The Simpsons, Season Nine, Episode Four, “Lisa’s Sax”

It never occurred to me until watching this to consider the prequel episodes in the context of the discussion of Hollywood prequels; ever since the Star Wars prequels came out and we had a glut of prequels and reboots of old properties, we’ve had a glut of discussion about what does and does not work about them. The consensus seems to be that prequels are generally bad because they spend more time explaining stuff nobody ever wondered, like how Han Solo got his surname. On paper, Lisa getting her saxamaphone should fall into that same category; there’s a comic book out there (I want to say Lisa In Wordland?) where Matt Groening explained that the reason he gave her the baritone sax was because he thought the image of a little girl playing the biggest and most ungainly saxophone was inherently funny, which is usually enough for me. There are three things that make The Simpsons special, and all of them factor into why this episode works: one, a clear understanding of story, two, an empathy for why people make the decisions they do, and three, a clear understanding of the world they operate in. We’ve known from the start that the school system fails Bart and Lisa in parallel ways, with neither having their talents truly rewarded; Bart doesn’t fit into the system and Lisa went beyond it very quickly. We’ve also known from the start that Homer and Marge are operating with a very limited set of resources where they’re forced to prioritise short-term functionality over long-term nurturing. Given all of that, it makes sense that Bart’s initial struggles with school would lead to a discovery of Lisa’s gifts, and that Homer and Marge wouldn’t be able to afford the education Lisa needs, and that Homer would get the idea to compensate for it by buying her an instrument – expensive in the short term, but paying for itself many times over in giving Lisa the challenge she needs.

What I find interesting is how this episode’s importance is rooted less in the points it makes – though I do find that final conclusion weighing up the literal price of spiritual fulfilment – and more in the emotions it evokes. Appropriately, considering the jokes it makes about Lisa’s indignation at being upstaged, I would suggest “Lisa’s Sax” is more famous for Bart’s disillusionment with the education system than its main plot, which partially comes from Lisa’s story being nothing we haven’t seen before and mostly comes from both the novelty and the intensity of his shock and shame. So many people who grew up struggling with school have talked about how familiar Bart’s feelings were, and even if you didn’t have those struggles, you can really feel both his pain when he fails in ways he can’t understand and his triumph when he finds playing the class clown really rewarding. One thing I’m learning in studying aged care is that destructive behaviour is an expression of an unmet need, and you can see that playing out for Bart here; he wants people to like him, and if he can’t get it through being good at school, he’ll get it by being a showman. Lisa gets similar treatment by the story; we see both her wide-eyed, naive curiosity about the world, and Homer and Marge’s parental perspective as they try to work out how to feed her talents. When she smiles expectantly up at Homer, how could you not want to protect her from the world? 

“Lisa’s Sax” shows us the cost of the education system by showing us the consequences it has on young minds. This is what happens when you set up a system that forces children through the same procedure and judging them all by the same standards, no matter what they’re like individually; this is what happens when education is based on parents’ resources and not the individual needs of children. Some satirical works make their mark by breaking down the specific policies and how they work – the first thing that comes to mind is The Big Short, showing the exact reasons the ‘09 Global Financial Crisis happened – but The Simpsons is more interested in the cumulative effect that living in the world can have on a single person than in attacking any individual policy, and that’s partly what lead to its worldwide popularity; my school didn’t work much like an American school (though to be fair my school tended to wildly change policies from year to year), but the feelings were the same, and as long as an education system keeps producing Barts and Lisas, they’ll keep relating to it.

Chalkboard Gag: I no longer want my MTV.
Couch Gag: Homer runs in, and then the family emerge from him like a Babushka doll.

This episode was written by Al Jean and directed by Dominic Polcino. It is the first episode solely written by Jean, with all his other episodes til now sharing credit with Mike Reiss. The pastel drawing of Krusty to open the TV movie was drawn by Polcino, and he said it was the only piece of original art by him to feature in an episode. This is the last episode to have the voice of Doris Grau as Lunchlady Doris, though she had died two years before it aired.

 Homer’s reaction to Bart’s drawing was a strong influence on my sense of humour, especially in its timing and the way he breathes in sharply before switching from annoyance to horror. Similar is Skinner’s reaction to “Eat my shorts!” This episode has a lot of killer Homer fantasies.

In his opening layout, Homer references The Tracey Ullman show and its “crudely drawn filler material”. “Those Were The Days” is a parody of the opening of All In The Family. The man running into Lisa’s sax with his tricycle and falling over is a reference to Laugh-In. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin can be heard in the start of the flashback. Dr Hibbert fashions his hair like Mr T. Homer watches Twin Peaks. Eddie Van Halen’s “Frankenstrat” guitar can be seen in the music shop. When reporting on the heat wave, the news broadcast shows an image of Kent parodying the Coppertone girl. Lisa performs “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty. We have our third and presumably final reference to Sheriff Lobo.

Iconic Moments: 2. “Homer, you’re dumb as a mule and twice as ugly.” | “Brilliant! I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”
Biggest Laugh: