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Recap / The Simpsons S3 E13 "Radio Bart"

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Original air date: 1/9/1992 (produced in 1991)

Production code: 8F11

On October 14, 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell down a narrow well casing and remained trapped inside for 56 hours. Her story, and the rescue effort mobilized to get her out, got national headlines and made Jessica the darling of the media.

A few years later, in the fictional world of Springfield, Bart pulls a prank inspired by the McClure story, by fooling the town into believing a little boy had fallen down an uncapped abandoned well.

The whole story begins at Wall E. Weasel's, a family restaurant known for mediocre pizza, ill-maintained animatronics and bad video games. The birthday party there is even worse: Bart is annoyed at Wall E.'s attempt to sing him "Happy Birthday", the guests aren't who Bart wants at his party (Martin is one of the invitees) and he is especially disappointed in the gifts. One of those gifts (which Homer bought earlier after watching a TV commercial) is a toy called the Superstar Celebrity Microphone, which can tap into localized AM radio systems. Homer persuades Bart about the Superstar Celebrity Microphone's potential... and eventually, Bart realizes it can indeed be lots of fun, especially with his knack for creating practical jokes. He tricks Rod and Todd Flanders into believing God is talking to them, while he gets his dad to believe that martians are invading the Earth.

Then, one day while bored, Bart gets an idea: by throwing his transistor radio down a narrow well shaft, and keeping it tuned to the correct frequency, he can get people to believe that a little boy had fallen down the well. Which he does. When he begins a "crying for help" act and gets a response, he tells his potential rescuers that he is an orphan named Timmy O'Toole has fallen down the well. A rescue operation is mobilized – but it quickly becomes a circus, with people setting up a carnival, and they realize they can't get poor Timmy out. Meanwhile, Krusty the Clown gets musician Sting to join Springfield celebrities in recording a charity single, "We're Sending Our Love Down the Well". The charity single soars to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Late one night, Lisa happens to be walking by Bart's room when she overhears him doing his "Timmy" act and then getting into a fight with Santa's Little Helper over the microphone. Lisa realizes that Bart is playing a cruel practical joke on the town and warns him that he will be exposed. Bart – after hastily explaining SLH's growling – scoffs, until Lisa reminds him that he used a label maker (one of the other gifts he was initially bored with) to put his name on the radio. Bart realises that if the radio with his name on it is retrieved from the well, he'll be in big trouble, so he sets out to get it. As he's descending the well, Bart slips and loses the grip on his rope. The rope falls to the bottom... and now, Bart is trapped for real.

Bart yells for help, and when he explains his predicament to the initial responders, Bart is forced to admit that Timmy O'Toole doesn't exist and that he was playing what he thought was a funny joke. The townspeople are outraged and decide to teach him a lesson by leaving him trapped there. At the same time, "We're Sending Our Love Down The Well" dramatically falls from No. 1 to No. 97, while Bart becomes the butt of jokes in town. The actual crisis is ignored by both the media and the police, prompting a frustrated Homer to finally take action and mobilize a crew of his own to rescue his son. Although nobody helps at first, Groundskeeper Willie decides that saving a life is more important than festering on anger and decides to help Homer; other residents – including Sting – realize they must do the right thing and eventually are able to excavate Bart out of the well.

Bart is truly regretful and has learned a lesson about how practical jokes can have serious consequences. The town then takes the utmost action to ensure that no incident like this ever happens again by putting up a sign in front of the well that reads "Caution: Well."

This episode provides examples of...

