- First broadcast: Thursday 24 October 1991, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 17 November 1997, BBC2
- Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
- First draft: Jay Kogen & Wallace Wolodarsky,
- Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
- Storyboard: Brad Bird, Jeff Lynch, Kevin O’Brien
- Animation directors: Jeff Lynch and Brad Bird
Krusty the Clown was largely ignored during season two of The Simpsons and hadn’t been the focus of an episode since back in April 1990. Since then he had popped up occasionally but mostly as a one-note character whose purpose was to chivy along the plot. Evidently he wasn’t thought substantial enough to merit star billing a second time. Until now.
In 2016 there can’t be a soul left in Springfield whose past hasn’t been excavated to eke out a storyline or whose history hasn’t been reimagined for the flimsiest of jokes. In 1991 this was a seam still to be mined, however. Aside from the Simpsons themselves, nobody had been given a proper back story. It’s perhaps surprising the producers waited until now to start. Maybe it was only by season three that it was felt the show was stout enough to carry episodes whose plot didn’t revolve exclusively around family members. Krusty is a superb choice to get the ball rolling, his eccentricity having been long hinted though rarely explored. But rather than simply subject us to a parade of glib nostalgic vignettes, the writers marry up Krusty’s past with his present to allow the back story to become a new story. Krusty’s current malaise is revealed to stem from a dispute with his estranged father a quarter of a century ago. Bart and Lisa take it upon themselves to organise a reconciliation. It’s a very smart way of disentangling sentimentality from schmaltz and injecting pace into what could have been a long-shoed plod down memory lane. 8
What a piece of work is Krusty the man. He bounds off his TV show full of glee, and seconds later is snapping at his personal assistant for a piece of nicotine gum. He ducks out of social engagements to clean his shower:
He spends his nights ringing 1-909 SEXCHAT, only to hear Apu on the line (“This is not as hot a party as I had anticipated”). When he does finally agree to have dinner with the Simpsons – a long overdue gesture of thanks – he’s more interested in rifling through their photo albums and listening to George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. Every stroke and nuance of characterisation is just right, helping to reintroduce Krusty as someone rich with comic flaws and delicious misanthropy. There’s no middle ground for him; absolutely everything in life is either extraordinarily good or impossibly bad, and if it’s the latter then everyone BUT Krusty is to blame. Giving him Jewish roots and a crotchety father is the perfect exclamation mark for his punchline of a life. 9
Locations and design
In the flashback to Krusty’s childhood, the Lower East Side of Springfield seems to resemble New York in The Godfather Part II.
It’s not the first time the town has been Coppola-rised (or the last: “That’s a-nice-a doughnut”). This kind of elegant heritage is then contrasted with the rain-soaked, run-down streets of the present day, with a disconsolate Krusty wandering past tatty cinemas and magazine stores before taking refuge in a bus shelter.
It’s all very atmospheric but, typically, shot through with wicked humour. The names of the films showing at the cinema are almost the funniest thing in the entire episode. 7
Pardon My Zinger
The funniest thing is this exchange between Bart and Krusty’s father, Rabbi Hyman Krustofski:
Krustofski: I have no son! (slams front door)
Bart: Oh great, we came all this way and it’s the wrong guy.
Krustofski: (flinging door open) I didn’t mean that literally! (slams door again)
Bart and Lisa are indefatigable in their efforts to persuade Krustofski to mend fences with Krusty. For once Lisa is just as gutsy as her brother (“We”re going to hit him where it hurts: right in the Judaica!”) while Bart, typically, throws himself utterly at the task, dressing up as a rabbi:
and even risking circumcision:
Krusty has his own zingers, despite his familial caterwauling. “Didn’t Scratchy Junior look happy playing with his dad until they got run over by the thresher?” he blubs. When Bart tricks him into turning up at a cafe to receive the Legion d’honneur, Krusty bustles up to a waitress and demands: “Can you direct me to President Francois Mitterand’s table?” “You think you’re funny?” comes the dour reply. “Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong!” trills Krusty. 8
Jackie Mason provides the voice of Rabbi Krustofski. He’s best in the scenes where Krustofski is riffing off the interjections and heckles of others: “Rabbi, should I buy a Chrysler?” “Could you rephrase that as an ethical question?” “Er – is it right to buy a Chrysler?” “Oh yes! For great is the car with power steering!” The same goes for the scenes where the rabbi is quarrelling with Bart about the correct interpretation of scripture (once again we’re a long way from mothballs in the beef stew). Less convincing are the moments when the character is muttering out loud or having a conversation with himself, when Mason sounds like he’s reciting lines off a page. 7
Krusty’s house band appears to be called Krusty & the Ktums. They are versatile enough to strike up the German song Oh Mein Papa without any prior warning on the order of Krusty, who then proceeds to croon the chorus in unison with his newly-reconciled father. Music of a different culture fills Alf Clausen’s soundtrack, with much use of Jewish folk tunes as well as the distinctive Jewish tonal scale, often played on a solo violin and in the orchestral chords that accompany Krusty’s especially mournful moments. 7
Mason won an Emmy for his performance as Krustofski. His voice has a wonderfully unaffected air, befitting both the vocation of his character and his status as a “normal” – someone who has deliberately turned their back on the world in which the Simpsons inhabit and who prefers to reside in a more mundane if predictable environment. It’s also as plaintive as Krusty’s voice is overwrought. When the two come together at the end for the rendition of Oh Mein Papa, the contrast is so ludicrous it just about works. 7
Brad Bird, the show’s animation consultant, co-directed this episode with first-timer Jeff Lynch. Bird had overseen season one’s Krusty Gets Busted and does an equally tremendous job here, igniting the plot with a cascade of images that manage to move smoothly between the heartfelt and the grotesque. After Homer, no character is more prone to physical contortion than Krusty, for whom there is always time for one further exaggerated pose or demeaning tableau.
Some of the framing is close to cinematic:
While the staging of the final scenes, where father and son are reunited, tiptoes just the right side of florid. 8
Homages, spoofs, fantasies
The whole thing is based loosely on the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, where a son defies his devout Jewish father and runs away from home to become a popular entertainer. The antecedent is not crucial to enjoying the episode at face value, though there is one in-joke when Rabbi Krustofski sighs: “Oh, if you were a musician or a jazz singer, this I could forgive!” 6
Emotion and tone
If you’re irritated or simply bored by Krusty’s histrionics, you’ll find this episode hard work. He is not a character that invites sympathy – but that’s partly the point. He’s so stubborn that he wouldn’t want anyone’s sympathy (unless it came with a million-dollar cheque attached). Out of the stubbornness comes a predilection for mood swings and these are so extreme they are wisely played for laughs. The sequence in which he barely has enough enthusiasm to punch his way through a paper hoop is one of the episode’s absolute highlights:
In fact, anything that verges on the extreme is meticulously undercut with sarcasm, and the same goes for religion itself; the tendency of Judiasm as well as Christianity to fall back on facile statements and pat answers is given fiercely short shrift. No wonder Bart and Lisa politely decline Reverend Lovejoy’s offer of a promotional T-shirt. 7
A pie in the face for killjoys everywhere.