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Nearly every detail of The Simpsons universe has evolved during the show’s 26-year run. The clunky rabbit-ears TV is now a flat screen. Homer texts with Marge (“Big Blue”) on a smartphone. Even the Easter-egg site gags have changed—like when Patton Oswalt’s one-off character was seen reading the fictional New York Review of Apps during the brilliant 2012 episode mocking creator Matt Groening’s hometown (and show inspiration) of Portland, Oregon. And yet, some elements of Springfield seem stuck in the past. There’s a still-sort-of-running joke that Homer has to remember which one of his drinking buddies is white (Lenny) and which one is black (Carl). Then there’s Waylon Smithers.
Smithers, Mr. Burns’ perpetually bruised and battered personal assistant, has struggled to conceal his homosexuality since the show’s inception. (Side note: Remember when Smithers was black?) Smithers fantasizes about Burns flying in through his bedroom window at night; about Burns singing him “Happy Birthday” like Marilyn Monroe; of Burns telling Smithers—via desktop computer login screen—that Smithers is good at “turning him on.” That same episode, Lisa famously discovers that Smithers is a Malibu Stacy fanboy. As showrunner Al Jean tells TV Line, about what to expect in season 27, “In Springfield now, most people know he’s gay, but obviously Burns doesn’t.” Reading between the lines, Jean just revealed that Smithers will indeed come out to his boss this season.
It’s both curious and impressive that the writers have kept the joke going this long. They haven’t shied away from addressing homosexuality—Marge’s sister Patty came out as a lesbian several years ago; Homer had a brief side hustle issuing same-sex marriage licenses, and he spent an episode living in a swanky apartment with two gay roommates. Of course, Homer didn’t realize they were gay until one of them kissed him, at which point he promptly ran away, then later asked himself if he enjoyed the kiss. The 1997 episode “Homer’s Phobia” featured a memorable guest appearance by John Waters, who more or less played himself. John starts to influence Bart, sending Homer on a desperate streak to make Bart “straight” again. Late in the episode, Homer screams one of his most memorable lines of the strong 1997 season: “I LIKE MY BEER COLD, MY TV LOUD, AND MY HOMOSEXUALS … FLLLAAMMMING!” By the end of the episode, however, John saves Homer’s life (from a pack of evil reindeer in Santa’s Village), and Homer sees the errors of his ways. For as dumb as Homer is, he almost always learns something.
So, again, why is Smithers still in the closet nearly two decades after the star of the show more or less abandons his bigotry? And why has the Smithers-is-secretly-gay joke lasted all these years? As evidenced in the above statement, Jean minimizes the Smithers storyline to merely a conflict between he and Burns, which is a cop-out. When Smithers does finally come out to his boss, it will make for an interesting moment. Burns is an analog for everything “old” in the world, from his understanding of star baseball players (all dead, therefore unable to play on the company softball team) to the last time he checked his stock ticker (1929, just before the crash).
One thing to consider: the big reveal, if and when it does happen, would have been far less impactful and dramatic had Harry Shearer not settled his contract negotiations earlier this year. Shearer voices both characters, and his dialogue with himself will be something special to watch.