2. Bart the Genius

"You do know what happens when you mix acid and bases?"

“You do know what happens when you mix acid and bases?”

  • First broadcast: Sunday 14 January 1990, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Saturday 1 February 1997, BBC1
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Jon Vitti
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jon Vitti
  • Storyboard: David Silverman
  • Animation director: David Silverman

Episode two of The Simpsons had its debut transmission a full four weeks after the premiere of episode one. During the intervening period the show had already made enough of an impression with the US public for a member of the writing staff, Jon Vitti, to get stopped by passers-by in a shopping mall wanting to know where they could buy his Fox Television Simpsons-branded jacket. Besides being the second episode to air, Bart the Genius was also the second to be produced out of Fox’s initial commission of a total of 13. As such it bears many traces of a show in its infancy, a problem that had not affected its predecessor Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, which was the eighth to be produced. What it lacks in professionalism it makes up for in panache, however, as viewers get their first proper look at the world of Bart Simpson.

Plot
Bart cheats in a school intelligence test by swapping his answer paper with that of class swot Martin Prince. He is promptly sent off to a progressive school for children of unusually high intelligence, where Bart struggles to keep up the pretence of being a genius as well as putting up with being pampered by his newly-overawed parents. It’s a simple but clever plot with no B story or superfluous material. Everything is there for a reason and the focus is drawn very tightly on the Simpson family, giving us the chance to invest lots of time in the characters and their environment. This was the first of many brilliant scripts from Jon Vitti for The Simpsons, and it was he who came up with the idea of Bart’s mischief backfiring not on the school, or his fellow pupils, but on himself. It’s an inspired twist that takes the episode off into a smart and insightful territory, besides sketching in useful depth to Bart and Homer’s personalities. 8

Characters
From the off we are presented with a protagonist who is not your predictable grumpy and clueless oik, but a cunning, witty and personable schoolboy whose idea of fun is persuading his dad during a game of Scrabble that there is such a word as “kwyjibo”. The Bart we see here is a troublemaker with a modest ambition for pranks, who cheats not to punish other people but solely to elevate his own standing. It feels like a really bold and fresh conceit, even today. Imagine what kind of impression this made at the time. By contrast Homer is more one-dimensional, and consequently less interesting. He bungles his way through the episode, revealing he has a barely legible signature, disclosing he cannot tell the number 912 from 216 on a piece of paper, and demonstrating his limited vocabulary:

"How could anyone make a word out of these?"

“How could anyone make a word out of these lousy letters?”

We’re shown that Homer cares in a complex way for his son, however, which saves him from being an out-and-out cliche of a lousy father. This also helps make act three of the episode feel plausible, as Homer tries to bond constructively with his child only to feel immensely outraged when Bart owns up to the deception. Lisa and Marge barely appear except to remind us they are respectively a smart daughter and a fussy mother. No other characters have major roles except Principal Skinner and Edna Krabappel. The former comes across as a dull authoritarian while the latter is a sarcastic whinger. Fortunately, both would get better. Lastly we meet Martin Prince, who is portrayed as a rather joyless snitch and a pedant: “The preferred spelling of ‘Weiner’ is ‘WIENER’, although ‘EI’ is an acceptable ethnic variant.” He would also improve with time. 5

Locations and design
The Simpsons’ house is realised rather haphazardly. There’s some very dodgy background animation of the kitchen, the garden looks to be the size of a small football pitch, and every room changes shape between scenes. All of this is a legacy of the production problems that dogged the early months of the show, particularly the fraught relations with the animation studio in South Korea. We don’t see much more of Springfield, though we do learn the place has its own opera house – moreover, one that is large enough to house hundreds of people and which has rows of boxes along both walls. 4

La Scala, Springfield

La Scala, Springfield

Pardon My Zinger
This episode deals mostly in subtle, intelligent humour rather than snappy one-liners. What gags there are belong almost solely to Homer, trading on what the show has speedily and effectively established to be his twin obsessions: blustering about his mediocre intelligence (“I bet Einstein turned himself all sorts of colours before he invented the light bulb”) and moaning about Bart: “What do we need a psychiatrist for? We know our kid is nuts.” The funniest sequences are at the opera house, the progressive school, and the juxtaposition of both – particularly when we cut straight from Bart fooling around at the opera and enjoying amusing his family to Bart being made to feel the fool in class for failing to understand a tortuous “joke” about an equation:

"RDRR. Geddit? Ha-di-ha-ha!"

“RDRR. Geddit? Ha-di-ha-ha!”

Bart’s special teacher Miss Mellon is a wickedly amusing confection of ghastly jargon (“Discover your desks!”) and outrageous snobbery, typified by her dismissal of a comic book as something “we used as a prop in a film about illiteracy”. She makes for a great contrast with Edna Krabappel, whose own embryonic cynicism gives us a taste of grander things to come. 6

Special guests
Had this episode been made a few seasons later, the part of school psychiatrist Dr J Loren Pryor would almost certainly have been given to a celebrity. Instead it is handled here by Harry Shearer, who opts for a voice slightly too close for comfort to the one he would subsequently develop for Mr Burns. It doesn’t help that Dr Pryor is rather woolly and submissive: precisely the opposite of Mr Burns, which from a present-day perspective makes the character’s depiction even less persuasive. It’s just as well Pryor did not, as was originally planned, become a staple of the show. 5

Music
For the second episode in a row, Bart treats his family to his own version of a popular tune. This time it’s the Toreador Song from the opera Carmen, by the French composer Georges Bizet. The fact that Bart is so casually aware of this piece of classical music is a nice touch, while his alternative lyrics are inspired enough to reduce both Homer and Lisa to a fit of giggles:

"Toreador, don't spit on the floor."

