October, 1997. The world still reels from the sudden death of Princess Diana just a month and a half prior. Fans of The Simpsons cope with the sudden betrayal of “The Principal And The Pauper.” And Simpsons fans who happened to be Princess Di aficionados wonder if the sun will ever shine again.
For the second group at least, things quickly improved thanks to “Lisa’s Sax.” Although just about everything looks good next to “The Principal And The Pauper”—the great mustache-twirling villain of the Simpsons universe—“Lisa’s Sax” offers a lot of laughs, plenty of heart, and a blueprint that Family Guy would emulate to the point of obnoxiousness just 17 months later.
On the DVD commentary track, writer/executive producer Al Jean, executive producer Mike Reiss, and director Dominic Polcino talk about the simplicity of “Lisa’s Sax.” It’s all right there in the episode title: the story of saxophone that came to be one of Lisa’s defining characteristics. Polcino sounds relieved: “Lisa’s Sax” was the easiest of the eight episodes he directed—simple story, no crowd shots, and almost all of the acting was in the faces, not a bunch of crazy physical stuff.
For all their talk of the simple story of “Lisa’s Sax,” it’s an episode packed with jokes, flashbacks (and a flash forward), and show references. It has the quick pace and joke density that typified the show’s golden age, and a sweetness that has remained across 26 (and counting) seasons.
The Simpsons has gone to the flashback-episode well numerous times over the years, with understandably mixed results, but “Lisa’s Sax” remains one of the best because it works so well within the Simpsons mythology: We see how Bart went from a sweet kid excited about school to an underachiever and proud of it, how Lisa’s preternatural intelligence was discovered—and how the family’s limited means would keep it from developing fully. It also makes a smart point about how life’s problems—Bart’s trouble at school, Lisa’s underutilized gifts, Marge’s dissatisfaction with her home life, air conditioning—have a way of stubbornly persisting.
Bart has always been portrayed as a hellion, even when he was in utero. (Dr. Hibbert looking at the ultrasound in “I Married Marge”: “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was trying to moon us.”) I always want to believe in the best about Bart—which is why I’m annoyed when episodes that flash forward show him as a loser or burnout—and I love how “Lisa’s Sax” shows that his later delinquency is mostly due to an indifferent schooling system. (As school shrink J. Loren Pryor puts it, “Bart must learn to be less of an individual and more of a faceless slug.”) Bart lacks Lisa’s natural gifts, but there’s the sense that he could’ve been a good student if Springfield Elementary weren’t so intent on crushing his soul.
And there’s a little truth to Homer’s line when he and Marge are in Pryor’s office after the shrink notices Lisa’s intelligence: “Marge, [Bart is] 5—his life is over. Lisa’s the wave of the future.” (Lisa: “Wave of the future!”) Bart’s treated as a lost cause by his teacher, and Marge and Homer, sharing that anxiety parents know well, want Lisa to fare better. But they can’t afford to send her to Miss Gillingham’s School For Snotty Girls And Mama’s Boys, so they have to find another way to encourage her gift. Enter the saxophone—though, as many other episodes have shown, her exceptional musical abilities are also stymied by institutional (and parental) limitations. Problems have a way of persisting. But in a situation that makes it difficult for Lisa, Bart, and just about everyone else to express themselves constructively, at least Lisa has her saxophone (even when she’s not the best at it).
The simple story that works within the Simpsons mythology (aside from the 1990 setting not fitting within the show’s supposed timeline) provides the foundation, and the jokes make this episode excel: the crappy made-for-TV movie about Krusty’s life, The Krusty The Klown Story: Booze, Drugs, Guns, Lies, Blackmail, And Laughter—perfectly captured in appropriate cheesiness by a pastel portrait drawn by Polcino.
Also: the flashbacks and flash-forwards (“Lisa Simpson has won the Nobel Prize for Kickboxing!”); Kent Brockman as Coppertone model; Homer playing foosball against Michelangelo’s David and Edvard Munch’s Scream; the Apu runner. I also love the jokes that have no context in 2015, like the swipe at the now-defunct WB Network and Fruitopia. (It’s still available in Germany!) The allusion to the opening credits of All In The Family is a nice touch—Family Guy also liked All In The Family, apparently.
In the commentary track, Jean mentions he had the idea of doing that All In The Family parody while waiting, in all places, for a ticket to the O.J. Simpson trial. Speaking of Jean, writing TV episodes is a group process, even though one or a couple writers receive episode credits. To hear Reiss tell it, this episode was written when the Simpsons staff was especially small, and this one was “80 to 90 percent” Al Jean. It’s an impressive episode to pull off mostly on his own.
And it’s a nice rebound from “The Principal And The Pauper” that sets the table for “Treehouse Of Horror VIII” and, better, “The Cartridge Family.” Season nine has a lot of gems, and “Lisa’s Sax” showed The Simpsons could still hit all of its marks, even when its footing got shakier.
- The commentary track was recorded the day of the table read for The Simpsons’ 400th episode, season 17’s “You Kent Always Get What You Want.” Jean plugs the release of The Simpsons Movie, released two months after that episode aired.
- Grampa on what was going on in the world when Bart was 5 and Lisa was 3: “The year is 19 aught 6. The president is the divine Miss Sarah Bernhardt, and all over America people are doing a dance called the Funky Grampa!”
- In the commentary track, Jean mentions that Fox’s broadcast standards department didn’t like that Grampa had cataracts in the very last scene. “We said people with cataracts can’t see the show.”
- I have a mental image of Seth MacFarlane watching all of the quick asides in this episode and going, “Yes, that’s the ticket.”
- Viomolin? Tubamaba? Obomobo? Oh, saxomophone.
- The UK’s Daily Mail cited this episode last year to say The Simpsons predicted the U.S. ebola outbreak in 1997 with the Curious George And The Ebola Virus joke.
- The Twin Peaks joke in the episode is close to Jean, who associates The Simpsons with Twin Peaks because both shows premiered around the same time. Homer: “Brilliant!… I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”
- Why would Dr. Hibbert be rocking the Mr. T look in 1990?
- Has the show ever gone back to Milhouse being gay, as J. Loren Pryor asserts? I don’t think it has.
- The contents of Skinner’s bottom: flesh, bone, and that metal plate he got back in ’Nam.
- Bart expresses himself:
Next week: When the bomb’s about to drop and, for a split second, you think about all the time you spent reading TV recaps, will you remember Comic Book Guy’s immortal words from “The Homega Man”? “Oh, I’ve wasted my life.” Erik Adams will.