The Simpsons, Season Eight, Episode Five, “Bart After Dark”

This is an episode I really like, because it’s near-impossible to pin down on any level. This show has always taken a wide scope with its themes, and what’s great is that, like Lisa’s perpetual motion machine, when it comes to delivering ideas and moving on, it just keeps getting faster and faster; this episode hits a lot of familiar beats in a new and interesting way, and then it gets on with things. The first act splits itself between the Homer/Bart and Marge/Lisa relationship in ways I find really interesting. What unites Lisa and Marge has always been a sense of responsibility to other people, with Lisa’s responsibility being wide-eyed idealism and Marge’s being gritty and practical; this gets a good laugh out of Lisa’s idealism being subverted and Marge making her commit to the hard work (and then both of them giving up completely). This has also always been the source of my observation that, where Homer and Lisa’s relationship issues come from not understanding each other, Homer and Bart’s relationship issues come from them understanding each other too well; they’re both impulsive hedonists who’ll not only indulge their every whim, but take it for granted that whims are to be indulged, with absolutely no sense of structure, reasoning, or long-form planning beyond what would be cool or funny, which leads to a massive amount of mess. It’s hilarious to me that it’s Bart who realises they might have over-indulged and that he probably ought to go outside and play for a while; it reminded me of being a kid and feeling how bizarre it was to come to the same conclusion.

This leads us into the story of Bart working at the Maison Derriere. It’s obviously allowing the crew to indulge their love of old-timey stuff; Grampa walking in, hanging his hat, seeing Bart, and grabbing his hat on the way out is famous, but I’m particularly struck by the crew specifically wanting to put in that old timey hat with some old-timey whistling, and there’s a lot of joy in having things like the celebrity photo wall (“Not pictured, Mrs Eisenhower.”) and the goofy old-timey standup. I like how this all feeds into the tone of the second half of the episode; it feels like the show is kind of stacking the deck against Marge’s crusade in a way it didn’t in “Marge vs Itchy & Scratchy”, but in a way I appreciate. That episode delved into and understood why Marge didn’t like cartoon violence by showing negative consequences, both direct and indirect (like how the kids started playing outside instead of staying in watching TV); this time, as far as we can see there are no actual negative consequences to Belle running the Maison Derriere and Marge and the church people are simply averse to raunchiness on the face of it. The Simpsons has always prioritised understanding how and why things work, and it’s always shown people trying to chase images and superficial pleasures over deeper understanding; this feels like the first time it’s shown someone not just completely abhorring an image, but projecting that abhorrence onto everyone around them.

The scene where Marge first meets Belle is one of the funniest in the episode to me because of Marge’s complete conviction in her own authority and Belle throwing her every attempt to grasp the upper-hand in the conversation in her face. What is often frustrating about moral crusaders – and this is true regardless of their specific morality – is that their unshakeable belief that if something makes them angry, then it must make the entire rest of the world angry; even when they don’t have the full force of a vengeful God behind them, they can certainly act like it. Normally, my instinct is to try and empathise with them while creating empathy for their target, which historically has been a weakness much more than a strength. Belle is hilarious because she has an answer to every one of Marge’s attempts to speak for the town, exposing her belief as something completely unmoored from reality – she no more speaks for Springfield than I speak for the trees. I’ve read that giving someone facts is usually the least effective way to change their mind; people hear something they don’t like, they tend to turtle inward, and the most effective ways are appeals to empathy and emotion. The specific example given was anti-vaxxers – information on vaccines is consistently less effective than talking about people you know who suffered from easily preventable diseases (especially children). It’s funny to see that dynamic play out in a heightened, comic fashion here – the thing about Belle utterly owning Marge is that it does nothing to stop her, while the angry mob is pacified by a song that only ever talks about the joy the burlesque house brings to its residents. At its best, The Simpsons is a display of human nature.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family recreate the cover to Sgt Pepper’s.

This episode was written by Richard Appel and directed by Dominic Polcino. The biggest difficulties working on the episode were working out where a burlesque house would be in Springfield and naming the house. 

The other significant comment this makes about moral outrage is how much of it is motivated by people who just want to smash things. I love how well Bart adjusts to working in the burlesque house; obviously, “Just glad to be on the team!” is endearingly funny, but I also love “Hey, he didn’t pay the cover!”

Much of the episode riffs on The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. The oil spill is a reference to the Exxon Valdez spill, which was also caused by the Captain being drunk at the wheel. Reverend Lovejoy drops a reference to the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song “Our House”. 

Iconic Moments: Grampa whistling, hanging his hat, spotting Bart, grabbing his hat and leaving has become a popular gif. | “All things are about Jesus, Homer! Except this.” | “There’s no justice like angry mob justice!”
Biggest Laugh: It’s not really a quotable scene aside from the end but the fact you can hear the smirk in Nancy Cartwright’s voice makes me laugh so hard.