Bart the Daredevil

Bart the Daredevil

My Recollection

The fucking cliff fall. The kids running away when Bart hurt himself trying to ramp the car. Truckasaurus.

Growing up, the neglected kids were a lot more fun than the abused kids. The latter were twitchy and while they could occasionally flip out in an entertaining way, it would usually last well beyond funny and get deeply into disturbing before an adult subdued them. Neglected kids weren’t traumatised by some esoteric combination of Poppers and the theme to Lift Off so they were a lot more fun. Neglected kids just wanted the attention, any attention, they didn’t get at home. I like to laugh at absurd, dangerous behaviour I’ve too much sense to engage in myself and they liked to see a human face smile at them so we got along well.

A ten year old boy is a collision of evolutionary forces demanding it survive while daring it to attempt the mortally dangerous to improve its social standing. This is an amazing balance you could watch play out in the backyard haggling over precisely what constituted a feat of bravery. The higher the better: jumping off a roof is cooler than a fence. More objects, more better: jumping off a roof in a fridge box is cooler than without. Flips were like hundred dollar notes. You’d heard of them, some even claimed to have seen them, but nobody ever brought one out when you were there.

But there exists a tipping point.

A dare can’t be blatantly lethal. “Headbutt that oncoming car” isn’t a dare, it’s what you say to someone you don’t like. Anything deemed absurd will be shunned by the group as it throws the precarious balance out. The dares have to escalate. Overshoot and you hand power back to the victim who’ll always opt for something boring like climbing the big tree.

A common feat, but still a feat, was going down a hill on a skateboard. Skateboards were everywhere in spite of the fact that not a single child in my neighbourhood could actually ride one as intended. So all we did was sit on them and let gravity or siblings we’d bullied into being engines do the rest. Going down the steep hill on an actual skateboard was daring, but those things were like sitting in an SUV. The banana boards, slivers of used soap with wheels attached, were not.

These things were everywhere in spite of nobody ever admitting to buying one, the coat-hangers of child possessions. I had one. I don’t know why. I never asked for one and certainly never indicated an interest in skateboards, but, nonetheless, I had one. They existed about the suburbs like they were manifestations of the town’s desire to see injured children. It got its wish.

Malice driven design philosophy is not something you see often and, in spite of several personal injuries, my natural ability to appreciate all arts forces me to admit that these were marvels at what they did. They were absurdly fast, could never quite accommodate both buttocks, and taunted you with good steering that a low height meant would shred your knuckles if you dared entertain the idea of not careening in a straight line. Like biological weapons, they were deemed unfair and inhumane, then stricken from the list of sane dares.

But then there were the neglected kids. The neglected kids were the cryptocurrencies of the volatile childhood dare marketplace, daft things most never really understood aside from their unusual ability to escalate beyond all of your careful modelling. They had to be carefully managed because even the adults knew they had no wills of their own which meant an event would be traced to the source of the idea, me, before anyone got yelled at. There was a Goldilocks Zone to keep them in, but it was one so beyond what we were used to that it became prized.

Neglected kids ate the banana boards up. At their house, going for a ride down a hill meant being tied to a barrel and hurled at a cousin. A board and wheels? Luxury. This disruptive innovation blew the dare economy wide open. When dreams become realities you race like mad to keep your fantasies ahead of the curve. So we came to an equally omnipresent wheeled menace of trash suburbs: the abandoned trolley.

Trolleys and the ending of Labyrinth were some of the first lessons a kid from my generation could have about how sometimes things don’t work the way they look like they should. Something that moves like an Escher drawing looks didn’t require experimentation to be out of bounds any more than one would wonder what a lion’s fang tastes like. It just was through an innate sense of the screamingly dangerous. Gravity had rules. Wasp’s nests had rules. The hill had optimal routes. But the trolley was alien logic, even thinking about it left you missing time and covered in scratches.

The neglected kids operate on a kind of zen logic that beats the non-euclidean torment fields of rickety wheeled suicide cages by simply not caring. If [attention] then [do], was as deep as the process got. With that, Alan got into one at the top of the steep hill beside Goodna State School.