  • Actor Allusion: When Marge tries to convince Sting to take a break from digging Bart out, Homer stops her and claims he's a good digger. Sting actually worked as a ditch digger before his music career took off.
  • Ageless Birthday Episode: Zig-Zagged. Bart—who has already been portrayed as ten years old prior to this point—is cut off by the animatronics when he's about to state his age, but earlier in the episode we see Homer measuring him against a door frame and marking his 10th birthday, and he's referred to as a "ten-year-old hooligan" when the story of how he tricked Springfield ends up on the news. His Invented Individual Timmy O'Toole has "just turned ten years old" as well.
  • An Aesop: Practical jokes may seem cute and funny, but they can have serious consequences, especially if you trick the entire town into panicking over a child's safety.
  • As Himself: Sting.
  • Birthday Party Goes Wrong: From Bart's perspective, his party at Wall E. Weasel's is incredibly lame, with unwanted presents and guests.
  • Black Comedy: Marge knits Bart a sweater to wear in the well, which is too big for him, to which Homer replies "You'll grow into it," much to Marge's chagrin.
  • Borrowed Catchphrase: Bart says "D'oh!" when he realizes he's left a "Property of Bart Simpson" label on his radio.
  • Break the Haughty: Bart takes advantage of the compassion of the town of Springfield to pull a mean-spirited prank on them only to then take on the role of "Timmy" for real after trying to remove the evidence of his wrongdoing. Once the town finds out what Bart did, they leave him to his fate. Bart eventually breaks down into tears when he realises that he brought this on himself. Fortunately, this leads to Homer, and eventually the entire town, to dig him out of the well, and by the end Bart's clearly learned his lesson.
  • Brutal Honesty: When Eddie and Lou tell Homer and Marge the situation with Bart.
    Homer: [somberly] You must think we're the worst parents in the world
    Eddie: Well that's the general opinion down at the station, yeah.
  • Call-Back: Homer blurts out that Bart was an accident on live television, which was confirmed one episode prior.
  • Canary in a Coal Mine: Near the end of the episode, the citizens of Springfield dig a tunnel to save Bart after he falls into the well. At one point, they find a dead canary in a cage and evacuate. Dr. Hibbert then determines that the canary died of natural causes, and the citizens go back to digging.
  • Charity Motivation Song: "We're Sending Our Love Down the Well." The bulk of the profits go to the benefit of its many expensive celebrity singers; the rest gets tossed down the well.
  • Characterization Click Moment: For Sideshow Mel. This is the first time he was actually given lines, and, just as a quick joke to contrast with his status as The Silent Bob, he is shown singing with a polished, operatic voice. Since then, Mel has been the Classically-Trained Extra he is today.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The label maker Patty and Selma gave Bart would soon become his undoing.
  • Couch Gag: The family sits on the couch and end up bouncing over and under each other until they're sitting in different spots.
  • Crying Wolf: People who play unfunny practical jokes, lie, etc. all the time — as Bart has done — tend to be ignored when a real crisis arises.
  • Cutting the Knot: The townspeople come up with all sorts of weird ideas for how to free "Timmy"note , ranging from using a fishing line baited with chocolate, to having him carried out by a falcon, to even cryogenically freezing him. In the end, Homer is the one who comes up with the simplest and most obvious solution-just grab a shovel and dig Bart out of there. As Willie lampshades:
    Willie: Now why didn't I think of that?
  • Didn't Think This Through:
    • No one in Springfield considered just digging "Timmy" out of the well until Homer tried, looking into other more convoluted (and less successful) methods.
    • Bart didn't think that people may try to rescue "Timmy" only to find Bart's radio, with a "Property of Bart Simpson" label printed on it, as Lisa points out.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: A little boy makes you all look bad with a prank, is genuinely sorry for having made said prank, is suffering karmic retribution from said prank, and is tearfully begging for help because he doesn't wish to die in the well? Well — and perhaps because Springfield residents are well aware of some of the pranks Bart has pulled in the past — he can rot down there!
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Homer gets so distracted by the sexy dancers on television that when Lisa asks for money to buy Bart a birthday present, he gives her over $110.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness:
    • We see an unhinged fisherman character who suggests fishing Timmy out of the well. While you might expect this role be filled by the Sea Captain, this episode was made before he was an actual character.
    • Chief Wiggum, in keeping with his more competent characterization in this era of the series, is perfectly fine with the idea of getting Bart out of the well, were it not for his department being basically broke, see Reasonable Authority Figure.
  • Epic Fail: The song "We're Sending Our Love Down The Well" gets a literally meteoric fall down the hit charts thanks to the discovery that Timmy O'Toole is a fake, from number 1 all the way to 97. An expy of Casey Kasem mentions that this is something he's never seen before.
  • Fake Interactivity: The birthday stage show at Wall E. Weasel's.
    Wall E. Weasel: Hey there, I hear it's your birthday. How old are you?
    Bart: Well, I’m—
    Wall E. Weasel: [interrupting] That's great! Would you like us to sing you a special song?
    Bart: Hell, no.
    Wall E. Weasel: You've got it!
  • Fast Tunnelling: When Bart falls down a well, the townspeople dig a parallel hole to get him out.
  • Fictional Video Game: Among the arcade games at Wall E. Weasel's are Larry the Looter and Touch of Death.
  • Get Out!: When Bart tries to cash in on his birthday coupons, he goes to the ice cream shop and after a rude employee hands him a ridiculously small sundae: "Eat it and get out!"
  • Gone Horribly Right: Homer wanted to get Bart a birthday present that he'd greatly enjoy; looks like Bart enjoyed his present a little too much!
  • Goodbye, Cruel World!: The Itchy and Scratchy cartoon has Scratchy find a suicide note of his roommate, Itchy, with this exact phrase written on it. Of course, it winds up being a trap to lure Scratchy to yet another violent death.
  • Happy Birthday to You!: Wall E. Weasel's version:
    Wall E. Weasel: You're the birthday, you're the birthday, you're the birthday boy or girl...
  • Heroic Bystander: Homer finally decides to just grab a shovel and dig a tunnel to reach Bart. He's willing to do this all alone if he has to, but Willie sees him and quickly joins in. Another person randomly comes out of the woods and joins Homer and Willie, and pretty soon half the town is converging on the well to help out. Lisa's even surprised to see so many people running down the street outside the Simpson house.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Bart gets a double whammy when he realises that the radio he's using to pull his prank has his name printed on it. His attempt to avert the trope by retrieving the radio ends with him falling down the well and getting trapped for real.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf:
    • The awful rendition of "Happy Birthday" (called "You're the Birthday Boy or Girl") by Wall E. Weasel and his cast, both the singing and the musical score. The robots are so bad that Wall E.'s mouth is clearly just moving up and down while the synthesized speech chip is playing.
    • Homer's (usual) off-key rendition of C.W. McCall's "Convoy".
    • In "We're Sending Our Love Down the Well", Krusty contributes to the chorus as a background vocalist. However, due to his scratchy voice, he's not so much singing as he is screaming.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Chief Wiggum scolds his men for being too fat to get down the hole, although he's the most overweight of the bunch.
  • I Am Big Boned: When asked why he can't go down the well, Chief Wiggum says, "Well, I'm too f-... important."
  • I Call It "Vera": Willie has a shovel he named Agnes.
  • Invented Individual: Timmy O'Toole, the Heartwarming Orphan trapped in the well. The drama Bart endures during the third act comes from the murderous hatred the rest of Springfield feels after discovering they were fooled.
  • Iron Woobie: Discussed In-Universe. Lisa doesn't believe that merely enduring suffering makes someone a hero, and Homer does.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: After Lisa correctly deduces that Bart left his name on the radio with his label maker, Bart decides to end his prank before anyone spots it, only to fall down the same well he fooled the town into thinking "Timmy O'Toole" fell into, complete with a large rock falling on his leg so can't be pulled out, just like in the story he concocted. After learning about the prank, pretty much everyone in Springfield decides to leave him there until Homer decides to finally get him out, with everyone following suit.
  • Lawful Stupid: Homer despairs at the fact that there is only one can of Duff Beer remaining in the house and Bart placed a "Property of Bart Simpson" label on it, saying that this makes it Bart's even if Bart is a little kid and it's obviously a prank.
  • Life-or-Limb Decision: "Timmy" claims that his leg is trapped under a rock, and that he'd lose it if he was pulled out. This later happens to Bart when he falls down the well for real. Homer pulls the rock off Bart's leg when the townsfolk finally reach him.
  • Literal-Minded: When Homer notices that Bart is uninterested in the microphone and tries to motivate him into trying it out:
    Homer: Bart, I would love to get a present like that.
    Bart: (takes the microphone and gives it to Homer) Here you go. Enjoy.
    Homer: D'oh!
