With all this jibber-jabber about The Simpsons not being as good as it was when the writer was 12 (see: The Saturday Night Live Effect), it’s easy to forget that there was an early period in the show’s popularity when it was ready to take a turn for the much worse. Catchphrase-filled bumper stickers, key chains, video games, and music albums all pointed in one direction: The Simpsons was becoming the “Bart Show.”
For the record, I like Bart Simpson as a character. He is in many ways the show’s least cynical character. Despite all the parent group protestations that he was a negative role model for children, his rebelliousness was more a sign of his innocence than a dismissal of it. Episodes such as Marge Be Not Proud and Bart The Daredevil work because Bart is so unaware of his affect on the world around him. He confuses selfishness with individuality, just as all children do.
But Bart Simpson the character and Bart Simpson the hit television show character are two different animals, and in the first few years of The Simpsons, the latter threatened to take over. The marketing focus of the show fell almost entirely on Bart (or, at least, Homer reacting to Bart). “Eat my shorts!” became a catchphrase on the level of “Yeah, baby!”
Of course this is exactly what happens in popular television shows: a character gets popular. Family Guy had it in the super cute super genius Stewie and South Park had it in the ever-dying Kenny.
But while South Park was able to shift attention away from its breakout star (largely by no longer making the kid’s death the centerpiece of episodes), Family Guy has been trapped in a creative rut ever since it traded its intense weirdness in favor of a cute, catchphrase-producing main character. Family Guy has always just been Robot Chicken with storylines, but even those stories were weakened after the Stewie revolution. When Peter, the everyman, was at the center of the show, it felt like a fun ride into a stupid man’s brain. Now the Stewie-heavy episodes play out in the pattern of joke, t-shirt idea, joke, t-shirt idea, joke.
The danger in this pattern wasn’t just that America had more “Do the Bartman” cassettes than it needed. Rather, there was less space to consider the comedy merits of Marge or Homer or Lisa or anyone else on the show. The audience had been told that Bart was the funny one. The jokes were coming from Bart. Bart would be saying the thing you’d talk about on the playground the next day. And with Bart taking the spotlight from the other main characters, the side characters such as Moe or Lenny had no space at all.
This is the antithesis of The Simpsons that fans came to know and love.
At its heart, The Simpsons works so well because it’s a television show about a community. Much like South Park, many of the best episodes of The Simpsons deal with the town overcoming their differences to stop a ridiculous threat. Marge vs. The Monorail is much bigger than Marge herself: it’s about Springfield. Even the Treehouse of Horror episodes celebrate the diverse cast and the many comedic possibilities they provide, not just Bart or Homer putting on a mask.
If the show had stayed exclusively focused on Bart, we might never have had episodes like “Homer Loves Flanders” or “Sideshow Bob Roberts.” The flavor of Springfield, and many of the non-family characters fans love would’ve stayed in the background for quick cut-a-aways and sight gags - just as they still do on Family Guy now.
So what changed that saved The Simpsons?
According to some accounts - and the NBC Page tour if you took it before 2009 - then-writer Conan O’Brien lead the charge to shift the focus of the show from Bart onto Homer and Marge. And there is some merit to the claim. If you look at the episode list of Season 4 (often considered the Golden Age of The Simpsons) and compare it to Season 3, there are far fewer Bart-themed episodes and infinitely more based on Marge, a previously-boring nag character.
Or maybe the writing staff just got tired of using the same tropes for three seasons. Even as endearing as Bart can be at his best, having him say, “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” can only be funny to a reasonable human so many times.
Mike Drucker is a lovely man with many positive characteristics. He has written for Saturday Night Live, The Onion, McSweeney’s, and Nintendo. He’s also a stand-up or something, I guess.