48. Radio Bart

"Bart, I bet you think nothing's gonna top that cactus."

“Bart, I bet you think nothing’s going to top that cactus.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 9 January 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Saturday 18 January 1997, BBC1
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Jon Vitti
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Steven Dean Moore
  • Animation director: Carlos Baeza

Radio Bart was nominated for an Emmy but lost to a piece of claymation broadcast by CBS. It wouldn’t be the last time a superlative episode of The Simpsons was beaten by a self-evidently inferior offering from one of the mainstream networks. Acceptance by America’s broadcasting establishment was still several years away. Either that or the Emmy judges simply didn’t know what to make of a story that featured, among others, giant mechanical weasels, someone impersonating God, and the assassination of a squirrel that looked like Abraham Lincoln.

Plot
In keeping with the season’s trend for stacking tasty plots one atop the other like some vertiginous knickerbocker glory, this episode gives you Bart’s 10th birthday, an entire town falling for a prank, a marauding mob, incompetent authorities, crackpots and conspiracies, media hype, fickle public opinion, and nobody but nobody learning a single thing from all that ensues. It hangs together because it moves so fast, leaving you hardly any time to stop and wonder how everything fits together or to look for the joins. Only afterwards do you realise the main reason Bart was given a label-maker as a birthday present was so he could subsequently attach a PROPERTY OF BART label to the radio which then gets stuck down the well and which would therefore identify Bart as the mastermind of the prank for which the entire town has fallen… and so on. Just sublime. 10

Characters
Bart spends most of this episode at his artful and wily best, affecting a breezily assured air and behaving more like a knavish 40-something than a pre-adolescent oik. This, remember, is always a good thing. His worldweary sighs during his birthday meal are a treat, ditto the deft way he hatches and then sustains his alter ego of Timmy O’Toole, the boy “trapped” down the well (in reality Bart’s two-way radio). You can tell Bart is immensely satisfied at the way he has orchestrated the whole outrageous stunt, and you share that satisfaction in spades. When it all goes wrong (Lisa spitting at Bart of how the townsfolk are “gonna cut you up with rusty razors”) he turns desperate and loses his poise, becoming less thoughtful japester and more reckless hooligan. It’s never nice seeing Bart in circumstances he doesn’t control, so when he falls down the well and spends the last chunk of the episode motionless and weepy, the story deflates and becomes a little too saggy with sentiment. At least the rest of the cast rarely let reason get the better of them. They fall completely for “Timmy O’Toole”, switch from pity to rage in a heartbeat when they realise they’ve been fooled, then club together to rescue Bart anyway, then happily forget about the whole affair. 8

Locations and design
For the second episode in a row there’s a building with a mechanical sign that makes a mournful electronic wheezing:

*creeeeeak*

*creeeeeak*

And as before, the size of the sign and the volume of the wheezing is inversely proportional to the amount of enjoyment on offer within. Wall E. Weasel’s restaurant is wonderfully appalling, packed with relentlessly noisy kids, similarly unrestrained arcade games and a battery of despairing staff, all capped with the most spectacularly tatty attempt at a motorised salutation:

"You're the birthday boy or girl..."

“You’re the birthday boy or girl…”

As should be clear by now, anything motorised in Springfield must function for a few seconds before a) breaking down and/or b) breaking free of its socket and go on a marauding rampage of terror. In this case it’s the former:

*phut*

*phut*

Also worth a mention is the design of the tacky fairground that springs up around the well, seemingly overnight: a big wheel, stalls, refreshment kiosks, even an admission charge:

radio10

It’s all staggeringly over the top and hence utterly appropriate. 9

Pardon My Zinger
“Rod! Tod!” Bart booms through his microphone into the young Flanders’ bedroom. “This is God!… What do you mean how did I get on the radio?

"I created

“I created the universe, stupid kids!”

