A longtime ‘Simpsons’ writer explains why, for an episode at least, he cured Homer’s baldness and had him share in one of TV’s first man-on-man kisses
Homer Simpson has so many physical problems. He’s morbidly obese, to the point that he’s in imminent danger of a fatal heart attack — even though he’s only in his mid-30s (if you believe the show’s early episodes). A strong argument can be made that he’s an alcoholic. And he’s been exposed to so much radiation that a terrible fate awaits him if his heart holds up, which it probably won’t. But the one problem that genuinely makes him sad is the fact that he has less hair than he used to. (In all, just three hairs remain on his head — two on top and one long jagged hair that wraps around the back.)
That’s why in a Season Two episode called “Simpson and Delilah,” we invented a miracle drug (which we named dimoxinil) that provided Homer with more hair than he could’ve ever hope for. His gorgeous full mane causes everyone around him to see him differently and touches off a happy domino effect. He gets promoted; he’s given a super-competent assistant whose work and productivity he takes credit for; and he receives entree into a glorious world of corporate perks (luxury bathrooms foremost among them).
Before we wrote the script, I remember George Meyer, one of our best writers, pointing out that an ironclad rule of sitcoms is that everything new stinks and that anybody who tries to make their life better by trying something new is stupid. Then the smart characters sit back and laugh at him as his life goes to hell because he didn’t do things the old way, the way smart people do it.
And boy did the George Meyer Rule apply to any sitcom character who tried to make his life better by buying a hairpiece. Was there ever a show in which a character bought a hairpiece that fit well and didn’t get yanked off by the end of the episode? Or didn’t get mocked by everyone around him?
Okay, Alan Brady from the Dick Van Dyke Show had a quality hairpiece. But all that meant was that he had to live in terror until Laura Petrie went on a game show and publicly humiliated him for doing something that so many real-life actors have done successfully for decades. (Exhibit A: Ted Danson on Cheers.)
In fairness, there is a TV sub-trope — from Gavin MacLeod on The Love Boat to Scott Adsit on 30 Rock — of bald guys who accept their beta-male status and who don’t try to do anything great. But the larger tradition is one of endorsing gleeful group cruelty.
We, of course, wanted to be better than that. (We generally tried hard to avoid bad sitcom habits anyway.) So in “Simpson and Delilah,” dimoxinil works wonderfully, and it gets Homer hair, respect and a better life. While a new head of hair convinces Homer that he’s thriving at the largely phony pursuit of being a successful executive, we went out of our way to show that was anything but the case — productivity in the work area Homer now oversees goes up only because he’s no longer working there and the company is saved from his screw-ups.
Dimoxinil, however, was only one of two characters we wanted to represent fairly. The other was Homer’s new assistant: Karl.
Karl’s sexual orientation is never made explicit, but he was going to be played by Harvey Fierstein. And he was going to be perfectly styled, and there was going to be a kiss. All of this really just meant that we wanted him to be as competent, intelligent and kind as any character we’d ever portrayed. Because the world we were writing about in Season Two (circa 1990) was different from the one we live in now. That’s not to say everything is perfect now, but it was certainly harder to be gay back then.
It also was our small way of helping change come about more quickly. Because while comedy writers like to act as though comedy is always a weapon for truth and justice, it has a much sadder history than that. Since basically forever, comedy has been used as a cute wrapper for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia — you name it. Any time one group of people wanted to make an individual feel bad about being different, comedy was there to help out. For instance, you can still go on eBay and buy all manner of racist kitchenware and greeting cards made by people who thought they were being funny.
Our aim was the opposite. Homer was the butt of our jokes in order to help people better understand how much Karl was just like them — having to put up with a delusional buffoon who thought just because he had fancy hair and a fancy office that somehow it was his right to trample over everyone around him (Karl included). That’s probably why I’ve been asked so many times why Karl puts up with Homer’s boorish behavior. I don’t think he finds Homer attractive; I think Karl can do way better than Homer. As I see it, Karl likes Homer, and he turns Homer into the perfect executive he can’t be because of the way people see him.
I also like to think that since we last saw him, Karl has become successful on his own terms at whatever he wants; but back in 1990, he was succeeding by proxy through Homer. It was an odd but pure motivation for him, and he did it happily, because Karl’s a good guy.
In the end, the only real problem for Homer was that he purchased dimoxinil fraudulently through the company’s health insurance plan. (His excuse on the claim: “To keep brain from freezing.”) That and the fact that Mr. Burns might love his new locks more than anyone else — he likes Homer’s hair so much that he allows Homer to dry his hands, a task normally reserved for Smithers. This stirs an anger inside of Smithers he’s never experienced before. It also inspires him to do whatever it takes to uncover Homer’s hair secret. However, when Smithers confronts Homer with the evidence that he’d committed insurance fraud in order to buy Dimoxinil and starts to fire him, Karl accepts all the blame, even though he had nothing to do with the scheme.
While Homer keeps his job (thanks to Karl’s selflessness), he doesn’t keep his hair. All of those amazingly lush new hair follicles fall from his head overnight — leaving him once again with just three strands of hair, and all the trappings of his old life. (The Simpsons isn’t consistent on a lot of things, but part of our worldview from the start was this: it’s not that everything stinks, there IS a world of better schools and awesome secret societies like the Stonecutters; it’s just that the Simpson family can’t hold on to that world for more than a few days at a time.)
It’s only natural to think, if you were so concerned with positive depictions of gay characters, why the super-evil Smithers? Well, Smithers hadn’t sorted out his personal stuff yet, and we hadn’t sorted out our thoughts on Smithers yet. At this point he just feared being replaced as Mr. Burns’ golden boy — the most terrifying thing that could ever happen to him and something he’d go to any lengths to prevent.
If Homer had been more sensitive to that fact, he might still have a full head of hair.