Rehashing the “Bart Show” Myth

Homer the Heretic4

“Homer, I’d like you to remember Matthew 7:26, the foolish man who built his house on sand.” – Rev. Lovejoy
“And you remember . . . Matthew . . . 21:17.” – Homer Simpson
“‘And he left them and went out of the city into Bethany and he lodged there.’?” – Rev. Lovejoy
“Yeah, think about it.” – Homer Simpson

I greatly enjoyed Splitsider’s “Classic Simpsons Week” series.  On the whole, it was a nice look back that didn’t sugarcoat just how far the series has fallen from grace.  I didn’t agree with every opinion presented, but such is the nature of opinions.  One piece I read, however, is factually inaccurate and perpetuates a longstanding Simpsons myth, one that even very knowledgeable fans will repeat without thinking.

Under the headline “The Bart Show: When The Simpsons Were Almost Much Worse”, Mike Drucker falls for the old saw that there was a “Bart” era at the beginning of the show.  Briefly put, this is the idea that at the dawn of The Simpsons the show was mostly about Bart, and that it then transitioned into being a show about Homer.  It is completely false, albeit very understandable.  The article opens:

With all this jibber-jabber about The Simpsons not being as good as it was when the writer was 12 (see: The Saturday Night Live Effect), it’s easy to forget that there was an early period in the show’s popularity when it was ready to take a turn for the much worse. Catchphrase-filled bumper stickers, key chains, video games, and music albums all pointed in one direction: The Simpsons was becoming the “Bart Show.”

That’s as good a description of why this myth exists as any.  “Bartmania” was very real, for a while there you couldn’t get away from the Simpsons generally – and Bart specifically – in the form of everything from tchotchkes and t-shirts (official and less so) all the way up to hit songs and national commercials.  That alone would’ve been noteworthy enough, but it was made even more pervasive by the enormous backlash.  From local PTAs all the way up through the sitting President of the United States, hidebound guardians of America’s youth roared their opposition in every medium available.  When FOX announced that the second season of its subversive hit would go head to head against The Cosby Show, at the time America’s favorite wholesome family sitcom, all bets were off.  The Simpsons was a genuine phenomenon, politically, culturally, and economically, and Bart was literally the poster child for it.

The show itself, however, never got swept up in the hysteria.  As I’ve pointed out before, when you actually look at the first four seasons (1 & 2, 3 & 4) there’s no evidence of Bart dominating.  Bart and Homer were always very evenly matched in terms of how often each of them got the big storyline, and there were always plenty of episodes where neither of them was the main character.  The people writing all those magazine articles and television segments were obsessed with Bart, the people writing The Simpsons never were.

Since it’s operating on a badly flawed premise, the Splitsider article has nowhere to go but down:

But Bart Simpson the character and Bart Simpson the hit television show character are two different animals, and in the first few years of The Simpsons, the latter threatened to take over. The marketing focus of the show fell almost entirely on Bart (or, at least, Homer reacting to Bart). “Eat my shorts!” became a catchphrase on the level of “Yeah, baby!”

Right here we can see the article confusing the marketing of the show and the show itself.  Yes, the promotional focus fell on Bart, but so what?  Drucker is assuming that the marketing had an influence on how the writers wrote the scripts, but he doesn’t present any evidence that his assumption is accurate.  It’s an easy mistake to make, everybody “knows” that the show was all about Bart, but this particular axiom doesn’t hold up to even cursory scrutiny.

If this article was just about the way people remember the show’s debut or the way people felt about it at the time, then this wouldn’t be a problem.  It really did take a while for Homer and the others to reach the level of cultural fame that Bart achieved almost overnight.  But that isn’t where it goes from there, instead it talks about how the show itself took the focus off of Bart.  After a bit about Family Guy and South Park, it continues:

The danger in this pattern wasn’t just that America had more “Do the Bartman” cassettes than it needed. Rather, there was less space to consider the comedy merits of Marge or Homer or Lisa or anyone else on the show.

Here we can see the crack in the article’s fundamental premise widening into a grand chasm filled with confused premises, inaccurate statements and solid waste.  What does it mean to have “less space” to consider the comedy merits of Marge or Homer or Lisa?  If you’re talking about articles in Newsweek, yes.  If you’re talking about screen time on the show, no.  Continuing:

The audience had been told that Bart was the funny one. The jokes were coming from Bart. Bart would be saying the thing you’d talk about on the playground the next day. And with Bart taking the spotlight from the other main characters, the side characters such as Moe or Lenny had no space at all.

There’s nothing terribly wrong with the first and third sentences there, but the second and fourth ones are just flat out false.  The counterexamples are so numerous that trying to list even a quarter of them would take hours.  Even in Bart-centered episodes like “The Telltale Head” or “Bart Gets an F” the rest of the family and the town is always there ripping off punchline after punchline.  “The Telltale Head” has everything from Homer’s immortal mid-church field goal celebration to the first inkling we get that Smithers sees more than a boss in Mr. Burns.  “Bart Gets an F” shows us the whole range of dysfunction at Springfield elementary, from the gullibility of the nurse to the wild side of Martin Prince.  And then there’s this:

This is the antithesis of The Simpsons that fans came to know and love.

