Bart Simpson changed the face, and force, of American animation. As America’s cartoon bad boy, he became a cultural icon who created a new direction for the future of animated television. Bart’s devilish pranks and “Who cares?” attitude on the prime-time cartoon series, The Simpsons, helped make the show an overnight success. Together with the show’s interwoven string of satirical commentary on social culture, Bart Simpson’s personality is one of the major factors that made The Simpsons the longest running sitcom in television history. The show celebrated its 20th season in 2010.
Bart Simpson is the brainchild of animator, executive producer, and writer Matt Groening (pronounced Gray-ning). In 1987, the then 33-year-old Groening was waiting to show longtime successful producer James L. Brooks his “Life in Hell,” comic strip, which had been running in the Los Angeles Reader since 1980. He was hoping that Brooks would like it enough to give it a test run as a series of television shorts.
While sitting in the waiting room, Groening decided that he did not want to give up the copyright to his most beloved creation and at the last minute, a frantic Groening decided to scratch the idea of pitching his “Life in Hell” cartoon. Fifteen minutes later, he had sketched out some crude drawings of a cartoon family. Being pressed for time, Groening named the characters after the members of his own family. Except for Bart. The name Bart was derived from an anagram of the word brat.
Brooks liked the odd-looking family cartoon and gave Groening the green light. Once again, Brooks’s prescient genius was dead-on perfect, and the future success of the show brought with it mountains of publicity and merchandising income along with television advertising.
Books, Web sites, a comic book series featuring Bart, a commercial for Nestle’s Butterfinger candy bars featuring Bart and The Simpsons board game were just a smattering of the Simpsons-related paraphernalia that plastered the country. Other Simpsons merchandise, much of it featuring Bart, includes clothing, decals, bumper stickers and action figures, all purchased by children and adults alike. The search engine Google gave Bart a home page on the Internet featuring his likeness. It also offers a “Simpsons Quote of the Day,” a memorable quotation pulled from a random episode. There is even a Web site that keeps track of The Simpsons Web sites.
In addition to the Web sites that feature The Simpsons games for download, there are separate games for consoles, such as The Simpsons for Wii. Similar games exist in Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, and Nintendo DS.
The Simpsons even recorded several LPs, one of which, The Simpsons Sing the Blues, released on the Geffen label, features the novelty hit, “Do the Bartman,” written by Michael Jackson (a big fan of the show, but for contractual reasons, he could not have his name on it).
The song was hugely popular internationally, but was never released as a single in the United States. “Do the Bartman” was the U.K. number one single on February 16, 1991, and stayed there for two weeks before the song went gold after selling more than 400,000 copies. The Simpsons discography includes other LPs like Songs in the Key of Springfield, The Simpsons: Testify, and Go Simpsonic with the Simpsons.
Eventually The Simpsons hit the big screen, when a full-length movie about the family was released in 2007 and grossed more than $500 million in sales. The merchandise brought in $2 billion in revenues in the first 14 months of sales. Bart was the lead character in most of the first three seasons, leading to his quick popularity on the show and the onset of “Bartmania!” in 1990. Bart was described by the media as “television’s king of 1990,” “television’s brightest new star,” and an “undiminished smash.” Entertainment Weekly named Bart “the entertainer of the year” for 1990, writing that “Bart has proved to be a rebel who’s also a good kid, a terror who’s easily terrorized and a flake who astonished us, and himself, with serious displays of fortitude.”
In the 1990 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Bart made his debut as one of the giant helium-filled balloon for which the parade is known and has appeared in every parade since.
On August 2, 2010, Facebook.com rated The Simpsons Facebook page number 1 of its top 10 most explosive pages for the week. The page includes regular updates on what to expect from the upcoming season of the show, full episodes, pictures, and fun posts from the cartoon’s main characters. The Simpsons family gained more than 500,000 new fans during its record week. Its total recorded Facebook fan list is currently almost 5 million people. There are 50 MySpace.com pages and countless people are twittering daily about Bart Simpson and the goings-on of the show.
On April 9, 2009, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a line of stamps featuring each of the original Simpsons members. The stamps were the first to include characters from a television show while the show was still in production.
