The world owes a great deal to minor Simpsons characters, and I have taken it upon myself to periodically-yet-irregularly celebrate them as the spirit moves me. Today we honor Ralph Wiggum.
There is no place on the social structure for a second-grade boy who thinks rats are “pointy kitties” and calls his teacher “Mommy.” Kids can be misfits (Milhouse), or they can be brownnosers (Martin), or they can be troublemakers (Nelson), or they can be tattle-tales (Sherri and Terri), but being Ralph is simply not a taxonomically viable option.
Ralph is not a rule-follower like Lisa, nor a rule-breaker like Bart; Ralph does not observe the rules because he is almost completely unaware of them. More than any of the other students at Springfield Elementary, Ralph is a child. Bart and Lisa and Milhouse and Nelson and Janey are kids, and therein lies the difference. Ralph sees things that aren’t there (“Ralph, remember the time you said Snagglepuss was outside?” “He was going to the bathroom!”), eats paste, picks his nose, volunteers unprompted, nonsensical declarations (“My cat’s breath smells like cat food”) disguised as Zen koans. His character is sometimes written as dim-but-profound, sometimes borderline-psychotic, and occasionally developmentally disabled, but more than anything else, Ralph like what he is: a child who hasn’t yet aged into a kid, which is one of the most embarrassing things a child can be.
In Season Three’s “Lisa’s Pony,” Ralph makes one of his earliest speaking appearances, although his voice sounds entirely different and his character is nothing like what we will see in future episodes. Lisa gallops past a clutch of second-graders on Princess, and Ralph exclaims in upper-crust tones: “Yes, but what man can tame her?”
Later, in “Lisa the Beauty Queen,” Ralph plays half of a Pat-and-Mike routine that gets off one of the best lines in Simpsons history after watching Lisa totter by in her lightning-blackened Little Miss Springfield ensemble:
Blonde Boy: Love that chewing-gum walk!
Proto-Ralph: Ver-ry Wrigley!
It’s still nothing near the canonical Ralph who will go on to bend his Wookie and get too many nosebleeds, but it’s a scene I could watch on repeat for hours. Part of me wishes there was still a place in Springfield Elementary for two tiny, patter-talking Casanovas.
By Ralph’s first turn in the spotlight in “I Love Lisa,” his characterization is set: he’s not allowed to use scissors, not even the safety variety. Ms. Hoover — hardly a defender of the defenseless to begin with — tells him that “the other children are right to laugh.” And they do.
The other students start distributing Valentines to one another, and Ralph slowly realizes that no one — no one — is going to give him one. It’s one of the relatively few moments on the show where Ralph seems aware of how other people see him, that he’s friendless and weird and utterly unacceptable, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking.
Lisa can’t stand watching Ralph cry any more than we can, and she tosses him a hastily-signed card that reads “I Choo-Choo-Choose You,” and Ralph is utterly delighted. It’s a particularly lovely moment, not just because Lisa saves him from humiliation, but because it’s one of the rare moments when Ralph is in on the joke. How often does Ms. Hoover take the time to make sure Ralph understands what he’s reading? He spends all day in school, and Lisa’s the first person to ever take a second to teach him. The train goes choo-choo, and she choo-choo-chooses him.
He gets the joke, and for once the punchline isn’t him.
One of the most endearing parts of Ralph’s backstory is how supportive and warm his home life is. Anyone who fits in that badly at school deserves a loving set of parents. They don’t always get it.
His father, Chief Wiggum, is usually depicted as Ralph with a nightstick and a gun (which is part of what makes Chief Wiggum ridiculous while Ralph remains lovable; Ralph has no actual power to abuse), and regularly takes his son out on patrol with him. He’s happy to tolerate Ralph’s quirks (Wiggle Puppy — the character Ralph inhabits when he drops to all fours, runs around in a circle, and barks — comes foremost to mind) and quick to dispense fatherly advice when Ralph comes to him with girl problems. “A woman’s a lot like a nut, son,” Chief Wiggum says, before pulling out his gun and shooting a walnut open in frustration.
But Ralph is more than Chief Wiggum minus power. Ralph’s goodness is not the absence of malice. Ralph’s goodness is pure and unself-conscious. “Was President Lincoln okay?” he asks Ms. Hoover worriedly after learning of the Ford Theater assassination. It’s the last day of school, and everyone else has already left for the summer. Ralph’s not leaving until he makes sure that President Lincoln is doing all right.
