- First broadcast: Sunday 29 April 1990, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Saturday 11 January 1997, BBC1
- Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
- First draft: Jay Kogen & Wallace Wolodarsky
- Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jon Vitti, George Meyer
- Storyboard: Brad Bird, Ralph Eggleston, Jeff Lynch, Steven Dean Moore
- Animation director: Brad Bird
Transmission dates of The Simpsons became very erratic towards the end of the first season. A three-week gap preceded The Crepes of Wrath and a two-week gap followed it, as Fox Television eked out the schedules for as long as possible while finishing touches were put to the last batch of episodes. But it was worth it. Krusty Gets Busted is the most accomplished show of season one: smart, polished and amusing from start to glorious end. Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarsky’s first draft was a whopping 78 pages long; the craft that went into honing this down to a workable size is evident in almost every line and frame, and is reflective of the writing team’s growing confidence and ambition.
Homer witnesses someone he thinks is Krusty the Clown robbing the Kwik-E-Mark convenience store, leading to Krusty’s arrest and imprisonment. Bart and Lisa suspect foul play, however, and ultimately discover Krusty has been framed by his long-suffering sidekick Sideshow Bob. It’s a sharp idea with plenty of potential that is exploited crisply and with great panache in a very well-structured script. This is an episode with a clear beginning, middle and end, with a pace that never flags and builds to a genuinely exciting conclusion. It also leaves plenty of room for characterisation and jokes, both of which help hurry you through the moments when not a lot is actually happening. 8
Sideshow Bob is the second greatest creation in the history of The Simpsons*. He arrives in the show fully-formed, as gloriously petulant and dizzyingly verbose as he will ever be, with Kelsey Grammer on top form playing up every affected slight and demented scheme. His relationship with Bart is spot on, with the latter both repelled and fascinated by the former: a dynamic that will deliver many an exceptional episode in future years. Patty and Selma pop in for a wonderfully awful cameo, subjecting the family to a slideshow of their trip to Yucatan and uniting Homer, Bart and Lisa in the kind of bored misery that will also serve the show well in seasons to come.
We meet Kent Brockman for the first time, and like Bob he’s blessed with characteristics that will never leave him – in this case, flamboyant vanity and a nice line in insults. Krusty shares some of these enduring traits, though he’s not quite as pitiless in his cynicism as he would soon become. He’s got an obvious if amusingly warped relationship with his audience of kids – “What would you do if I went off the air?” “We’d kill ourselves!” – though his admission of illiteracy also sets up some awkward continuity with future episodes. It’s great to see the relationship between Bart and Lisa start to develop, as the pair team up to find out who really robbed the Kwik-E-Mart and Bart coyly tells his sister: “You’re smarter than me.” The Springfield mob is also back, even more full-throated and joyfully misguided than before, first roaring en mass for Krusty’s head, then roaring en mass at Bob’s deception. This is a real character-driven episode, with everyone behaving just as you think and hope they should. 8
Locations and design
Krusty Gets Busted takes place in a variety of familiar Springfield haunts, including the court house, the town square, the TV studios and the family home. In each case the design is starting to look a bit more consistent, and there are certainly fewer instances of things drifting off-model. There’s not much that is new to see. We get a peek inside Krusty’s appropriately seedy apartment, bedecked with fawning pictures of himself.
There’s also a tantalising glance around the TV studios, which in neat contrast to Krusty’s home looks humdrum, cramped and full of cables and props and hangers-on. But this isn’t an episode where location is key, and therefore the settings take a necessary back seat to the characters and the jokes. 5
Pardon My Zinger
It’s the funniest episode of season one. Krusty’s courtroom trial is an example of the kind of set-piece humour that would become one of the show’s absolute trademarks. It’s packed with zingers with barely a line that isn’t a gag, from Krusty’s opening words (“I plead guilty, your honour – I mean not guilty! Opening night jitters!”) to the prosecutor’s withering contempt for Homer (“Mr Simpson, was that you taking that cowardly dive into that display of heavily-salted snack treats?”), all underscored with the crowd’s comically over-the-top unison cries of “ooh!” and “aah!”
