Okay, so he’s not what you’d call conventionally handsome. He’s missing two fingers, his eyes are bulgier than Rodney Dangerfield’s, he has a potbelly and a mustardy complexion, and his hairline…well, he has no hairline. Just hair points. Not that appearances matter. In 1990, fame had a name, and it was Bartholemew J. Simpson.
Unknown 12 months ago except to devotees of Fox’s low-rated The Tracey Ullman Show, Bart has joked his way into the kind of celebrity of which mere humans can only dream. He has his own series. His own album. His own rock video (”Do the Bartman”). A lucrative gig in commercials for Butterfinger candy bars. Raps composed in his honor. Lunch boxes. Erudite essays (and surely college theses) that analyze his multicultural, totemic impact. ”Bart” chewing gum. An appearance at the Emmys. And, naturally, scandals — from a TV nude scene in which Bart bolted from a bathtub to a cause celebre that flamed up when Orange County, Calif., school officials had collective cows when kids wore Bart T-shirts with the slogan ”Underachiever — And Proud of It.”
They may have had a point, albeit an ironic one. In 1990, underachieving seemed to be the only thing Bart didn’t do. In the spring, he carved out an appreciative audience for The Simpsons in Fox’s Sunday-night lineup; in the fall, with the network’s future resting on his narrow shoulders, he sought out a greater — and many said ridiculous-challenge: TV’s ratings champ, The Cosby Show. By the time he faced off against Cosby with new episodes in October and, backed by 34 million fans, whomped Bill in the Nielsens, he was looking less like David and more like a peppy, scrappy, pea-shooting Goliath. Since then, contests between the two giants have been close enough to make NBC nervous (though Cosby has a narrow lead).
Bart deserves points for adaptability (his dramatis personae on bootleg T-shirts include Air Bart, Bart Marley, Black Bart, Bart Gorbachev, and M.C. Bart) and credit for the celebrity afflictions he didn’t catch. In 1990, he didn’t punch out any paparazzi, wear glasses to make himself look smarter, harangue his fans about flavor-of-the-month political causes, or sing the National Anthem. All of which is a tribute to Matt Groening, who created the little guy and worked to prevent Bart from becoming a standard-issue adorable smart-ass. After years of cult fame drawing the alternative comic strip ”Life in Hell,” the 36-year-old cartoonist spent much of 1990 keeping The Simpsons true to his perceptions. ”We had a rocky beginning, trying to draw the characters the way I designed them,” Groening said earlier this year. ”It’s very hard for people who have devoted themselves to animated cartoons to break the habit of cuteness. My characters are anti-cute.”
And anti-predictable: Bart has proved to be a rebel who’s also a good kid, a terror who’s easily terrorized, and a flake who astonishes us, and himself, with serious displays of fortitude. After all, this was the year that he foiled a kidnapper from America’s Most Armed and Dangerous, helped save the career of Krusty the Clown, and studied sufficiently to earn a personal all-time high of 60 on a history quiz. Although he has momentarily retreated from the glare of the media spotlight, we’re certain he’d like to give credit to Homer, Marge, Lisa, and Maggie, to Groening’s pen and imagination, to executive producer James L. Brooks’ know-how, and to actress Nancy Cartwright’s versatile vocal cords. All have helped to ensure that Bart, who’ll never have to experience an awkward adolescence, a contract dispute, or a trip to the Betty Ford Center, is built to last through the ’90s, a decade he begins as — Ay, caramba! — Entertainer of the Year.