“Bart Gets Famous” (season five, episode 12; originally aired 02/03/1994)
“Bart Gets Famous” is about a kind of celebrity that is at once specific and broad. It’s about Andy Warhol’s conception of fame for its own sake, about either being famous for being famous or being famous for something we consider silly or ephemeral or ridiculous or even shameful and embarrassing. It’s a status that can be achieved by making a sex tape with a minor R&B singer and having an unusually attractive family or embarrassing yourself as one of the most fascinatingly unselfconscious freaks American Idol hauls out for America to laugh at during its audition process. “Bart Gets Famous” is about fame removed from genuine achievement, about the most superficial and fleeting form of fame: the fad. The Simpsons would go on to become a major cultural institution. Hell, when “Bart Gets Famous” aired, it was already well on its way to becoming one of the best, most important and influential television shows of all time—but it was also a really massive fad.
As someone who was a teenager in the early 1990s, I have a vivid memory of going to Walgreen’s and seeing entire aisles devoted to the two biggest kiddie fads of the time: The Simpsonsand New Kids On The Block. Bear in mind I’m not talking about a T-shirt or a cup here or there: I’m talking about entire sections of the store devoted to nothing but New Kids On The Block and The Simpsons merchandise: water-bottles, CDs, dolls, cheap watches, notebooks, just about anything they could slap the faces of Bart Simpson or Jordan Knight on in hope of making a quick buck from crazed teenyboppers.
The Simpsons didn’t just become famous—they became stupid famous. They inspired the kind of hysteria and furious consumer spending (I’m guessing the vast majority of you have at least one piece of official merchandise from The Simpsons) that typically greets pop-culture phenomenon of a much frothier and less worthy vantage, the kind of white-hot cultural heat that can be transformed, for example, into a popular line of novelty singing toothbrushes for children.
Commerce is the great equalizer. It transformed The Simpsons—the greatest pop culture achievement of the 20th century—and a prefabricated boy band into two different forms of disposable consumer product for children. Creatively, NKOTB and The Simpsons were worlds apart; from a marketing standpoint, they were pitched unashamedly to the demographic Krusty cynically if not incorrectly refers to as “salivating dogs” panting with anticipation of hearing the next hot catchphrase or clamorous pop ditty.
“Bart Gets Famous” reflects the show’s deep ambivalence about becoming a cash cow for Fox’s and dizzy pop-culture fad as well as the defining satire of its time. The show is shot through with self-deprecating, metatextual riffs on Simpsonsmania that feel fresh and raw and trenchant in part because that style of humor wasn’t so ubiquitous or tired in early 1994. But these jokes also land because the show had not yet exhausted that particular vein of comedy.
But before “Bart Gets Famous” can address the emptiness of fame untethered to genuine achievement, it focuses on the agony of being a child forever on the periphery of where the excitement is. The episode begins with a trip to the most tedious place on earth: The Box Factory.
“Bart Gets Famous” paradoxically delights in the grey, soul-crushing tedium of a box factory assiduously scrubbed of anything that might possibly interest anyone, let alone easily distracted children. There’s a reverse poetry to the box factory tour guide droning, “The story of how two brothers and five other men parlayed a small business loan into a thriving paper-goods concern is a long and interesting one. And here it is. It all began with the filing of form 637/A, the application for a small business or farm loan.”
The writers take what could easily be a throwaway joke (a field trip to a box factory instead of a zoo or museum) and build an entire universe around it: The infinitely more fun attractions (a Toy-Themed Theme Park, a fireworks testing range, a slide factory) the bus speeds past, for instance, or the exquisitely misguided enthusiasm of Principal Skinner and Martin Prince. The latter guilelessly enthuses of their endeavor in extreme tedium, “This may well prove fascinating!”
Ah, but the trip to the box factory, as exciting and hilarious as it might be, is essentially a misdirect for the real meat of the episode: the television studio next door. After escaping the tour of the box factory and making a beeline to the world of wonder next door, Bart secures a job as Krusty The Clown’s flunky.
Of course, by this point The Simpsons had a lot of history: When Bart impresses Krusty by stealing Kent Brockman’s Danish for him, he helpfully reminds Krusty that he previously saved the clown from jail, reunited him with his father, and saved his career. But none of that matters in the ADD-addled world of show business as much as the present-tense, and in the present tense Bart is the magical little elf that gives Krusty the pastry he desperately needs.
“Bart Gets Famous” offers a child’s-eye view of television as a dazzling dream factory. In the episode, that world is a busy little hive of creativity and invention that becomes soul-crushing, tedious, and dispiriting once the novelty wears out and the thankless, exhausting nature of toiling for demanding, narcissist celebrities sinks in.
At first Bart feels like he’s won the cosmic lottery, but after enduring abuse from Krusty and Sideshow Mel, he’s got the dead-eyed, exhausted, resigned look endemic to longtime assistants and other showbiz serfs. Just when it appears Bart is destined to be a 10-year-old burnout, he accidentally receives the break of a lifetime when he’s roped into appearing in a sketch and cracks up the audience by quipping, “I didn’t do it” after destroying a set.
Krusty is horrified, but when the audience instantly falls for the “I Didn’t Do It” boy, Krusty sets about crassly exploiting his protégé’s fame for all its worth. Bart then sets out on the proverbial rocket ride to stardom and infamy. His meteoric rise and precipitous fall provide a winning showcase for brilliant throwaway gags about the ephemeral nature of fame. Lisa notes bitterly that a quickie biography of Bart is mostly devoted to H. Ross Perot with a few chapters at the end devoted to the Oliver North trial. Bart cuts a rap song that’s just “Can’t Touch This” with the chorus replaced by “I didn’t do it,” completely with MC Hammer manning the controls nearby and deeming the whole enterprise, “proper.”
Again, it’s not hard to see the winking self-parody underneath the sly jabs at dizzy fads: There isn’t too much difference between Bart cutting three albums (that would be I Didn’t Do It, volumes one through three) and The Simpsons releasing a pair of recordings, including one that featured a hit rap song from Bart. The only real difference between “Do The Bartman” and “I Didn’t Do It” is that one was real and the other is a parody.
But Bart soon learns that being a famous face in front of the camera can be as tedious and thankless as being an anonymous worker bee toiling behind the scenes. The world sees Bart as a disposable fad, good for recycling a hackneyed catchphrase and nothing more. For the first time in his life, Bart wants to prove to people that he has substance, that he’s not just a one-hit wonder—but the world is not having it. The culture elevates Bart to great heights, then spits him out when they’ve used him up.
“Bart Gets Famous” ends with Bart’s roller-coaster ride to fame ending where it began: anonymity. In a metatextual touch, the episode closes with an all-star roster of Springfield residents all reciting their catchphrases, a wry and necessary acknowledgement that The Simpsons is not entirely innocent of the moronic catchphrase-based humor so adroitly spoofed throughout the episode.
In a fortuitous coincidence, “Bart Gets Famous” aired around the time a goofy former Simpsons writer named Conan O’Brien was also becoming famous. Bart’s path to temporary superstardom leads him straight to O’Brien’s late-night talk show, which had just launched amid a tidal wave of bad reviews, negative buzz, and intense pessimism.
At the time O’Brien appeared on The Simpsons as himself he was, like so many of the sentient fads spoofed here—Milli Vanilli, The Dancing Itos, one-hit wonders everywhere—famous for the wrong reasons. O’Brien was famous for being a giant, oddly named weirdo who was inexplicably plucked from obscurity to fail spectacularly in one of the highest-profile gigs in show business.
Over time, however, O’Brien has become famous for the right reasons: Like The Simpsons in its prime, he’s absolutely brilliant and has enriched the world immeasurably with his comic genius.
- I honestly don’t have too much merchandise from The Simpsons because I fear that if I start I won’t know where to end and I’m already enough of an emotionally stunted man-child without having a condo full of children’s toys.
- “Today will be a day like every other day” may be the most honest fortune cookie fortune of all time.
- I’m not sure why but, “You’ll have to speak up! I’m wearing a towel” always cracks me up.
- “I have to pay $5 to see my own grandson! That’s the Democrats for you!” may be my favorite Grandpa Simpson line ever.
- Homer’s line about watching Bart on Conan—“After Leno I’m all laughed out”—veritably sings with bitter historical irony these days.
- “Ladies and gentleman, the Clown Show has been put on hiatus for re-tooling” is such a gorgeous piece of verbiage.
- There is perhaps no more brutal or succinct encapsulation of the grasping, cynical calculation behind many fads than Krusty introducing Bart with the words, “The boy that says the words you’ve been longing to hear like the salivating dogs that you are: Bart Simpson!” at the precise moment when the salivating dogs that are the general public stopped longing to hear Bart’s magical words.
- Next up is “Homer And Apu.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.