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 Milhouse Van Houten.
Milhouse Van Houten is the chump to end all chumps. His father was a chump. He comes from a long line of chumps. He was born a chump, and he’ll die a chump. He knows his place on the social hierarchy — higher than Martin, lower than Nelson — as he explains to Bart, “We still get beat up, but at least we get an explanation.”
Unfortunately for Milhouse, the explanation is usually “you’re Milhouse.” A scene from Brother From The Same Planet illustrates Milhouse’s place in the classroom perfectly:
[Bart’s class is having Show and Tell]
Bart: Someday, I want to be an F-14 pilot like my hero, Tom. He lent me this new weapon called a neural disrupter.
[Bart demonstrates the sheer power of the neural disrupter by shooting it at Martin’s forehead]
[falls down on the ground, twitching]
Mrs. Krabappel: He’s not dead, is he Bart?
Bart: Nah, but I wouldn’t give him any homework for a while.
Mrs. Krabappel: Very good, Bart. Thank you.
Bart: Oh, don’t thank me. Thank an unprecedented eight-year military build-up.
Mrs. Krabappel: Mmm. Milhouse, you’re next.
Milhouse: Uh, I have a horsey.
[mimics his toy horse neighing before trailing off]
Milhouse is perhaps best described by what is not: he’s not unlucky enough to be Martin, he doesn’t get shot in the face with a neural disruptor. But he’ll never be friends with an F-14 pilot, and he’s exactly the kind of loser who would follow an act like that with something as childish and boring as a toy horse. And he’d call it a “horsey” instead of a horse, which is exactly the wrong thing to say in the fourth grade. It’s something only a wuss would say.
Milhouse is the kind of kid who has a good idea once every couple of years (coming up with the character name Thrillhouse when he’s playing Bonestorm), but somehow still manages to ruin it for himself.
There is a well-known scene on Parks and Recreation where Ron Swanson describes his coworker Jerry thusly: “A schlemiel is the guy who spills soup at a fancy party. A schlamazel is the guy he spills it on. Jerry is both the schlemiel and the schlamazel.”
Milhouse, too, is both the schlemiel and the schlamazel. Even his best friend’s dad refers to him as “that little weiner kid.” He was born to play second banana. His dad works at a cracker factory and sleeps in a racecar bed and gets conned by women who use lines like “Can I have the keys to the car, lover? I feel like changing wigs.” He’s not quite smart enough to figure things out when someone’s pulling one over him, but he knows when he’s been wronged. In The Canine Mutiny, Milhouse comes impressively close to calling Bart out for gaslighting him:
“Remember when your dog ate my goldfish, and then you lied to me and said I never had any goldfish. But why did I have the bowl Bart? Why did I have the bowl?”
Even a chump knows if you have a bowl, you’re supposed to put goldfish in it. Even a chump will eventually figure it out, if he’s been cheated.
Milhouse: Bart, I don’t want you to see me cry.
Bart: Aw, come on, I’ve seen you cry a million times. You cry when you scrape your knee, you cry when we’re out of chocolate milk, you cry when you’re doing long division and you have a remainder left over.
Milhouse: Well, I didn’t want you to see me cry this time.
Everything bad that can happen to Bart, happens to Milhouse — but it’s always just a little bit worse. In Boy Scoutz ‘N The Hood, Bart accidentally joins the Junior Campers on a Squishee Bender; Milhouse gets a curse word shaved into the back of his head and is dragged off by Principal Skinner, who threatens to shave him as a reminder that “hair is not a right, it’s a privilege.” In “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily,” Bart and Milhouse both spend the afternoon playing with the same monkey and Bart gets lice (“No fair! Why didn’t anything bad happen to Milhouse?”); Milhouse is last seen shivering and green, muttering “So cold…so very cold” to himself.
He’s the second banana wherever Bart goes, which is perhaps why in every other town, there’s a Milhouse waiting for him. In “You Only Move Twice,” a blue-haired kid with glasses runs up to Bart and asks if he has a best friend yet, in a tone that can only be described as “lickspittle-esque.”
In “Lemon of Troy,” Milhouse encounters his own Shelbyvilleian doppelganger, and they embrace over the pain of having the same first name.
“Is this the untimely end of Milhouse?”
“But Milhouse is my name!”
“But I thought I was the only one!”
“A pain I know all too well.”
It’s a nice moment of recognition for him, but it’s also a reminder that there is nothing unique about Milhouse. There’s a Milhouse in every town.
At one point, Bart gets Milhouse placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and a cutaway scene shows Milhouse running from a terrifying federal agent in a scene lifted straight from The Fugitive. “I’m innocent,” Milhouse says.
“I don’t care,” the agent says, and Milhouse jumps off the edge of the dam. As he reaches the bottom, we hear a faint cry drift up from the falls:
He may be a chump, but he’s still just a kid.
Mr. Largo: Miss Simpson, do you find something funny about the word “tromboner”?
Lisa: No, sir. I was laughing at something outside.
Sherri: She was looking at Nelson!
Class: Lisa likes Nelson!
Milhouse: She does not!
Class: Milhouse likes Lisa!
Janey: He does not!
Class: Janey likes Milhouse!
Uter: She does not!
Class: Uter likes Milhouse!
Mr. Largo: Nobody likes Milhouse! Lisa, you’ve got detention!
One of Milhouse’s most defining characteristics is his undying devotion for Lisa, who is at best politely indifferent and at worst grossed out by his attentions. In “Lisa’s Date With Density,” she asks him to take a note to her new crush Nelson, and Milhouse can’t understand why she doesn’t like him in the same way.
“You’re more like a big sister,” she tells him (how infinitely cruel! How true! The most painful jabs always come from people who do not even realize they are insulting you.)
“Why does everyone keep saying that?” Milhouse groans, in an exquisitely painful detail. Most romantic false leads at least hear “you’re like a brother to me.” Milhouse doesn’t even get the dignity of keeping his own gender.
Always his own worst enemy, Milhouse tells himself “if she sees you’ll do anything for her, she’s bound to respect you” (an argument only a ten-year-old could buy, and yet how many of us have fallen prey to it in our lifetimes?) and carries the note. He tells Lisa in a bright, cheery voice, “What are big sisters for?” before realizing instantly what a mistake he’s made.
But he still carries the note.
There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag in “Rosebud” where Mr. Burns starts a campaign to find his missing childhood teddy bear, and a series of milk cartons asking if anyone has seen Milhouse — who has presumably been kidnapped — are papered over with pictures of Bobo. (Nobody likes Milhouse.)
More than anyone else on the show, Milhouse represents the anxieties of a regular kid. Most kids are lucky enough not to be Martin or Ralph. Most kids aren’t angry enough to be Nelson or cool enough to be Bart. But most kids have to wear glasses, and most kids worry about their parents getting divorced, and most kids worry that even their teacher can tell nobody likes them, and most kids are afraid that if they go missing, no one will notice.
Being Milhouse is the worst thing that is likely to happen to you.
Milhouse: Step over this line and say that. I’ll kick your butt… at Nintendo.
It’s Milhouse’s eternal schlemiel status that make the little victories — which are few and far between for him — so sweet. It takes ten seasons, but he finally gets a win when Springfield gets flooded in “Mom and Pop Art.” He hates his flood pants — of course Milhouse has flood pants — but is delighted when the waters rush into his room and stop mid-ankle.
“My feet are soaked,” he cries out in joy, “but my cuffs are bone dry. Everything’s coming up Milhouse!”
He then high-steps his way out of the room, as perfectly and uncomplicatedly happy as he will ever be. When nothing ever goes your way, sometimes dry cuffs are enough.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.