You know the name.
In November 1992, a Simpsons episode premiered that fans and critics would go on to call one of the best in the animated sitcom’s running 28-year history: “Mr. Plow.” The idea, that Homer buys a massive truck and pays for it by becoming Springfield’s snow removal hero, was born out of a single desire: Writer Jon Vitti wanted to meet Adam West.
Now, 25 years later, the crew and cast — including Dan Castellaneta, who grants few interviews — dish on the genius of the earworm Mr. Plow theme, classic jokes (the radio dial saving Homer’s truck from going over an icy cliff) and one-liners (“This is Tony Plow, you know, from Leave It to Beaver. Yeah, they were gay”) to worries over Barney’s bare butt and God playing a role in the episode.
Castellaneta would win his second Emmy for outstanding voiceover performance for his work as both Homer and his best friend turned rival, Barney, aka the Plow King. The Simpsons team would take such pride in “Mr. Plow,” the ninth episode of the fourth season, it would be submitted for an outstanding comedy series Emmy.
With an opening credits chalkboard gag of “A burp is not an answer” and couch gag of the Simpson family sitting on a small wooden chair, episode producer Conan O’Brien would call “Mr. Plow” one of the most complete pitches ever delivered to the writers room.
The daughter of Adam West credits the episode for helping to give her late father’s career its second act. And, for the first time, the daughter of the late Phil Hartman speaks of her father’s work on the series and fans’ undying love for his iconic characters in The Hollywood Reporter’s visit to Springfield for the oral history of “Mr. Plow.”
Al Jean, executive producer: Going into season four, we had lost some of our top writers because they’d taken development deals. And we were — or at least I was — nervous about being on this enormous hit with a small staff and not knowing what was going to be coming next. There were shows like Mork & Mindy, which were huge at first and then fell off quickly, and people thought The Simpsons might do the same. It was a real make-or-break season in my mind, so when Jon [Vitti] pitched “Mr. Plow,” I was ecstatic.
Jon Vitti, writer: I wanted to do a winter episode, and then it occurred to me that if Homer bought a snow plow, we could have him go to the car show, and Adam West could be at the car show, and I could meet Adam West. The story of Homer’s briefly realized dream and the bitter duel between friends was mostly a means to those two ends.
Conan O’Brien, producer: I remember all of us thinking immediately, “This is a terrific episode.”
Jim Reardon, director: I think I directed 10 episodes before “Mr. Plow.” Those scripts were solid gold. They were getting into the area of guest stars. We had only just finally mastered drawing our own characters really well and then had to start drawing real people. Fortunately, character designers Dale Hendrickson and Scott Alberts were getting quite apt at portraying real people with overbites.
Yeardley Smith, Lisa Simpson: The character designs hadn’t been completely refined by “Mr. Plow,” so there are still a few tiny leftover vestiges from the animation like [it appeared] on The Tracey Ullman Show. We don’t look quite as cute and cuddly in “Mr. Plow” as we do today.
Vitti: [Creative supervisor] Sam Simon, who didn’t do this, went way overboard and called it the best story pitch he’d ever heard — I’m sure it wasn’t, I saw him hear better ones — which mostly annoyed my co-writers and made me feel a terrible burden of expectation. “Mr. Plow” didn’t have an exceptional table reading or color screening or anything. I spent most of my time on the episode feeling that I’d let Sam down.
Dan Castellaneta, Homer Simpson, Barney Gumble, assorted characters: We didn’t know we were doing a classic at the time. We were just doing a show, but I remember thinking it was a very funny episode. It actually had some heart.
O’Brien: There is a process on The Simpsons where someone brings in an episode, and we all jump in on it and add things to it. “Mr. Plow” was an episode that really needed no help. We added very little touches here and there, but that is pure Vitti.
Jean: Adam West came to The Simpsons’ recording stage, and of course, we were all just in heaven.
Castellaneta: I had never seen so many people come to the stage to see one of our guest stars. All the writers showed up and so forth.
Smith: All of a sudden it was like, “Who are all you guys?”
Castellaneta: As a big fan of Batman growing up, I was saying to myself, “I can’t believe I’m recording with Batman!” That was a big deal with him as a guest.
Nina Tooley, Adam West’s daughter: It was one of the first animated series he did voiceover for. It was a milestone in his career as it was the beginning of him discovering this fan base that appreciated his self-deprecating humor and an entire new generation of fans. He loved doing voiceover. Creatively, it was very fulfilling for him.
Vitti: I never felt the love of my co-writers like I did that afternoon. We came back from the recording session and [executive producer] Mike Reiss turned to me and said, “You did a great thing today.” It was the nicest thing he ever said about anything I ever wrote. So many of us will always be grateful to Seth MacFarlane for giving him that great Family Guy [Mayor West] role.
Tooley: He did a lot of car shows because they were like Comic-Con before that was mainstream. He loved connecting with his fans. It didn’t matter what kind of mood he was in, whether he wanted to do the car show or not, he delivered a positive experience for everyone who shook his hand. And I really believe those car shows were sowing the seeds for later when he would go on to do The Simpsons and then Family Guy.
Jean: Linda Ronstadt was not in the original pitch.
Vitti: The show flew me up to San Francisco to record Linda Ronstadt. I stood 10 feet away from her when she sang the “Spanish Plow King” song. You think her voice couldn’t be more gorgeous, but then you hear it live. The “Spanish Plow King” song remains the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.