He then orders them to walk through the wall (“I will remove it for you… [thud]… later!”) before delivering unto the Simpsons some freshly baked treats: “Do you want a happy God or a vengeful God? Quit flapping your lip and make with the cookies!” It’s the best run of gags in an exceptionally well-stocked episode, one that also boasts Chief Wiggum explaining to Marge that Bart can’t be rescued as it’s not “the start of the fiscal year”, Homer delighting at his son’s lowly birthday gifts (“Bart, I bet you think nothing’s going to top that cactus”) and the entire town happily switching its attention from a trapped boy to more pressing news:

radio12

“The Lincoln squirrel has been assassinated!” thunders Kent Brockman a few minutes later. “We’ll stay with this story ALL NIGHT if we have to!” 9

radio13

Special guests
Sting plays himself. He is one of the celebrities recruited by Krusty for a charity single (see below) and also one of the diggers who helps rescue Bart (“Sting, you look tired – maybe you should take a rest?” “Not when one of my fans needs me!”). With this kind of cameo it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the celebrity knows they are being sent up or not. With Sting it’s safe to conclude he does, is enjoying it, and hence acquits himself rather well. 8

Music
In January 1992 celebrity charity singles were still things to be taken oh-so-seriously. This was just two years after Band Aid II (the best of the Band Aids), Jacko was still churning out dirges for his various foundations, and only a few months earlier a clump of personalities had done Voices That Care for the Gulf War. It was high time, therefore, that the entire ludicrous business got sent up by having Springfield’s most distinguished personalities (plus Sting) record a single in aid of the least consequential cause imaginable. We’re Sending Our Love Down the Well is the kind of pastiche The Simpsons’ writers by now could churn out in their sleep, but it’s still absolutely spot on, being a lumbering patchwork of bland sentiments and passingly-tuneful phrases wrapped round a hulking great ear-worm of a chorus:

Sting: There’s a hole in my heart, as deep as a well/For that poor little boy who’s stuck halfway to hell
Sideshow Mel: Though we can’t get him out, we’ll do the next best thing
McBain: We’ll go on TV and sing, sing sing!

"ALL THE WAY DOWN!"

“We’re sending out love down the well”

It’s basically We Are the World, complete with over-emoting interjections (“ALL THE WAY DOWN!” rasps Krusty) and a watch-us-in-the-studio video. But it’s still a moment to treasure. As for the money raised by the song, once the royalties have been deducted of promotion, shipping, distribution and limo rental fees, Krusty explains, “Whatever’s left, we’ll throw down the well.” 10

Voices
We’ve reached the stage in the history of The Simpsons where so much has been established about the town’s cast of secondary characters that they need no introduction prior to their appearance. Sometimes they do not even need to show up on screen. Their voice off-camera alone is enough to see a joke through to its conclusion or nudge along the plot. Dr Hibbert, Principal Skinner, Professor Frink, Milhouse: none are named during this episode, but each appears and each is instantly familiar to us, thanks almost wholly to their now fully-formed, consistent and distinctive voices. 8

Animation direction
This being a caper (like Bart the Murderer) rather than a character piece (I Married Marge), the animation motors in as high a gear possible. There’s little room for carefully-composed tableau or nuanced hues of colour; a romp is a romp and what you lose in contemplation you gain in punchy farce. Sometimes director Carlos Baeza resorts to gags compressed to a single frame: the image of Homer drooling out a dancing girl…

radio1

…or Martin and Bart dressed as lookalikes:

no

“Now we can be twins!”

Other times the gags aren’t even called attention to directly. We see Homer turning up at the well with items to throw down to Bart; the dialogue makes no mention that he is holding a fish tank and a goldfish in a bag:

radio11

Baeza never lingers too long on anything that threatens to slow things down by way of a “message”; wisely, he leaves that for us to appreciate in our own time. 8

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
USA For Africa aside, there aren’t any. No Godfather references, no Citizen Kane jokes, nothing. You could argue the whole thing is a parody of the way the media builds up then knocks down the latest cause celebre. But to be honest you don’t notice the absence of the usual pop culture homages, so absorbing is the story in its own right. 6

Emotion and tone
By wearing its cleverness so lightly, Radio Bart gets away with an enormous amount of finger-pointing and media-bashing that, in a less diluted form, would risk coming over as terribly pompous or, worse, downright unfunny. The only moment the script switches from measured satire to naked cynicism comes when Lisa questions the tone of the TV coverage of “Timmy O’Toole” and his plight. “How does [falling down a well] make him a hero?” she asks, to which Homer replies: “It’s more than you did.” It’s the sort of on-the-nose outburst the rest of the episode tactfully manages to avoid. 8

Verdict: 84%
Consider the cactus topped.

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