“Hello, Bart. Now, you know the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie, don’t you, son?” – Judge Moulton
“Maybe.” – Bart Simpson
There’s a great exchange near the beginning of the trial in Season 2’s “Bart Gets Hit By a Car”. Bart has just taken the witness stand, covered in fake bandages and sitting in an unnecessary wheelchair. The judge asks if he knows the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie. He replies with a nervous “maybe”.
This is an understandably intimidating situation for a 10-year-old.
Sitting at the lawyer’s table are Homer and Lionel Hutz, and when the judge then asks Bart if he’d, “lie to the United States?”, Bart glances over and we see this:
They’re on screen for barely a second, but it’s plenty, because the episode has already shown us exactly how all of these characters got here. Homer wasn’t initially planning to sue Burns over the accident, but once shyster extraordinaire Lionel Hutz mentioned a million dollar settlement, Homer’s greed took over and now the two of them are desperate for Bart to lie in court. Marge and Lisa, who’ve been growing increasingly worried over Homer and Bart’s scheme to get rich by suing Homer’s boss, are sitting there in the background, looking none too pleased.
For his part, Bart isn’t nearly as blinded by greed as Homer and Hutz. After the trial collapses, we see him casually wonder about how cool it would’ve been to get the money. (He takes it much better than Homer.) But Bart is still on board with lying to get the money, he just needs a little guidance. No sooner does he see Hutz and his father quietly telling him to lie to the judge, then he quickly and confidently replies, “No.”
For starters, Nancy Cartwright gives a great delivery of that lone syllable. The apprehension that was in her voice for Bart’s earlier “maybe” is all gone as he eagerly goes along with the lie.
The writing also deserves credit because the rest of the story is so well put together that just a single two-letter denial can become a punchline. We’ve seen Homer get greedy, we’ve seen him and Hutz coaching Bart in the living room, we’ve even seen them blow Marge off when she tries to object to them telling her son to perjure himself.
Bart is a clever kid, but he’s still just a kid. He needs to know from his dad that he is indeed supposed to tell his cock and bull story on the witness stand, even after the judge presses him to only tell the truth. Homer’s complete lack of scruples about putting his son in that position then becomes a set-up for Bart’s one syllable response that shows him happily going along with his father’s scheme.
None of this requires Homer to get hurt, or scream, or go wingsuiting or something. This is Homer as understandable loser, who sees this as his big shot at getting rich and is willing to put his son on the line to do it. He’s certainly being a bad father, but he’s not being a jerkass.