“Marge Be Not Proud” (season 7, episode 11; originally aired 12/17/1995)
In which Bart goes for the four finger discount…
How do people even review this show? I grew up on classic Simpsons, but I haven’t watched an episode from seasons one through eight in years; I remember them vividly, but I forgot how dense they were, how much the writers and animators and voice actors were able to pack into each episode. Two minutes into “Marge Be Not Proud”—and I’m not exaggerating here—two minutes in, and I was already laughing so hard I was close to physical pain. The first joke is about cupcakes made of people. Then there’s It’s A Krusty Kind Of Christmas, a gag about clumsy tech-work, Tom Landry, an all-time classic quote from Bart (“Christmas is a time when people of all religions come together to worship Jesus Christ.”), and, oh yes, the ad for Bonestorm, which manages to parody Mortal Kombat and eXtreme ‘90s kid ads so perfectly I actually got a contact sugar high.
Again: this is in the first two minutes. (Okay, the Bonestorm ad ends at 2:03, you got me, Sherlock.) My jaw dropped. I had to pause and restart, just to remind myself that this was actually possible.
It reminds of listening to Beatles songs, the best Beatles songs, where no matter how often I hear them, I remain amazed at the craftsmanship, the way every note jangles and gleams in just the right place without any sense of obvious effort. Re-watching “Marge Be Not Proud” for the first time in, god, half a decade or more, I was initially overwhelmed, not because the episode was over-stuffed, but because I wasn’t prepared for it to be this good. I’m gushing, I’ll stop now, but man. It was a rush.
What’s even more surprising is that I hadn’t even remembered “Marge Be Not Proud” as a particularly funny episode. I didn’t think it was a dud by any stretch of the imagination, but the reason I volunteered to write about it was because the Bart/Marge story flat out destroys me. Going in, I knew I was going to cry by the end (and I did), but I didn’t realize how hard I’d be laughing before then. Or after.
“Marge Be Not Proud” is, at heart, about being a kid, and about how something you want so desperately, so badly that it’s killing you, no really, it is honest to god killing you right now how much you want this—how that sort of wanting isn’t the same as needing. And how easy it is to take for granted that your parents will always treat you the same way, no matter what; how corny and annoying and, gah, lame Moms can be, right up until they aren’t there anymore. There’s a fundamental stasis to the core relationships of The Simpsons. Homer and Marge will always be married; Maggie will always be the baby; Lisa and Bart will always be in grade school; and so on. Bart’s never going to hit his teenage years, find drugs, maybe dabble around in punk for a while, date someone with lip-piercings, or lose his driver’s license. But this episode, however briefly, gives a sense of what it make be like for him to get older and break his mother’s heart, when he’s still young enough to feel that loss.
First, though, there’s Bonestorm, a video game so violent that it has “bone” and “storm” in the title. The opening act of the episode works to put Bart in a position where shoplifting isn’t just an easy way to get what he wants, but a seeming moral imperative; his parents can’t afford to buy him the game (even if it is Christmas time), the local comic shop is out of rental copies, Milhouse won’t share; the cool kids from school are all into stealing, and they get away with it. Hell, that rich kid Gavin gets two copies. If Bart was a little older, he might realize that you can wear down parents, and rental copies don’t stay rented forever. Jimbo and Nelson aren’t exactly role models, either. But Bart isn’t that old, and poor impulse control is one of the defining traits of his character.
What’s impressive isn’t that he tries to steal the game; it’s how effectively the show, in a very brief space of time, manages to motivate that choice, not just as something Bart would do, but as something any of us might’ve done. It’s dumb and short-sighted and selfish, but it’s also a crime that’s completely understandable. Given that the majority of the half-hour is from Bart’s perspective, that’s a necessary justification. For Bart’s guilt and sorrow to make sense, we need, to some degree, to share it; to remember when we did something stupid for what seemed like very smart reasons, and how awful it felt to get caught.
Empathy is one of The Simpsons’ key strengths in its golden years, and it’s impressive throughout how effectively we’re put into Bart’s shoes. Casting Lawrence Tierney as the voice of Don Brodka, the security guard who catches Bart on his way out the door, is key. While Brodka is, for his his brief screentime, well-developed, he’s also not soft or sympathetic or understanding. Tierney’s gruff, raspy delivery makes it clear: this is a guy doing his job who doesn’t really give a damn about Bart’s finer sensibilities, or who Bart might be outside of what he did. After all that time building up to Bart’s big decision, once he’s caught, the episode immediately pivots onto how stupid the whole thing was, and how the world doesn’t have much sympathy for little boys who really, really, really want a video game. Here’s a video about shoplifting. (Troy!) Shut up, get out, and let me eat my damn Lunchables, capeesh?
Like any kid getting caught, the terror immediately shifts to “Oh god, will my parents find out?” For a while, they don’t; there’s a fun chase scene as Bart races home to change the answering machine tape with Don’s voice on it, swapping in a copy of Allan Sherman’s “Camp Granada.” (Insert obligatory they-couldn’t-do-this-now-because-cell-phones comment.) But morality in the Simpsons universe is old school: no crime can go undiscovered, at least not one committed by one of the four leads. In the grand scheme of Bart’s sins, he’s arguably done worse than trying to steal a video game, but for this particular half-hour, that attempted theft is monstrous. He tries to hide it, but Fate won’t let him, and inevitably, the truth comes out. And it hits Marge, with all her kindness and faith in her children and “lame” love, the hardest.
