The Simpsons, Season one, Episode Two, “Bart The Genius”
It’s a famous story now: when Matt Groening was in the waiting room for Fox to negotiate making a cartoon out of his comic strip Life In Hell to pay off his gambling debts, it suddenly occurred to him that he could lose the rights to his own characters, so he quickly scribbled out a drawing of a human family to sell instead. He named each of the characters after his parents and his sisters, and he named the boy “Bart” as an anagram of “brat”, seeing as he based the boy on himself as a kid.
The biggest theme to carry over from Life In Hell to The Simpsons was the existential frustration of being trapped in an educational system that had zero interest in dealing with children who couldn’t or wouldn’t fit whatever mould it needed them to. As a kid, Groening lacked both the interest and ability for schoolwork, preferring to create massive pranks and draw cartoons.
That plays into this episode, in which Bart, after getting in trouble for a little vandalism, cheats on an IQ test by stealing goody-goody Martin’s test and putting his own name on it. As a result, Bart is mistaken for a genius and transferred to a much nicer school, one where children are allowed to show up when they feel like it and work as little as they want (so far as I can tell, not a deliberate reference to Montessori education, but an attempt to capture and exaggerate the feeling that smart kids are allowed to do what they want).
The plot afterwards is very loose, simply exploring the consequences of Bart’s lie. Initially, he’s excited by the prospect of no schoolwork and being pampered, but it quickly gives way. He has no idea what he’s doing at school, and ends up bullied by much smarter kids who trick him into giving up all of his lunch, and Marge has decided to encourage Bart by taking him to the opera, which just bores him to tears.
The most unexpected and delightful result of Bart’s lie ends up being a closer relationship with his Dad. One of the subtle elements of The Simpsons that would keep cropping up was the idea that Homer and Bart understand each other a little too well, their respective laziness and childishness usually leading to half-assed destruction. In this case, Homer’s attempts to encourage his son’s development are, in fact, the kinds of things Bart likes doing normally, and amongst other things they end up making fun of the opera together.
Bart ends the episode by confessing to his deception – at first, trying to cover up by pitching a project where he goes undercover amongst the normal, dumb kids, before finding even that beyond his meager abilities and just writing a confession (in which he misspells the word confession). After school, he tells his father what he did, hoping the development of their relationship means he’ll be forgiven, and we get a gag that has aged so badly it wraps around to hilarious for entirely different reasons: a slow build-up to Homer crying out “Why you little – ” and chasing Bart through the house.
(Once again, Bart tries resolving conflict like he saw on television, only to see it crash and burn)
Presumably, this would have been hilarious to viewers at the time, expecting a heartwarming reconciliation between father and son only to see it turn to violence; twenty-seven years later, it’s hilarious because we know exactly how Homer is going to react, and seeing it drawn out for so long has the same effect as an origin story episode – “HE SAID IT! HE SAID THE THING!”
Satirically, the episode is kind of half-assed. Bart’s problems are initially caused by an apathetic teacher (the first appearance of Mrs Krabappel, played by the late Marcia Wallace) who expects him to stay out of the way of the smart kids (represented by Martin Prince in his first appearance, played by Russi Taylor). Principal Skinner’s response to Bart’s lie is relief at the idea he can palm off a problem child to someone else.
There’s neither a specific reason presented for these issues beyond needless cruelty, nor solutions for any of them. Later episodes would clarify that the apathy came from lack of funding and resources would beat the teachers and Skinner into bitterness, as well as provide faster, funner plotting. For now, The Simpsons has the same immature view on society that its hero does.
We get the first ever title sequence! Parts of it would be updated, reanimated, and in some cases chopped out entirely; Matt Groening had not actually watched TV since he was a child and didn’t realise how long title sequences were supposed to be.
The first chalkboard gag: “I will not waste chalk.”
The first couch gag: The family all sit on the couch, only for Bart to be squeezed out and flung into the air. When we cut to the television, he lands into view.
Martin has a strange cruelty to him in his first episode. His teacher’s pet qualities are just as much down to him being an asshole to Bart as they are from validation from adults, whereas later episodes would make him more benign and enthusiastic (he also lacks his more fey qualities). Mrs Krabappel acts less like a teacher as well, and more like children’s perceptions of teachers. This is also the introduction of the school psychologist.
This episode was written by Jon Vitti. The fact that the episode was based on an anecdote from his life, in which his class suffered academically from the fact that they didn’t take an intelligence test seriously, would seem to undermine my point about Groening’s childhood infecting the show; the fact that the point of the anecdote had to be flipped entirely would prove it.
It was directed by David Silverman, who gets great visual gags out of both Martin and Bart pulling faces at each other, and Homer’s later rage. He also introduces yet another idea that would carry through the show – a short sequence in Bart’s imagination as he tries to figure out a math problem. I have no clue what this in particular is parodying, but it’s a drastic shift in style, which is a visual cue The Simpsons would happily revisit right up to today.
As well as “Why you little -”, this episode introduces “Eat my shorts!”.
Biggest laugh: This was a tough one, as I was genuinely shocked how funny the episode could be. Ultimately, I have to go with: