2.8 Bart the Daredevil
Enthralled by a monster truck rally, Bart decides he wants to be a daredevil, and attempts to jump the Springfield gorge. Homer stops him, but ends up plummeting down the gorge himself.
This is a lot closer to the glory years of The Simpsons, where there’s five laughs and a well-placed pop culture reference per minute, with a spot of sentimentality tucked in.
Let’s look at the opening minute:
The kids are watching a pro-wrestling program on TV. The announcer introduces it, saying, “Live from the Springfield Centre for the Performing Arts” — big laugh. The Russian pro wrestler is a good guy, and Millhouse comments that he used to be a bad guy — big laugh. Lisa explains that the shifting political climate has changed pro wrestling forever — big laugh. That’s about fifteen seconds.
Lisa says that pro wrestling isn’t real, and the scene cuts to Homer watching the same event at Moe’s, convinced that it is real — big laugh. The event cuts to a commercial, which advertises the Truckasaurus, who will be appearing at a monster truck rally on Saturday — big laugh. Homer and Bart run to each other and shout, “Truckasaurus!” — big laugh.
That’s about my experience watching all of season five, my favourite Simpsons season. The first fifteen seconds is funnier and more sophisticated than an entire modern-era episode.
The laughs continue during Lisa’s recital, which falls on the afternoon of the monster truck rally. Homer is reassured by the title, “Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony,” and says, “Oh good, this won’t take long.”
At the rally, Bart falls in love with daredevil, Lance Murdock, who jumps over a tank with piranhas, electric eels, sharks, and a lion (another example of The Simpsons pushing its narrative just a bit further into the absurd in order to amplify the satire). At home, Bart says he wants to be a daredevil, and Homer simply says, “Kids say the stupidest things.” The next scene is Bart injuring himself trying to jump over the car on his skateboard. It’s a nice commentary on how harmful it is when parents fail to engage their children in meaningful conversation about the entertainment they consume.
Going back to Lisa’s point about shifting sociopolitical climates, it’s interesting to note how pro wrestling would go from a cartoon in 1990 to a combination slasher flick and soft core porno in 1997. The more salacious and violent the content, the more kids injured themselves trying to put their friends through tables.
In 2015, pro wrestling is closer to a cartoon again, complete with an evil Eastern European character. If Russia and the United States become better allies thanks to a common enemy in ISIL, my guess is that WWE’s Rusev will be getting a face (good guy) turn.
It’s not like kids don’t mimic pro wrestlers in 2015, and it’s not like they didn’t before 1990, but the point is that “parental guidance” means that parents need to actually guide. I watched wrestling religiously from 1990 to about 2000, and my mom engaging with me while I watched it might’ve stopped someone’s neck from being broken (and by “someone” I mean me). The Simpsons takes the nuanced position that while a lot of art is trashy, art criticism, not censorship, is the proper response to that.
This is Matt Groening’s favourite episode, and while I like a few of season two’s episodes better, I can certainly appreciate Groening’s position from a writing standpoint. Homer’s jumping the gorge in place of Bart hits both funny and touching notes, as peak Simpsons always does.
I think the reason “Bart the Daredevil” is thought of so highly is because it’s an homage to so many things; pro-wrestling, truck racing, classic film — Bart’s Lawrence from Arabia entrance when he goes to jump the Springfield gorge is great stuff. It’s such a pastiche of Americana. There’s high brow and there’s low brow; I guess The Simpsons would be unibrow.
Even the bit with Homer falling out of the ambulance and back down the gorge again is borrowed from Looney Tunes and Popeye, just as those cartoons take their inspiration from the vaudeville tradition of the early 20th century. Hamlet’s Polonius says, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be;” well, no one is a better borrower or lender than Shakespeare, and the same goes for The Simpsons.
The Simpsons (1990):
Best Moment: Homer jumps the Springfield gorge.
Best Quote: “This little boy’s brother hit him in the head with a wrench, mimicking a recent TV wrestling match. I won’t even subject you to the horrors of our Three Stooges ward.” -Dr. Hibbert