The Simpsons, Season Five, Episode Twelve, “Bart Gets Famous”

I never remembered this episode as anything particularly special – it’s great, I just didn’t remember it as a particular favourite – and so I was delighted to find a really thoughtful half hour of television. In fact, not only do I find it relevant to today, I find myself wishing I’d listened more carefully to what it had to say. We had an episode where the show grappled with its place in the culture, but to my eye it was more a jumping off point for a story and jokes, and this strikes me as a genuine attempt on behalf of the crew to engage with how audiences responded to The Simpsons and how they felt about it. Bart’s relationship to showbiz verges on cliche – initial excitement at the dream, getting worn down by the daily grind, ecstasy at getting his big break, disillusionment with the whole thing – but there’s a really strong core of sincerity to the whole thing; I assume the pre-fame section is barely exaggerated from the reality the crew knew of, but I’m especially struck by Bart’s desire to actually have a meaningful effect on the world.

The show has had fads before, but this is something new; it really delves into why fads spread. You have the citizens of Springfield who get pleasure in basically pulling a lever and seeing it do the same thing every time – saying “I didn’t do it” causes a laugh, and so I will say “I didn’t do it” to get a laugh. From this perspective, it’s great that the original context is genuinely hilarious, some killer comic timing on Bart’s part and something that would genuinely become a meme if it happened in the real world. And then you have Krusty taking advantage of that; we’ve seen before how Krusty is a total hack who flagrantly steals whatever’s popular, and here we see that process in much more detail. His shamelessness is almost endearing, reducing entertainment down to its simplest: if it makes people laugh, it’s good.

Bart – and by extension the show – have slightly higher ambitions. Making people laugh, entertaining people, is important, but just making a dog salivate when you ring a bell isn’t satisfying; Bart wants to educate and inform on top of what he already does, and the show not only tries to grapple with real moral and emotional questions, it pursues ‘making people laugh’ to the highest standard of excellence (which is why it’s so good at getting a laugh out of a lazy hack like Krusty). One reason for art to exist is to provide us with language, particular ways of expressing specific thoughts. As The Simpsons has noted, time and time again, people tend to take the shortest and easiest path to what they want, at the expense of long-term and more satisfying happiness; what it suggests here is that memes and fads spread because they provide an immediate thrill at learning a new language, but with equally immediate drop-off.

What The Simpsons aspires to is something with more substance than a silly catchphrase; it wants to provide us with real tools for understanding the world and each other. And when you get right down to it, it succeeded wildly. On a simpler level, this is why its quotes have had such durability; you can say ‘my damn weiner kids’ and I’ll know that you love your children while also finding them extremely irritating at times, and perhaps even endearing in how they’re irritating; you can say ‘probably misses his old glasses’ and I’ll know you’re not taking ‘his’ bad mood or complaints seriously (I love Rick & Morty, but there’s a reason “I’m Pickle Rick!” got old really, really quickly). Even more than that, it was a wider language; I see a group of people getting outraged en masse, and I can ask myself if I’m looking at a Springfield angry mob. Every now and again, I feel like I’ve answered in some way the question I started with (“Why did an eight year old Australian boy love a show satirising America?”), and I keep coming up with different answers; this time, I will say it’s because it gave me language.

Chalkboard Gag: My homework was not stolen by a one-armed man.
Couch Gag: The family merge as if they were made of modelling clay.

This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Susie Dieter. It was her first one out of the gate, and I think she did a bang-up job; she completely gets the show’s aesthetic ethos when she doubles down on making the box factory look as boring as possible, and I love one tiny detail of Homer eating two sandwiches at the same time. Conan O’Brien guest stars as himself, after auditioning for The Late Show but before he knew he was in. I’d say the most Swartzwelderian gag in the whole thing is “Hold on, I wanna finish this thought outside.”

Once again, I never even touched on a brilliant first act. Emotionally speaking, it feels like a setup for the glitz and glamour of television by showing the most boring thing possible, but it’s pretty much an excuse for the show to spin comedy gold out of boringness, and this is its most effective take on the subject yet. I’m especially tickled by how the box factory guy is genuinely enthusiastic about the fact that the boxes aren’t even assembled in the factory. I also enjoy how this ends up putting Bart and Edna in the same disenchanted boat, as compared to the dorkier Martin and Skinner.

Box Factory Man’s voice was based on Wally Ballou, a character created by Bob Elliot. Bart whistles the theme song of some cartoon. MC Hammer gets Bart to rap over “U Can’t Touch This”. Bart imagines a future in which he appears on Match Game with Billy Crystal, Farrah Fawcett, Loni Anderson, Spike Lee, and Kitty Carlisle’s head in a jar, calling forward to Futurama.

Iconic Moments: 6. “You’ll have to speak up, I’m wearing a towel.” | “MY BOY’S A BOX! DAMN YOU! A BOX!” | “Yoink?!” has appeared before, but I think its iconic status came from this episode. | “It’s my job to be repetitive.” | “Woozle wuzzle? That’s what passes for entertainment these days?” | “What kind of catchphrase is that?”
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