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": When a large group are digging to rescue Bart, Apu notices their canary has died, leading everyone to flee the hole screaming in terror. Up top, Dr Hibbert confirms the canary died of natural causes, leading them all to run back into the hole... screaming in terror.
  • A Mistake Is Born: After Bart's ruse is discovered, Homer and Marge are interviewed on the news by Kent Brockman:
    Homer: It's not our fault! We didn't want the boy; he was an accident.
    Marge: Homer!
    Homer: Uh, could you edit that last part out?
    Kent: Mr. Simpson, we're live coast-to-coast.
    Homer: D'oh!
  • My New Gift Is Lame: Besides the Superstar Celebrity Microphone, Bart opens up a series of lame gifts including a pair of socks, a cactus, a hat and jacket from Martin Prince, and a label maker from Patty and Selma. Downplayed in that he winds up having fun not only with the microphone but with the label maker, labeling everything he can get his hands on (and thereby accidentally leaving a major clue to his identity at the scene of the crime).
  • No Sympathy: Springfield is compelled by the story of Timmy O'Toole, a 10-year-old Heartwarming Orphan they believe to be trapped in the well, and a media frenzy results. When Bart's prank is revealed and Bart himself ends up trapped in the well at the same time, he proves to be a less-appealing victim and the whole town shrugs him off as a lost cause until his parents take matters into their own hands.
  • Oh, Crap!: Bart when he realizes he left a clue in the well linking him to the prank (the radio that has a "Property of Bart Simpson" label on it).
  • Operators Are Standing By: Parodied. Homer sees an advertisement for the Superstar Celebrity Microphone. note  Homer, convinced that his time for buying the product is running out, hastily calls and asks if there are any left. The operator there replies "Yeah, a couple." The camera then pans out to reveal that the warehouse is, in fact, full of unsold microphones.
  • Papa Wolf: Homer is the first one to grab a shovel and try to dig Bart out.
  • Police Are Useless: Bart's awareness of this ("The police couldn't catch a cold!") is the reason he feels comfortable pranking all of Springfield, though he's less confident when Lisa reminds him that he labeled his radio with his name, which might represent a Smoking Gun even for them. Aside from that, they're not even able to figure out that there isn't a real kid in the well, let alone formulate a rescue plan—though in this they're joined by every last authority figure in Springfield.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Surprisingly, Chief Wiggum. He is one of the few citizens of Springfield not staring daggers at Bart for his prank. Instead, he is left nervously explaining to Marge that, while he knows of machinery that could rescue her son, the police lacks the needed funds and no one else in town is willing to fund it.
    Wiggum: Your boy picked a bad time to go fall down a well. If he'd done it at the start of the fiscal year, no problemo.
  • Recycled Animation:
  • Refuse to Rescue the Disliked: Practically everyone in town is so upset at Bart's prank they refuse to rescue him.
  • The Reveal: This is the first episode to show Willie's muscular build under his shirt.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Bart scares Homer with his radio broadcast into thinking that Martians have landed, in reference to the panic that erupted after the famous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast by Orson Welles.
    • America's Top 10 — An expy of Casey Kasem hosts the program, announcing "We're Sending Our Love Down the Well" reaching No. 1, and then its record-setting fall nearly off the charts.
    • Chuck E. Cheese's: What else – Wall E. Weasel's.
    • Superstar Celebrity Microphone — Based on "Mr. Microphone", a real-life version of a microphone, which could be broadcast on AM frequencies, was marketed, also via a TV commercial with 1-800 number to order.
    • The tough sailor offering to bring the boy back to the surface is a reference to Quint from Jaws.
    • "We're Sending Our Love Down the Well" and its music video is a parody of We Are the World" by U.S.A. for Africa.
    • When Homer hears Bart crying, he exclaims, "That's all I can stands, I can't stands no more!" before grabbing a shovel and starting to dig a tunnel to reach Bart.
    • And the biggest one of all: Timmy being stuck down a well/mine shaft/etc. is one of the clichés associated with the TV series Lassie (though ironically a well was one thing Timmy didn't fall down in the series).
    • The musical sting heard briefly when Bart tries to retrieve his radio from the well is similar to "Axel F", the theme of Beverly Hills Cop (and which was also heard in season three's "Separate Vocations" and season four's "Marge vs. The Monorail").
    • The Funky See, Funky Do musical duo, whose song "I Do Believe We're Naked" knocks "We're Sending Our Love Down the Well" from the number one spot, resemble a composite of members from Milli Vanilli and Kid n' Play.
