The Simpsons: An Oral History of “Homer's Barbershop Quartet”
1985 was a landmark year in American history. Ronald Reagan began his second term as president, the first Back to the Future film hit theaters, and a maturing Joe Piscopo released the album “New Jersey” to limited acclaim. Along with all of that, a new trend hit the world of automobiles in the form of a little yellow sign hung by a suction cup.
Invented by Patricia & Helen Bradley and popularized by marketing whiz Michael Lerner, “Baby on Board” signs — which were meant to promote traffic safety — became a huge fad in 1985. According to Mental Floss, during their peak, 500,000 of the signs were sold each month and they were estimated to be in three million automobiles. For fans of The Simpsons, however, “Baby on Board” doesn't evoke cautious driving. Instead, it brings to mind a catchy little earworm in the style of barbershop quartet.
The fifth season of The Simpsons debuted with the episode “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet,” which flashes back to the year 1985. While never mentioned previously, the 1993 episode reveals that Homer was once in a very successful barbershop quartet along with Apu, Principal Skinner and Barney Gumble, who replaced Chief Wiggum before they hit it big with their signature song “Baby on Board.”
While a funny premise in its own right, the episode was a parody of the career of The Beatles, featuring literally hundreds of references to the Fab Four and even a cameo by Beatle George Harrison. Coming directly in the middle of the “Golden Age” of The Simpsons, “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” is widely regarded as a classic episode and, for those who love both The Simpsons and The Beatles, it’s a treasure trove of Easter eggs and in-jokes from start to finish.
The episode also happens to be a favorite of prolific Simpsons writer Jeff Martin, who, in addition to being credited on more than 50 Simpsons episodes, is about as big of a Beatles nerd as you’re likely to meet.
Jeff Martin, writer on The Simpsons: Believe it or not, I actually founded a barbershop quartet in my high school, it was called “The Male Harmones.” We sang stuff like “Goodnight Ladies” and other standards like that. We weren’t all that good, but we were the only barbershop quartet around so we had that going for us. I don’t think anyone knew that though when I was working for The Simpsons. It’s not exactly something I went around bragging about.
The idea for “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” wasn’t mine, I’m not sure whose it was. Honestly, there isn’t much to the idea beyond, “Let’s do a Beatles parody with Homer in a barbershop quartet.” From there, there’s just so much Beatles stuff to draw from that writing the episode came pretty naturally. I was assigned to the episode, not only because I’m a huge Beatles nerd, but because I was the guy on staff who could write a song too. I’d written songs for Letterman when I was a writer there. I also wrote the Cheers parody from “Flaming Moe’s” and the “Capital City” song when Homer became a mascot. So, because it had to be about a hit song, it was natural for me to write it.
When it came to writing the episode, we just packed as many Beatle jokes and plot points in there as we could. Obviously, when Barney replaces Chief Wiggum, that was a reference to Pete Best being replaced by Ringo. And, when Barney goes avant-garde and begins dating a Japanese conceptual artist, that’s about John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It went deeper than that too though. When The Be Sharps are listening to Barney’s new song, “Number 8,” it was a reference to “Revolution 9” by The Beatles.
Even beyond that, the poses they’re all in while they’re listening to that song came directly from a famous photograph of The Beatles. Thing is, that’s not even in the script, the animators chose to put that in. We were all big Beatles fans at The Simpsons, not just me.
Robert Rodriguez, host of Something About the Beatles podcast and award-winning author of several books on The Beatles: There are a lot of references to The Beatles in the early years of The Simpsons, well before this episode. It goes back to at least Season Two, where there was a Paul McCartney gravestone in one episode, which was a reference to “Paul is Dead.” Ringo Starr also showed up in a Season Two episode about Marge. There were lots of really deep, blink-and-you-miss-it Beatles references on the show, so when “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” came about — which was just non-stop Beatles references — it was almost like they were paying that all off.
It’s impossible to list them all, there are just so many, but the Beatle references in this episode vary from the obvious stuff to the really obscure. For example, at the end of the episode, The Be Sharps reunite and sing on the rooftop of Moe’s. That’s clearly a reference to The Beatles singing on the roof in Let It Be, which sort of symbolizes the end of their career.
Other obvious ones are the British manager, Nigel, he’s like Brian Epstein and there’s the press conference The Be Sharps do, which is like the one The Beatles did at JFK when they first came to America. Also the album, “Meet the Be Sharps” was a riff on the “Meet the Beatles!” album cover.” There are tons, man, just tons of them.
Beatles references on The Simpsons didn’t stop with this episode either. The jokes continued on and Paul McCartney eventually ended up on the show as well. Also, in a funny bit of life-imitating-art, there is a scene in this episode where they’re at the bar and Barney’s girlfriend orders “a single plum floating in perfume, served in a man's hat.” That’s funny because it’s so Yoko, but, in addition to that, Yoko herself curated an art show back in 2016 that featured that very thing as an art piece, a single plum floating in perfume, served in a man's hat.
