Well, here it is. Matt Groening’s favourite Simpsons moment, Homer failing to leap over Springfield Gorge on a skateboard, a moment referenced so often that the show eventually made a joke out of how often it was referenced.
It begins with a comparison between the two Simpson men. Bart and his friends are at home, watching wrestling with utter conviction that it’s real (Lisa’s crack at how fake wrestling is has aged badly; a person who did that now would be considered a killjoy), and we cut to Homer and friends at the bar cheering on the same match. We crosscut between Homer and Bart as they see an ad for a monster truck rally starring Truckasaurus, a gigantic metal robot thing that crushes cars.
Incidentally, something that would become clear with time is that, whereas Homer has trouble relating to Lisa, he almost relates to Bart too much, and this is an early example. Homer and Bart are crushed when they find that Lisa’s having a recital on the same day Truckasaurus is in town. But it turns out the recital finishes right about when Truckasaurus opens, and it becomes a tense rush from one to the other on the night, that climaxes with the family car accidentally getting wrecked by Truckasaurus.
(I’ve been trying to nail down exactly what these early, slower episodes remind me of, and I think it’s 70’s New Hollywood films like Taxi Driver. That languid pacing of the story, the charmingly sloppy filmmaking/animation, that bleak tone.)
All the Simpsons end up enjoying the rally – Lisa’ feminism gets parodied when she’s excited by a female monster truck – and Bart is particularly taken by Lance Murdock, daredevil. Murdock is a parody of daredevil Evel Knieval, upping the difficulty with a pool of deadly sea creatures and one lion. Bart is so taken by the stunt (and completely unperturbed by how badly Murdock hurts himself) that he decides his dream is to be a daredevil.
His first attempt at a stunt lands him in the emergency room, and in order to discourage him from doing something stupid, his doctor shows him the ward of children who’ve injured themselves copying TV (we get a meta-gag of Marge horrified that TV could be a bad influence, after the first season of the show lead a wave of children copying Bart). Bart cheerfully acknowledges he’s learned his lesson, only to immediately go back to trying again, this time succeeding.
Bart develops his show persona, and we get the first inklings of him as a showman – tying into his already-present grifter persona. He impresses everyone with larger and larger stunts, until he’s upset because he has nowhere else to go… until he goes on a field trip to Springfield Gorge. When she finds out, Lisa takes him to Lance Murdock.
We expect Mr Murdock to give Bart a stern lecture on the dangers of daredevilling, but actually he’s totally cool with it and encourages Bart, upsetting Lisa. She finally turns to her parents, who are outraged by this and forbid him from doing it. When Bart brushes him off, Homer genuinely begs him not to stupidly risk his life. Personally I find the dramatic power of the scene kind of weak – there’ve been better Bart/Homer scenes all the way back in the first episode, when they agreed to get Santa’s Little Helper; there’s nothing specific about Bart and Homer in this – but it gets us to the next scene, where Bart breaks his promise and Homer finds out.
When Bart gets up to prepare for his jump, Homer shows up and stops him just in time. He decides to take Bart’s skateboard and jump the Gorge himself, which flusters Bart and helps him see the pain of seeing your loved one do something insanely stupid for no reason. Bart breaks down and sincerely promises not to jump anymore, and there’s an honest-to-god heartwarming moment where father and son say they love each other… interrupted by Homer sliding off-screen and being forced to jump the Gorge anyway.
(The genuine heartwarming moment retroactively makes the functional scene before it more palatable, because it is a specifically Homer thing to have him do something stupid in the name of protecting his family, only to fvck it up)
We’re treated to an early example of an extended slapstick gag, a precursor to the rake gag, when Homer’s thrill and wonder is undermined by the fact that no, he will not make the jump (this episode is really another dozen examples of TV failing us again), and he falls to a horrible, painful fate. As he’s airlifted out, his head is banged against the Gorge, and the ambulance he’s put into crashes, causing him to fall out and into the gorge again. Even when it gets genuinely sentimental, the show must undermine it with cruelty (if anything, it gets even crueller after sentimentality, as if to make up for it).
Chalkboard Gag: I will not drive the principal’s car.
Couch Gag: The family sits on the couch, only for the whole thing to topple over, leaving Maggie on a tiny cushion.
This episode was written by Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarsky and directed by Wes Archer. Wolodarsky would name this episode his favourite because the topic of daredevils was a personal favourite of his. Bart’s appearance at Springfield Gorge is a parody of Omar Sharif’s introduction in Lawrence Of Arabia.
First Appearances: Dr Hibbert. Originally, Dr Hibbert was a woman; when the producers found out they were going up against The Cosby Show, they changed him to a man in order to parody that.
(Close second is Murdock writing an increasingly complicated autograph for Bart with his mouth, only to reveal an incomprehensible scrawl)