  • Shaming the Mob: Implied when Homer grabs a shovel and decides to dig a tunnel to reach Bart. The rest of the townsfolk were willing to let Bart starve, but Willie is just the first of them that Homer inspires to join in the dig.
  • Spoofed with Their Own Words: The line "Hey, good-looking, we'll be back to pick you up later!" in the ad for the radio microphone is taken word-for-word from a 70s-era Ronco Mr. Microphone commercial.
  • Stating the Simple Solution: When Homer finally decides he can't put up with the town's coldness and lack of effort in rescuing Bart, he just grabs a shovel and starts digging on his own.
    Willie: (seeing Homer digging) Ach, now why didn't I think of that?!
    (goes back into his shed briefly)
    Willie: (to his shovel) Agnes... we've got work to do! (rips off his shirt and top part of his overalls)
  • Stealth Pun: Bart sticks a "Property of Bart Simpson" label across Homer's butt, implicitly telling his Dad "your ass is mine". Extra stealth points since Homer doesn't notice.
  • Suck E. Cheese's: Wall E. Weasel's. It has ill-maintained animatronics, crummy video games (cf. Bart playing "Larry the Looter" and losing after a shop owner shoots off his head), and a short scene shows that it's stupid easy to cheat at skeeball (Nelson standing on the game and dropping the balls in the center hole).
  • Suddenly Voiced: This was the first speaking role, or rather singing, for Sideshow Mel.
  • Take That!: Krusty and the other celebrities cashing in on the tragedy by creating a song about it, while everyone else was trying to figure out a way to get "Timmy" out of the well. A clear joke about opportunistic celebrities taking advantage of a tragedy for personal gain while doing nothing practical to actually help.
  • The Unreveal: We never find out what Lisa bought for Bart with the money Homer gave her.
  • Very False Advertising: Downplayed: when Bart goes to use his coupon from "Phineas O. Butterfat's 5600 Flavors Ice Cream Emporium", the coupon advertises a whimsical, old-fashioned experience out of The Gay '90s, and the poster shows a wonderful-looking sundae. They do give out free birthday sundaes that look like the ones on the poster, but the sundae in question is smaller than a chicken egg, and the employee, far from a whimsical old-timey gentlemen, is a surly teenager who gives the usual response to a customer demanding free food: that is, "Eat it and get out."
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Bart's "joke" about a boy falling down a well casing is inspired by the real-life events involving 18-month-old Jessica McClure becoming trapped in a narrow well.
  • Weight Woe: None of Springfield's police officers can get down the well to rescue "Timmy O'Toole" because they're all too fat.
  • "We're Live" Realization: When Kent Brockman interviews Homer and Marge during a news report, Homer says that he and Marge didn't want Bart and that he was an accident, which prompts Marge to scold him for it. Homer asks Kent if he can edit what he said out, and Kent tells him he can't since they're live.
  • What Were You Thinking?: When Lisa discovers Bart's prank, she warns him that his obsession with his label maker could lead to anyone who discovers the radio's "Property of Bart Simpson" label turning on him.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: The concept of this episode evokes Ace in the Hole (1951), a Billy Wilder-directed film in which an accident trapping a shopkeeper in a cave sparks a media frenzy. Both stories even involve someone making a pop song about the victim, and a carnival becoming formed at the site of the disaster. Although the reference was intentional, writer Jon Vitti never saw the film until after he wrote the episode, stating that Matt Groening, who had seen it, gave him the rundown.
  • Wild Child: Marvin Monroe theorizes that this is what "Timmy O'Toole" is becoming after hearing growling at the bottom of the well (really just Bart fighting Santa's Little Helper over the microphone).
  • Winged Soul Flies Off at Death: Happens to Scratchy in the Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. Or it would, if not for Itchy waiting for him at the top of the well with a shotgun.
  • Worst News Judgment Ever:
    • This episode provides the trope image with the Lincoln Squirrel. And later on, as the town proceeds to dig Bart out of the well, Kent Brockman reports, "This just in: the Lincoln Squirrel has been assassinated!"
    • Adding to that, Brockman claims that the station will stay with this story all night if they have to. That was the exact case with the Kennedy assassination as the networks provided roughly 77 hours of coverage from around 1:30 PM Eastern time on Friday, November 22, 1963 to the following Monday evening.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The town was perfectly willing and able (up until Homer took things into his own hands) to leave Bart in the well, sentencing him to a slow and painful death and an equally ignoble eternal rest, as payback for his prank.