How a Classic Simpsons Episode Came to Be

Monorail show had two coups by a young Conan O'Brien
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 10, 2020 10:30 AM CST
This 1993 Simpsons Episode Was a Game Changer
This undated publicity photo shows, from left, Maggie, Marge, Lisa, Homer, and Bart from "The Simpsons."   (AP Photo/Fox)

It's one of the classics in the long history of The Simpsons: the monorail episode. More precisely, it's "Marge vs. the Monorail," the 12th episode of season 4. "With its grand scale, silly asides, and abundance of absurdist humor, [the episode] represented a stark departure from the show's established formula," writes Sean Cole at Vice. In fact, the episode "helped to chart a new course" for the show, and Cole talks to some of the key people involved. Some highlights:

  • Coup for Conan: The 1993 script is by a young Conan O'Brien, then a newbie on the staff. Showrunner Mike Reiss tells Cole that nobody thought the pitch would fly with executive producer James L. Brooks, but Brooks loved it. "Conan sold three script ideas at that meeting—his first meeting—and I don't think anyone had ever done that, before or since."

  • Coup II for Conan: O'Brien wrote the lyrics to the famous monorail song, and "he was very tickled by what he was coming up with," recalls producer Jeff Martin. "He would pop into my office with a couplet, like Wiggum saying, 'The ring came off my pudding can / Take my pen knife, my good man.' He was narrating that to me as he wrote it." Martin adds: "Every single word of the monorail song was unchanged from Conan's first draft, which is impressive."
  • Leonard Nimoy: He's the guest star, and he beams out at the end, al a Star Trek, which Martin sees as cementing the show's shift toward surrealism. He adds that Nimoy was great to work with and fine about spoofing himself. "I remember the line, 'The solar eclipse, the cosmic ballet goes on.' When he got to that line he said, 'OK, I know how to deliver this one,' meaning, 'I can be pompous and windy, just like you want me to be,'" says Martin.
  • Inspirations: Reiss says Rich Moore "directed it like a movie," and it shows, particularly toward the end with a climax inspired by disaster movies. "The monorail tearing through town, as crazy and silly as it is, is very exciting and dynamic." As for the other inspiration: "It was a direct, affectionate parody and tribute to the Music Man, but I suppose 'monorail salesman' is snappier than 'boy's band organizer,'" says Martin.
  • Big picture: It was a game changer, says story editor Josh Weinstein. "Even though it still involves the family and the town and everything like that, it's a crazier and bigger idea that worked," he says. "I think, until then, there had been smaller stories, and this was suddenly like, 'No, you can have the monorail come to town, and you can even have it be a musical episode, and it will work.'" In that sense, "you can say it's probably the first modern Simpsons episode."
  • Read the full oral history.
(More The Simpsons stories.)

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