Everyone gets decent lines. Reverend Lovejoy urges his congregation to burn Krusty products on his “pile of evil” before cautioning “because these are children’s toys the fire will spread quickly!” When Apu spots Bart and Lisa leafing through a magazine, we hear him bellow (off camera): “This is NOT a lending library. It you’re not going to buy that thing, put it down or I’ll BLOW YOUR HEAD OFF.” Kent Brockman is delightfully overwrought, branding Krusty as: “The beloved idol of countless tots, now nothing more than a common ALLEGED criminal…” then laughing as he refers to Krusty’s near-fatal on-air heart attack as “one of television’s best-loved bloopers”.
Homer has a fit of the giggles when he is asked to pick out Krusty from a clown identity parade at the police station, before declaring:
Even Marge gets a good line. “These toys are just adorable,” she mutters as she gathers up Bart’s Krusty merchandise, before adding: “Who’d have guessed they were inspired by an insane criminal genius?” And we also get the first of many many fantastically-literate exchanges between Sideshow Bob and Bart. “You don’t have to be able to read to enjoy the Springfield Review of Books,” Bob observes. “Just look at these amazing caricatures of Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag!” “Yeah – I guess they are kind of funny,” replies Bart, chuckling. 8
Kelsey Grammer makes his first of many appearances as Sideshow Bob, but if you’re expecting his characterisation to be not quite as preening and menacing as in later episodes, you’d be wrong. Grammer absolutely nails the portrayal from the second he opens his mouth and declares pointedly: “My young friends. For years I have been silent, save for the crude glissandos of this primitive wind instrument.”
He gives a fantastic performance that is utterly convincing and which doesn’t lose your attention for a second. Whenever Sideshow Bob is on the screen you are immediately interested, and when he’s off screen you’re simply waiting for him to come back. Grammer gives Bob a fatalistic conviction that in turn renders everything he does endlessly entertaining, be it reading from The Man In The Iron Mask, singing Cole Porter or discussing marketing opportunities (“I want to explore the upscale market – collectors’ plates, commemorative coins…”). It’s just as enjoyable to hear the palpable delight in the way he tells his TV audience that “we will also learn about nutrition, etiquette and all the lively arts!” as it is to hear his faux-sincerity when he invites Bart to join him on camera in “a new segment exploring pre-adolescent turmoil. I call it: CHOICES.”
His long-suffering contempt for his erstwhile employer is the icing on the cake, neatly summed up by the way Grammer deploys a bullet of sarcasm on the word “love” when he tells Bart: “As much as I LOVE Krusty.” 10
Richard Gibbs’ score gets rather crowded out by everything else going on in this episode. To be fair, there are none of the usual set-piece sequences or long passages of dialogue-free action in which he’d ordinarily get the chance to rustle up some distinctive arrangements. But even the music cues that do catch the ear are fleeting. There’s a tiny pastiche of the Mission Impossible signature tune when Bart and Lisa approach the Kwik-E-Mart on their quest to clear Krusty. A short and deliberately corny version of Mozart’s A Little Night Music introduces the splendidly-named Sideshow Bob Cavalcade of Whimsy.
