The springs of Springfield: Barney Gumble

Barney Gumble is the consummate drunk. His tired eyes, mussed-up hair, too-small pink shirt, slouched posture and fat gut all exemplify his alcoholism. He’s actually a treat for the eyes and the ears, since his trademark belch and slurred speech seem to attract negative attention. For example he prompts one woman to say, “Excuse me, did something crawl down your throat and die?” His response, “It didn’t die,” is not appreciated.

To write an entire article about how Barney Gumble is a drunk would be like writing about how Martin is a nerd or how Cletus is a yokel. There are more to these folks than their simple characteristics. Yes, Barney is a shiftless bumpkin who never leaves Moe’s, but as many secondary characters on The Simpsons do, Barney acts as a point of comparison for other characters.

In this case, the comparison is most easily done with Homer. It is clear that Homer enjoys his Duff a little bit too much, but not quite to the extent of Barney. He is often at Moe’s, his main point of contact with Barney, but he is not always there like Barney is. Homer is often drunk but is not always drunk. He may have contemplated drinking varnish, but Barney actually does it.

In other words, Barney is Homer’s potential as a drunk. Homer dangles on a precipice of alcoholism that if he were to tumble over would end him up exactly like Barney. These lifelong friends began drinking together, but it was Barney that took it too far. Homer always manages to keep on the right side of the border. So is Barney’s only purpose to make Homer look responsible? Healthy? More ambitious?

Not exactly. While Barney seems to represent the potential for Homer on the negative side, he also seems to perform better than Homer when he is driven. He is a far better filmmaker than Homer is a critic, as shown in “A Star is Burns.” He is an auteur, while Homer just wants to see people getting hit in the groin with footballs. He is also a better singer than Homer. He demonstrates that he is vocally more talented that Homer when Barney is hired as a member of the Be Sharps, the Springfieldian barbershop quartet. Barney is instantly thrust into stardom and he quickly becomes the artistic Lennon figure of the band, overshadowing Homer.

Homer and Barney have even been in direct competition with each other. Barney’s “Plow King” business proves vastly superior to Homer’s “Mr. Plow” snow-plowing business (A king is better than a Mr.) in efficiency, equipment quality and commercials (Linda Ronstadt is better than whatever Homer’s commercial was). Barney also proves to be a better astronaut than Homer, surprisingly. Of course, this only occurs when alcohol is banned from the training, but proves that Barney can outperform Homer when he is motivated properly.

So not only is Barney worse than Homer, but better than him as well. They are never equal. Perhaps this reflects poorly on Barney’s inconsistency. Perhaps this reflects poorly on Homer’s stuck-in-a-rut, middle of the road performance. One thing is for sure —Barney represents Homer to the extreme, to the Nth degree, his full potential, for better or for worse.