In college, there was a guy—let’s call him Rider—who was always charitable to the homeless. Always. He never hesitated to buy one of them a sandwich, let them bum a cigarette, or throw them a buck or two whenever they asked for it. But his generosity came at a price. For one, it gave him a severe case of self-righteousness. Anyone who wasn’t as charitable as him; anyone who didn’t give up their lunch or their cash or cigs was automatically a cold-blooded asshole.

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Even worse, his open heart ended up causing him some serious trouble. When one drifter needed a place to say, Rider invited him into his home with no questions asked, going as far to buy him groceries, more cigarettes, and even booze. Several folks told him this was a bad idea, and sure enough, he came home one day to discover that most of his shit had been stolen, with his house guest nowhere in site. That’s not to say that every homeless person—or, in the case of “Bart Carny,” every carnival worker—is a thief or a swindler. Then again, some of them, like the guy Rider took in, are. Scumminess transcends financial brackets. There are plenty of sleaze-balls who are poor, just like there are plenty of them who are rich.

Maybe that’s why “Bart Carny”’s less than savory portrayal of carnival workers has never bothered me. The characters need to be depicted as manipulative for the episode’s final statement to work. Still, it’s understandable why it’s been viewed by many as a low point in the tail-end of The Simpsons’ glory years. The encyclopedic I Can’t Believe It’s A Bigger And Better Unofficial Simpsons Guide, for example, lambasted the script’s supposed lack of a message, viewing its treatment of fairground folk as nothing but malicious.

Fair enough. After all, much of the humor does stem from a slimier-than-slime portrait of the carnival lifestyle; most of the employees (most notably Cooder and his son, Spud) are portrayed as true crooks, and during one darkly brilliant sequence, director Mark Kirkland puts a carny spin on the “Morning Mood” montage seen in so many Golden Age cartoons.

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Only instead of a flower blooming as the sun comes up, we get a greasy wrapper unfolding to reveal a half-eaten Krusty Burger on the ground. Awakening field mice are traded out for rats running on the rollers of a hot-dog warmer like it’s a treadmill. A vendor who looks related to Cletus The Slack-Jawed Yokel squirts them off with a hose, laughing dopily all the while. Funny as it is, the bit is undoubtedly cruel towards the people Homer earlier praises as “truly kings among men.”

That very divide—the difference between how Homer and Bart see carnival workers and how the ones they meet actually are—forms the comedic nucleus of “Bart Carny.” That alone makes the Simpson family (the father and the son, anyway) as much the butt of the joke as Cooder and Spud. Just look at the front half of the episode. There’s a running gag about Bart, Lisa, and Homer’s aversion to getting any kind of work done during the summer. When Marge asks the kids to tend to their overgrown yard, they’re re-plastered to the couch before she can even bring them lemonade as a refreshment. Yet, when the Simpsons head to the carnival, Bart and Lisa can’t wait to take a spin on the Yard Work Simulator, a virtual-reality attraction that still involves a real rake and hedge clippers. The children would be going through the same exact motions if doing real yard work, but when it’s presented to them with a huge line of other kids and a shysterly sales pitch, they’re eager to take part. This desire to want something only because they think other people want it that makes them, like so many Americans, complete rubes.

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The same goes for Homer when he rides a dental nightmare of a roller coaster called The Tooth Chipper, despite Marge warning him about his history of heart problems, and Bart and Lisa again when they pay for the obviously lame Screamatorium because a carnival barker tells them there are only two tickets left. It’s worth pointing out that when they emerge from the “haunted” dark ride with disappointed looks on their faces (the scariest thing inside is an old lady in a rocking chair: “Behold… the ravages of age!”), the ticket taker expresses genuine remorse. “Sorry,” he says while glumly bowing his head, showing shades of Gil Gunderson as he internally laments what his life has become. It’s a brief but important moment, as it’s one of the few times in the episode where we see a carnival worker being something other than deceitful. This instance of humanity disproves the Unofficial Simpsons Guide’s accusation of “Bart Carny”’s unqualified toxicity.

