Character, Story, and A One Syllable Punchline

Bart Gets Hit By a Car17

“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”.

Bart Gets Hit By a Car16

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.

17 Responses to “Character, Story, and A One Syllable Punchline”

  1. 1 Staniel
    18 August 2015 at 5:06 pm

    Most importantly, he’s being a character, not a cutaway gag lever.
    And if you read about what’s coming in Season 27, you’ll know that no episodes about real life situations are planned to air on that show anymore.

    • 2 NOT Dustin Hoffman
      18 August 2015 at 7:00 pm

      I always felt CLASSIC Simpsons was great at integrating the more wacky elements of the show to the minor characters, that’s why Quimby and Wiggum were obnoxiously corrupt, Frink had insane gadgets and Comic Book Guy having his amazing rants that only a socially inept and horrifyingly bitter man could use. The supporting characters were there to show an insane world without being far-fetched, or even one-dimensional: Hutz being a literal ambulance chaser who actually believes the nonsense coming out of his mouth, and Troy McClure being a shill for corporate far-right ideology but not believing this nonsense (but keeping the smile regardless ala explaining to Selma about the sham marriage) shows a fully realised world that died when HOMER IS THE CENTRE OF EVERYTHING!!!!!!!! Great Analysis Mr Sweatpants of a scene I never thought of in that fashion before x

      • 3 Anonymous
        18 August 2015 at 8:44 pm

        Not Dustin Hoffman, indeed. If the real Dustin Hoffman (or, say, Sam Etic) saw this, he’d probably be rolling over wherever he is.

      • 4 Anonymous
        18 August 2015 at 8:46 pm

        Seriously, though, besides your obviously-shaky grammar, I can certainly concur with what you said. If I disregard the grammar. And the obviously-blended-together segments of pages taken from Charlie Sweatpants’ book.

      • 5 Stan
        18 August 2015 at 10:15 pm

        It went about sucking Family Guy’s dick. But today even Family Guy is sucking Bob’s Burgers’ dick.

      • 8 Staniel
        19 August 2015 at 12:01 am

        I don’t think this is a great analysis, I think Charlie’s right, but then again, he often brought that up before. The reason why they sacrificed all of this just to keep the show “running” is a commercial one, and it’s been discussed too in the past. FOX is responsible in one part, Al fucking Jean in another.
        And none of the current lineup quit. Shearer might have given it a thought or two (although he’s not a man of many words), but money keeps talking there.

        • 9 Stan
          19 August 2015 at 11:44 am

          You kiddin’ me, right? Harry is one guy who can probably entertain the whole group by himself. The rest of them just sit in the and duh.
          Fuck’s sake your not even trying.

  2. 10 Ah Hee Hee Hee
    19 August 2015 at 9:44 am

    This was a good joke because it was funny. The comment section is analyzing this waaaay too much.

    • 11 Matthew
      19 August 2015 at 2:58 pm

      “Analyzing way too much” is one of those non-arguments designed to shut down all critical analysis and promote anti-intellectualism. Uncritical ass-kissing is how we ended up with ZOMBIE SIMPSONS in the first place.

    • 15 Angel
      21 August 2015 at 2:14 pm

      Charlie Sweatpants (and a lot of pseudo-intellectual Simpsons fans) have a tendency to over-analyze scenes and jokes like that. It’s this thing geeks have where they think they can put anything they consume as entertainment into neat little boxes and they can enjoy what they consume without doing so. TVTropes probably appeals to jerks like him.

      • 16 Ah Hee Hee Hee
        22 August 2015 at 8:40 am

        Over analyzing why people over analyze. Nice.

      • 24 August 2015 at 6:00 am

        I don’t think it’s overanalysing to write a short blog post explaining why a relatively minor joke in a mundane moment can illustrate how character, story, and performance can all work well together; and how this early episode handles it differently than a later one would (“He’s certainly being a bad father, but he’s not being a jerkass.”).

        It doesn’t exactly represent the grandest literary analysis, but I’d say it’s a little bit more ambitious than the TV Tropes’ similarity-spotting and breaking down of fiction into neat little repeatable bite-size elements.

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