The show has won dozens of awards during its years in production, including 25 Emmys, 1 Peabody Award, 23 Annie Awards, 4 Genesis Awards, 9 International Monitor Awards, and 7 Environmental Media Awards. The Simpsons holds the Guinness Book of World Records titles for Longest-Running Prime-Time Animated Television Series and Most Guest Stars Featured in a television Series. Homer Simpson’s annoyed grunt—“D’oh!”—is an official word in the Oxford English Dictionary, and The Simpsons has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 2008, the British film magazine, Empire, rated The Simpsons number 1 of its “50 Greatest Television Shows of all Time.” In the June 8, 1998, issue of Time magazine, Bart placed 46th in the magazine’s “Top 100,” or “100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century” and the only fictional character to make the list. He had previously appeared on the cover of the December 31, 1990, edition of the magazine. In 2002, both Bart and Lisa were ranked number 11 in TV Guide’s “Top 50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All Time.” Homer Simpson was rated number 1 in a cover story by Entertainment Weekly on June 4, 2010, in a special double issue highlighting the 100 greatest characters of the last 20 years.
On January 10, 2010, Fox aired “The Simpsons 20th-Anniversary Special: In 3D! On Ice!” The show attracted as many as 20 million viewers, according to Nielsen estimates. Based on those estimate, Fox projected that the anniversary episode earned the series’ highest rating since an episode that followed the Super Bowl five years earlier. Fox won the entire night in ratings on that date, over networks ABC, CBS, and NBC. As Bart would say, “Ay, Carumba!”
The popularity of The Simpsons has drawn so much attention from the media that many a celebrity has seen a publicity opportunity and guest-starred/guest-voiced on the show. Famous names range from former president George W. Bush to superstar Michael Jackson.
Bart, and the rest of his cartoon family, made their first appearance on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987 in blips called “Simpson shorts,” or brief skits played between scenes on the show. The Simpsons’s quirky appeal quickly overshadowed the popularity of The Tracey Ullman Show. In 1989, the Fox Broadcasting Company acquired the rights to The Simpsons and spun the shorts into half-hour shows. Fox’s premier episode of The Simpsons aired on December 17, 1989. A new episode has aired every Sunday since that date.
Although Groening had named all the characters of the immediate Simpsons family after his own, he refused to use his grandfather’s name for Grandpa Simpson and left it to the writers to come up with a name. They chose the name Abraham, not knowing that Abraham was in fact the name of Groening’s real-life grandfather. Groening went with it anyway.
The show operates on the basis of a “floating timeline,” where the characters never age. Bart has been in the fourth-grade class of Edna Krabappel since the first episode of the show. His mother, Marge, has even been quoted as saying, “It seems like he’s been 10 forever.” Bart’s major interests include skateboarding and watching television, especially the Krusty the Clown show, which features Bart’s favorite cartoon, “Itchy & Scratchy,” a much more violent portrayal of a Roadrunner/ Coyote-type relationship between a cat and mouse. He also reads comic books, his favorite being Radioactive Man, plays video games, enjoys spitting off the Springfield overpass at cars passing underneath, and committing general mischief.
As a pointy-haired 10-year-old in red shirt and blue shorts, spouting his oft-repeated catchphrases, like “Eat my shorts,” and spewing total disregard for the consequences of his actions, Bart has kept the United States laughing since 1987. He has spent every day of his school career in detention repeatedly writing on the blackboard such phrases as “Cursive writing does not mean what I think it does,” “I will not belch the National Anthem,” “I will not torment the emotionally frail,” and “Underwear should be worn on the inside.”
His mother, Marge, once found him sitting on his bed with a box of cupcakes, throwing them at the wall icing side first to see whether they would stick. In another episode, Bart orders a “Super Squishee” drink (similar to 7-Eleven’s “Slurpee”) at the local “Kwik-E-Mart,” with maximum syrup, and when he and his faithful side-kick, Milhouse, drink it, they go on a sugar bender that takes them on their own private magical mystery tour.
The dark side of Bart is animation in blackface, Dennis the Menace gone awry, an extreme version of the typical misbehaving child. In one show, Bart abandons his slingshot for an air rifle and accidentally kills a bird. In another, he cuts the head off the statue of the town’s founder. In yet another episode, he fills the shack of the school groundskeeper with creamed corn.
As the tiny terror of Springfield, USA, Bart has offended nearly every one of the innumerable characters on the show with his trademark disrespect for authority and devious, sometimes malicious pranks.
At church one Sunday, he draws the ire of Reverend Lovejoy by slipping the lyrics of the 17-minute song “Inna Godda Davida,” by the band Iron Butterfly into the weekly pamphlet, wearing out the entire parish and nearly killing the elderly organist, who collapses at the end of the song. A longtime prank of Bart is making phony phone calls to Moe, the sour-faced, curmudgeon of a bartender at Moe’s Bar. Bart regularly calls and asks for customers like “Seymour Butts,” “Amanda Hugnkiss,” and “Oliver Clothesoff.”