“Toreador, don’t spit on the floor. Please use a cuspidor – that’s what it’s for!”

The version of Carmen we hear in the episode is actually in Russian, as this was the only recording for which Fox Television had the rights. Another classical staple turns up at the progressive school, when the slow movement from the Winter movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is heard tinkling in the hallway on Bart’s first day, helping to establish a suitably rarefied atmosphere. As for original music, the show’s in-house composer Richard Gibbs doesn’t contribute much other than some appropriately manic cues when Bart is having a fantasy about a maths question. At least we get to hear Danny Elfman’s dazzling theme in full for the first time at the start and end of the episode. 5

Voices
Bart and Lisa are fine, as they were in episode one. Marge barely speaks, and when she does it’s with the same distracted fatigue that Julie Kavner persists with for much of season one. Homer’s voice is the real problem. Having heard it almost fully-formed in Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, here it’s barely recognisable. Dan Castellaneta tries a bit of Walter Matthau, then a bit of Richard Nixon, then a bit of both, then something else entirely. None are that convincing. It’s a mark of how well Castellaneta was able to refine the voice that Homer sounds so much better so quickly in episodes produced later in this season. By contrast Principal Skinner and Edna Krabappel are almost spot on, particularly Edna’s tactical shouting. 4

Animation direction
You can tell that this was the second ever Simpsons episode to get made. There’s an amateurish feel to most of the animation, with flapping mouths, googling eyeballs and asymmetrical limbs all over the place. Nonetheless David Silverman creates some touches of imagination that transcend their realisation to stick in the memory. Bart and Homer’s late-night backyard shadows are drawn with particular care, and there are some great camera angles of the teachers from the point-of-view of the children, making the staff look grotesquely menacing:

Pre-emasculated Seymour Skinner

Pre-emasculated Seymour Skinner

Silverman’s keen eye for amusing facial contortion is evident in one of the best scenes, when Bart confesses he cheated on his test and Homer chases him through the house, ending with him literally burying his face within Bart’s bedroom door. There’s this gem, hanging in the background of the living room:

Picture perfect

Picture perfect

The explosion in the progressive school is also brilliantly done, and the weight of the goo conveyed vividly in the way it blobs disconsolately through the windows. 5

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
There’s only one, but it’s spectacular and points the way towards an exciting future for the show. When Mrs Krabappel urges Bart to visualise the maths question on his intelligence test, the result is a dazzling fantasy involving Bart trapped on a train careering down the tracks surrounded by a jumble of giant numbers, distorted faces and cackling passengers:

Got your number

Everything counts

It’s David Silverman’s finest moment in the episode, where his knowledge of technical trickery (such as reducing the length of each shot by one frame to increase the tension steadily) combines perfectly with his intuitive artistic flair, notably the strikingly un-Simpsons colour palate. Silverman credits the cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg for inspiring part of this groundbreaking sequence. 8

Emotion and tone
Maggie’s attempt to build a tower of bricks spelling out Einstein’s equation E=mc2 (or EMCSQU as it appears here) sets an unashamedly highbrow tone for the episode that lasts right up to the final 60 seconds, when it is curtailed abruptly by a scene of Bart running naked through his house then showing us his arse. The intelligence of the plot and some of the set-pieces in the progressive school don’t mesh that well with the sentimental stuff, while the more emotional exchanges between Homer and Bart (“There’s nothing wrong with a father kissing his son – I think”/”I love you dad!”) feel more mawkish than sincere. But we are completely engrossed in Bart’s plight and feel real sympathy for him when he is patronised and outsmarted by the brainy kids. 5

Verdict: 55%
Episode two of The Simpsons is more of a landmark than episode one. It gives the viewer their first full introduction to Bart Simpson, finds humour in the everyday (a school test) rather than than extraordinary (Christmas), and establishes the enduring Simpsons title sequence, complete with blackboard and couch gags. It has aged reasonably well. Bart is more of a thoughtful and enigmatic character here than in later years, though the reverse is true of the rest of his family. If you can overlook the dodgy voices and inconsistent animation, this episode contains flashes of something set to become very special.

5 thoughts on “2. Bart the Genius

  1. I remember howling with laughter over the Scrabble scene. Bart’s smart-mouth insistence that ‘Kwyjibo’ was a word and his subsequent definition upsetting Homer always makes me smile.

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  2. I’ve never spotted that picture of Homer on the wall before, it’s brilliant. Although the rest of that image looks ridiculous, like one of those sets where you get stickers to place on a background and a kid’s decided to shove them all on top of each other.

    As John mentions in the next episode, for many people the first series was seen via those two-episodes-a-tape VHSs, and that’s certainly where I saw this one first, and so remember it a bit more and have a little more fondness for it than some of the other season one episodes. I like the scene at the Opera House because Homer and Lisa laugh with Bart, which seems to be one of the first occasions where Bart is actually seen to be clever and witty and not just a bastard.

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    • I’d wager it’s quite common to have a particular fondness for the first Simpsons episode you remember watching and really enjoying. For me it’s A Streetcar Named Marge, which was among the first to be shown by the BBC in late 1996.

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      • Yes, there’s a pretty nondescript episode from season three which I have very fond memories of because it was the first “modern” episode of The Simpsons I saw, on Sky at my sister’s friend’s house in 1992, and it was a world away from the few season one episodes I’d seen at that point.

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