That doesn’t make a lick of sense.  If the early episodes aren’t what made the fans love the show, then what was?  How did all that Bart-centered publicity get started in the first place if not because people loved the show right from the start?  But that’s nothing compared to what’s coming:

At its heart, The Simpsons works so well because it’s a television show about a community. Much like South Park, many of the best episodes of The Simpsons deal with the town overcoming their differences to stop a ridiculous threat. Marge vs. The Monorail is much bigger than Marge herself: it’s about Springfield. Even the Treehouse of Horror episodes celebrate the diverse cast and the many comedic possibilities they provide, not just Bart or Homer putting on a mask.

That last sentence is a real doozy, particularly in an article that’s claiming to reveal hidden truths about the progression of the early years of The Simpsons.  Remember, he’s arguing that the early years of the show were somehow Bart-centric.  But the first Treehouse of Horror was in Season 2, and all three of its segments (the demonic house, the alien abduction, and the poem) revolve around the whole family.  Bear that in mind as we continue:

If the show had stayed exclusively focused on Bart, we might never have had episodes like “Homer Loves Flanders” or “Sideshow Bob Roberts.” The flavor of Springfield, and many of the non-family characters fans love would’ve stayed in the background for quick cut-a-aways and sight gags – just as they still do on Family Guy now.

Again, the counterexamples to this are so numerous that you could spend days listing them.  For the sake of brevity, I’ll confine myself to blatant, episode-scale counterexamples from Season 2 only: “Dead Putting Society”, “Principal Charming”, “Bart Gets Hit By a Car”, and “Three Men and a Comic Book”.  The first three are heavily focused on non-family characters, Flanders, Skinner, and Burns, respectively (“Bart Gets Hit By a Car” also gave us Lionel Hutz in his first star turn).  Besides the involvement of Milhouse and Martin, the last one introduces us to Comic Book Guy as a real character and driver of the plot, not someone in the background or used in “cut-a-aways”.  I could go on, but I’d like to finish this before dusk:

So what changed that saved The Simpsons?

Nothing?  Sorry, I’m interrupting.  Please, continue:

According to some accounts – and the NBC Page tour if you took it before 2009 – then-writer Conan O’Brien lead the charge to shift the focus of the show from Bart onto Homer and Marge.  And there is some merit to the claim.

It’s not a good sign if the only source you can cite is the NBC Page tour.  They aren’t exactly known for their rigorous academic standards and copious footnoting.  The next sentence is truly a wonder, and needs to be considered on its own:

If you look at the episode list of Season 4 (often considered the Golden Age of The Simpsons) and compare it to Season 3, there are far fewer Bart-themed episodes and infinitely more based on Marge, a previously-boring nag character.

Wait a minute, weren’t you just talking about Conan O’Brien?  Because he came aboard full-time in Season 3, not Season 4.  His name is on every every single episode in Season 3.  And while it’s true that there are more (though hardly “infinitely”) Marge episodes in Season 4 than in Season 3, there are just as many in Season 2, before O’Brien arrived, as there are in Season 4.

Season 2, after all, contains both “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” and “Brush with Greatness”, not to mention episodes like “The Way We Was”, “The War of the Simpsons”, and “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish”.  That last one, which was written and produced at the height of America’s obsession with everything Bart, hardly has Bart in it and lets Marge thwart Mr. Burns.  Season 4 certainly has more episodes with Marge’s name in the title, but you’d be hard pressed to argue that she was a bigger part of Season 4 than she was of Season 2.

I don’t mean to be unduly harsh or mean here, but when the central premise is little more than an urban legend, it isn’t going to be hard to poke holes in the supporting arguments.  Conan O’Brien did wonderful things on The Simpsons, but he didn’t personally reorient the show away from Bart.  Marge, Lisa, and all the many denizens of Springfield were never relegated to the background, they were always right there on center stage.  It’s easy to think otherwise, to remember the hype instead of the substance, but the show’s only use for all those catchphrase infused key chains and bumper stickers was as comedy targets.

9 Responses to “Rehashing the “Bart Show” Myth”

  1. 12 December 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Thanks for doing your part to help dispel this claim, which I’ve heard presented so many times without any evidence or proof that it actually happened. It’s so much easier to repeat a claim you’ve heard before than it is to verify it or come up with an original thesis, and eventually they just become taken for granted as fact.

    Discovered the blog a few weeks ago via metafilter and have enjoyed reading it quite a bit. Keep up the good work.

  2. 12 December 2010 at 3:50 pm

    I always wondered about this. Good to know that this “Bartmania” was bullcrap once and for all.

    • 3 Ryan
      12 December 2010 at 10:09 pm

      Bartmania wasn’t bullcrap, it was real. Read this post again…

      • 13 December 2010 at 12:08 am

        Outside the show, hell yes it was real. I meant within the show itself.

        I had some time to think about this, and while the overall episodes have had a Bart/Homer split, I think what really counted was what Bart did during those episodes. Even when the episode wasn’t focusing on him, he gave us antics like prank calling Moe, saying stuff like “bastard,” “bitch” and “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” when it was still slightly racy to do so, and that really great sequence from “The Itchy & Scratchy Movie” where he screws around with Grampa’s teeth. Stuff like that.

  3. 5 D.N.
    12 December 2010 at 5:20 pm

    I hope Mike Drucker reads this rebuttal. And prints a retraction.

  4. 13 December 2010 at 6:39 am

    As far as I can tell, the only way Bartmania actually influenced the show in the early seasons was that “Bart Gets an F” was the season 2 premiere specifically because Bart was so popular, rather than “Two Cars…”, which had been produced first.

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