Previously in this series: Not Allowed In The Deep End — Ralph Wiggum.
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 Edna Krabappel.
There’s a scene in Some Like It Hot where Marilyn Monroe’s character (Sugar Kane!) smiles heartbreakingly at Tony-Curtis-as-Josephine and explains why she’s running away from men:
I’m not very bright, I guess, just dumb. If I had any brains, I wouldn’t be on this crummy train with this crummy girls’ band. I used to sing with male bands but I can’t afford it anymore. That’s what I’m running away from. I worked with six different ones in the last two years. Oh, brother! I can’t trust myself…All they have to do is play eight bars of ‘Come to Me, My Melancholy Baby’ and my spine turns to custard. I get goose pimply all over and I come to ’em, every time. That’s why I joined this band. Safety first. Anything to get away from those bums. You don’t know what they’re like. You fall for ’em and you really love ’em – you think this is gonna be the biggest thing since the Graf Zeppelin – and the next thing you know, they’re borrowing money from you and spending it on other dames and betting on horses. Then one morning you wake up, the guy is gone, the saxophone’s gone, all that’s left behind is a pair of old socks and a tube of toothpaste, all squeezed out. So you pull yourself together. You go on to the next job, the next saxophone player. It’s the same thing all over again. You see what I mean? Not very bright. I can tell you one thing – it’s not gonna happen to me again – ever. I’m tired of getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop.
This is the story of Mrs. Krabappel’s life; one fuzzy lollipop after the other. She’s one of the only characters in the series who hasn’t spent her whole life in Springfield. She’s been to college — Bryn Mawr! — and now she’s in a nowhere town teaching “a bunch of dead-eyed fourth graders while [my] husband runs naked on a beach somewhere with [our] marriage counselor.”
He apparently takes some time off from tropical bliss to mess with her; in season 3’s “Bart The Lover,” Mrs. Krabappel’s car breaks down and her mechanic tells her “Bingo, bango, sugar in the gas tank. Your ex-husband strikes again.” The casual bingo, bango delivery is perhaps the cruelest touch of all; she can’t catch a break.
When Edna describes her perfect boyfriend to Bart — who’s “the closest thing to a man in my life” — during detention, she says she wants someone who “likes the way I look first thing in the morning, laughs at my jokes, can fix my car.” It’s a particularly poignant moment — she’s not just looking for someone to fix her car because she doesn’t have the time or inclination to fix it herself; she’s looking for someone who will fix her car because the last man in her life keeps breaking it. She wants someone who’s interesting in making her life better, instead of actively sabotaging it. That’s such a small request, and it’s all she wants.
There’s a nice little call-forward in that same episode, by the way — when Edna calls the Springfield newspaper to place a personal ad, she screams out “I NEED A MAN!” so loudly she scares her cat. Who do we immediately cut to?
Under a spotlight, no less. Your time will come, Seymour.
Bart’s perspective of Mrs. Krabappel changes significantly over the course of “Bart the Lover.” It’s the first episode where he realizes that she’s a person. He poses as a man named Woodrow who “really hates yo-yos” and responds to Edna’s personal ad (as revenge for her confiscating his yo-yo), leading her to fall in love with a man who doesn’t really exist.
Bart only learns to empathize with her after he’s humiliated her. At the beginning of the episode, he imagines himself as a giant, flicking a huge yo-yo at a tiny Mrs. K; by the end of the episode, he works frantically to preserve her dignity and her feelings. There’s an unutterably sad montage where Mrs. Krabappel tries on a series of outfits for what she thinks will be her first date with Woodrow. She absolutely comes alive — she smiles into the mirror more than she’s smiled for the rest of the season. Bart walks past her waiting expectantly for her date and laughs as he walks into a nearby movie theater; when he walks back out a few hours later, still laughing, he sees her still waiting, but no longer expectant. The candle has burned to a stub. A waiter comes by and takes up the chairs. Edna sags.
Bart “can’t help but feel partly responsible,” in the way that only a child who is just beginning to learn about responsibility and other people’s feelings can. There’s a particular stage in childhood, when you only begin to realize someone else can have feelings the same way you do after you have hurt them. Bart reaches that stage in this episode. Edna is humiliated, but the audience is never invited to laugh at her. Her loneliness isn’t a joke, and neither is she.
After that moment, things change between the two of them — they continue to butt heads, but Mrs. Krabappel is never again Bart’s enemy. He confesses what he’s done to his mother, who helps him devise a plan to keep Edna from being further humiliated.
Edna’s interest in her students, and toward teaching in general, waxes and wanes according to the Rule of Funny, but for the most part she reminds me of a lot of the teachers I’ve had over the years: a genuinely good person who’s overburdened, underpaid, and forced to make do with not nearly enough resources to do her job. “The only books we have are the ones that have been banned from other schools!” she tells Principal Skinner, gesturing at a copy of TekWar and The Satanic Verses.
She’s willing to let the district move federal prisoners into the coat room to make extra money, sure, but she also jabs seagulls away from the trash heap in Bart’s desk. She’s fought a lot of battles at this point; she’s not going to go out of her way to look for more. Some days all you can do is keep the seagulls from getting too close to the students.