These experiences still aren’t enough to deter Bart and Homer’s view of the carnival lifestyle as being anything but glamorous. Even after Bart crashes what’s supposedly Adolf Hitler’s car, he and his dad leap at the opportunity to work at the fairgrounds as a means of paying off the property damage. Once again, Bart—so averse to doing actual work earlier on—has no problem taking on whatever carnival owner Colonel Tex asks of him, even if it’s shoveling the bafflingly huge heap of dung expelled by “The World’s Smallest Horse.” Granted, Bart finally realizes how gross the task is once he actually starts doing it.

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Lucky for Bart and Homer, they soon get to man Cooder and Spud’s ring-toss both, where they learn how to rig a game, spot a sucker, and take them for all they’re worth. But while Bart deftly cons Principal Skinner (even in the wake of “The Principal And The Pauper,” nothing has really changed), Homer’s too stupid to recognize when Chief Wiggum’s asking for a bribe. The booth gets shut down by the law, and Cooder and Spud are suddenly left without income or a place to live, so Homer invites them into the Simpsons household.

It’s an unwise move, given Cooder and Spud’s history of ripping people off for a living, and only Marge seems to have any reservations about the new living arrangement. But even she ends up coming around after the carnies give the whole family tickets to a glass-bottom boat ride. Predictably, when the Simpsons come home still giddy from the sights of marine life and dirty secrets from the show’s past on the ocean floor, Cooder and Spud have changed the locks and taken over the fort. Like my college acquaintance Rider who took in the homeless guy, Homer has gotten his just deserts.

Unlike Rider though, the Simpson patriarch decides to take back what’s his, the family having grown tired of treehouse living, using twigs as toothbrushes, and having to listen to Cooder hog their television (“That Urkel’s a hoot!”). Fortunately, Homer is now well familiar with the art of grifting someone. Thanks to a scheme involving a game of ring toss with a hula hoop and the house’s chimney and, more importantly, the Simpsons dashing back into their home when Cooder and Spud aren’t looking, things quickly go back to normal.

It’s a somewhat unforgiving ending for Cooder and Spud, which Homer recognizes. When seeing how displaced they look outside on the street, he’s about to invite them back in, until Marge distracts him with his now-lopsided ass groove on the couch. Homer promptly forgets about the carnies, and he’s all the better for it. Sometimes, charity has to be treated with caution.

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Stray observations

  • It doesn’t happen all the time, but “Bart Carny” is that rare Simpsons episode without a B-story. It works well here.
  • I haven’t even mentioned how good the late Jim Varney is in the voice of Cooder. Scuzzy as he is, you actually like him when he’s portrayed as the darker side of Ernest P. Worrell: a gregarious hillbilly whose crackpot schemes actually work, predatory as they are.
  • Spud looks a lot like Gavin, the boy who Bart sees ordering his mom to buy him the Bonestorm video game in “Marge Be Not Proud.” The takeaway? Rattail hairstyle = dickhead ‘90s kid.
  • Speaking of callbacks, is that one of the snakes from “Whacking Day” in the Simpsons’ yard? The mighty John Swartzwelder wrote both episodes, although he wrote a lot of Simpsons episodes—the most out of any writer, in fact.
  • “Work was hard, so we quit.”
  • “Out of my way. I’m Hitler!”
  • “Maybe if you didn’t go to the bathroom so much, you wouldn’t be so small.”
  • “I wish we had a glass-bottom car. I can’t help but wonder what we’re missing.”
  • Looks Gummy Joe from “Last Exit To Springfield” may have been a casualty of The Tooth Chipper.

Next week: When Alasdair Wilkins joins an underground cult, he expects a little support from his readers, so please join him in this space next week for “The Joy Of Sect.”

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