His raw attitude and wild antics appear to satisfy America’s backroom appreciation for political incorrectness. In one episode, Bart drops a walkie-talkie down a well, using it to make his voice sound like he is stuck, and involves the entire town in the rescue of his walkie-talkie. In another episode, Bart portrays carnival folk and travelers as deeply unpleasant criminals who are both irredeemable and unworthy of help.
Since consequences are rarely rendered him for his various acts, in the follow-up scenes to these events, Bart is usually seen once again as an upstanding member of society, ready to take on the challenges of the world as the country’s oldest fourth grader.
In the book, The Simpsons and Philosophy, Bart is likened to Friedrich Nietzsche, the bad boy of philosophy who wrote The Anti-Christ and The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche bucks tradition and morality, and encourages people to have the strength and courage to embrace the chaos of existence. Bart’s role in The Simpsons is to create that very chaos.
One of Bart Simpson’s many departures from classic cartoons is that his voice is that of a woman, Nancy Cartwright, who has won an Emmy as the voice of Bart and that of other characters on the show. Cartwright initially showed up to audition for the voice of Lisa Simpson, but upon learning more about the character that she was portrayed simply as “the middle child,” Cartwright became more interested in the role of Bart, who was described as “devious, underachieving, school-hating, irreverent and clever.” Groening let her try out for the part and upon hearing her read, hired her on the spot. Cartwright is the only one of the six main Simpsons characters who has been professionally trained in voice acting prior to working on the show. Yeardly Smith originally auditioned for the voice of Bart, but it was decided that her voice was too high for a boy’s, so she flipped with Cartwright and ended up with the role of Lisa’s voice.
From being a 15-minute creation in the mind of a quick-thinking young man, Bart Simpson took the Saturday morning cartoons of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and reincarnated them into prime-time gold. Bart and the other characters on the show get away with humorous, though often off-color, remarks that no television character with a heartbeat could get with today.
The Simpsons has opened doors for prime-time adult-themed cartoons like Family Guy, which opens with husband and wife, Peter and Lois Griffin, sitting at a piano singing the show’s theme song, much like Archie and Edith Bunker in All in the Family, a wildly successful sitcom from the 1970s that capitalized on political incorrectness as the pivotal point of its humor. The animated show, American Dad, allows Republicans and Democrats to laugh at, instead of demean, each other, as in when father and husband Stan Smith, who works for the CIA, goes shopping at the “Red State Supermarket” and is constantly bickering with his peace-sign-loving, boyfriend-living-in-a-van daughter about the politics of the times.
Enough prime-time cartoons have made the big time to warrant a cartoon channel just for grown-ups. Adult Swim, which airs late at night on the Cartoon Channel, features cartoons and childishly themed shows aimed at adults that might best be avoided by everyone. Bart Simpson, in part, is responsible for the necessity of family ratings tags on prime-time television and surely for the need of parental controls. He is definitely responsible for the “in your face” attitude of adult cartoon shows that requires they be aired only during prime-time and late-night hours.
The Simpsons is owned by 20th Century Fox Television, which sells syndication rights to the show for new and current season episodes to the Fox Broadcasting Company, or the Fox network, and to 20th Century Fox International Television, which airs the show in Canada’s “Global” network, the United Kingdom’s “Sky” satellite broadcasting service, and on Australia’s “Cannel 10.” In short, The Simpsons is on some channel, somewhere in the world, seven days a week, more than once a day in some markets and has been for years.
One would be hard pressed to find someone who does not know the animated megastar of television who has been called one of the most iconic characters in the history of American television animation. But to anyone still clueless about who he is, Bart would undoubtedly reply with one of his infamous catchphrases, most likely, “I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?”
Corliss, Richard. “Bart Simpson.” The Time 100, June 8, 1998. www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19901231,00.html .
“The 100 Greatest Characters of the Last 20 Years.” Entertainment Weekly, June 4, 2010. http://popwatch.ew.com/2010/06/01/100-greatest-characters-of-last-20-years-full-list/ .
“The 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.” Empire, April 2008. www.empireonline.com/50greatesttv/ .
Groening, Matt. The Bart Book: The Simpsons Library of Wisdom. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
Irwin, William, Mark T. Conra, and Aeon J. Skoble, eds. The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! Of Homer. Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing, 2001.