In the first few seasons, most of her interactions are necessarily with Bart; as the series progresses we get a chance to see her smoke and dish dirt with Ms. Hoover, spar with Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers, and alternately fawn over and push away Martin (who can’t stop baking her Raisin Roundies, even after she gives them to Bart’s dog). It’s in Bart Gets An F that we see the genuine good heart underneath Krabappel’s cynical exterior:
“What’s the matter, Bart? I figure you’d be used to failing by now.”
“No… you don’t understand. I tried. I really tried. This is as good as I could get! And I still failed!”
She tries awkwardly to comfort him that a 59 is a high F; when Bart cries out brokenly that now he knows how George Washington must have felt after surrendering Fort Necessity, Krabappel flips to the answer section (in another nice call-forward to “Separate Vocations,” when Lisa steals the teacher’s editions of every textbook in school and the teachers completely lose control of their classrooms) and gives him an extra point, pushing him into D- territory.
He never graduates the fourth grade, anyhow — nobody does — but he passes. Barely — she presses her fingers together to remind him of just how barely he squeaked through — but she passes him, just the same. He earned it.
It’s not the last time she goes to bat for a student, either. In one of the series’ greatest episodes, “The PTA Disbands,” she leads the other teachers on a strike against the school district until they get better teaching materials; her argument with Principal Skinner over resource allocation boils down to “C’mon” and the rubbing of fingers together to symbolize money. (She wins.)
She’s still hilariously and unbelievably inappropriate with her students, often forgetting that she is not perched on a stool and they are not tiny bartenders. As the fourth-graders watch a filmstrip on puberty featuring anthropomorphic bunnies who fall in love and get married, Mrs. K lights a cigarette in the classroom and announces “She’s faking it,” in the louchest, most world-weary voice imaginable.
Mrs. Krabappel’s sexual desirability and availability fluctuates wildly from episode to episode; in “Flaming Moe” she’s a sex-hungry monster who scares men more than she turns them on. She steals Aerosmith’s Joey Kramer’s drumsticks, while he plaintively begs for them, clearly terrified: “Mrs. Krabappel, I really need my drumsticks.”
She places the end of one drumstick in her mouth and says “Then come and get ’em, big boy.”
Earlier that same episode, she throws herself at Homer, asking him if he’s a single parent and suggesting that he pretend to be one when he tells her he isn’t. He barely wriggles free from her tube-top embrace.
Some of Edna’s on-screen conquests include a master sushi chef:
and, as Sideshow Bob so famously reminds Bart after interrupting their date, “You only get one chance with Edna Krabappel.”
It’s my belief that the romance between Edna Krabappel and Seymour Skinner is the most poignant, realistic, heartrending and earned relationship in television history. They have enough of a history together that by the time they kiss in “Grade School Confidential,” it feels like the plausibly best thing that could have happened to either of them. It’s not a dream come true, exactly, but it’s a welcome escape from what they have, and it makes the both of them quietly and enormously happy.
The dialogue isn’t Tracy-and-Hepburn, but it still breaks your heart.
“Mind if I sit down?”
“It’s a free country.”
“I, I don’t follow you.”
“Oh…just sit down, Seymour. It might be nice to talk to a grown-up for a change.”
“Well this party is certainly a break in my routine. You know, normally I spend my Saturdays carefully laying out my clothes for the following week, then I stroll down to the car wash to see if Gus is there.”
“Oh, yeah, you gotta keep busy. I collect matchbooks from glamorous nightclubs. It’s amazing — if you just write to them and ask them nicely…”
“Is this how you imagined your life, Edna?”
“Well yes, but then I was a very depressed child.”
The details are absolute murder. Walking to a car wash. Writing to nightclubs. Finding solace at a children’s birthday party, in a little boy’s playhouse. Seymour likes Edna’s laugh and “ability to be personally offended by broad social trends.” Edna’s willing to see Seymour’s naïveté as something charming instead of irritating, as she used to do.
She doesn’t have any mints in her purse, but she does have menthol cigarettes. Seymour’s willing to throw caution to the wind, growls “Oh, to heck with it” — the “heck” is perfect — and kisses her anyway.
Seymour takes to wearing a T-shirt to school and casually greeting all of the students as they walk in before the morning bell. Mrs. K wraps a bright red scarf around her neck and insists on holding class outside. Happiness, for the two of them, is having dinner together without his mother around.
For dessert, they have applesauce. Seymour apologizes for not knowing what it is because he “doesn’t get out much,” which is simultaneously charming and devastating. Edna finds herself so captivated by someone whose loneliness so closely matches her own that she demands he “swallow that applesauce and kiss me.”
Ever the literalist, Seymour apologizes. “I’m afraid I already swallowed it while you were talking.”
The Charlie Brown candle smolders down to a stub, but this time, the candle burns down while Edna is with someone. She’s not waiting anymore.
For Mrs. K, it’s a welcome escape from the fuzzy end of the lollipop.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.