The Simpsons, Season Four, Episode Ten, “Lisa’s First Word”

A few weeks ago, beloved commentor Ruck Cohlchez observed that the run from “Mr Plow” to “Marge Vs The Monorail” is the best run The Simpsons would ever do; what I love is how we’ve jumped straight from one of the show’s best aspects to the other. “Lisa’s First Word” is the show at its most nakedly sentimental – I’m far from the first to observe that this episode is very Bart-centric for being named after Lisa, but that doesn’t matter, because this episode is about a brother’s love for his sister, and Lisa casts her shadow over this episode even before she’s born.

It’s actually kind of funny to me that the flashback episodes gradually move forwards chronologically through time – we saw Homer and Marge explain how they got together in high school, then how Bart was born, and now how Lisa was born. It’s not something that’s drawn attention to either; the framing device is that the family can’t get Maggie to talk, and after quietly skipping over Bart’s first words, Marge launches into the story of Lisa’s first word, starting from just before Lisa’s conception. These framing devices always capture the charm of family storytime moments like this, both in Lisa’s generally romanticised view of them, and Bart’s smartass asides.

The story is split between Bart’s perspective of Lisa’s birth, and a parody of McDonald’s botched promotion during the 1984 Olympics, replacing McDonald’s with the show’s own Krusty the Clown. Not only is the satirical aside hilarious (“You people are pigs! I will personally spit in every fiftieth burger!” / “I like those odds!”), I think it forces the main story to be reduced to its purest emotions and actions, getting straight to the point. I’ve always felt the relationship between Bart and Lisa was the closest fictional equivalent to my relationship with my own sister – while I’m not much like Bart and she’s not much like Lisa, I’m also two years older than her, and the first thing this episode accurately captures about that is that I can only just remember what it was like when she was born.

At the beginning of the story, Bart has every reason to believe he’s the centre of the universe. It’s not quite that he can do no wrong, but he can guarantee getting the full attention of whatever room he walks into, and as we know by now, Bart thrives on attention; b.c. Great Boos Up’s suspicions that an older Bart would get into drama are confirmed when toddler Bart dances and sings for his aunts. All that changes when Marge gets pregnant; at first, Bart is thrilled to have a new element to his schemes (love that his imagination is already both vivid and self-serving in a realistically childlike way), but he quickly finds he’s being shunted around and losing things like his crib – the world no longer revolves around him, and he hates his new sister as soon as she’s born. This is something the show can only do because it’s animated – I cannot imagine a live-action sitcom being able to take a toddler’s emotions seriously, let along wanting to. For me, it was trying to read and having a loud attention seeker in my ear, for Bart, it was trying to dance for attention and having a lump of cute in the way.

What this episode doesn’t go into is that being that close in age makes siblings almost but not quite equal, probably because one sibling in this case is a near-silent clump of wiggling flesh. Later episodes like “Lisa On Ice” would lean in on the relationship as one between equals; this gets its emotion from Bart discovering that Lisa thinks he’s the most important person in the world when it turns out “Bart” is her first word. It’s something that would appeal to Bart specifically while also being fairly common among older siblings – the sense that there’s somebody who was born in awe of you, thinking you were the biggest or smartest or strongest person there is, and the responsibility that comes with it. Even The Simpsons’ typical cynical undercutting, jumping to the present with Bart and Lisa fighting over nothing, can’t quite ruin it – partly, I think, because it’s showing the flipside to that, the hyper-competitive sibling rivalry instincts kicking in.

The episode ends with a literal kiss-off. Homer puts Maggie to bed and remarks, “The sooner kids talk, the sooner they talk back. I hope you never say a word,” only for Maggie to say “Daddy” as soon as he leaves the room. This has always been one of the most iconic moments of sweetness in the show, setting up the ending of “…And Maggie Makes Three” two seasons later; it effectively brings the episode full-circle, both in how it opened with Maggie not speaking and in how the kids have been calling him “Homer” all episode, but I also like it as a way of retroactively making the whole thing be from a parent’s perspective. This hasn’t just been from a toddler’s perspective, it’s been the kind of emotions and journey only parents can really see, and it’s appropriate to finish off with a parent’s giant milestone.

Chalkboard Gag: Teacher is not a leper.
Couch Gag: The Simpsons dance in a line together, and the whole thing expands into a big Broadway show. This is my favourite couch gag of all time.

This episode was written by Jeff Martin and directed by Mark Kirkland, who somehow manages to make baby Lisa exactly as cute as all the characters think she is, mainly through her constant uncomprehending smile. Martin went back and read old newspapers for his gags, and I love it as both a storytelling device and as a way to make the episode unique, both within the show and as it aged. The clown bed was inspired by an incident from Mike Reiss’ youth. Kirkland gets some great visual gags out of the time period, partially by deliberately muddling it despite the fact that it’s clearly set in 1984.

I notice now that the episode aired two months after my sister’s birth, meaning I was going through exactly what toddler Bart was going through at the same time, which is kind of eerie to me.

Homer sings “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” as he gets home from work. Marge kept a newspaper from Lisa’s birth about Walter Mondale (“Where’s the beef?”). Marge sets the timeline with “Ms. Pac-man struck a blow for women’s rights and a young Joe Piscopo taught us how to laugh,” my second-favourite setup for a story on this show.

There are two separate uncomfortably transphobic jokes in this episode, although a trans witch friend of mine says the Mother Shabooboo joke is one of her favourites in the show. Not to say it’s inoffensive, just, you know, go figure.

“It’s not easy to juggle a pregnant wife and a troubled child, but somehow I managed to fit in eight hours of TV a day.” – an iconic Homer sentence.

Elizabeth Taylor cameoed as Maggie, and the story is that she took 24 takes before she finally swore at Matt Groening and walked out. Al Jean would later claim she was kidding and didn’t storm out.

First Appearances: N/A
Biggest Laugh