“Lisa's First Word” (season 4, episode 10; originally aired 12/03/1992)
Pity poor Lisa Simpson. It’s difficult enough being a smart, ambitious, principled and strong-willed woman in a society that does not hold those virtues in high esteem when found in the fairer sex, but Lisa also had the misfortune to grow up in the outsized shadow of Bart Simpson, the show’s breakout star and an instant idol to proud underachievers everywhere. Bart’s bad boy shenanigans proved slightly easier to market to adoring children than Lisa’s strident sermonizing. Bart reigned supreme as America’s bad boy. Lisa had a slightly rougher go of it as America’s joyless left-wing scold.
Bart overshadows Lisa to such an extent that Lisa barely factors into much of “Lisa’s First Word,” an episode with her name in the title. That title functions as a brilliant act of misdirection. It’s strangely, even poetically appropriate while at the same time creating expectations the episode has no interest in meeting. “Lisa’s First Word” is about Lisa’s early development on some level but like most things Simpsons in the halcyon days of the early 1990s, it’s really all about Bart.
“Lisa’s First Word” opens with the family anxiously awaiting Maggie’s first word. This inspires an extended trip down memory lane back to “the unforgettable summer of 1983,” a sepia-toned era when “Ms. Pac Man struck a blow for women’s rights” and “a young Joe Piscopo taught us how to laugh.”
“Lisa’s First Word” is a flashback episode awash in nostalgia but it’s also a brilliant commentary, meditation, and parody of flashback episodes and nostalgia in general. “Lisa’s First Word” takes place in a weird time warp: the episode piles on campy, incredibly 1983- and 1984-specific pop-culture references to hilariously over-the-top effect, but it also takes place in a Springfield that’s part 1930s New York and part Honeymooners-style working class 1950s. So when a motley crew of ragamuffins straight out of Newsies decide to play stick-ball, they choose a video game version.
Bart has never been cuter than he is as a mischievous baby in “Lisa’s First Word.” He’s not just cute: he’s almost unbearably adorable. As an only child Bart leads a charmed life wreaking adorable havoc until he receives startling news: He’s going to have a sibling. Bart at first only sees the upside to having a brother or sister: He can use his sibling-to-be-determined to wipe up spilled milk, accept the blame for his antics, and act as a human skateboard ramp in a pinch.
But welcoming a new member to the family creates complications as well. The growing family needs a new home, so they take a look at some of the least-livable abodes known to man, including a house with “I’ll be back” scrawled in blood on the wall, a house next to a rendering plant (“Once you get used to the smell of rendered hog fat, you’ll wonder how you ever did without it!” cheerfully suggests a realtor from Dead Fish Realty), a houseboat plagued by killer sea creatures, and a house technically owned by a series of angry cats.
Finally, Homer and Marge find the perfect home, but it’s out of their price range. This leads to an unusually mean joke in an unusually mild, even gentle and tender episode. In a bid to raise the $15,000 needed to make a down payment on the new home, Homer does the unthinkable: He’s nice to his father, but only so that his father will sell a house he won in a crooked 1950s game show and give the proceeds to Homer for a down payment. In what should be a heartwarming moment, Homer tenderly tells his dad, “First you gave me life. Then you gave me a home for my family. I’d be honored if you came and lived with us.”
As with so many sentimental moments in The Simpsons, light immediately gives way to bracing darkness when Bart asks Homer how long it was until they shipped grandpa off to an old folks home and Homer glibly answers, “about three weeks” and the whole family laughs loudly for an uncomfortable amount of time. Even saintly Lisa derives an unhealthy joy from Grandpa’s enduring misery.
The impending birth of a younger sibling upends Bart’s fragile sense of self. He’s terrified that his days of being the pampered baby have come to an end and greets his sister for the first time with a coldly delivered, “I hate you.” The happy-go-lucky little scamp turns paranoid and scared.
In a bid to reassure Bart, Homer decides to build his son a clown bed that’s equal parts hilarious and terrifying, a ghoulish nightmare that would haunt Bart’s dreams if it didn’t make the prospect of sleep both impossible and terrifying. “Can’t sleep, clown will eat me,” frets Bart in one of my favorite lines of dialogue in anything, ever.
Bart’s fears crystallize in a nightmare sequence where images of the terrifying clown bed of doom alternate with the equally horrifying image of Flanders’ demented elderly mother and, for some reason, a Flanders boy guilelessly enthusing, “Iron helps us play!”
“Lisa’s First Word” ends in a heartwarming frenzy, all of it earned. Just when it appears that the tale of Lisa’s first word might be an elaborate shaggy dog story it turns out that Lisa’s first word was “Bart,” on account of she adores her older brother regardless of his feelings toward her. As if all that weren’t disarmingly sweet enough, the episode closes with Maggie—voiced by Elizabeth Taylor—uttering her own first word: “Daddy.” It would be nauseatingly precious if it weren’t so weirdly moving and the perfect ending to an episode that strikes a perfect balance between light and dark, gleeful irreverence and genuine emotion.
- Homer singing “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”: cheap but hilarious
- “My cousin Frank did it. He became Francine back in ’76. Then he joined that cult. I think his name is Mother Shabooboo now”—Homer on why having Bart sleep in his parents’ bed until 21 might not be such a bad idea
- “The Coast Guard arrested Boy George for scraping the barnacles off his dinghy” is such a great riff on how Johnny Carson would sometimes just string together funny words and names in a way that sounds vaguely like a joke even if they didn’t actually make any sense.
- “The only houses we have in your price range are in the neighborhood colorfully known as ‘the rat’s nest.’”
- “Actually, according to the will, the cat’s own the house. You’d be their tenants!” I would so watch a show based on that premise
- “Ha ha ha! Where’s the beef! No wonder he won Minnesota!” may be my favorite Walter Mondale joke ever. It has a lot of competition.
- Next up is “Homer’s Triple Bypass.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.