The Simpsons: How “Bart the Genius” Changed the TV Landscape

The first proper episode of The Simpsons elegantly and simply skewered everything.

The Simpsons is celebrating yet another birthday. The first non-Christmas episode of The Simpsons, “Bart the Genius,” first premiered on Fox on January 14, 1990. The series had already run their Christmas special, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” but this was their first non-holiday themed episode, and the show jumps right into their skewered reality and social commentary. The chalkboard gag has Bart endlessly writing “I will not waste chalk” as punishment, probably, for something equally ironic. The kid’s got real anger in those fingers and he gives the most evil of knowing grins, for just a split second, before he tears out of the classroom.

The TV sitcom family was undergoing the kind of radical change it hadn’t encountered since the force of Norman Lear. Roseanne Barr was breaking very different ground on her show over at ABC. Bill Cosby had the authority at the time to declare The Simpsons a sign of social decline sent to destroy NBC’s The Cosby Show. Fox responded by scheduling The Simpsons against Cosby, casting Bart as a little David against a Jello pudding Goliath. He even had a sling shot. Cosby responded by having one of his kids wear a Bart mask on the show. The Simpsons responded by setting Dr. Hibbert up in practice.

President Bush decried it. Dan Quayle didn’t get the joke and thought he was watching Murphy Brown. Johnny Carson declared that the Simpsons were closer to real American families than the Huxtables.

The premise of “Bart the Genius” is that Bart gets transferred into the Enriched Learning Center for Gifted Children after he swaps his aptitude test with the class brain Martin Prince while Edna Krabappel was looking for naughty dogs. The difference between gifted kids and “gifted” kids is skewered as every answer Bart gives as a slacker perfectly jibes with the expected answers of a stunted genius. Of course they’re both bored in school, a little frustrated all the time, and dream of leaving class to chase their intellectual development independently. I mean, it’s like you’re reading my mind, man.

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So let us give the Den of Geekiest of explanations: when a child with Bart’s intellect is forced to slow down to the pace of a normal person, said child would probably lash out in public shows of destruction, like spray painting “Skinner is a Weiner” on school property and have his own drawer in the file cabinet of bad kids. Marge and Homer love it. Krusty-O cereal for everyone. Finally, a Simpson who might, one day, outsmart someone. Lisa is suspicious, but, really the family is only keeping her around as backup in case Bart’s brain explodes.

The faux savant provided the best verbal math problem explanation ever offered in the history of Springfield Elementary. Sadly, at the new school he can’t calculate the weight on Mercury, doesn’t know a drib from a drab of milk or a base from an acid and confesses to his duplicitous shenanigan. Bart doesn’t come clean because he feels bad, he does it because it’s easier than writing a proposal to be the new grade-school Jane Goodall. Goodall herself wrote him a letter of excuse, but she had one of her bald apes sign it and Principal Skinner just assumed it was a forgery.

Written by Jon Vitti and directed by David Silverman, “Bart the Genius” crystallized The Simpsons vision. The writers turned intelligence and authority on its head. They ridiculed open education and peppered it with subversion. Left, right, and center are all off-kilter in Springfield. Blue noses were tweaked and ratting was rewarded. Bart runs bare-assed across the family living room.

The episode quickly developed each character with brush strokes. Homer and Bart are already more alike than either one would ever admit. Marge is looking for a better, classier life, like the Bouvier she is. She brings them to the opera, buys tickets to an artsy fartsy foreign film festival, all in the hopes of cultivating culture. Lisa is already the smartest person in the family, well on her way to being the smartest person in Springfield. The show has a conscience. At the end of the day, the Simpsons do the right thing, usually against their better judgment, which always turns out to be the best path.

“Bart the Genius” wasn’t supposed to be the opening episode, but “Some Enchanted Evening,” which, I think, has the best Penny Marshall performance ever – and I’m including The Odd Couple, had animation problems and wound up running later in the season.

The Simpsons didn’t spring onto Fox fully formed. They were crudely drawn, perennial works in progress who began life as a series of 48 one-minute shorts that interrupted The Tracey Ullman Show for three years. Kind of like the Muppets on early Saturday Night Live shows, but funnier. James L. Brooks wanted to run short cartoons before and after the commercial breaks. The Simpsons came to Fox by way of Life In Hell creator Matt Groening, who foisted the Simpson family on the network in a panic when he realized he didn’t want to part with his bunnies.

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Groening’s older brother Mark was Bart, which was brat spelled sideways, kinda. His sisters Patty, Lisa, and Maggie became Lisa and Maggie, with enough of Patty left over for a little Selma. Margaret Ruth was Marge and Homer was Homer. Groening’s father was also something of a cartoonist himself. Homer Philip Groening also wrote and made films.

Dan Castellaneta played Homer Simpson, Grandpa Simpson, and Krusty the Clown. Castellaneta has said that he was doing an impression of Walter Matthau in the early days. I believe this. As a matter of fact, I more than heartily endorse this, I’ve lived it. When I’m trying to do a Humphrey Bogart impression, it only sounds right if I’m trying to do Matthau. When I try to do Matthau I sound like Peter Falk. When I try to do Peter Falk I sound like Maggie, the little trooper.

Julie Kavner played Marge, America’s mom in a kind of revenge of the Stepford Wives. She used to be Rhoda’s sister. She also made chicken for Woody Allen in New York Stories. Kavner and Castellaneta were both cast members on The Tracey Ullman Show.

Freelance voice actress Nancy Cartwright had the choice between Bart and Lisa, and, like in the “Man Who Came To Be Dinner” episode, took a page from Sophie’s Choice and nabbed the voice of the boy. B-movie actress Yeardley Smith, a Stephen King and Twilight Zone Movie veteran (blink and you’ll miss her in Three O’Clock High, too), played Lisa.

The voices were recorded on a portable tape deck while the animators tried vainly to draw fast enough for it to go live. Matt Groening wrote the scripts and drew the storyboards. He figured they would get cleaned up later, but the animators just traced them. Animations were done by Klasky Csupo’s Wesley Archer, David Silverman, and Bill Kopp and colored by Georgie Peluse, who came up with idea of making the skin tones yellow.

The Simpsons shorts had previously debuted on April 19, 1987 with the episode “Good Night.” They ended their run by introducing “TV Simpsons” on May 14, 1989. On December 17, 1989, The Simpsons dipped a toe down the chimney with a Christmas special, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” The two versions of the families met in 2014 on “Treehouse of Horror XXV.” When The Simpsons became a hit, Tracey Ullman tried to sue for some of the money, having actually been one of its moms, but lost to Fox.

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The genius of “Bart the Genius” is how it introduced a family, town and way of thinking to the American psyche. This was no mere cartoon. The Simpsons weren’t The Flintstones. They weren’t The Jetsons. Even among live action sitcoms, The Simpsons stood alone, in the corner, thinking about what they did, or not thinking about it. Bart wasn’t the Beaver and Homer was no father who knew best. Marge, though she could glaze a ham like Donna Reed and wore pearls while she vacuumed, undermined the very fabric of the society she was trying to get the stain out of. Lisa was an edumacation in herself and Maggie, well, the baby is the true genius who brought it all together with a burp.

But It All Went By So Fast: The bus that goes by the skateboarding Bart at the stop says “Can’t get enough of that wonderful Duff.” Lisa has a violin case on her bicycle. EMCSQU is Albert Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence equation. Bananas are yellow. Brideshead Revisited. Anatoly Karpov lunchboxes. Carmen, Tonight in Russian, Conductor Boris Csupowski.