The Simpsons, Season Nine, Episode Thirteen, “Bart Carny”

I don’t normally talk about the writers in the main body of the text, because I don’t normally have much to say about them beyond a few sentences. Professional television writers are often the first to observe that individual personalities tend to get stamped out in the processes of both breaking down the plot as a group and in the process of rewrites, and if there’s any real ‘auteur’ in television, it’s the showrunner; on the commentary of the Firefly episode “Shindig”, writer Jane Espenson remarks that part of the process is handing over the script to Joss Whedon for him to go over a few times. It’s this episode that makes me seriously consider all of this in the context of The Simpsons, because I realise now how much this show essentially burns through auteurs. People, including me, have observed in the past how each showrunner consciously brought their own sensibility to the show; David Mirken brought in jokes that would cost millions if this show wasn’t animated, Oakley and Weinstein explored characters who hadn’t been explored yet, Al Jean and Mike Reiss brought in heart. We’ve also noted further how individual writers tended to have, if not a coherent vision, then at least a consistent sensibility, like Jennifer Crittenden tending to write more heartfelt episodes, Conan O’Brien bringing overt wackiness and explosions, and, of course, John Swartzwelder and his old-timey Americana, deep bench of sports references, and incredible dialogue. What I see now is the collision of the preoccupations and vision of the writers and the showrunner, because in “Bart Carny”, we’re seeing the same ol’ Swartzwelder tune played in a different key – a Swartzwelder set of jokes attached to a Mike Scully story – and that actually kind of shows a good example of what it could have been.

I’ve never read Swartzwelder’s detective novels, but I’m told they’re pure joke machines without any of the heart and soul we’d associate with The Simpsons, and I fully believe that because of what is and is not consistent about this episode with previous Swartzwelder episodes. There’s still a lot of that meanness I’ve been complaining about all season – both in terms of being mean to the characters and the characters being mean to each other, in a way that at best verges on missing the point of them, especially Lisa. But the jokes are funny enough to save it for me; Lisa is the clearest example, because there are two separate jokes shooting for ‘Lisa suddenly acts like an ordinary kid’ – a format that has been consistently funny – that verge on unnecessarily cruel and stupid for her but are saved by Swartzwelder’s sense of joke construction, perfectly capturing how children try and reason their way out of doing a chore. The basic idea of two grifters robbing the literal Simpson house also feels like a mean plot turn that we wouldn’t have seen before Scully’s tenure on the show, but one that works because of Swartzwelder’s ability to make them funny even when they’re kind of dumb; the joke where Cooder and his son twice laugh at the Simpsons for falling for their scheme is a typical bit of Swartzwelder absurdity, and the climactic scheme to get the house back is a moment of brilliant stupidity and laziness. Further, Swartzwelder’s humour pulls some genuine meaning out of the plot. Homer and Bart are undone by Homer’s romanticising of carnies; it’s possible to read this episode as a classist mockery of poor people as thieves, but I prefer to see it in line with the show’s fascination with American grifters.

The Cooder men aren’t just poor – they have a very specific aesthetic and voice drawn from centuries of American culture; as they point out, they use slang from the Thirties that nobody uses anymore. Carnivals are a European idea, but carnies are the American bastardised folk heroes, and it makes a lot of sense that Homer would be as drunk on the image of them as he was the image of the American college. Of course, it’s a lot more fun pretending to be a con man than it is to be conned; one of the things about the combination of American exceptionalism and American capitalism is that, like a pyramid scheme, it sucks to be anything other than the guy up top. Life is either own or be owned, and whatever anyone tells you, it really doesn’t have to be like that; certainly, it doesn’t seem like the best way to react to a plague, seeing as many American responses to that are rooted in a mixture of ‘screw everyone else, I’m getting what I want’ and ‘clearly someone is trying to get one over on me’. The Simpsons grasps the appeal of them, to the point of showing Homer beating them at their own gamel it also grasps the dangers of loving them.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family run in to sit, but Nelson pulls out the couch before they can and laughs at them.

This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Mark Kirkland. This was the only episode Kirkland did not tell his parents to watch, because he didn’t think his stepfather, who was injured in WWII, would react well to “Out of my way, I’m Hitler!”. Jim Varney guest stars as Cooder, and he’s well-cast as an American charlatan. Cooder is physically modelled on David Mirken, who as far as I know is not a charlatan. There’s a reference to “The Old Man And The Lisa” when the Simpsons go on the boat tour – they pass over a tin of Lil Lisa Slurry – and there’s a reference to “Homer’s Triple Bypass”, though Marge refers to it as a quadruple bypass.

The carnival is a reference to the Eastern States Exposition (now known as The Big E), which Mike Scully attended as a child. Homer and Bart talking through their teeth when about to bite the heads off chickens is a reference to the films of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Some of the prizes for the ring toss include a Def Leppard mirror, a magic 8-ball, and a Rubik’s cube. The end credits song is “Groove Me” by King Floyd.

Iconic Moments: None! It’s strange how frequently this has happened, considering I know there are a fair few iconic moments we’ll be missing out on in seasons ten and eleven.
Biggest Laugh: I specifically mean the first fifteen seconds here.