In honor of the glorious “Every Simpsons Ever” marathon playing on FXX for one and a half weeks, I’m going to talk a little about an underrated episode: “Moaning Lisa.”
“Moaning Lisa” is not one of the funniest episodes of The Simpsons. In fact, a fair amount of the jokes, particularly in the Bart-Homer video-game subplot, are a little obvious and corny. What makes “Moaning Lisa” great is not the humor, but the emotional resonance.
The episode opens with Lisa staring into a bathroom mirror, almost paralyzed by her sadness.
I can’t think of many sitcoms, animated or not, that would open on a scene with a character so vulnerable.
We follow Lisa as she goes about her day, and we see that the sadness is affecting her interaction with everyone. She refuses a cupcake from her mother, she improvises wildly in music class, and doesn’t participate in dodge ball in gym class because she’s “too sad.” When her family asks her for the reason behind her sadness, it turns out that there’s no inciting incident or traumatic event she’s been keeping from them:
“I’m just wondering what’s the point. Would it make any difference at all if I never existed? How can we sleep at night when there’s so much suffering in the world?“
Homer, at a loss for words, ineffectually bounces Lisa on her lap and tries to cheer her up. He cares about his daughter but has no idea how to help her – he’s completely out of his depth. Lisa, knowing this, gives her father a kiss and tells him she knows he means well. Homer then orders Bart to clean the living room in one of the few moments of the episode that’s as funny as The Simpsons would be in its prime (“In times of trouble you got to go with what you know – now hop to it, boy!”), and Bart, as a result, is unsympathetic to Lisa’s pain. There are many times in the show’s future where Bart steps out of his selfish, ten-year-old viewpoint and shows empathy to his sister (“Separate Vocations,” ” ‘Round Springfield,”) but this isn’t one of them.
Later, Lisa practices her saxophone in her room, and Homer runs upstairs to tell her to knock off all that racket – until she starts crying again, and once again, he has no words of comfort except to tell her that she can practice her fingering as loud as she wants.
Lisa’s sadness runs so deep that she can’t even describe it to anyone. From what we’ve seen, she doesn’t have a bad life, but she’s isolated from others because of her pain, and even people who want to understand her and help her don’t know how.
That all changes when she hears more saxophone music miles away, and she slips out of her house and meets Bleeding Gums Murphy playing the “I Never Had an Italian Suit Blues.”
Meanwhile, Marge has a nightmare straight from her own childhood about her mother encouraging her to smile even when she’s sad:
“Wait, Margie. Before we go out the door, let’s put our happy face on, because people know how good of a mommy you have by the size of your smile!”
Young Marge then puts on the most strained, fake smile I’ve ever seen before walking out the door. The smile looks like it’s hurting her face. But when the adult Marge wakes up, she wonders out loud how to educate their daughter on how to become a young woman.
Back at the bridge, Bleeding Gums Murphy and Lisa each sing aloud their pain. He tells her, “You know, you play pretty good for someone with no real problems.”
I’m going to take a moment just for that one line, because it’s brilliant. One hand, you understand Bleeding Gums’s point. From his perspective, Lisa is the exemplification of #firstworldproblems or #whitegirlproblems. She’s healthy, cared for, and she wants for nothing. On the other hand, depression is real and Lisa’s definitely feeling a version of it deep in her bones. It doesn’t really matter that she has no “real” problems when the feeling of sadness is all-consuming.
Marge comes by and whisks Lisa away, telling Bleeding Gums, “Nothing personal, I just feel the unfamiliar.” And Lisa is taken from someone she commiserates with and makes her feel less alone.
The next day, Marge tries to get Bart to be nicer to her sister, and they have an exchange where he awkwardly half-admits to some affection for Lisa:
“Marge: You do love her, don’t you?
Bart: Oh, Mom…
Marge: Well you do, don’t you?
Bart: Don’t make me say it. You know the answer, I know the answer, he knows the answer, let’s just drop it, ok?
Marge: Okay, Bart, you don’t have to say it, but you do have to have a loving attitude. Be nice to your sister.”
It’s a perfect portrayal of that stage of boyhood where it’s socially unacceptable to admit to any positive feelings for his sister, because girls are gross. He can’t even say out loud to his own mother that he loves his sister.
And of course, the only thing Bart can think to do to cheer up Lisa is to make a prank phone call to Moe’s Tavern. It doesn’t work, even though she usually laughs right along with him.
Marge makes one last effort to cheer up Lisa, and the only thing she can think to do is to give her daughter the same kind of damaging advice her own mother gave her:
“Well it doesn’t matter how you feel inside, you know? It’s what shows up on the surface that counts. That’s what my mother taught me. Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down, past your knees until you’re almost walking on them. And then you’ll fit in, and you’ll be invited to parties, and boys will like you, and happiness will follow.”
Hearing this come from Marge is downright heartbreaking when we see how much pain this caused her in her own childhood. She’s clearly giving this advice because it’s all she knows, and she’s convinced herself that it was the right way to go.
But even repressed suburban moms have their limits, and Marge reaches hers when she sees one boy tell Lisa, “I used to think you were a brainiac, but I guess you’re okay,” another boy invite her to do his homework, and the music teacher chiding her for her creativity. She makes a U-turn in her car and whisks Lisa away. Then she parks the car and does a similar 180 on her advice:
“Lisa, I apologize to you, I was wrong, I take it all back! Always be yourself. If you want to be sad, honey, be sad. We’ll ride it out with you. And when you get finished feeling sad, we’ll still be there. From now on, let me do the smiling for both of us.“
Then Lisa hugs her mother, and gives her first genuine smile of the episode, because she “feels like smiling.”
This display of support from her mother is the moment that finally breaks Lisa from her sadness, and she takes her family to the jazz club to hear Bleeding Gums Murphy play.
We can see the lasting effects of “Moaning Lisa” throughout later episodes and seasons of The Simpsons, where the saxophone is a vital part of Lisa’s identity and an important outlet of creative expression. Finding a kindred spirit and creative outlet is key to her sense of self-worth and identity.
But just as important is Lisa hearing exactly what she needs to hear from her mother – that it’s okay to be sad, that her feelings are valid, and that she will have support no matter what she’s feeling.
I feel like most sitcoms would gloss over an emotional crisis like Lisa’s (if they bothered to portray that kind of emotional crisis at all) by having their character experience some kind of sentimental moment that Restores Their Faith In Humanity or some other garbage, but “Moaning Lisa” doesn’t try to gloss over Lisa’s problem by pretending she’ll never be sad again. We know she will be sad again, and maybe one day she’ll be sad again for no reason she can identify. But now she’ll have a support system that doesn’t rush to “cheer her up” and instead lets her see her emotions through.
That kind of emotional support is validating and essential to Lisa, and yet the moment is still tinged with bittersweet sadness. When Marge says, “I’ll do enough smiling for the both of us,” we understand that her practiced happiness is too ingrained in her personality to ever change, and she’s giving Lisa the freedom and emotional validation she never received herself.
“Moaning Lisa” doesn’t make anyone’s top 10 list of The Simpsons episodes, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s not the funniest episode by a long shot. But in terms of emotional resonance, it strikes as much of a chord as “Lisa’s Substitute,” “Mother Simpson,” and “And Maggie Makes Three.” Whether a person struggles with depression or just feels “down” sometimes for no identifiable reason, there’s nothing more helpful than hearing, “It’s okay to feel sad.”