I refused to even hold the trolley. I wanted my hands clean, by any measure, and I was not certain I wasn’t about to witness a death. Everyone else was simply too excited to care. This was it, the definitive it, we were actually going to see it. A bit like the arcane rules of No Homo that bros use to fuck each other without having to accept unpleasant realities, dares often had weird little caveats that meant nothing but provided the dareee with a sense of control over their doom. “Okay, I’ll jump off a roof but only after 3pm”, that sort of thing. Alan’s was that the trolley had to be released, not pushed. In a way, I kind of understand. He was here to be sacrificed to the judgement of the gods, not to be jester for some base mortals. And so he was released.

If you were to ride a trolley down a hill, what kind of trolley would you choose? The shambolic piece of crap or the shiny new one? Like most dungeon riddles, this is counter-intuitive. A shitty wreck would either seize up and go nowhere or run a near 90 degree turn before stopping in a gutter. This newer one’s functional wheels meant it went straight for quite some time and, in the process, gathered quite some speed. The anticipation was at a level that we were hugging, gouging, and hitting each other just to relieve some of the tension.

I’d like to tell you that he got to the bottom of the hill unharmed, defying both his own sad fate and our cruel need to see someone else suffer. People like the happy lower class stories. I like the happy lower class stories. But they’re the exceptions that, in a way, enforce the rule.

Alan was on his butt in the trolley, riding in the reclined-but-not-quite fashion of an F1 racer, and his vehicle ran true for longer than any of us expected. But the iron law of the underclasses is that the only time something works properly is when it’s setting you up to suffer. Trolley logic asserted itself and Alan’s racer began to turn. 10 degrees. 15 degrees. We could see the demon’s eyes, it was here for Alan, some of the tension broke and the joy chilled. 20 degrees. Near the bottom, though, so maybe he’ll be fine?

30 degrees.

40 degrees.

50.

60.

A pebble hit the front right wheel of the trolley and suddenly 90. The safety cage that is the trolley sides, and that was how one of the better salesmen among us described them to Alan as, mean little when your momentum and your trolley’s momentum differ on a few key points. The trolley rolled. Alan was launched. The launch threw Alan out of the safety cage and the roll brought the other side of it down on his back, slamming him into the bitumen with a kind of meaty wet THACK sound familiar only to wrestlers, butchers, and the bored poor.

It’s okay to abandon your friends to the kinds of injuries that will bring down adult wrath but only if the whole thing was their idea. You get it into your head to show off and all that shit’s on you, chum. But we were part of this. We boosted spirits. We hushed doubts. We looked at each other and waited for him to move. Screaming began.

That he got away with only a sprained arm and some general scratching\bruising is a testament to the durability of your average little shit. There was a good solid minute there, though, where I was already forming a believable story about how I’d happened upon all this after it had already transpired because it legit looked like he’d been totally fucking killed. We did learn an important lesson from all of this: the bar had been raised. Trolleys were possible, but part of a newly established tier of dare most weren’t expected to attempt. Later challengers would come to learn why.

Look, shit was boring before the internet.

 

The Episode.

Homer is a well-meaning buffoon. A malicious, insecure imbecile. A loving father too lazy to manifest that fact in any real parenting. Bart is a mischievous ten year old boy, America’s bad boy. He’s a selfish piece of shit too stupid to ever be a real sociopath. Father and son are a lot alike it’s just the age difference that separates them. Homer is an idiot with responsibilities so he has mentally checked out. Planning for anything better requires a painful amount of hope so he can only cravenly grab at any small positive that wanders into his field of view. Bart’s skilful conniving makes him look cleverer than his father, but the difference exists only because he’s still stupid enough to think his life is a game he has a chance of winning. Typically, their conflicts are an uncaring force meeting an apathetic object but this episode uses all its available tools to explore the connection that keeps their relationship from truly devolving.

Narratives, in all their forms and with all their accompanying component parts, are structures that are as predictable as any mechanism. This is true of most domains. Consider the way an illustrator can look at a reference image, deconstruct it into component shapes, and then turn a few basic lines into a complex new structure. I can’t draw for shit, so to me that process looks like magic. I don’t see animation in the same way an artist does because a lot of the constructive elements are part of that magic. Narrative is the same and, at least until very recently, this has limited what a broadcast sitcom could do.