The final segment of “Marge Be Not Proud” is all the more remarkable for how it manages to be devastating without ever really pausing in the jokes. Marge’s sadness is real, but we still get time for Homer’s complicated plan for punishment (“No stealing for a month!”). Bart’s loss is palpable, but it leads to the hilarious, and heartbreaking, bit with Milhouse’s mother—”Tell me I’m good” is at once nakedly pathetic, entirely understandable, and a great punchline. (Not to mention Milhouse’s newfound obsession with the ball and cup. You never know which way it’s gonna go!) The sincerity contextualizes the humor, gives it weight that makes it funnier. This isn’t just a child trying to get a contact high from hanging out with someone else’s mom. This is Bart, and the fact that he needs to fill a void that can’t be filled is something that’s recognizable and human, and we laugh harder because of it.
Remarkable care and attention to structure certainly don’t hurt. There’s a small bit that struck me this time through: when the Simpson family comes home from the store, Marge hangs the original family portrait over the fireplace, the one with Bart getting yanked out of place by Don. The framed photograph immediately tilts to one side, reminding us that something’s out of balance, as though gravity itself was mocking Marge’s desire for a perfect family photo. Nothing in this house gets to be perfect. It’s not the greatest joke, but it works; what makes it beautiful, though, is the end, when Marge attaches the small framed photo Bart got of himself to make up for ruining the family picture. The weight of the smaller photo evens out the tilted larger one. It’s just this lovely little moment, and it pays off something that wasn’t treated as a set-up. The show is full of stuff like that; small, clever beats that reinforce larger ones, holding everything together.
The majority of “Marge Be Not Proud” is seen through Bart’s eyes, but there are a few exceptions. The most important ones center on Marge. Think of the John Lennon verses in “She’s Leaving Home”; the song is about a young woman moving on with her life, but without the glimpse into what her parents are feeling, it would be incomplete.
The story is that Bart breaks his mom’s heart, and then tapes it back together again. The episode lets us into what it feels like to lose a parent’s affections, and how unnerving it can be when something you’ve taken for granted for so long abandons you. But the Marge moments both make it clear that Marge didn’t stop loving Bart, and show what it’s like to raise a kid you don’t always understand. First we see her trying to figure out if it was something she did wrong, if she’d been coddling him too much. This leads to a devastating “Good night,” when Marge drops all pretense of overt affection from the once saccharine nighttime ritual: from Bart’s perspective, it’s his mother turning her back on him; from Marge’s, it’s her attempt to try and correct what she assumes must be her own mistakes.
Those two perspectives combined are what makes the episode so effective, and that’s especially true for the story’s climax. After enduring all manner of alienation, Bart says, “Well, I’ll show ‘em what a black sheep can do!” and marches into the store; then we cut back home, where Marge and Lisa are flocking the tree with snow spray. When Bart shows up, he’s hiding something, and we’re in his perspective, as Homer moves to block his escape and Marge towers over him; but we’re seeing him through Marge’s eyes, too—that instant distrust, that parental overcompensation that comes from the fear that all the choices you made have ruined everything. Then she finally forces him to give up what he’s hiding, and it’s a new photo of himself, with the reassuring “Paid In Full” receipt tag, and everything’s happy again. We feel the relief from both sides: Marge’s, that she can trust her son again; and Bart’s, that his mother still loves him. It’s powerful stuff.
There’s so much I haven’t got to here—like, say, how this is an episode with a plot which could’ve worked just as easily in live-action, but the animators keep finding ways to use the freedom of animation to get us deeper into Bart’s head, like the vision of a juvenile hall Christmas, or the back of the front seat of the car turning into Don Brodka. Or that conversation-over-brushed-teeth between Bart and Lisa, which reminds me of the times I spent with my sister, trying to figure out what our parents were thinking. Or just how great Homer and Lisa are in the handful of bits they get, how the show was just so damn good with its characters that everyone is themselves (for want of a better phrase) even when they aren’t in focus. You could write a book, you really could.
I think I’ll leave you with that final scene between Marge and Bart, though. Because she’s so happy about that new photo, Marge lets Bart open one of his presents early (cue Lisa’s grumbling), and there’s a second or two when it seems like Bart’s going to get everything he wanted; not just his mom back, but that stupid video game that started the whole mess. That would’ve been disastrous, narratively speaking, but it doesn’t happen. Marge got him the game everyone’s been talking about—Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge.
It’s very funny, and Nancy Cartwright nails the strangled sound of Bart’s first legitimate, and then completely faked, enthusiasm. But it’s interesting that an episode that’s all about valuing what you have as a kid, that parental love that is at once utterly uncool and the entire foundation of your life, ends on such an adult moment. Bart puts his mom’s happiness ahead of his own disappointment, and that suggests, poor impulse control or not, he’s capable of learning. Instead of pitching a fit about not getting the game he wanted, he lies, because the gift doesn’t matter. The giver does.
- I always associate this episode in my mind with “Summer Of 4 Ft. 2.” Both have a low-key, comparatively realistic feel to them, which stands out in a series that grows more grandiose with each passing season.
- “Shoplifting is a victimless crime, like punching someone in the dark!” -Nelson
- I always imagine Tierney swearing in the sound booth between takes. “What is this crap. Cat fish? Who the fuck says ‘cat fish,’ I want a cigar.” Then he’d punch an intern.
- “If I wanted smoke blown up my ass, I’d be at home with a pack of cigarettes and a short-length of hose.” -Don
- The blackboard gag: “I Will Stop Talking About The 12-inch Pianist.”
- Not a lot of Homer in this one, but what he does get is choice. “Why do you think I took you to all of those Police Academy movies? For fun? Well I didn’t hear anybody laughing! Did you?”
- And now, because you read through all of that, enjoy some Bonestorm:
- As a bonus, the soothing sounds of Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge: