After 27 seasons, Waylon Smithers is finally opening up about his sexuality. In an interview with TVLine, The Simpsons Executive Producer Al Jean revealed that Mr. Burns’ long-closeted personal assistant will come out to his boss across two episodes. This isn’t news to the rest of Springfield, but the ancient, oblivious Burns hasn’t had a clue.
Turns out that dancing around the obvious for a quarter-century can turn out only so many laughs. Smithers has had a quiet — or at least coded — crush on his boss since the early ‘90s. The show has long used his all-but-open status as but one venue to address homosexuality and homophobia. Often that has Homer playing the role of irrational bigot and the show sending up stereotypes about LGBTQ people. In “Homer’s Phobia,” for instance, the satire is obvious — but by 2015, when an entire episode of gay jokes would feel cheap and dated, this just wouldn’t fly. And maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise, considering it first aired in frickin’ 1997.
Smithers, similarly, is a bit of a relic. During the show’s ’90s heydays — the days of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” — a closeted character was a joke in and of itself. The Simpsons, at least, added a layer to Smithers’ character by making him hopelessly, absurdly smitten with his decrepit, overtly evil boss. Still, the show riffed on his sexuality stereotypically and quite bluntly at times. Unlike the thoughtful episodes where Homer confronts his homophobia — “Three Gays of the Condo” being another acclaimed episode — the Smithers jokes were often too easy, even when they were gentle in spirit.
It makes sense that as the show continues to evolve, the creators would choose 2015 to shine the spotlight on and update Smithers. It’s the year of Obergefell v. Hodges. They’re right to ride the zeitgeist and allow Smithers the freedom to be himself.
Just Smithers, as he is:
The Simpsons has gone from satirist of American society to the kind of show it once critiqued. It’s hard to say Duff, for example, is social commentary on awful beer when it’s actually being brewed. Having lost its edge, Smithers was for long nothing more than a dated caricature. Opening him up allows for greater understanding and further complexity from a show that, at its best, continues to evolve even as it approaches its fourth decade.