The finite resource of narrative is time. Whether you’re asking someone to commit a lot of it to experiencing your story or whether network and advertiser conditions limit you to a 22 minute runtime, your character and plot developments are going to be fighting each other for space. The more familiar you are with a subject the less one has to say to explain an element of it. If I say that Mulvey’s treating Freud like a hard science makes her conclusions questionable at best, this will require a lot of explaining to mean anything to anyone who doesn’t already have some opinion on that matter. When a narrative can assume, or is confident enough to demand, a complex existing knowledge in its audience, it can use brief references for large things which frees up time for other stuff.

This episode is about the relationship between Homer and Bart but its emphasis is on their relationship of father and son, and not the more antagonistic one derived from their comic roles of modern Tom and Jerry. This is a more complex game to play, and requires the kinds of time that the nature of the show would otherwise thwart. Signalling a character over comic focus, scenes establishing the more realistic roles of father and son, and building the core conflict are all things that eat precious time. Bart vs Thanksgiving gave the drama its due time and sacrificed all else, creating an episode that’s neither funny nor, due to the limited possible character growth, dramatically satisfying. Bart the Daredevil uses a mix of clever structuring and exploitation of mass popularity to assume higher audience familiarity to be another early example of the kind of layered experience the series came to be known for.

The mirrored opening scenes are an excellent example of how to do several things at once. By separating Homer and Bart in space but making their scenes flow together like they’re one (something Archer does a lot), the episode shows a fundamental connection between the two, that is, one that exists in absence of any other contexts. The only way they’re being the same here is that, on some level, they are the same. There’s a few other scenes with similar outcomes, but few that manage it in so sophisticated and honest a way as they are typically tied to other plot functions. As the conflict between the two is so ripe with plot and humour, it’s the frequently used trope, and the actual connection between father and son is typically only ever seen as the brief moments before their clash or in the resolution. Making it the “happily ever after” or inevitable conflict point of a plot makes it a function or cliche which overshadows its other meanings. This scene can exist comfortably as the conflict point doesn’t come until later in the episode, meaning that it can exist free of these problems and provide a much needed reminder of how much the pair have in common.

Caddyshack is an atrocious mess of independently funny scenes without a lick of coherent point until somewhere around the end of the film when Harold Ramis remembered it wasn’t a sketch show. To fix this, they added a kind of scaffolding narrative drive to give the movie the impression of focal impetus, the fucking gopher. They literally added the gopher after principle photography was finished because there was barely a story without it. There still isn’t a story, the gopher doesn’t relate to anything else, but it’s enough to drape Bill Murray in fine improvisational form on so it’s got that going for it. Normally, adding the point of a piece at the halfway point runs the serious risk of making everything prior to it a bit of a piss-fart about, possibly funny but otherwise useless to structures you need if you want to do anything else (this is something later Simpsons does all the goddamn time). Unlike the bare strand of Gopher in Caddyshack, the mirrored scenes of this episode establish a theme, how Homer and Bart relate as father and son, and a point, their underlying similarity, to create a through-line that later narrative structures actually meaningfully connect to.

In addition to all this, it also has some good jokes. Most at the expense of people who enjoy wrestling, one sly one from Lisa about how the changing attitudes of history resemble the face/heel dynamic of wrestling, and more about how Homer is perhaps a bit too much like his ten year old son. So the scene uses a basic structural trick, mirroring, to build a theme and point while running a general funny Simpsons scene over the top of it. This is one good example of how this episode has its cake and eats it in terms of time spent on drama or comedy without delving into anything too complicated. A recognition that scenes and ideas can play into the plot in indirect fashions and this continues in the next sequence.

The goal of the story appears to have been set, Truckasaurus, and naturally, a potential conflict appears in Lisa’s recital taking place on the same night. Deflecting from this as the narrative conflict, and stalling the presentation of the actual one, can build a tension that’s difficult to deal with. The higher the tension the more stress is applied on the conflict as a structural hinge. It’s real easy for this tension to go too far and be irreconcilable (think of any big mystery show with an underwhelming finale), so the sequence is played more for laughs and character, but character that feeds this episode’s Gopher. Of particular note is how the music from the recital, normally things Homer has absolutely zero interest in, gets stuck in his head as they speed toward Truckasaurus. Lisa notes it herself which serves to emphasise the point to the audience but also as an understandable thing for her to openly appreciate given her own strained relationship with her father. This scene, seemingly vestigial as it looks like a come-and-gone conflict, adds to the episode the idea that Homer cares about his children, and is influenced by them, on levels that even he isn’t aware of.

Fusion of absurd comedy and deep drama is very possible, just tricky. Shows that manage well, like Rick and Morty exploit both a deranged core premise and expectation of genre trope knowledge that would have made it an impossible pitch prior to the current era. Having a giant truck dinosaur try to eat the family car is the kind of thing that can completely blow the real drama of a family sitcom from the early 90s, but this episode’s layout has craftily prevented that. Broadcast TV was big on tone signalling, shows would tell you whether it was a funny one or a “very special episode” very early so the broad audience of viewers wouldn’t get annoyed at anything confusing. Signal absurd or dramatic and you can get up to mischief with the break between episodes functioning as a reset.

In this moment, The Simpsons essentially plays all the cards available to it and manages to have a giant robot truck dinosaur not throw the episode’s realism out of balance. Firstly, the carefully layered earlier sequences have been ambiguous enough to leave the tone undeclared, meaning the audience won’t have any stifling expectations built up yet. Secondly, the primary conflict hasn’t presented itself yet, meaning Truckasaurus exists in the kind of separate narrative preamble later series would come to obnoxiously exploit. Thirdly, by season two the show is hugely popular, and has a track record of both real family drama and cartoon ridiculousness. It exploits this, at the time, rare commodity to expect its audience to accept that this universe has both the real and the absurd at the same time, and not just every other week. A final touch is having the Truckasaurus scene followed by a deliberately mundane one of Marge talking to Truckasaurus’ owner about restitution, immediately eliminating the event as relevant to the narrative, and having the family then sit down for the show as promised.

Now the episode finally gets to its premise: Bart wanting to emulate the daredevil Lance Murdoch and Homer’s attempts at talking him out of it. This is a rare form of conflict between the pair because it’s one of the only times that Homer is objectively right and, in a way, so is Bart. Jumping Springfield Gorge will kill Bart. Homer can’t keep an eye on him 24/7. Homer even tries to genuinely communicate with his son, seeing through the sitcom routine of “phoney-baloney” promises. This isn’t the lazy Homer playing the role of Father, his directly addressing the routine he and Bart have breaks that fourth wall, this is a man trying to leverage a genuine connection with his son for their own good. And he believes he is successful.

But Bart is Bart.

Homer’s jumping Springfield Gorge is fucking ridiculous. The whole sequence is a combination of jarring factors that keep the viewer from finding a reality for it. Homer and Bart have resolved their tension so the jump is not necessary, just the intent was. Midway through, Homer celebrates as he thinks he’ll make it, which would be a funny twist, but then he drops like a stone. The basic concept is Road Runner level absurdity, but its execution is, particularly for the era, realistically graphic. A part of keeping comic violence comic is in avoiding naturalistic scarring, but Homer is shown, several times, severely beaten by the fall. It’s so gratuitous that later episodes edited out his second fall and replaced it with another shot of the kids watching from the cliff. A normal person would be dead, a cartoon character wouldn’t be covered in realistic bruises. It’s touching, absurd, brutal, and funny side by side, The Simpsons has announced its reality.

Later, beloved episodes feature ridiculous bullshit as either major jokes or plot cores. Homer goes to fucking space. He causes a meltdown in a test truck. The list goes on. The kinds of absurd reality The Simpsons uses here and in the Golden Era are fairly tame by today’s standards but they were groundbreaking at the time. Other episodes have had glimpses of the mix but this one makes it the complete point. Absurd as it is, it’s the logical conclusion of the established elements of the episode. Homer cares, he subconsciously absorbs lessons from his children, and Bart is just like his father.  Tonally, the episode has kept both strands running, using structural methods to keep either absurd or serious from dominating. When it brings these threads together, it doesn’t decide that one is now and so always was the dominant or “real” story, it concludes the only logical way: by leaving them together but separate. By making the ridiculous the logical conclusion, the ridiculous becomes a comfortable component of Simpsons logic and the rubber band becomes a little more flexible.

Homer’s final line, “try raising my kids” and the hard cut to the credits has a way of making the whole episode look like a shaggy dog story but it’s the kind of necessary direct statement that, “everything’s okay” 90s TV was fairly bound to. The cliff fall itself is a large part of Simpsons history but that’s the kind of “great person” focus that tends to obscure the more interesting parts of the story. Jumping Springfield Gorge is just the end result of an episode that ran a fascinatingly new kind of game with its audience. A game that has a legacy, not just with The Simpsons but with any modern show that blends comedy and drama.

 

Yours in always spelling “Braun” with a “W”, Gabriel.

 

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

There’s a lot of little jabs at wrestling as the show starts. The line “Live, from the Springfield Centre for the Performing Arts” is a good line with a few interpretations: Springfield is so culturally backward that they hold wrestling in their performing arts centre or that wrestling is a performing art. Naturally, Homer and Bart are dumb for enjoying pro-wrestling, and nobody who doesn’t watch wrestling will ever fail to point out that it’s fake, so Lisa does. That said, her line about historical forces changing The Mad Russian to The Friendly Russian, this episode came a year before the full collapse of the Soviet Union, is fun.

Those Truckasaurus things were around a bit in the 90s, though not to that degree of sophistication. I saw one billed as a Transformer which I needed to see because fucking Transformers. It was less a Transformer and more of a Go-Bot but it was still fun. Homer and Bart’s genuine connection over it, and the fact that the trip there itself isn’t a conflict point, is a real touching moment and one that you don’t actually see much in the series.

I don’t know why 1812 Overture was at the end of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8.

As the show matured and Springfield became a more defined character, the population became more predictable. There were eventually pocket characters to fill nearly every role so one-offs like Leo G. Clark, inventor, owner and operator of Truckasaurus and his weird line about how Truckasaurus himself is sorry for the event, are a thing of the past.

His apology gift of a half bottle of domestic champagne is one of those good escalation jokes. It’s torn open already. People have been drinking it. But it’s sorta breezed by so, a bit like Call of The Simpsons’ joke with Marge organising squirrels, it doesn’t outlast its welcome.

Bart watching Homer getting pulled out of the wrecked car and shouting, “Pull, you dogs!” to the struggling staff is a goodun. It’s one of those jokes that works for the audience but also makes sense to be funny within the show’s universe. A real pet peeve of mine, and a thing now gladly fading, was the sitcom habit of filming all these people doing and saying funny things without having anyone in the world acknowledge that they were funny. Makes the thing feel like a dry Powerpoint about jokes as opposed to a stand-up comedian.

Lance Murdoch is an hilarious glimpse into the past. I’m sure these carny monstrosities still roam some carnivals and fairs but a combination of motocross events and Jackass really fucked the old Daredevil game hard. The absurdity of his pool of death is a very modern Simpsons joke and the image of him being dragged back into the water by a lion is a funny one.

Later Simpsons basically outlawed anyone having hair like Bart and Lisa, but in these early episodes you can still see some abominations. This thing in the audience looks like that photoshop of Mr Burns’ face on Lisa.

The kids scattering after Bart brains himself is a great shot and a funny slice of life. It’s not that we don’t care a friend of ours got hurt, it’s just if he did it doing something he shouldn’t have been, we don’t want to get into trouble. There tends to be a directly proportional relationship between the amount of damage a child has visited upon itself and the amount of trouble the bystanders get in.

Doctor Hibbert makes his first appearance in this episode! I’ve heard he’s getting retired because he’s based on notorious rapist Bill Cosby. An odd choice if true because I doubt many modern viewers would even be aware of that.

Lance being an absolute fuckknuckle and egging Bart on is true to the carny way and a funny twist on old sitcom expectations.

Otto humming a riff on the bus intercom and his remark about it being for “emergencies only” when Bart wants to use it is a solid double up.

Stuntman or bootleg Jackass is one of the few things Bart seems to be actually good at.

The final run of jokes as Homer is brought up out of the gorge is a solid one. His head is bashed on the cliff, the ambulance drives straight into a tree, Homer falls out the back, nobody tries to stop anything, Homer goes over the edge again, and finally, Wendell about to throw up.

Okay, now, the cliff fall. The 90s were an era where your video game characters could gut each other ONLY IF their blood was green. That was the weird, meaningless concession the hordes of conservative mothers gave us and it was the one we took. Showing red blood, even today, is still a big fucking deal for only stupid reasons. Most shows get around this by having their aliens bleed black or blue or whatever. So for The Simpsons to show Homer bleeding actual red blood was a big deal. That they’d spend this coin on this scene is a fucking mystery to me.

FUNNY!

 

NOT FUNNY!

I find the mere existence of this moment so fucking absurd that it transcends itself and becomes fucking hilarious but I’m a mutant.

The episode I have, the episodes that get broadcast in syndication, and (interestingly) The Frinkiac’s archived version all censor the second fall. Since it doubles down on something already ridiculous, it’s very fucking funny, so here it is in GIF form.

american_healthcare.gif

 

6 Replies to “Bart the Daredevil”

  1. Having been born in the early 90s, I also had a skateboard. Tried to learn how to ride it a couple of times and failed miserably, and I grew up in an area without any hills so I couldn’t even get a good sitting ride going. Probably for the best, in hindsight. If Dr Hibbert was meant to be based on Cosby, this is the first I’ve ever heard of it.

    Solid episode overall. The intro consisting of the music recital, Truck-o-Saurus wrecking the family car as well as Lance Murdoch’s show makes the episode feel a lot larger than usual to me. Each one of the events could probably kickstart an episode plot of its own but they actually fit all three in and the episode doesn’t feel bloated as a result. On rewatch I’m amazed they fit so much into one episode and have it work as well it does.

    1. The lack of bloat comes from the removal of sticking points and the weaving of overall narrative points, Homer and how he relates to his children as a parent, throughout. Sections like Lisa’s recital would gum the episode up if they lingered on it as a conflict, but they let everything flow, using it only for a few jokes. It also flows into the characterisation of Homer which relates to the primary narrative. It’s this kind of structural layering that lets you pack stuff in without fucking up the flow of the story.

      The forward drive of Caddyshack’s gopher is fucking stupid but it works. Doing something similar provides the necessary sense of forward momentum and having those elements ultimately pay off creates a cohesion that validates scenes that would have otherwise felt extraneous.

  2. About the censored fall thing, I don’t think that’s right. As far as I recall, the original episode didn’t actually show the second fall, all we got were Homer’s pained screams. The animation of the second fall was done for one of the clip-shows, I think it was the April Fools one, or it might have even been from an episode as late as Behind The Laughter, either way, the second fall’s animation is newer.

    1. I remember the second fall from the episode itself, as both my mum and aunt were irritated by how excessive it was, but I thought maybe I was editing the memories.

      I’ve looked, and while it has shown up in later clip episodes, it was definitely made for this episode at the time. It WAS deemed too violent but I can’t find any specific detail as to whether this meant it was excised from the original broadcasts or cut after a first showing. There is a chance there was international variations, as this sort of thing happens a bit given differing country’s censorship bugbears.

      1. ooh, I found a source and it seems you were just editing memories. “The scene was first featured outside of “Bart the Daredevil” in the season four episode “So It’s Come to This: A Simpsons Clip Show”. When the clip is shown in that episode, additional footage is seen of Homer bouncing down the cliff the second time, and after he lands at the bottom, the gurney lands on his head. Contrary to popular belief, the second fall down the gorge (ending with Homer getting hit by the gurney) was not a deleted scene from “Bart the Daredevil”, but rather a scene animated exclusively for the clip show.” So there’s that…

        1. When you find a source, link the source, otherwise I don’t know what you’re going on about.

          At any rate, I found the commentary track and yeah, the animation was added later. The two Wikis I’ve been using say otherwise though so I’ll have to broaden my sources.

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