau, gin and lime juice — all equal parts. Then, there’s a tiki cocktail trick where you use half a lime, hollow it out, float it on top of the drink and fill the lime with a high-proof spirit or lemon extract — the lemon extract in particular creates a very light flame.
Cocktail Chemistry’s Flaming Moe Recipe:
22 milliliters Creme de violette
22 milliliters Cointreau
22 milliliters Dry gin
22 milliliters Lime juice
Add all ingredients to a shaker tin. Strain into a coupe glass. Create a lime boat with half a lime. Drop in some 151 proof rum or lemon extract. Light lime boat on fire and serve. Let the flame burn out before drinking.
“Look at me, I’m making people happy! I’m the magical man from Happy Land in a gumdrop house on lollipop lane!”
Jean [excerpt]: You never know what someone’s favorite episode of the series is, but when they list their Top Five, this is usually one of them.
Charlie Southern, creator of @SimpsonsQOTD on Twitter: “Flaming Moe’s” is seen as one of the first true classic episodes and there’s lots of cool merchandise from it. Have you seen the Flaming Moe’s Adidas trainers? They’re amazing!
Reiss [excerpt]: [This episode] was huge, certainly at the time. People loved it so much. My brother called and said how much he loved it. I said, “You wouldn’t want to see a show like that every week. You’d still like us to mix them up, some small and then some big.” And, he said, “Nope, all big.”
Arsenty: This episode is an especially memorable one from those early years, maybe because it’s more connected with music. This was during the peak of Aerosmith’s second wave in the early 1990s, so it really hit a sweet spot for both that band and The Simpsons. It’s also been memorialized at Universal Studios, as you can order a Flaming Moe from Moe’s bar. Also, in the Universal Studios in Florida, there’s a walk-up bar named Flaming Moe’s!
This episode is also the first Moe-centric episode. It’s the first time we really get to know him as a character and understand him a little bit more.
Martin: Mo was conceived as a pretty one-dimensional character, and I remember at the end of the episode, when he reconciles with Homer, thinking there’s more to play there. Sure enough, there have been quite a few touching Mo episodes since. Credit to Hank Azaria for injecting some humanity into these louts.
Cohen: All the credit for the episode goes to The Simpsons writers, who are all geniuses. Getting to write this episode was an incredible fluke for me, and I’m so grateful for it. It’s also managed to create some pretty surreal experiences for me. In addition to getting to spend time with my musical heroes, I’ve seen tons of Flaming Moe’s merchandise like sneakers and Simpsons toys of Moe holding a Flaming Moe. It’s pretty cool to see how well-merchandised it’s become.
The most surreal thing about this, though, has got to be when I went to Universal Studios Hollywood and ordered a Flaming Moe. I think it was about five years ago, around when The Simpsons section first opened up. I went to Moe’s bar and the Love Tester was there — which first appeared in my episode.
Then I ordered a Flaming Moe and I was asking the bartender, “What’s in a Flaming Moe?” They’re not allowed to tell you, so she kept giving me the corporate answer, and I kept joking around and pushing it. Then I asked to buy a Flaming Moe’s cup and she wouldn’t sell it to me. I had to steal one! Finally, as we were going outside, my friend yelled, “That guy wrote ‘Flaming Moe’s!’’ and, of course, she didn’t believe us.
However, the Flaming Moe at Universal Studios is nonalcoholic. It’s just an orange drink with a fizzy tablet inside of it. I’ve never had a real Flaming Moe, nor have I attempted to make one. The real ingredients are obviously disgusting — it’s cough syrup that’s on fire! People have sent me recipes for it, but I, personally, would never drink a Flaming Moe. What a horrible concoction.