Ms. Hoover does the only thing. “He was fine.”
Ralph can go home after that. No one will suffer alone as long as Ralph is around.
Unfortunately for Lisa, Ralph does not know how to love by halves. It would be easy to mistake Ralph for an early version of the Dogged Nice Guy, who can’t take no for an answer, but that’s not the case at all here. Lisa’s too nice to tell him that while she feels sorry for him, she doesn’t actually want to be around him; she’s kind enough not to let him get hurt, but not so kind she’ll be friends with someone who calls Superintendent Chalmers “Super Nintendo Chalmers.”
He thinks she’s his girlfriend, but she’s not even really his friend. He doesn’t know any better. Ralph never does.
Lisa finally snaps when Ralph announces they’re boyfriend and girlfriend at the Krusty special — “I don’t like you, I never liked you,” she says.
“You can actually pinpoint the second when his heart rips in half,” Bart says later, watching the rejection on tape, then gleefully rewinding it.
I love that Lisa has a little bow in her hair and a larger strand of pearls, and that Ralph is wearing a coat and tie. That’s exactly how two little kids dressed up by their parents for a formal event would look; it makes his heartbreak look all the more adult.
One of the funniest, most poignant moments in the episode come when Ralph delivers a bravura performance as George Washington in the school play (“But couldn’t we just give in to the British?” “NEVER!“) and Patty, overwhelmed, sinks into her seat and mutters, “Now there’s a real man.” Ralph is full of hidden surprises.
What I love most about the ending to “I Love Lisa” is that it puts Lisa and Ralph back on equal footing. He’s revealed a surprising depth of character — she’s made her feelings explicit with a new Valentine’s Day card (“Let’s BEE friends!”) — and they swing under the watchful gaze of Chief Wiggum, who turns off the radio after reports of a robbery in progress. He’s not the Chief of Police tonight. He’s just a dad.
This moment in “Lisa’s Rival” is the quintessence of Ralph; his life is equal parts charmed and cursed. He’s won the diorama fair that both Lisa and Allison have half-killed themselves for by bringing in a box of Star Wars figurines in their original wrappings…which he trips and falls over before uttering the now-famous line, “I bent my Wookie.”
When Lisa and Allison invite Ralph to come over and play anagrams with them, they find a way to challenge without hurting each other. It’s clear that the field is not level — has never been level — and the object becomes no longer to win but simply to play.
Lisa: Hey Ralph, want to come with me and Alison to play “Anagrams”?
Alison: We take proper names and rearrange the letters to form a description of that person.
Ralph: My cat’s breath smells like cat food.
Ralph’s answer isn’t right, but he’s telling the truth.
Let us pause in a moment of silence for Milhouse, whose hopeless affection for Lisa will never be returned; even in her worst fears for the future, the worst thing she can imagine (“Lisa the Simpson,” Season 9) is being married to Ralph. Being married to Milhouse is not even an option in her worst nightmares.
Ralph is so memorable in part because he is the most real of all the Simpsons characters; as outlandish as his behavior can sometimes seem, he’s as real as a cartoon boy gets. He’s covered in chocolate. His toys are sticky. He gets stuck in Chinese Finger traps, and his mom has to arrange playdates for him.
Look at what happens to the two students who “obviously had no help from their parents” during the school pageant in “$pringfield”:
Even Lisa, one of the smartest kids in school, can’t do better than Homer’s thrown-together foam-rubber number. And Ralph? He’s Idaho. Everyone can tell he’s Idaho.
“I’m Idaho!” Ralph announces.
“Yes, of course you are,” Principal Skinner says, and he’s right.
In “Lisa The Greek,” Ralph gives a report about “the happiest day of his life” to the rest of Miss Hoover’s class. It was the day the doctor told him “[he] didn’t have worms anymore.” The children laugh at him, and maybe, as usual, they’re right to — it’s a bit too personal, a little ridiculous, a little childish, especially compared to Lisa’s subsequent ode to professional sports — but if you were just eight years old, and you had worms, and the doctor got rid of them for you, well, that might be the happiest day of your life, too.
Ralph knows how to be happy. You don’t have to be happy for him. He’ll be happy enough for himself.