Reardon: I remember we couldn’t figure out what Linda Ronstadt should be wearing and it was decided that, well, she is singing mariachi so some sort of mariachi costume, which we heard back she was surprised by that selection.
Vitti: I “wrote” the Mr. Plow jingle by accident. I’m completely nonmusical and wrote that jingle into my draft as a temporary placeholder until Jeff Martin could write something good. It was so terrible that Mike and Al left it in the show. Jeff wrote the Plow King tune, which is why it’s so much better than the Mr. Plow song.
Smith: Homer became a much more multifaceted, marshmallow-hearted man in later episodes. And I think this is the first time we crept up to that line, but we still didn’t cross it. So, he maintains some of that edge to him.
Castellaneta: It was the first time they used Barney not as a gag, but as a full-blown character.
Smith: I love that this is the episode where we find out how Barney became an alcoholic. It is such a heartbreaking moment.
Vitti: We liked to complicate the rooting interests in our stories and remember that our protagonists are seriously flawed people.
Reardon: I do remember there was the scene where Barney has his first beer and they were concerned at the time because there was a similar scene in Taxi when Christopher Lloyd (Jim Ignatowski) smokes his first joint. And they wanted to make sure it didn’t seem like an obvious repeat of the same joke. So, it occurred to me to do that transformation, like in monster movies such as Wolfman, where he would change and they would do the slow cross-dissolves of adding hair to his face. And I remembered they never registered them right, there were always details that moved slightly. So, I just imitated that.
Jean: One joke that came in that was definitely Conan’s was the radio dial saving the truck from going over the cliff.
O’Brien: What’s funny to me now is my 11-year-old son likes the joke, and he’s never even seen a radio like that. And I realized it is the equivalent of the Coyote getting hit with an anvil while chasing the Roadrunner. Writers of my generation only know what an anvil is because we’ve seen them on Warner Bros. cartoons, but we’d never actually seen one. Who uses an anvil?
Mike Reiss, executive producer: Someone came in and said, “William Friedkin is a big fan of the show.” This was early enough that we still weren’t sure who our famous fans were, but we said, “Let’s write in a joke just for William Friedkin,” which was the rickety old bridge from [the 1977 thriller] Sorcerer. That was the only time we wrote one joke for a single person. And we had no idea if he would ever see it. I found out 24 years later he saw it and loved it.
Vitti: Mike had the original thought that Homer in his Mr. Plow jacket would get Marge’s engines running, which ultimately gave us our ending. You always love anyone who gives you your ending.
Reiss: I don’t remember coming up with that, but I’ll take full credit.
Jean: Barney was naked at one brief point, and I was worried we were going a little too far there. Nakedness had actually increased on the show, but then, after the Janet Jackson [Super Bowl halftime] incident, the network said you can’t show people’s butts, so we are actually in a more conservative era now than we were then.
Reardon: When Barney gets stuck up in the mountains, that was a sticking point. There were more scenes of Barney stuck in the snow. And they were fairly serious scenes, but they didn’t play. I remember Mike and Al saying the problem is every time you see Barney, you are preconditioned to laugh, so it is hard to take his plight seriously. They had to go back and rewrite some of the dialogue and add more jokes of Homer coming up the mountain.
Smith: Homer is facing defeat in this episode, and I do love that he came up with the solution that he and Barney will work together.
Jean: God actually exists in that episode and takes physical form in the war between Homer and Barney. The first few seasons were more grounded in reality. If there was a fanciful fight, it would be a Halloween episode or a dream, so in the fourth season, we were concerned that we might be bending reality a little more than we should. (Previously, God only appeared in a dream in “Homer the Heretic.”)
Reiss: I go, “Wow. That’s really crazy even for our show, to actually have God talking.”
Vitti: Clearly it’s a mistake to challenge God on his ability to control the weather.
Jean: I believe the Tony Dow [Leave It to Beaver] line was originally “He was gay,” allowed in [by censors] when changed to “they” because then it was unclear whom “they” referred to.
Smith: It was so heartbreaking to hear Phil Hartman [during a recent viewing]. He was a master of none.
Jean: I know after we did his first recording for the series, Phil said he didn’t want to do it all the time, but then we kept coming back and saying please do another one. He was the best and still greatly missed.
Birgen Hartman, Phil Hartman’s daughter: It’s great that people still love and remember my dad’s characters on The Simpsons. Even after 20-plus years, I still see people quoting Lionel Hutz or sharing Troy McClure memes. The fact that those characters have carried themselves into the modern day and have remained relevant is just so cool to see, and I think my dad would have been proud of that.
Jean: An episode like “Mr. Plow” showcases how versatile someone like Dan is because he’s doing both parts of the dynamic as well as other voices in the episode and you don’t even realize it. The man just disappears into these characters. He deserved his Emmy win.
Castellaneta: That was pretty special.
Jean: We loved the episode so much, it went into the regular Emmy category for comedy series. When people say they love season four, then I am glad we tried for the regular Emmy category that year because we gave it our best shot and if it didn’t work then, I don’t know when it would have.
Castellaneta: I think it ranks up in my top 10. It had so much stuff going for it. It was a classic Simpsons episode where they worked in the guests really well and filled it with a lot of great jokes. And it was a chance for me to play the two main roles.
Vitti: I’m especially happy when people remember it because it was my story from my hometown culture. I worked at my uncle’s gas station and met a lot of guys who paid for their pickup trucks with their snow plows. But honestly, if you’d told me after the table reading that anybody would remember it at all in 25 years, I would have been very happy.