Posted Friday, June 26, 2009, at 11:53 AM
He has strangely colored skin, a legendarily dysfunctional family, and is perpetually 10 years old. No wonder Michael Jackson identified with Bart Simpson. On a DVD commentary track that's part of The Simpsons: The Complete Third Season box set, the show's executive producer, James L. Brooks, says he fielded a call from Jackson early in the show's run. "I love Bart," the King of Pop said. "I want to give Bart a No. 1 single."
Jackson delivered on his promise, ghostwriting the chart-topping " Do the Bartman ." (OK, it only went to No. 1 in the United Kingdom; it wasn't released as a single in America.) The song came out in November 1990—a year before 11-year-old Macaulay Culkin starred in Jackson's " Black or White " video—and sounds as dated as every other two-decade-old, light-rap ditty voiced by a cartoon character. (Also see: " Opposites Attract .") "Do the Bartman" did, however, accomplish the feat of uniting two cultural icons. The most-memorable lyric: "If you can do the Bart, you're bad like Michael Jackson."
Around the same time Jackson launched Bart's singing career, he asked Simpsons creator Matt Groening whether he could be on the show. By 1992, when the M.J.-starring " Stark Raving Dad " aired as the third-season premiere, the show was transitioning from a T-shirt-selling fad (the " Eat My Shorts, Man! " era) to a work of pop art. Jackson's guest appearance, well before the era in which the likes of Helen Hunt and Lucy Lawless appeared on a weekly basis , marked him as part of the cultural vanguard.
The greatness of "Stark Raving Dad" has a lot more to do with the The Simpsons ' writing staff than with Jackson's voice-over talents. (As with "Do the Bartman," M.J. insisted on keeping his name off the episode; he was billed as "John Jay Smith.") The show's scripters came up with a plot device far more ingenious than simply dropping the singer into Springfield, instead placing the singer's falsetto voice inside a 300-pound mental patient who believes he's Michael Jackson. On the DVD commentary, writer Al Jean says the script run-through at the singer's manager's house was "the most nerve-racking table read I've been to in my life." To Jackson's credit, he didn't flinch at being depicted as a crazy Caucasian. The only two notes he gave on the script: an appeal to replace Prince with Elvis in a joke about mentally unstable musicians, and a request for a scene in which he stays up all night writing a song with Bart.
Put aside Jackson's professed desire to spend the evening with a young (albeit two-dimensional) boy and it's impossible not to be charmed by " Lisa, It's Your Birthday ." The minute-long song—written by Jackson but voiced by an imitator because, according to James L. Brooks, M.J. wanted to play "a joke on his brothers"—is one of the least-essential in the singer's catalog. It's also incredibly endearing, a sweet jingle written by a childlike adult for his favorite cartoon. That brief moment on The Simpsons feels like the perfect encapsulation of a life and a career. Michael Jackson: pop genius, forever young at heart, mental case.