“Bart Gets An Elephant” (season 5, episode 17; originally aired 03/31/1994)
When I did a Get A Life Walk Through with David Mirkin a while back he said that Get A Life, which he co-created and Executive Produced, engendered a lot of ill will and negative feelings from FOX and television in general because the show’s post-modern treatment of the sitcom genre pointed out the flaws endemic in so much of show-business in general and television in particular.
Mirkin felt Get A Life implicitly taught audiences to be more cynical, critical and exacting in how they process and filter entertainment by holding up for ridicule all the hoary tropes, clichés and stereotypes other shows played straight. In Mirkin’s mind, Get A Life made viewers more critical and cynical by exposing the otherwise invisible storytelling machinery of sitcoms and the way they manipulate audience emotions and expectations.
When he took over as show-runner in the fifth season of The Simpsons, Mirkin carried over Get A Life’s gleefully meta-textual deconstruction of the entertainment world. There is a running gag throughout the season, for example, involving The Simpsons attempting to remember something, only to discover that television and the blinding speed of contemporary life has completely destroyed their memories, imaginations and ability to think constructively.
In an earlier episode, for example, Bart decides he doesn’t need to be able to actually watch Itchy & Scratchy when he can think up their adventures in his mind, only to generate a thought balloon that consists of Itchy and Scratchy standing there impatiently, waiting for the synapses in Bart’s mind to fire quickly enough for them to be moved to do something, anything, more than just stand there, to no avail.
In “Bart Gets An Elephant”, meanwhile, Homer comes across a beloved TV Guide whose description (“Gomer upsets Sergeant Carter”) of a particularly beloved episode of Gomer Pyle (though that description applies to every episode of the show) inspires a Proustian reverie of his favorite Gomer Pyle moments. Unfortunately, all Homer can remember is Gomer yelling, “Golly!” and Sergeant Carter yelling, “Gomer!” as infinitum. It’s a gag that highlights television’s unique genius for destroying attention spans but it’s also a sly dig at the broad swath of popular entertainment that really can be boiled down to a single lazy, reductive gag repeated for perpetuity, in this case Sergeant Carter responded apoplectically to Gomer’s antics and Gomer responding obliviously.
Later, Bill and Marty, the premiere chatter-monkeys of KBBL, face down their greatest threat in the form of DJ 3000, a computer that plays CDs and boasts three different kinds of inane chatter and consequently represents a grave challenge to their jobs after the gabby twosome end up in hot water with management when Bart shocks everyone by taking the crazy gag gift offered in a radio contest (a free elephant) rather than ten thousand dollars.
The world-weary station manager strikes fear into her underlings by turning on the DJ3000 and watching as it spits out, in a robotic approximation of the mindless enthusiasm of the average morning zoo DJ such well-worn chestnuts as, “How about the weather out there?”, “Whoah! That was the caller from hell”, “Well Hot Dog! We have a wiener!” and finally, and most trenchantly, “Looks like those clowns in Congress have done it again. What. A. Bunch. Of. Clowns.”
Bill is so overwhelmed by the machine’s wit and timeliness that he guilelessly enthuses, “How does he keep up with the news like that?” despite the threat DJ3000 poses to his livelihood and professional future, to which Marty mutters a dark, bitter, “Don’t praise the machine.” DJ3000 is a dead-on parody of mindless, tame morning zoo patter so hackneyed and limited that it can be reproduced by a computer only slightly more advanced than the an Atari 2600. Just as Homer’s memory of Gomer Pyle reduces a television show to a single dumb gag, the DJ3000 reduces the once noble art of disc-jockeying to a handful of dumb jokes married to a pre-determined playlist.
Ah, but we are once again getting ahead of ourselves. “Bart Gets An Elephant” adopts the form of a loose parody of boy-and-his-dog epics like Lassie. The episode begins with The Simpsons facing the nightmare of having to clean up the house themselves instead of having Marge do it for them.
Homer makes the glorious mistake of using Mr. Clean in an unventilated area, a mistake that prompts one of the show’s many psychedelic freakouts, in this case a mind-fuck where Homer imagines that the cartoon mascots for various products are physically attacking him in a scenario that plays out like a much less nightmarish version of the ill-fated product placement animated epic Foodfight!.
Bart makes an escape from the drudgery of cleaning and calls up KBBL and wins a radio contest offering a choice between ten thousand dollars and a crazy gag prize, in this case an elephant. KBBL assumes everyone will take the money because, you know, money, but Bart, being Bart, insists on the elephant and the radio station is eventually forced to provide it for Bart.
We all know the arc for stories like these: lonely little boy falls in love with an unloved but very special animal and their lives are transformed by the magical bond they share. That would be the Lassie version. This is the John Swartzwelder Simpsons version however so Stampy doesn’t behave like a lovable anthropomorphic animal so much as he behaves like a real elephant.
In fact, Stampy might just be the least anthropomorphic animal in television history: he’s a dull-eyed creature of instinct whose tiny brain isn’t concerned with much beyond feeding regularly and destroying as much as possible. “Bart Gets An Elephant” has a lot of great physical comedy about the impossibility of keeping an elephant as a pet (if the Bill Murray movie Larger Than Life has taught us anything, it's that elephants in non-elephant-friendly scenarios are inherently hilarious) but there are all sorts of weird, left-field gags as well, like Marge sensibly declaring that keeping an elephant is a bad idea and Homer answering, with a wonderfully misplaced sense of equivalency, “Marge, I agree with you in theory. In theory, Communism works! In theory”, which is exactly what people say when they want to sound smart without actually having anything to say.
I am enormously fond of a gag where Stampy goes on a rampage and heads to a peanut factory where the foreman has apparently been leading his employees on a two-hour daily drill to handle the unlikely chance of a rampaging elephant destroying their factory. His entire life has been leading up to that very moment but in the moment of crisis, the elephant just ends up destroying everything anyway, because in the world of The Simpsons and the world outside of The Simpsons, that’s what elephants do: they destroy, no matter how much children might love them.
In the end, Stampy just proves too much elephant for one modest family to handle. Stampy ends up in an animal reserve, where he continues to be aggressive and obnoxious because, as the overseer of the reserve tells the Simpsons, “Animals are a lot like people, Mrs. Simpson: some of them act badly because they’ve had a hard life or have been mistreated. But, like people, some of them are just jerks.”
That is the genius of “Bart Gets An Elephant.” In any other show, Stampy would be a little angel or at least a lovable troublemaker. Here, however, he’s just a jerk. That’s a whole lot truer to real life than the deification of animals found on other, more sentimental television shows.
- “When you participate in sporting events it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how drunk you get.”—more Successories-worthy wisdom from Homer J. Simpson
- I love the off-handed philosophical nature of Homer inquiring, “What’s with all this cleaning? Are we so vain?”
- “Mmmm…elephant friend” is one of the best “mmm…” gags
- “With ten thousand dollars we’d be millionaires! We could buy all sorts of important things like love!”—the fuzzy math of Homer J. Simpson
- “Isn’t that what we’re all asking in our own lives, “Where’s my elephant?” I know that’s what I’ve been asking.”—Kent Brockman on the larger philosophical ramifications of Bart being denied his elephant
- Homer’s “On the other hand, who’s to say what’s right these days, what with all our modern ideas and products?” feels like a George Meyer line and a great one at that.
- Next up is “Burns’ Heir.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.