How perfect is The Simpsons’ opening credit sequence? In about a minute, the opening sequence indelibly establishes the personalities of its lead characters, offers a tantalizing glimpse of Springfield and its inhabitants, generates an exhilarating sense of anarchy and kinetic energy and finds time for two running gags that have become fixtures of the show’s mythology: the chalkboard gag and the couch gag.
Before the show has even begun we’ve learned that Homer is an oafish buffoon and a major liability at a none-too-reputable nuclear power plant, that Marge is a loving and sincere if moderately daft housewife, that Bart is an incorrigible smartass engaged in permanent warfare with the powers that be and that Lisa is a brainy, bohemian iconoclast gloriously out of step with the world. We also learn that baby Maggie is a ninth-generation Freemason, though that’s more implied than explicitly stated.
Danny Elfman’s infectious theme song gives the opening mayhem a caffeinated sense of high spirits and if it sounds more than a little like Elfman’s theme from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, which in turn bears an almost lawsuit-worthy resemblance to Andre Previn’s theme from Billy Wilder’s One Two Three, the iconic associations are merited. Like Tim Burton’s debut film, The Simpsons takes place in a lovingly realized, funhouse mirror world of endless comic intervention. Like Wilder’s seminal Cold War satire, The Simpsons fearlessly eviscerates major American institutions.
Today’s episode, for example, satirizes, in succession, the inertia and hopelessness of public schools lorded over by bloodless, joyless bureaucrats and hippie schools where folks far smarter than you and I are encouraged to “discover” their desks and follow their own bliss rather than get bogged down by the Man’s tests and rules and “correct answers.”
It’s always tricky assigning credit to a show that’s so clearly a collaborative endeavor between many, many brilliant Harvard Lampoon alum but I wonder if the school where Bart is sent after being mislabeled a genius was at least partially inspired by Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s experiences at Evergreen, a hippie college that doesn’t go in for stodgy old conventions like “grades.” Instead, students are given something called a “narrative evaluation.”
The Simpsons would later develop a structure where the first act often bears only a tangential relationship to the acts that would follow but “Bart the Genius” follows a straight, linear narrative line from start to finish. The very first chalkboard gag finds Bart writing, over and over again, “I will not waste chalk”, a line that embodies the show’s take on elementary school as a Kafkaesque nightmare awash in doublespeak and meaningless rules.
The fun begins when Bart uses his crude flair for the arts to scrawl graffiti depicting Principal Seymour Skinner saying, “I am a weiner.” This offends smug know-it-all Martin Prince on aesthetic and moral grounds and also because of its abuse of the English language, though Martin allows that that spelling may, in some circumstances, constitute an acceptable ethnic variation on the word.
Martin snitches on Bart, who enacts stealthy revenge by cheating off Martin’s aptitude test. Bart is consequently labeled a genius and advised by the smarmy school psychiatrist to attend a school better suited to his intellectual gifts.
The Mensa types at Bart’s new school quite literally speak a different language, communicating in a smug, smarter-than-thou vernacular of anagrams, riddles and, most noxiously of all, numerical puns. Bart’s contempt for the mindless conformity and authoritarian joylessness of public school morphs into profound discomfort at feeling lost and alone in a world where everyone is much smarter than him.
Bart begins to learn that too much freedom and non-conformity can be just as stifling and miserable as conformity and repression. Yet his brief, undistinguished stint among the eggheads is not without its scattered triumphs. When the teacher asks the class for examples of paradoxes and the teacher’s pets immediately offer up the requisite, “In order to have peace we must prepare for war” and “law and order are necessary for a free society”, Bart offers “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.” That’s both commonsense wisdom every bit as valid as the other answers and a succinct encapsulation of one of the show’s ruling philosophies: you’re fucked no matter what. A school for geniuses and a holding pen for future blue-collar drones and fuck-ups both prove nightmarish for Bart.
As he acclimates himself to life among the intelligentsia, Bart discovers that being smart, or rather being perceived as smart, brings its own sets of problems. A guilt-stricken Marge immediately sets about nurturing Bart’s intellect by taking him to the opera and proposing that they attend art films by a filmmaker Homer derides as a “Swedish meatball.” Bart wants to return to the simple pleasures of comic books, graffiti and corrupting his friends but finds out that people perceive him much differently now that’s he’s considered a genius.
In one of the first of the show’s trademark “freeze-frame gags”, named thusly because they come and go so quickly that you need to freeze-frame individual sequences just to catch them, a forlorn Bart walks past his crudely scrawled depiction of Principal Skinner. Only this time there’s a frame around it with the words “The Principal by Bart Simpson, 216 IQ.”
It’s a genius throwaway joke. Depending on how it’s presented, the same caricature of a stuck-up adult can be seen as either the criminal destructiveness of a juvenile delinquent or an early masterpiece by a genius. If “Bart the Genius” had appeared in a later season I suspect it would have prominently featured Lisa’s hostility towards seeing her much stupider brother heralded as a genius while her ferocious intelligence goes un-nurtured.
But the show seemingly hadn’t really figured out Lisa by that point so it stuck to its two best-defined characters and made the emotional crux of the episode Homer’s new pride at his underachieving son’s accomplishments and Bart’s guilt over deceiving him. The Simpsons’ blend of irreverence and heart similarly wasn’t quite as seamless. There’s a sweet if overly sentimental and incongruously sappy sequence where Homer decides to reward a bored and depressed Bart with a friendly game of catch.
In a more successful juxtaposition of sentiment and slapstick, Marge takes Bart and the family to the opera, where Bart spends the entire time cracking wise and goofing off, much to the delight of Homer and Lisa. The writers went out of their way to convey from the very start how much pleasure the family derived in Bart’s monkeyshines, however inappropriate. That fundamental ambiguity—Homer and Lisa are irritated by Bart’s misbehavior yet also enjoys its creativity and humor—went a long way towards establishing Bart as something more than his century’s answer to Dennis The Menace.
From the very beginning, The Simpsons was a satire above all else and if “Bart the Genius” is laugh-light compared to episodes from later seasons, satire often aspires to much more than make people laugh. In its own sly, subversive manner, The Simpsons set out to make people think, to have them re-examine their relationship to authority and the way they see the world. The Simpsons was about to rewire the mindset and worldview of multiple generations. So it makes sense that its earliest episodes found it ramping up for the Herculean task ahead.