21. Bart the Daredevil

"I'm king of the world!"

“I’m king of the world!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 6 December 1990, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Saturday 30 November 1996, BBC1
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Jay Kogen & Wallace Wolodarsky
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
  • Storyboard: Peter Avanzino, Jeff Lynch
  • Animation director: Wes Archer

This was the second episode of The Simpsons to be shown on terrestrial TV in the UK, and it would have made a far better curtain-raiser than the first. Bart the Daredevil takes an very long time to show its hand, but when it does the results are thrilling. The final two minutes remain one of the most memorable moments in the show’s history, and rightly so.

Plot
Inspired by the antics of a motorcycle stunt-rider, Bart attempts to jump Springfield Gorge on his skateboard. Homer tries to stop his son, only to the end up performing the jump himself – and failing, spectacularly. It’s an exciting storyline that unfolds imaginatively with (unusually for The Simpsons) lots of tension. But it’s confined almost wholly to the third act. The rest of the episode features an awful lot of padding, none of it particularly objectionable but a lot of it rather pointless. Most of the first act is taken up with a trip to watch Lisa perform at a school recital: a sequence with plenty of nice visual touches and witty jokes, but one that leaves you feeling short-changed once you realise it has nothing to do with the rest of the plot. It’s lucky that Homer’s calamitous plunge into the gorge makes for such an audacious finale. Besides being a frankly awe-inspiring set-piece, it helps you forget many of the episode’s previous shortcomings. 6

Characters
Two valuable additions to the Springfield community take their first bow. Professional daredevil Lance Murdock is the latest seedy, unrepentant eccentric to pass through the town, successfully wooing residents with a rum mix of brash charisma and unashamed recklessness (“If he’s not in action, he’s in traction!” booms the public address system when he makes his first entrance). A parody of Evel Knievel, Murdock is another fine comic grotesque to add to the catalogue, and it’s easy to see why he appeals so much to Bart, especially when, wrapped head to toe in bandages, he encourages him to jump the gorge with the words: “Bones heal, chicks dig scars and the United States of America has the best doctor to daredevil ratio in the world.”

lance

Seatbelts save lives – so buckle up

The other debut is Dr Hibbert, already fully-formed as a Bill Cosby parody though not as stubbornly upbeat as he’d later become.

anthng i c

“Anything to stem the tide of entertainment-related injury!”

Bart’s relationship with Homer is explored in its most knockabout fashion to date, hurtling between emotional extremes via a lot of Homer’s now familiar over-the-top weeping (“He’s as good as dead!”). There’s one genuinely moving scene where his pleading with Bart crosses over from slapstick to pathos; “I’ll never believe anything you say every again” he warns, suspecting (rightly) that Bart has no intention of honouring his promise not to jump the gorge. But the finale is contrived clumsily. Homer’s stubborn resolution – “The only thing left for me to do is jump the gorge myself!” – has the smell of desperation in the writers’ room, and of being conjured up solely to get the character to stand on the skateboard and let gravity do the rest. 7

Locations and design
The Speedway, site of Murdock’s motorcycle jump, swells further Springfield’s already bulging inventory of grot. The whole place oozes decrepitude – literally in the case of the arena floor, which is caked in mud several inches deep:

Glorious

Glorious

Murdock’s stunt isn’t the main attraction at the Speedway, however. That honour falls to the Truckasaurus: an ogre of odds and ends, pieced together with a skill of which Heinz Wolff would be proud. It’s a fantastic design that manages to look both menacing and preposterous:

Science!

Science!

The same goes for the gorge, compete with ready-made runway and gaping chasm:

*tumbleweed*

*tumbleweed*

Springfield is evidently in a part of America that houses both lush national parks and arid New Mexico-style canyons. Which is all to the good. 8

Pardon My Zinger
Dr Hibbert gets some choice lines while showing off his vast stock of patients with copycat injuries, muttering “I won’t even subject you to the horrors of our Three Stooges ward” before concluding: “Well, as tragic as all this is, it’s a small price to pay for countless hours of top-notch entertainment!” “Amen!” adds Homer. Principal Skinner has a brief cameo at the school concert, mispronouncing Schubert as Sherbert before warning the gossiping parents: “Don’t make my flick the lights on and off!” But it’s Homer who gets the best joke of all, if not the best line of the episode. Trussed up in hospital after tumbling not once but twice into Springfield Gorge, he turns to Lance Murdock in the next-door bed and snaps: “You think you got guts? Try raising my kids.” It’s delivered perfectly, and is followed immediately by a crash cut to complete black and the closing credits: the most immaculately-timed ending to any episode of The Simpsons so far. 7

Special guests
There aren’t any. In future years the likes of Murdock would undoubtedly have been played by a guest, but here it’s Dan Castellaneta and he does a splendid turn, so once more it’s a neutral 5.

