69. Lisa’s First Word

“Where’s the beef?!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 3 December 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 11 May 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Jeff Martin
  • Writing staff: George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern, Conan O’Brien, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Dan McGrath
  • Animation director: Mark Kirkland

Having used up three new episodes of The Simpsons in the space of eight days at the start of November 1992, Fox now found itself having to ration them at one per fortnight. Luckily for them, the show was currently turning out episodes of a very high standard and the large gaps between transmission merely allowed viewers more time to rewind their videos and enjoy the stories again.

Plot
It’s another flashback episode, but it’s nearer to the present day than the previous two, which means the plot is less “look at this old thing” and more “look at what this old thing tells us about the Simpson family”. This is good news as it allows the storyline to be built more around the characters than the environment in which they find themselves. A crass production team would have stocked this plot with references to early-80s pop culture and have people talking about them in a way they would never have done at the time. Instead we get a much more nuanced and hence enjoyable depiction of the period – a waft of yesteryear rather than a water cannon. The decision to have Lisa’s birth take place at the same time as the 1984 Summer Olympic Games is inspired; it’s an event the whole world watched and with which the whole world can associate. Exploring different aspects of this one occasion, rather than splattering the episode with dozens of different contemporary references, makes for a more balanced feast than an episode that gorges on nostalgia. Bart’s initial loathing of baby Lisa, followed by his change of heart, is also pitched perfectly. 9

Characters
Homer is now a few years older than in previous flashbacks and thankfully he’s also wiser. You can see this most clearly in his relationship with the two-year-old Bart. He loves his son but is already irked by him and struggles to work out why Bart takes such pleasure in flushing his father’s wallet down the toilet, or by persistently referring to him as Homer instead of daddy. There is no mystery when it comes to Ned Flanders, however. When Homer and Bart meet their neighbour for the first time, both react in precisely the same way – immediate and total irritation – establishing a bond between them that will only grow deeper as the years (and episodes) go by. In every scene you can tell thought has gone into how the characters of 1984 should properly behave in order to become the characters of now. And thanks to not being able to talk until the very end of the episode, plus having the cutest baby face, Lisa is, for once, adorable. 9

Locations and design
This gets a full 10 marks alone for Bart’s crib. “I know you like clowns so I made you this bed,” Homer explains. “Now you can laugh yourself to sleep.” The mark of any decent animation is how much of it stays with you once the visuals have finished. The image of this crib stays with you for a very very long time.

A passing mention also to the sequence of splendidly grotesque houses that Homer and Marge visit when trying to find a new home for their expanding family.

Pardon My Zinger
There’s a moment halfway through this episode when the family are looking at old newspapers from 1984 and we see the headline MONDALE TO HART: WHERE’S THE BEEF? Homer is highly amused, chuckling to himself as he says: “No wonder he won Minnesota!” It means next to nothing to people in the UK, and yet it’s still funny. Why? Partly it’s due to Homer’s glee at being reminded of such arcane political trivia. Most of the time he is presented to us as someone ignorant of current affairs; here he’s tickled immensely by a very particular incident during the 1984 US election campaign. But chiefly it’s funny just because it sounds absurd – two people talking to each other about the location of some meat – and no attempt is made to explain to us, or indeed the rest of the Simpson family, what exactly the headline means. The script passes on quickly to the next beat. The viewer is respected enough to make of the joke what they will. We don’t need it explaining to us because, the script infers, we are intelligent and inquisitive people (who are also easily flattered). Other jokes in this episode aren’t so elaborate but that doesn’t mean they are less funny (Marge telling her husband “There’s going to be twice as much love in this house as there is now”, to which Homer replies “We’re gonna start doing it in the morning?”) And all the scenes where Bart has to move in with the Flanders are exceptional. 9

“Oh boy, liver!” “Iron helps us play!”

“I’ve got joy joy joy joy down in my heart!”

“HELLO JOE!”

Special guests
It’s the ultimate piece of stunt casting. Elizabeth Taylor is hired to turn up and say just one word: “Daddy”. The producers could have got anybody to do it, or just given the line to one of the regular cast members. Instead they hired Taylor and got a lorry-load of publicity. There’s nothing particularly good or bad about how she says the word. Its impact comes not from her performance but the context in which she says it. By way of a compromise (or a cop-out), she gets a 5.

Music
The soundtrack is free of 1984 US rock hits, which is just as well as most 1984 US rock hits were dreadful. Besides, the plot has already established that this is a light-touch flashback episode, and too much contemporary music would be heavy-handed. There are a couple of striking original cues to listen for: the eerie carnival music that plays when Bart first catches sight of his new crib; and the creepy lullaby when Bart realises he is about to get a younger sibling. 8

Voices
There’s an inspired subplot that runs alongside the birth of Lisa, which involves Krusty trying to get a bit of extra publicity from the 1984 Olympics via a Krusty Burger sweepstake. The scratchcards have been rigged to pay out only in events where US athletes should have no hope of winning – except the Communist countries pull out, meaning the US ends up winning a bumper haul of gold medals. “You personally stand to lose 44 million dollars,” an accountant informs Krusty, who howls with rage. Dan Castellaneta’s performance throughout the episode is superb. “I personally am going to spit in every 50th burger,” Krusty snaps at his viewers. “I like those odds!” Homer chirps. 10

Animation direction
There aren’t any stunning set-pieces or visual flourishes. It’s not that kind of story. Rather it’s animated in a brisk and efficient fashion with nice little touches where time allows, such as the shot of Homer’s face when Bart jumps on his stomach, or the sight of a naked Bart swinging round and round on the clothes line. 8

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
It’s refreshing at this point in the show’s history to get an episode that isn’t bursting with pastiches and dream sequences and hat-tips to this or that film and TV series. The closest we come is when the two-year-old Bart is seen turning on the TV to find Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show attempting a typically half-humorous topical gag (“The coastguard arrested Boy George for scraping the barnacles off his dinghy.”) There’s also a scene where the two-year-old Bart imagines what life could be like with a baby sister. 8

Emotion and tone
By keeping the tone light and schmaltz-free for most of the running time, this episode guarantees that when the sentimentality does arrive in the very last scene, it is impossible not to give in and be genuinely moved. “I hope you never say a word,” says Homer as he puts Maggie to bed. As soon as he’s out of earshot, Maggie utters something that Homer has been longing to hear from Bart and Lisa, but never will. 10

“Daddy.”

Verdict: 86%
I like those odds.

One thought on “69. Lisa’s First Word

  1. In terms of music and pastiche, I seem to recall there’s quite a nice effort at doing Chariots of Fire without it actually being Chariots of Fire.

    Like

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