I admitted in my last Simpsons Classic that I’m a bit of a Lisa fan. But you don’t have to be to enjoy all that’s going on in “Lisa the Iconoclast,” a classic out of the series’ seventh season, by which point it was deep into its prime.
“Lisa the Iconoclast” takes place in the week leading up to Springfield’s bicentennial, during which Lisa discovers (through research at the Springfield Historical Society, “Where the Dead Come Alive [Metaphorically]”) that the town’s beloved founder, Jebediah Springfield, was in fact the murderous pirate, Hans Sprungfeld. She takes her case to Mayor Quimby and what Moe later calls the “Town Jubilation Committee,” convincing them to exhume Jebediah to prove that he was Hans based on his silver tongue. The coffin doesn’t contain a tongue and Lisa is shamed, but only until she figures out that the Historical Society’s curator, Hollis Hurlbut, pocketed the silver tongue in order to protect Jebediah’s legacy (and his own scholarly pursuits). In the end, though, Lisa decides not to inform the townspeople of their hero’s disgraced past, deciding to preserve the myth instead.
There are so many elements to “Lisa the Iconoclast” that make it such a memorable episode, starting with its spot-on look at our perception of history—especially on a small-town, grade-school level. It opens with a hilarious filmstrip about “Young Jebediah Springfield”:
The various myths about Jebediah—how the town was formed (“misinterpreting a passage in the Bible”), his taming of the buffalo (in Season One, it was a bear), and his eminently quotable declaration, “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man”—are no more absurd than the ones that pervade our own history. Just think of Jebediah’s own enemy, George Washington. Start Googling the name of our first president and see what the search engine suggests: It’s “George Washington cherry tree.” There’s also the wooden teeth and Washington’s purported ability to throw a silver dollar across the Potomac. These historical myths become ingrained as part of our culture, and they’re most prevalent during nationalistic holidays and most promulgated when we’re in grade school. The report I would have written about George Washington in second grade, in fact, would look a lot like the one Lisa’s classmates handed in about Jebediah Springfield—full of a few basic facts complemented by a couple exaggerated and didactic fables. And look at the reaction of the students when Troy McClure utters Springfield’s iconic platitude: All of the students cheer, including ones you wouldn’t expect like Nelson and Jimbo (who, in fact, are featured most prominently in the reaction shot). Over the course of its history, The Simpsons has done a good—or dare I say, cromulent—job in displaying the diversity of Springfield; here, it points out one of its few unifying characteristics: pride in Jebediah Springfield. The lore surrounding their town’s supposed founder binds the people of Springfield together like nothing else, and this loyalty to Jebediah can be seen beyond this single episode (see: “A Telltale Head”).
It isn’t Lisa’s classical skepticism that motivates her takedown of Jebediah; at the beginning of the episode, she adores him the way all her peers do. Her trip to the Historical Society is a very Lisa-like thing to do; her report on Jebediah is going to include more than just the basics to insure it’s one of the 18 (out of 20) put in the library. Her discovery of Jebediah’s confession—blown out of his diphtheric fife—shocks her. It’s a loss-of-innocence moment for Lisa—“Oh my God! Our town hero is a fraud!” (albeit that kind of thing happens to her more often than your average eight-year-old). It’s also very characteristic for Lisa to latch on to the real history of Jebediah with full force. She confronts her family about it, writes her school assignment about it, tries to get the truth out of Hurlbut,* (leading to two of the episode’s transcendent lines) puts up “Wanted for Treason” fliers featuring pictures of Jebediah and Hans, and brings it to the Jubilation Committee.
*The brief scene with Hurlbut leads to a series of hilarious lines worth quoting.
HOMER: “Town crier, I have a few questions for you. One, where’s the fife? And two, gimme the fife.”
HURLBUT: “I have nothing but respect for the position of town crier, but I believe this is beyond your jurisdiction.”
HURLBUT: “The so-called confession is just as phony as the Howard Hughes will, the Hitler Diaries, and the Emancipation Retraction.”
HURLBUT: “You’re banned from this Historical Society. You, and your children, and your children’s children………for three months!”
She is met in all avenues by fierce resistance:
MARGE: “Lisa, honey, when my family first came to this state, they had a choice between Springfield and Stenchburg. You know why they chose Springfield? Because everyone knows Jebediah Springfield was a true American hero! End of story!”
MRS. HOOVER: “Ralph, A. Janey, A. And Lisa, for your (umm) essay, ‘Jebediah Springfield: Superfraud,’ F…. This is nothing but dead white male bashing from a PC thug. It’s women like you that keep the rest of us from landing a husband.”
Again characteristically, Lisa doesn’t give up: “I refuse to believe that everyone refuses to believe the truth.” She is able to forcefully extract an admission from Hurlbut about the silver tongue, and the two of them prepare to interrupt the bicentennial parade with the truth about Jebediah. But, with the hopeful and shimmering eyes of flag-waving Springfieldianites on her, Lisa doesn’t have the heart to wreck the illusion. After all, “the myth of Jebediah has value, too.” It’s debatable whether or not this is characteristic of Lisa; throughout the episode, she showcases her stubborn perseverance when she thinks she is right, even when everyone but Homer is against her. But her line about the value in historical myth is also the kind of perceptiveness we’re used to seeing from Lisa: As we age, we learn that much of the history we learned is incomplete, if not downright inaccurate; yet, we often find ourselves perpetuating that history. The subject truly is “a set of lies agreed upon,” and myths like the one propounded by Springfield serve a foundational and unifying role for a group of people.*
*Please, PLEASE do not extrapolate this point into, “All historical myths are good.”
All that said, “Lisa the Iconoclast” wouldn’t be that great an episode if not for the two characters that shine brightest: Hurlbut and Homer. Specifically written for and voiced by Donald Sutherland, Hurlbut is one of the greatest single-episode characters the series has produced and the epitome of what a guest star should add to the show. Recent seasons of The Simpsons have seemed overly guest-centric to me, where the guest star is procured, and a plot written to incorporate him after the fact. Earlier, though, with stars like Sutherland, Dustin Hoffman, and John Waters, the series wrote characters with specific actors in mind, and then landed those actors. As such, Sutherland’s Hurlbut fits right into the Springfield Universe. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s a very realistic curator (“I’m an antiquarian, dammit!”) and that he consistently delivers hilarious lines (including the improvised:
“Sounds like youre coming down with a case of Jebeditis.”
“And just when I got over my Chester A. Arthritis.”
“You had arthritis?”
And no review of “Lisa the Iconoclast” could be complete without mentioning Homer’s role as town crier. It is, simply, genius. It is logical and characteristic for Homer to want to be town crier, for Homer to throw himself so intensely into the role (in one throwaway scene, you can see Homer holding the phone away from his ear and ringing the bell so the person on the other line can hear it…he criers on the phone!), and for Homer to be really really good at it. There aren’t a lot of things Homer Simpson does well, but town crier is one of them, and it’s refreshing to see him do something successfully. The episode also provides some excellent Homer/Lisa interaction (one of my favorite byproducts of Lisa episodes).
All in all, “Lisa the Iconoclast” manages to stand out even from the lofty episodes of The Simpsons’ Seventh Season, largely due to its strong historical commentary and hilarious appearances by Homer and Hollis Hurlbut. It would be an understatement to call it simply cromulent; indeed, it’s an episode that embiggens the entire series.