Bart’s melancholy at Krusty’s arrest is underscored with a few seconds of suitably elegiac harmonies at the end of act one. But the best of these slim pickings is Sideshow Bob’s all-too brief rendition of Cole Porter’s Every Time We Say Goodbye, which Kelsey Grammer delivers with audible relish and which oozes a perverse kind of charm. Thankfully this would not be the last we would hear of Grammer’s rich vocal chords on The Simpsons. 5
Krusty isn’t quite as tart or desperate as he would later become, while Chief Wiggum is still a long way off his familiar prickly self. Sideshow Bob is kept silent for well over half the episode, but this just means there’s even more of an impact when we finally do hear his voice. And what a voice. Grammer gives Bob a wonderfully bellicose pomposity mixed with an almost touching ennui, alternately booming and sighing his way through his predicament while never passing up the opportunity to show off the size of his enormous vocabulary. It’s true that Grammar rings every drop of pathos out of his dialogue, and in a less imaginative script his mannerisms could seem out-of-place. But it’s perfect for this tall tale, and his strangulated cries as he’s carted away to prison – “Treat kids as equal! They’re smarter than you think!” – ring in your ears long after the closing credits. 8
Brad Bird was the only one of The Simpsons’ first team of directors to also pitch jokes and sit in on writers’ meetings. He was billed as the show’s creative consultant throughout its first year, and this was a role he went on to hold for a further seven seasons, rarely directing individual episodes again. As such Krusty Gets Busted is something of a rarity for being by and large Bird’s own work. He specifically chose this episode to direct, and you can tell: there’s so much creativity and care in the animation, it’s clearly the work of someone gripped with a desire to tell a great story in the best way possible. That enthusiasm is impossible to resist. It’s there in the way the entire episode is given a precise visual arc, with each act opening with a close-up of a face that defines the action that follows: Krusty on TV; Krusty behind bars; Sideshow Bob on a poster. It’s there in the beautiful tracking shot that follows Bob into his dressing room as we see his faux-blubbing for Krusty slip effortlessly into maniacal laughter. It’s an image that will define Sideshow Bob forever after:
Other highlights include a superb depiction of Bart moping in his room after hearing the news of Krusty’s arrest, with the screen a wash of melancholic blue:
Equally effective is the animation of Reverend Lovejoy’s enormous pyre of Krusty merchandise:
There are plenty of smaller touches that catch the eye, such as the way Bob flops out of Krusty’s cannon in the opening scenes, and how Homer dives with great aplomb into Apu’s stand of potato chips the second he realises he is witnessing a robbery:
“You can emerge now from my chips,” Apu drawls, “the opportunity to prove yourself a hero is long gone.” The moment Bart realises Sideshow Bob is guilty of framing Krusty – courtesy of Bob’s reference to “big shoes to fill” – is the visual highlight of the final act:
Only the slightly off-model drawing of Krusty and some of the rather crudely-realised crowd scenes remind you this is an episode from season one and not a few years later. It cannot be a coincidence that Brad Bird’s departure from The Simpsons after season eight occurred just before with a sudden nosedive in the show’s quality. 9
Homages, spoofs, fantasies
The whole plucky-children-unmask-an-imposter riff is played to its conclusion when Krusty cries: “I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for these meddling kids!” It’s an obvious nod to the Scooby Doo cartoon series, but if it now feels somewhat hackneyed, back in 1990 it would have seemed fresh and funny. Still as effective today as it was 25 years ago is the report on Krusty’s arrest: a brilliant pastiche of a puffed-up, self-important local news channel, with its constant references to everything being “Emmy award-winning”, (including Hobo Hank, a “rival” show to Krusty the Clown), plus overblown graphics, melodramatic announcements and strings of majestic non-sequiturs like “Children of all ages from eight to 80 hang on each new development like so many Romanian trapeze artists!”
It’s a superb piece of sustained mimicry. Elsewhere there’s also a brief homage to closing titles of The Prisoner, when we see a shot of two sets of prison bars slamming shut over a close-up of Krusty’s face. Again, it’s rather cliched today, but a quarter of a century ago would have felt unexpected and even a bit daring. 7
Emotion and tone
Pretty much everything in this episode is pitched perfectly, with the balance between action and comedy just right. The tone never veers too far outside of a spectrum that runs concisely but effectively from menacing slapstick to slapstick menace. It displays a maturity and confidence painfully absent elsewhere in this season, particularly in clunkers like Homer’s Odyssey and The Call of the Simpsons. It manages to end on a note that feels just right, with Bart in bed looking fondly at oodles of ghastly Krusty merchandise.
It even manages the first bit of self-deprecation in the history of The Simpsons, when Lisa tells her mum: “If cartoons were made for adults, they’d put them on in primetime!” 9
If you ever need to disabuse someone of the idea that the first season of The Simpsons is rubbish, show them this episode. It’s not perfect, with a few wrinkles in both the voices and animation, but it’s easily up there among the finest stories from the programme’s early years. Krusty Gets Busted is the blueprint for the best of seasons two and three. The simplest and most persuasive proof of its success? You’re sad when the episode comes to an end.
*The greatest character in The Simpsons being, of course, Mr Burns.