When writing comedy, you can start anywhere, but a good place is your protagonist. And throughout the first season of The Simpsons, two commonly emerge—Bart and Homer. Common writing wisdom says a protagonist should be both likable and relatable, but part of what makes each Simpson so special from the outset is how none are both (save for maybe Marge). Lisa is a brainiac, Bart is a brat, Homer oscillates between loving and wrathful, and Maggie doesn’t even speak.
The Simpsons, a riff on the mold of family sitcoms where “Father knows best” and kids are either loveable troublemakers or strait-laced mini-adults, bucks tradition from the start. Homer works as a source of comedic conflict because he is clueless at any given moment, but still has relatable responses to being out of his depth. Bart and Lisa each feel like the nth version of these kid archetypes—Bart rebellious because he’s seeking his own fun (like the running gag of him crank-calling Moe, only for Homer to ineffectually offer Moe support) and Lisa so brainy she eclipses the rest of the family (with “Moaning Lisa” serving as a very special episode about it).
This disconnect between kids who seem more intelligent and clever than their parents, often with the wittiest one-liners, builds characters of two different stripes. The Simpson parents’ haplessness is highly relatable to parents feeling a generational disconnect with their kids, while the kids’ freedom and intelligence serve as aspirational figures. We want to be Bart and Lisa acting as evil geniuses outsmarting their babysitter in “Some Enchanted Evening.” We want to help Bart and Homer restore Jebediah Springfield’s head in “The Telltale Head.” We want them to catch up with the family in “The Call of the Simpsons.” The show works on both sympathy and empathy to build a basis for the jokes, of which there are many.
However, possibly the best episode of the first season comes via director Brad Bird—episode 12, “Krusty Gets Busted.” As a character study of Bart’s love for his TV icon and Homer’s questioning of his own sanity, the episode wraps each character’s base archetypes in a bow. Krusty’s show—complete with the Tom and Jerry riff “Itchy and Scratchy,” the call and response chant of, “Who do you Love? Krusty! How much do you love me? With all our hearts! What would you do if I went off the air? We’d kill ourselves!” and his sidekick’s name Sideshow Bob—is meant to be a textbook example of a show “corrupting kids,” much like The Simpsons’ supposed influence. We’re meant to see Homer and Marge as somewhat negligent for letting the kids watch Krusty, and the episode’s Kwik E Mart-robbery plot reinforces Bart’s cleverness as the one character able to clear Krusty’s name. It’s deliriously funny, and reinforces what the rest of the season tells us about each of its main characters. And maybe along the way, it makes us a bit more critical viewers of The Simpsons itself.
Ben Shahon is a writer whose work has appeared in various literary journals both online and in print, including Taco Bell Quarterly, Neuro Logical, and here at The Daily Drunk. He is a graduate of ASU in English and Philosophy, holds an MFA from Emerson College, and runs the literary website JAKE. Ben currently lives and works in the Boston area.