Bart the Genius

By Gabriel, 21 Jul 17, 1

My Recollection

There was an awful lot of naked green Bart. I remember that standing out. Also, my dad telling me about another algebra joke where the answer, when said aloud, was “B 4 I root U R U over 16” which I think is a bit better a joke than RDRR but also understandably inappropriate for the more PG show. That’s the kind of thing that would go on Family Guy if they ever wanted to alienate their audience with mathematics. The basic plot is Bart cheating on an aptitude test and getting sent to a gifted school. That Lisa’s obvious gifted status didn’t warrant this and that Martin, whose actual test it was, didn’t get sent to a gifted school struck me as irritating gaps in the narrative even back then. This is still early days so it’s more of a family show that’s a comedy than a comedy about a family and I’m not remembering too many standout lines or anything. But hey, the intro makes its first appearance here and this episode has to be less miserable than the last one so let’s go.


The Episode

We open on two things that I like in this episode and one of them I only noticed on this rewatch so it now has a special place in my heart. The first is a classic and The Simpsons first popular neologism that wasn’t a catchphrase, Kwyjibo. It’s a fantastic triplet of phonemes and Homer’s slow realisation that Bart’s fucking with him is still good for a chuckle. The other is a sight gag I’d not noticed. Behind Bart this whole scene is an only ever partially seen, large photo of Homer screaming in fear at something. It’s a baffling thing that I’m gonna guess was only in this episode as the furniture and wall hanging layout was a tad haphazard in the early days. It’s a beautiful piece of absurdity, though. It’s portrait sized, did they get this taken at the mall? If so, why is he screaming? If not, what the hell was going on? It’s such a genuine scream too. I feel like that should be an option at those mall photo places. The Raw Terror package. Instead of a backdrop, the photographer brings out an old reel to reel projector which plays the one thing its viewer least wants to see. The photographer has only ever looked once. He photographs people at the mall now.

The family scrabble game is a great way of showing off everyone’s character in about 180 seconds. Homer too stupid to realize he has OXIDIZE as his word. Lisa not only getting id, but finding it in the dictionary immediately. Bart not enjoying it and not taking it seriously. Marge. It’s the kind of quick episode setup that, via Lisa reminding Bart that the game is practise for tomorrow’s test, actually leads into the story proper. These days there’s a 15 minute glorified sketch before the show jerks a 90 degree turn into a wholly unrelated “plot”. But we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them.

The purpose of the scrabble game was to stimulate Bart’s verbal reasoning skills for an aptitude test the next day. Bart cheats on the test, by swapping his with Martin Prince’s, and winds up sent to a gifted school where he naturally struggles, before confessing and winding up back at good old Springfield Elementary. One of the things that struck me most with the depressing Christmas Special was the level of injustice that Homer had to deal with and boy, are they keeping up with this. As Bart devolved from a character to an archetype, he became more malicious and with that came a kind of trait stupidity, an irreparable inner quality that was part of the show’s status quo. He was just aggressively dumb so all the things that befell him were comedy by virtue of them being punishment. Early Bart actually tries, and his struggling to get a maths problem done has a level of realism that works against the joke. Nancy Cartwright’s fine acting here contributes to this, with her earlier Bart having tremors of fear and insecurity that really come through as he talks himself into circles trying to grasp the problem.

These sorts of test questions are a bit of a dick around too, they’re less about the maths and more a test of a student’s ability to sort through information for the pertinent elements. The actual math at the end will almost always, at this level, be something the student has already encountered. The malice of later, Archetype Bart made the fact that the adults in his life have given up on him understandable. Here he is a ten year old who is trying, failing, very afraid, and gazing up at an uncaring education system embodied by wonderful and seldom repeated shots of Krabapple.


Full disclosure: I was exactly Martin Prince in primary school. Down to the hair. And it triggers me to look at him to this day.

This scene also has a remark about the naughty dogs, which I remember popping up in other episodes. It’s canon that Springfield elementary is the go-to spot for dogs to fuck and I think it’s important you all know that. While Edna is gazing out the window to watch dogs fuck and catch a faint thrill of arousal she denies to herself, Bart swaps his test with mi– Martin’s. Bart’s inability to learn is now a comic prop but here it’s another sad reality that could really be avoided and this pervasive sense of the unfairness of the world persists in the next scene. Homer and Marge have been called in to speak to Skinner about Bart’s graffiti earlier on, and he runs through a list of Bart’s various crimes. One of them is skipping school and handing in obvious forgeries, which are actually genuine letters written by his barely literate father.

As an education major with a focus on educational withdrawal, this is fucking depressing. Imagine being actually sick, and then being punished by the Principal for lying about it because your father can’t write at an adult level. These are, quite literally, textbook withdrawal prompts. This sense of real unfairness is at the heart of what’s been bugging me about these early episodes. While students can be dickbags themselves, nothing convinces a child that the authority structures of the world, their promises, and their reasoning, are not to be trusted more than this kind of blatant injustice. Coming right after a scene where Bart is shown actually attempting to solve the problem as presented and you are looking at less an animated comedy and more a tragic window into the realities of US public education failure.


Adding to this is the fact that nobody ever notices Lisa’s screamingly obvious talents and the fact that, even after the whole lie is revealed, nobody decides to send Martin to a gifted school and you have a world so clearly broken that only a fool would try.

So they chuck Bart in a gifted school. The idea that Bart wouldn’t get noticed within a few minutes by a teacher who only has small class of self-directed learners is absurd but they have 20 minutes to fill so I’ll let that slide. Bart doesn’t have a lot to begin with but at the gifted school he has absolutely nothing. The smarter kids bully him for being stupid which is not uncommon in actual schools. While the old tropes of bullies being bigger and stronger holds, there’s solid literature on how cruel the smarter kids can be. A lot of the laity operate under the idea that being smarter equates to being above the kinds of social dynamics that encourage cruel hierarchical fighting, or vice versa, and it’s really not the case. There is no paradise where the people are just nice so stop looking.

About the only positive element of this episode is the doomed growth of the relationship between Homer and Bart. To his credit, Homer really steps up as a father in this story, encouraging and trusting Bart for most of the runtime. This culminates in a quaint but honest game of catch in the yard made heartbreaking by the fact that it’s Bart’s last meal before he goes to confess and thereby destroy the one positive that’s come out of this lie. The schmaltz of Bart’s actually eloquent confession to Homer being cut by his bare, green ass streaking through the lounge room and Homer’s animal bashing on the door.

I am beginning to remember why I never watch the early episodes.

One of the things I noticed this episode, and I’m thinking it’s going to be a common thing for this season, is the total lack of any kinds of pop-culture references. We’re so used to them these days, being that they are in every-fucking-thing, and their absence is one of those audible silences that let you know you’ve damaged your ears. One of the core things we like in our fiction is very safe surprise. Too little is boring and too much is Twin Peaks season three, episode eight. These pop-culture references are the simplest forms of that safe surprise. Two different kinds of familiar get rubbed together and create a novelty safely wrapped in the same bullshit you’ve seen a thousand fucking times removing the need for an actual joke. Like when you put a worming pill in a bit of meat for the dog but it laughs after.

I kind of miss those dog worming tablets, though, because otherwise I’m just left with worms. Bart’s reality is one where a lie born from a response to an environment that’s failing him is the only thing that brings him closer to his father and that’s not fucking funny. That and the way the episode treats the idea of a gifted student is wrong and still happens all the time. Telling a child that anything they are good at is the result of some mysterious internal trait, and holy fuck “gift” is peak this, is the perfect way to teach an entire class not to work. I don’t need to do shit, I’m gifted so everything just comes naturally to me. I don’t need to do shit, I’m not one of the smart kids so why bother. It’s fucking grotesque, learn to work or you’ll crash at the first difficulty you encounter.

I hope the next episode is funny.

Ah shit, it’s Homer’s Odyssey, and I’m pretty sure Homer tries to kill himself in it which I’m sure will be another horrible thing to watch when stripped of the “HA HA, IT’S A CARTOON” factor.

Yours in only just realising he’s got nearly 600,000 words on this to write, Gabriel.



1 replies to Bart the Genius

chrisdavid123 on 22 Jul 17 said:

The photo is likely meant to be Homer on a roller coaster. Also i'm loving how depressing these are, Matt Groening seems to have a hard on for the the crushing weight of an uncaring universe.

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