“Bart After Dark” (originally aired 11/24/1996)

In which you’re going to hear a lot of crazy talk about Bart working in a burlesque house…

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“A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man” might be the official motto of Springfield, but the town’s true credo is delivered by Seymour Skinner late in “Bart After Dark”: “Ah, there’s no justice like angry mob justice.” By its eighth season, The Simpsons was arguably running low on reasons for turning the citizens of Springfield into a giant, roaming amoeba of vindictive rage, but “Bart After Dark” finds one nonetheless: moral outrage directed at the local burlesque house. La Maison Derrière, run by the genteel Belle (Tress MacNeille, in one of her finest one-off Simpsons roles), has been a secret lynchpin of the community for decades. Marge Simpson should be someone who recognizes the importance of pins and the massive structures they hold aloft—even in the midst of an oil-spill clean-up effort—but her concern for her son’s (already tainted) innocence gets the best of her here.

In a perfectly Simpsons treatment, protest of La Maison Derrière is first raised by a group: Springfield’s own soldiers on the frontline of the culture wars, the Lovejoys and the Flanders. Later, goofy groupthink derails a town hall meeting, during which Marge’s euphemisms for the burlesque house lead attendees to think she’s talking specifically about the building, not what happens inside of the building. (“The house is perfectly fine!” Marge declares, before popular opinion swings wildly in a new direction: “Well then quit bad-mouthing the house!”) Such is the fear of individual opinion that the most powerful tool of rhetoric in this universe is one that requires unison vocalization: A song.

And what a song it is: “We Put The ‘Spring’ In ‘Springfield’” proves to be more persuasive than even “The Monorail Song,” eventually uniting a different body of surly voices—the Television Academy—in 1997. The Emmy winner for Outstanding Music and Lyrics (the first victory in the category for Simpsons composer Alf Clausen), “We Put The ‘Spring’ In ‘Springfield’” is a classic musical move, putting ample wit and ingenious rhymes (“To shut them down would be twisted / We just heard this place existed”) in the service of that great Broadway device: innuendo. It’s an homage to the episode’s theatrical inspiration (The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas), one that requires contributions from the whole town. Like La Maison Derrière, it unites all of Springfield through vaudeville flash and bawdy humor. (And sound effects. Don’t underestimate the power of the sound effects.)

Considering Belle’s clientele, it’s fitting that “Bart After Dark” kicks off with the Simpson men being left to their own devices. There’s symbolic abundance in the episode’s other opening thread, too: Just as it would be impossible for Marge to rid Springfield of all its filth and impropriety, she, Lisa, and Maggie are never going to completely clean those “thousands upon thousands of rocks.” (Cue Marge grumble: “I have rocks that need washing at home.”) But “Bart After Dark” is one long cold-open head fake, with a great surprise in store once Bart is ushered into La Maison Derrière. There’s no indication that the “haunted house” that claims Milhouse’s scale-model airplane is a house of ill repute in the opening scenes; the turn has less impact if you’ve seen “Bart After Dark” multiple times, but it’s still unexpected. (It also makes it more plausible that such a business could operate undetected by the Marges and Helens and the Neds for so many years.)

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The oil spill is a mess that Marge has no control over; the burlesque house presents Marge with a problem she’s convinced she could solve. “Bart After Dark” plays heavily on Marge’s scolding side, her outsized reaction makes sense: While she’s away, her house fills with garbage and her husband wears a grocery bag as pants, she’s in need of a wrong to right. Bart got in trouble in her absence, causing the property damage that led to his new gig as handyman/doorman/fill-in emcee. She tries to make up for that absence, and then some, moving far beyond punishing Bart to putting together an incriminating slideshow and renting a bulldozer.

“Bart After Dark” begins as a Simpsons-centric installment, then expertly expands its scope to integrate the entire town. The Maison Derrière isn’t merely described as a hub of activity in Springfield—it’s shown to be one, thanks to all of the characters who pass through its halls during Bart’s shifts. The point of the episode and the thrust of its award-winning musical number are driven home in those scenes, where there’s no excessive rowdiness or premium-cable misbehavior, just a bunch of goofy Simpsons guys blowing off steam. It’s a clever point of conflict between two POVs within the Simpson family: Bart sees what actually goes on inside the house, whereas Marge’s body of evidence comprises insinuating photos—made all the more insinuating by the Chief Wiggum double feature. (“Hey, c’mon! You did me twice!”)

No one’s proud to be seen at the burlesque house, but “Bart After Dark” suggests they shouldn’t be ashamed about it, either. That’s wrapped up nicely in the episode’s best visual gag, in which Abe Simpson walks into the Maison Derrière, hangs up his hat, sees his grandson working the door, and, without breaking stride, reclaims his hat and leaves. There’s so much humor in the fluid direction of the sequence, and Abe underlines a major theme of “Bart After Dark” when he sticks his head back into the door: The “behind closed doors” aspect of Maison Derrière is what makes its raison d’être seem improper. If they’d just be upfront about patronizing Belle’s business, as Homer is with Bart’s job there, then the people of Springfield would have no issue giving their regular drink order to their grandchildren.

“We Put The ‘Spring’ In Springfield” is more than a catchy tune and a handful of double entendres—it’s an acknowledgment that, in Springfield as in the real world, it takes all kinds to build a community. Episodes like “Bart After Dark” demonstrate the work that’s been put into this fictional citizenry, utilizing characters who would feasibly visit La Maison Derrière as well as those who would object to its existence. Such objections are turned inside out here, as “outsider” Belle is proven to have more history with Springfield than Marge; elsewhere, all attempts to do a good deed backfire (as with Marge’s bulldozer) or go unrewarded (as seen on Baby Seal Beach). Doing the “right” thing doesn’t make anyone feel any better in “Bart After Dark,” which makes sense: If anyone was to construct a statue of Belle, the motto at her feet would probably be “If it feels good, do it.”

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Stray observations:

  • This Week In Simpsons signage:

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  • Hey, it’s 1996!: When the TV cuts off Itchy and Scratchy, Bart and Lisa immediately identify the culprit: “Dad! V-chip! V-chip!”
  • Comedy is specificity, part 2,564 in a continuing Simpsons series: “I don’t care if he was filling in for Mel Zetz!”
  • Homer gets distracted by Princess Kashmir’s fan dance: “It’s so tough to be a parent these days, what with all the gangs and the drugs.” “Oh yeah, drugs. You gotta have drugs.”
  • Marge recognizes that this is not the first time she’s addressed the townfolk on issues like the burlesque: “I’m here to share my moral outrage. But this time it’s not about that giant inflatable Dos Equis bottle.”
  • Just because you’re an angry mob doesn’t mean you can’t be a polite mob: “Who is it?” “Uh, it’s an angry mob, ma’am. Could you step outside for a twinkle while we knock down your house?”
  • Next week: Dennis Perkins wants to know if he could borrow a feeling. Could you lend him a jar of love, and then read his review of “A Milhouse Divided?”

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