Martin: When choosing the line-up for the Be Sharps, I kind of just went with what felt right. Homer had to be there, of course, and Skinner was a natural bass. As for the name of the band, we were throwing around a lot of names and someone suggested “The Be Sharps.” It was funny, but as we were using it more, it got less and less funny. But, instead of changing it, we just made that a joke in the episode, having Skinner say, “We need a name that’s witty at first, but that seems less funny each time you hear it.”
The song “Baby on Board” came about because we were setting the episode in the mid-1980s and we were trying to think of things that were popular in that era. Some of those things became jokes in the episode, like ALF and Al Capone’s vault. Someone mentioned those “Baby on Board” signs and we realized that that could be a song. From there, I just thought of some words that rhymed with it and fiddled with the song until it seemed done. I was really happy with it because it seemed really catchy and singable. Also, it was appropriate for barbershop, which is always pretty square and sincere.
Back then, my wife and I and our daughter had annual passes to Disneyland and we were going there constantly in those days. There’s a barbershop quartet that goes up and down Main Street USA called The Dapper Dans. So, when we were doing this episode and needed honest-to-goodness barbershop singers, I said “Let’s get The Dapper Dans.” We got in touch with them and they were happy to do it. They’re co-credited with writing the song because, even though I wrote the music and lyrics, they did the barbershop arrangement and figured out the harmonies and all of that.
Jim Campbell, bass singer of The Dapper Dans: I started with The Dapper Dans back in 1992, so this is actually my 30th year with them. I still remember back in 1992 or maybe 1993 when Jeff Martin came up to us in the park and asked “Would you guys like to be on a TV show?” We all thought he was joking, but then he followed up and the four of us were all so excited because The Simpsons was huge at the time.
Jeff sent us over his music and lyrics for “Baby on Board” and we arranged it so it could be sung barbershop. Jeff was gracious enough to cut us in on the publishing rights to the song, which he didn’t have to do. A few weeks later, we were in a studio called “The Bakery” for a four-hour recording session with some of the voice actors, which was a lot of fun. I doubled for Principal Skinner, who was voiced by Harry Shearer.
Martin: The recording session for this episode was a lot of fun — we had Hank , Dan , Harry and the four Dapper Dans. The Dapper Dans sang stuff like “Ragtime Gal” and “Sweet Adeline,” then our guys would come in and sing isolated lines. In the episode, when you can clearly hear the individual characters, that’s Dan, Hank or Harry, but when it’s all four voices harmonizing together, that’s The Dapper Dans.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t there when they recorded George Harrison. He wasn’t in the original script, but once we were putting it together we thought “Maybe we can get a Beatle to be in this.” We’d already had Ringo on so we got George Harrison, then we wrote something for him. That was recorded on the down-low with just Mike Reiss and Al Jean, so I wasn’t there for that. I have met Ringo a few times though.
George Harrison was actually why this episode was held over. It was written during Season Four, but once we had George Harrison, they decided to hold it for the premiere of Season Five.
Neil Arsenty, creator of On This Day in Simpsons History on Twitter: “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” was a great way to start the fifth season of The Simpsons. Season Five is widely seen as one of the best seasons of the show and this episode is well remembered by classic Simpsons fans. I also happen to be a huge Beatles fan, so, for those of us who happen to love both The Simpsons and The Beatles, it’s like the perfect blending of worlds, like it was written just for us.
Perhaps because “Baby on Board” is such a catchy little song, it makes the episode itself more memorable too. That song was also featured on the Songs in the Key of Springfield album and came back in the Season Nine episode episode “All Singing, All Dancing.” They also made mail-away action figures of Homer, Apu, Skinner and Barney in their Be Sharps outfits as part of the World of Springfield toy line in the early 2000s.
Beyond that, in more recent years, this episode is the source of the "It's Been Done" Simpsons meme with George Harrison, which is very popular in Simpsons shitposts.
Martin: This was a very happy episode to do because everyone had plenty of Beatles stuff to draw from and we were all such fans. Plus, putting together the music was a lot of fun. I’m still proud of that song. A few years ago, I was back at Disneyland and I saw The Dapper Dans there. I asked them to sing “Baby on Board” and, I guess for legal reasons, they couldn’t. Then I asked them, “Does anyone ever ask for it?” and they said “Every day.”
Campbell: Yeah, even now, people still ask us if we know “Baby on Board,” so it’s had a lasting impact. Unfortunately, when people ask, we tell them that we don’t sing it. However, because Disney recently bought Fox, maybe there’s a way we could do it now. Who knows, maybe there’ll be some sort of “Baby on Board” resurgence because of it.