March 23, 2010
Holy Homer! Sacha Baron Cohen guides Simpsons through Jerusalem in March 28 episode
For once, Jews, Christians and Muslims will be united — in anger at Homer Simpson, who believes he’s the Messiah in an upcoming episode of “The Simpsons.”
Set to air nationally on March 28, the Sunday before Passover begins, which is also Palm Sunday, “The Greatest Story Ever D’ohed” finds the Simpson family visiting Jerusalem with a surly Israeli tour guide voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen.
Executive producer Al Jean, who has been with “The Simpsons” since its launch in 1989, says the episode focuses exclusively on the family’s experiences in Jerusalem and doesn’t venture into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It’s a 20-minute show, so there’s a limited scope,” he said.
Instead, Jean says, the writers drew on their own Israel experiences to create a Jerusalem that’s fanciful but relatable to real life in the Holy Land.
Kevin Curran wrote the script, along with Mike Reiss and Joel Cohen.
In addition to his role in the episode, Baron Cohen, who lived for a year in Israel with the Habonim Dror Shnat, joined the writers for an hour to pitch jokes for the show.
“He would ad lib just amazingly,” Jean said of the “Borat” actor. “As funny an actor as I’ve ever worked with. He’s just brilliant.”
In one scene, tour guide Jacob (Baron Cohen) presses the Simpsons for positive marks on a comment card. When Marge accuses him of being “pushy,” he snaps back, “Try living next to Syria for two months and see how laid back you are.”
Ned Flanders, the Simpsons’ neighbor who has taken it upon himself to redeem Homer, is the one who invited the Simpsons on a Christian tour of the Holy Land.
“[Flanders] feels that when Homer sees the sacred sites, he’ll become a good person,” Jean said in a phone interview.
When the family visits the Western Wall, Bart reads some of the notes and responds: “Nope, not gonna happen.” At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Homer’s behavior gets Flanders banned for life.
But it is the Israeli hotel’s opulent breakfast buffet that appeals most to Homer.
In the end, Jean said, “Homer tries to unite the faiths through a message of peace and chicken, because everybody eats chicken, no matter what religion they’re in.”
“The Simpsons” has delved into Jewish subject matter in the past, including an adult bar mitzvah for Krusty the Clown (Hebrew name: Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofski) and a 2006 “Treehouse of Horrors” segment titled, “You Gotta Know When to Golem.”
Throughout its 21 seasons, “The Simpsons” has taken several trips abroad, including to Australia, Japan, France and the United Kingdom. But a 2002 visit to Brazil drew controversy.
In Brazil, Riotur, Rio de Janeiro’s tourist board, claimed the episode, “Blame It on Lisa,” depicted the city as infested with rats and monkeys and rife with crime.
“What really hurt was the idea of the monkeys, the image that Rio de Janeiro was a jungle. It’s a completely unreal image of the city,” a Riotur spokesman said at the time.
Riotur threatened to sue the producers.
“Every other place has had a good sense of humor. Brazil caught us by surprise,” Jean said, adding that Riotur was even aggravated by the image of people going from place to place in a conga line.
“Obviously we don’t want to be too tame, but I also don’t want to make anyone feel we’re trying to belittle them,” Jean said.
The writers haven’t run jokes by clergy from any of the Abrahamic faiths, but Jean said he’s not worried about the reaction of viewers in Israel, who will see the episode at a later date: “I believe there are more problems in the area than our little cartoon.”