“Episode Title” (season 5, episode 7; originally aired 11/11/1993)
“Bart’s Inner Child” is one of the most profound episodes in the history of The Simpsons because it gingerly explores some of the biggest issues facing humanity without ever losing its bubbly, effervescent spirit. Like the simpatico “Homer The Heretic”, another all-time classic, the episode asks what would happen if mankind decided to throw off the dictates of social control and conventional morality and become its own unquestioned master.
In “Homer the Heretic”, that meant Homer having a Sunday morning epiphany informing him that he no longer needed to prostrate himself before a wrathful and terrifying God and could follow his own spiritual path as a homemade prophet before his heresy invokes the wrath of God. In “Bart’s Inner Child”, which was also written by George Meyer, the legendary Simpsons writer The New Yorker once called the funniest man alive, a New Age guru named Brad Goodman wonderfully voiced by the God-like Albert Brooks, gives the long-suffering citizens of Springfield the keys to free the handcuffs of mental imprisonment (not to get to Dianetics on y’all) when he decides that everyone in Springfield should emulate Bart and do whatever they feel, instead of filling the roles society expects them to fill.
In part because it deals with a touchy-feely pseudo-philosophy modeled on the teachings of John Bradshaw, “Bart’s Inner Child” has the vibe of one of those freewheeling 1970s social satires like Semi-Tough or the comedies of Robert Altman. The episode begins with Homer in a state of child-like excitement because he spies an offer in the newspaper even more exciting than the 60 soiled mattresses the men’s shelter is giving out: a free trampoline! Homer is so excited that he mispronounces trampoline repeatedly with ever-mounting exhilaration, a simple gag that absolutely kills.
Homer heads over to Krusty The Clown’s house to pick up his free trampoline and is far too amused by a novelty buzzer that dispenses a blast of seltzer with every push. Krusty is eternally on so he greets Homer with his signature cackle as if by default; he’s so used to being in performance mode that he no longer seems to possess an off switch.
This trampoline subplot is hilarious in its own right but also thematically appropriate, since Homer doesn’t need any guru to tell him to get in touch with his inner child: for better or worse, he’s always intensely child-like in his immaturity and refusal to grow up.
At first the trampoline is a source of joy for the family. “I’m going to have my wedding here!” Lisa enthuses giddily while Homer proposes that the trampoline will double the value of the house. Ah, but Homer has bigger plans for the trampoline than merely amusing himself and his family. In a delusional fit of entrepreneurial spirit, Homer imagines transforming the trampoline into the centerpiece of a grungy homemade theme park, a sort of Tetanus-ridden hobo Disneyland featuring such other attractions as a mud pit and a fort made of urine-soaked mattresses.
Homer sells neighborhood children jumps on the trampoline and it isn’t long until the Simpsons’ front yard is crawling with bruised and injured victims. Homer attempts to get rid of the cursed trampoline by throwing it off a cliff, prompting a reverent, gorgeously animated homage to old Warner Brothers cartoons with Homer in the role of luckless old Wile E. Coyote. Homer finally manages to unload the trampoline but his impetuous decision to get it puts a strain on his marriage.
At Patty and Selma’s house one night after a fight with Homer, Marge sees a commercial for Brad Goodman, a self-help guru whose infomercial promises to cure every conceivable problem known to mankind, including, but not limited to, Marge’s ostensible problem, chronic nagging (of course Marge presumably wouldn’t have chronic nagging if Homer and Bart weren’t so prone to chronic misbehavior).
Albert Brooks has only been a guest voice on The Simpsons a handful of times but he makes such an indelible impression with each appearance that it’s easy to forget he’s only a very occasional guest star and not a fixture of the show, like Phil Hartman. That’s certainly true here, as he imbues Goodman with just the right note of folksy, condescending smarm. It’s an absolute pleasure watching two comedy Hall-of-Famers like Brooks and Hartman playing off each other when Troy McClure hosts Goodman’s infomercial and shares his own stirring story of how he was once just a “washed-up actor with a drinking problem” before Goodman took pity on him and gave him a job hosting an infomercial and a can of fortified wine.
Homer and Marge watch a Brad Goodman video and are soon communicating with one another in the touchy-feely vernacular of self-help. They’re so open and honest with their feelings and emotions that their dialogue barely resembles actual speech. Alas, Bart remains an incorrigible scamp so Homer and Marge take the family to see Brad Goodman deliver a lecture that Bart rudely interrupts.
Rather than being annoyed, Brad Goodman is overjoyed by Bart’s outburst. For Brad Goodman, Bart is the living personification of the inner child he’s always telling his followers to get in touch with. To his parents, teachers, law enforcement figures and the world at large, Bart might be a rapscallion and an inveterate troublemaker. To Brad Goodman, he’s a young man with “fully developed ego integrity with well-defined boundaries” and consequently someone everyone in Springfield should aspire to. “I do what I feel like” Bart tells Brad Goodman, a philosophy the guru wholeheartedly endorses.
“Be like the boy” Brad Goodman commands the highly suggestible people of Springfield, instantly provoking a revolution in the way the people of Springfield act, behave and treat each other. Suddenly no one is interested in tedious, fuddy-duddy bullshit like doing their jobs or protecting the safety of themselves and their community.
A hippified vibe descends over the sum of Springfield as its inhabitants lose the shame and guilt that are essential to the functioning of society and decide to follow their own bliss wherever it might lead, even if that means Principal Skinner shooting a slingshot from a tree while admonishing Bart, “Eat my shorts, young man” and Reverend Lovejoy favoring his congregation with a lumbering version of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” instead of one of his boring fire-and-brimstone sermons.
In recognition of this new spirit of openness, freedom and non-judgment, Springfield decides to throw a “Do What You Feel” festival, a distinct improvement over the “Do What We Say” festival previously implemented by glowering German tourists.
Springfield’s era of good feelings ends when the Do What You Feel festival devolves into chaos and anarchy when the Ferris Wheel and bleachers fall apart because the folks responsible for ensuring they were in working order just didn’t feel like doing that thorough of a job.
“Bart’s Inner Child” ultimately builds to a predictable but sound moral: society cannot function if everyone simply follows their own desires without any consideration as to how their actions affect others. In order for society to function, everyone must find a balance between pursuing their own needs and the needs of society and their fellow man. But there’s nothing remotely didactic or clumsy about the way that message is conveyed. “Bart’s Inner Child” makes philosophy not just palatable and relatable but hilarious and unforgettable. And it’s deep, too.
- Brooks has so many great moments here, but my favorite might be the way he snaps unexpectedly at Marge and Homer when they tell him Bart’s name isn’t Rudiger.
- James Brown's cameo=so awesome
- “Stay the course big Ned. You’re doing super!”—Flanders’ inner child
- “Each leap brings us closer to God”—Rod and Todd on the divine glory of the trampoline
- Most days I experience a majority of the colors on what Brad Goodman calls the “Feel bad rainbow.”
- “There’s no trick to it. It’s just a simply trick!”—Brad Goodman on his gimmick-free gimmicks.
- “Bart’s Inner Child” is also incredibly insightful about the ways rebellion gets co-opted by society, forcing the rebellious to question themselves and the essence of their identity.
- Next up is “Boy-Scoutz ‘n the Hood.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.