- First broadcast: Thursday 3 February 1994, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 23 November 1998, BBC2
- Showrunner: David Mirkin
- First draft: John Swartzwelder
- Writing staff: Jace Richdale, Harold Kimmel, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, David Richardson, Greg Daniels, Jonathan Collier, Mike Scully, David Sacks, Brent Forrester, Bob Kushell, Dan McGrath, Bill Canterbury, David S Cohen
- Animation director: Susie Dietter
Season five of The Simpsons has more misses than hits, but there are a handful of occasions when everything comes good in just the right way, and this is one of them. Bart Gets Famous has one of the best conceived and crisply realised plots (10) of the season, one of the most evocative snapshots of pop culture of the decade, and one of the wittiest takes on the TV industry of all time.
Even the sound of this episode is outstanding. Listen to the noise of the conveyer belt in the box factory: it is as disconsolate and weary as the expressions on the faces of the people who work there. Even the boxes look miserable, while the incidental music (10) accentuates with precision every sigh and moan. Then there’s the sound of the silence from Krusty’s studio audience that greets Bart the moment he is no longer the hottest thing on television: the most silent of silences you have ever heard, broken only by an occasional nervous laugh and awkward cough. It is excruciating and feels like it goes on forever and is absolutely perfect for this moment in the story, coming as it does after several minutes of crescendoing acclamation. For once in The Simpsons, complete silence is so much more powerful than a chorus of boos or the rampaging of an angry mob.
The sound of the underwhelmed surfaces elsewhere, in the guise of the standout performance of the episode. This comes from Dan Castellaneta, though not for Homer or Krusty. It is instead the voice of the box factory guide, for whom Castellaneta pulls off that tricky feat of making a boring character sound interesting and tedium sound funny (10):
Guide: This room is the most popular part of our tour.
Milhouse: It’s just like the other rooms!
Guide: Yes, but with one important difference – oh, we took that out. Yes, it is just like the other rooms.
The guide’s stubborn monotony is harmonised to perfection by Principal Skinner, whose delicately ecstatic cries of “Oh!” and “Mmm!” as he makes his way around the factory sum up his character more than any sentences of dialogue. Skinner and Bart may be at opposite ends of the pleasure spectrum during the visit to the box factory, but they are united in this episode through their fondness for being easily pleased. Just as Skinner is in rapture at the sight of box production, Bart is entranced as he strolls around the TV studio. Poor Skinner: only Martin shares his love of the simple pleasures of folded cardboard. The sight (and sound) of them sitting together on the bus, happily singing to each other (“56 boxes of bottles of beer on the wall, 56 boxes of bottles of beer!”) is near the summit of The Simpsons’ achievements.
“This is a dream factory,” Krusty tells Bart at the TV studio. “The birthplace of magic and enchantment. Now I need you to go clean out my toilet.” Bart Gets Famous is a sequel of sorts to Krusty Gets Kancelled, taking you back to the world of “the show business” and paying fulsome homage (10) to the steely affection felt towards it by The Simpsons’ scriptwriters. Here again are characters (10) who love and despise their lot in equal measure (“We’re really lucky, aren’t we?” “I wish I was dead”) and who move through an environment that manages to look both tatty and glamorous at the same time. It is a highly alluring combination; who wouldn’t want to steal a Danish pastry from Kent Brockman – a man who takes pride in not being able to pronounce “Kuala Lumpur” – or watch the Bumblebee Man brainstorming sketch concepts?
Pitching Bart into this heady world is a masterstroke. It allows the writers to filter their seediness and affection through an impressionable child’s eyes rather those of a cynical adult, which in turn stops everything becoming a bit too in-jokey and self-obsessed. Far better for Bart to become the Next Big Thing than someone like Homer (too crass), Marge (too dull) or even Lisa (too cold). Besides, Homer has already been the Next Big Thing, not that anybody seems to remember. Homer’s past is as detachable as Bart’s and neither The Be Sharps nor the ‘I Didn’t Do It’ Boy ultimately count for anything in the fickle world of fame – just one of the many things being sent up in this episode, along with commercialisation (“I have to pay to see my own grandson!”), exploitation (“I need to get your fingerprints on a candlestick! Meet me in the conservatory chop chop!”) and the architecture of TV comedy itself:
Bart: It’s my job to be repetitive. My job. My job. Repetitiveness is my job. I am going to go out there tonight and do the best performance of my life.
Marge: The best performance of your life?
Bart: The best performance of my life.
Yes, it’s all very knowing, and yes, the non-stop biting-the-hand can get as repetitive as that joke. But at least there are jokes in this episode, and plenty of them (10). Not once do things threaten to become earnest or joyless, a fate that can befall even the sharpest of media satires (see the final season of The Larry Sanders Show). It helps that the TV studio is only one among a number of locations (10) to feature in the story. By continually jumping elsewhere, the plot stays fresh and exciting, in turn ensuring a greater impact whenever it jumps back to the studio. The pace helps too. This an episode that rockets along; you’ve no time to think of precisely how long it would take Bart to go from clown assistant to superstar to washed-up nobody. That’s not important. What’s important is why it happens and how everybody else reacts, which is usually in the form of a joke (“This is the third time that this building has burned down because someone has been smoking in bed.” “I didn’t do it!”) or some brilliant before-and-after animation (10):
The pace also helps to hurry you past the weak points, weakest of which is Homer, who appears here at his most idiotic (“He’s a box! My boy’s a box!”) and, in his bizarre and unfunny rant about poor people, downright nasty. Conan O’Brien is a bit wasted as the special guest (“Sit perfectly still; only I may dance”) (7) and the final scene is a real anti-climax (“What kind of a catchphrase is that?”). The scene 60 seconds earlier would have made a far punchier ending, besides calling back to the episode’s most memorable character:
Krusty: You’re just finished, that’s all. It happens all the time. One day you’re the most important guy who ever lived, the next day, you’re some Shmoe working in a box factory.
Box factory guide, in the distance: I heard that.
It’s an episode that has lost none of its relevance, either tonally (10) or thematically. Gags that were topical in 1994 are still funny today because, not in spite, of the way they have dated. Ross Perot, Oliver North and MC Hammer (making his second appearance in as many episodes) belong comfortably together inside nostalgic brackets, while there are now just 15 years to go until Bart appears on Match Game 2034 alongside Spike Lee and the “vivacious head” of Kitty Carlisle. Fingers crossed The Simpsons has gone the way of the ‘I Didn’t Do It’ Boy by 2034 – preferably impaled on its own Pulitzer prize. 97%