Music
A bonus point to whoever insisted on there being no music whatsoever during Homer’s plunge down the gorge; the sequence is so much funnier for being free from any “comedy” boings or parps. Where music does play a vital role is during the school recital, where Alf Clausen masters that delicate feat of making an amateur orchestra sound amusingly bad rather than simply bad. The versions of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture are expertly awful, the latter boasting not just a giant bell but a full set of cannon:

1812?"

Kaboom

Clausen also does a smart job at jacking up the suspense during Murdock’s cycle jump, and throws in a crafty pastiche of the theme from Lawrence of Arabia as Bart trundles over the horizon towards the gorge. 7

Denouement approaches

Denouement approaches

Voices
Castellaneta gives Lance Murdock a bucolic twang that manages to be both affable and creepy, fitting the character exactly. He’s a bit wayward with Homer, however, and drifts into Matthau territory whenever the script requires him to sound grouchy. Harry Shearer’s voice for Dr Hibbert is pretty much spot on; less so Principal Skinner, who just sounds like a fusty buffoon. There are also a few stoner-throated interjections from Otto, which are always unwelcome. 5

Animation direction
Let’s start with the gorge jump: a dazzling sequence from start to end and one for which The Simpsons will forever be remembered. The animation is crafted beautifully, from the way Homer skates down the cliff straight into the camera:

Going...

Going…

– to the shot of his high arc over the gorge, followed by his little skip of mid-air delight on the skateboard:

...going...

…going…

– to the reverse angle as he swoops down out of sight:

...gone

…gone

And that’s before you’ve got to the brutal tumble down the cliff: a cadenza of pain and ignominy, whose final flourish is the resounding thud of the skateboard on Homer’s head, driving him further into the earth:

Rock bottom

Rock bottom

But still that’s not the end. Next comes the helicopter lift, with Homer’s head bouncing off the cliff wall, then the ambulance crash and the slide back into the gorge. This is an epic humiliation, directed on a suitable grandiose scale, yet done with subtlety too: we don’t even see Homer’s second plunge, sound effects alone doing the job. It’s exceptional stuff from Wes Archer and his team. Close behind in scale and execution is the motorcycle jump, especially the way the pool fizzes on the addition of a single drop of Murdock’s blood:

Toil and trouble

Toil and trouble

– which then becomes a cauldron of carnage when, after completing the jump, Murdock topples into the water by accident:

Mane attraction

Mane attraction

Elsewhere there’s some crafty framing at the recital when Lisa is lifted off stage by (at first) an unseen Homer:

Hitting the high notes

Hitting the high notes

But the episode is not without a few glitches – most tellingly the complete absence of a floor at the start of the recital:

Floating

Laws of physics not pictured

– and of faces on the crowd at the Speedway:

Bleu

Laws of nature not pictured

A 10 for the gorge jump but 8 overall.

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
A lot of spoofing of Evel Knievel is going on here, some of it inspired (Murdock’s thumbs-up on being fished out of the pool), some of it less so (“Remember: seat belts save lives, so buckle up!”). TV wrestling gets a rather aimless parody, likewise hyper-hysterical voiceovers for local events (“If you miss this you better be DEAD or in JAIL and if you’re in jail BREAK OUT!”). Bart’s fantasy of being a daredevil is handled with more aplomb – “When he’s not in class, he’s risking his ass!” – while the ending is admirably free from overly cartoonish attempts to gloss Homer’s suffering. 5

Emotion and tone
Strip away the set-pieces in this episode and you’re left with something of a mess. There’s no consistency of tone. Act one is domestic farce; act two earnest moralising; act three a father-son runaround before the equivalent of a enormous custard pie in the face. There are flashes of emotion but they are always undercut by the next abrupt change in mood. Whether you buy Homer’s desperate actions at the conclusion depends on how much you’re sold on the plot’s depiction of him as a father stubborn – or foolish – enough to stand on a skateboard at the top of a runway above an enormous chasm. The ensuing carnage is done with enough panache to almost make you forget you’re watching the behaviour of a very silly man. 3

Verdict: 61%
A bran tub of occasional delights and mild frustrations that manages to deliver up a monumental treat in the nick of time. Without its bravura ending, Bart the Daredevil would be almost entirely forgettable.

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