- First broadcast: Thursday 13 May 1993, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Thursday 27 August 1998, BBC2
- Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
- First draft: John Swartzwelder
- Writing staff: George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, Conan O’Brien, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Dan McGrath
- Animation director: David Silverman
Fourth time lucky. After botching the finale for each of The Simpsons’ first three seasons – not always for reasons under their control – the show’s producers at last give the show a send off it deserves. Stops are pulled out right, left and centre. Banners are unfurled, trumpets are sounded. Cauldrons of glitter pour out of the TV set. Anything and anyone not befitting the carnival atmosphere is given their marching orders – including Marge, who for the first time in the show’s history is seen but never heard.
There are several things going on here, and all of them go about it with an irresistible panache. There’s Bart and Lisa teaming up to right a colossal wrong – a simple idea that’s been done several times before but never with so much élan (wandering freely in and out of TV studios, rounding up celebrities just like Anneka Rice collecting clues). There’s the fall and rise of Krusty – again, not a new idea but again never done on this scale or with our hero twisting merrily between such extremes of despair and triumph. Then there’s the rise and fall of Gabbo, with all the gargantuan hoo-ha and misunderstanding (“Look Smithers – Garbo is coming!”) and hype and glee that crackles around Springfield, before rebounding in equally spectacular fashion. And finally there’s the real star of this episode: television itself, depicted with steely affection by a script that rejoices in bringing into sharp focus all the hypocrisies and traditions and lunacies within which The Simpsons itself comes to life. “That cute little character could take America by storm,” quivers Bart on his first glimpse of Gabbo, “all he needs is a hook!” “I’m a bad little boy,” Gabbo announces on cue, to which Bart responds: “Aye carumba!” 10
Krusty is always at his most entertaining when he is having to live his life on other people’s terms. Here it isn’t just another person, it’s another children’s entertainer – and a more popular one to boot – so Krusty’s rage and disbelief is all the more of a spectacle. Seeing him cope with his fury is just as much fun as seeing him trying (and often failing) to maintain a mask of dignity whenever he is on camera. Lisa and Bart shine whenever they team up for the common good, and although they do little except prod the storyline along, they help keep the thing from becoming too much Not The Simpsons. What with 50% of T-shirt sales from Krusty’s Comeback Special, plus the money from all those Itchy & Scratchy scripts, the pair have really raked it in this series. 9
Locations and design
That steely affection the script shows towards the TV industry is reflected just as much in what we see on screen as what the characters say. All the studios and dressing rooms and costumes and technical equipment have the texture of showbusiness; they look tatty and glamorous at the same time, and are inhabited by people who love and despise their world in equal measure.
Everything feels as if it is teetering on the edge of the grotesque – yet it is animated by people who clearly love the industry in which they work and are proud of the work they do. Look at the trouble taken to design Luke Perry’s 19th-century balloon carousel:
or Krusty’s appalling doll, both before and after its owner kicks it to pieces. 10
Pardon My Zinger
One of the funniest moments (out of a good few dozen) is when Gabbo starts kicking off about “the SOBs”. It’s not just the way he keeps repeating the phrase, oblivious to the fact the cameras are still on him, that is so amusing; it’s also that he seems to have taken on a life of his own, and that his puppeteer keeps admonishing Gabbo as if he can’t control what the doll is saying. “That ought to hold the little SOBs,” Gabbo chunters on, apparently unstoppable. “All the kids in Springfield are SOBs!” This then sets up the equally sparkling scene when Kent Brockman does precisely the same thing (“That ought to hold those SOBs”) and seems unable to control what’s coming out of HIS mouth.
Krusty’s desperate appeal for viewers (“Every time you watch my show, I will send you forty dollars!”) has a tag line from a voiceover (“Cheques will not be honoured!”) that is one of those phrases you can’t help but drop into conversation in real life. And then there’s the Crazy Old Man, possibly (hopefully) a relative of the loose-limbed elderly gentlemen in New Kid on the Block, taunting Krusty with his endless chorus of “old grey mare she ain’t what she used to be’.
When the Man becomes a star and appears on TV with the Crazy Old Man Singers, we don’t see the resulting cacophony for ourselves, only hear it; instead, the camera stays on Krusty’s face. Our imagination does the rest. 10
Let’s go through them in descending order. Johnny Carson is, naturally, sublime. “Krusty, you wanna stay for dinner?” he asks, but Krusty can’t make it. “Ah, that’s too bad,” Carson sighs. “Because tonight my guests will be Dr Carl Sagan, and from the San Diego zoo, Joan Embery!”
He is outstanding in every scene, and reminds you – maddeningly – of how here in the UK we’ve never been treated to a television star with such warmth, wit and style.
Barry White has only one line, but it’s a great one and because he’s playing Barry White the celebrity, rather than Barry White the snake-saviour, it works perfectly: “Everybody up here to my square, it’s safe – and it’s sexy, oh baby!”
Luke Perry knows exactly what is wanted from him and gamely plays along, even when – ESPECIALLY when – he is fired from a cannon through a glass window, a sandpaper factory and a hundred cans of acid (“My face, my valuable face!”). The Red Hot Chili Peppers play along too. Bette Midler sounds oddly subdued and unsure of how to pitch her performance; all the stuff with her picking up litter is, appropriately, rubbish. Elizabeth Taylor is wasted, which is presumably the gag. Worst is Hugh Hefner, who sounds bored and unlikeable and has nothing whatsoever amusing to say. Funny that. 8
Midler “treats” us to a few bars of Wind Beneath My Wings. Luckily Krusty joins in halfway through, roaring the notes slightly out of tune and helpfully undercutting most of the song’s twee sentiments.
He also roars his way through a verse of Send In The Clowns, alternately gurning and weeping in ferocious fashion, giving his comeback show the opening it deserves. Then there’s You’re Gonna Like Me: an original song, performed by Gabbo and massed ranks of dancing toys and puppets, which is done in the style of raucous high-kicking musical number and is intended to bulldoze you into agreeing with its title. At the end, three fighter jets zoom out of the wings of the theatre and over the heads of the audience. It’s that sort of song. But then it’s that sort of episode. 8
Julie Kavner sulked because she didn’t like the number of celebrities in this episode, giving the writers a convenient excuse not to include any dialogue for Marge in the script. Her voice isn’t missed. Homer barely speaks, but his voice isn’t particularly missed either. There are so many other voices jostling for attention, your ear never tires of hearing anything while your brain never wonders why Kavner is missing. A lot of characters breeze through in a handful of seconds, but we’ve come so far in the history of The Simpsons that this doesn’t matter. Nobody needs an introduction any more. It’s enough simply for Harry Shearer to do one line as Reverend Lovejoy: “Everybody is saying ‘Gabbo this’ and ‘Gabbo that’ – but no one is saying ‘worship this’ and ‘Jericho that’!” 10
The producers rightly bring out the big guns – David Silverman – and the results are stunning. The image of a repulsively overweight Krusty, barely able to haul himself off his own floor, is impossible to forget:
Ditto Krusty’s fantasy of Luke Perry with a mangled face.
Silverman always excels at animating characters in extreme distress (see Homer’s Triple Bypass) and his depiction of Krusty losing his last few dollars at the races is a delight.
There’s a perfectly-timed pullback-and-reveal when Luke Perry ends his journey as human cannonball in what he thinks is a harmless pillow factory. Topping the lot, though, is the beautiful animation that accompanies Krusty bawling his way through Send In The Clowns, with the camera dissolving serenely from one shot to the next – a device you rarely see on The Simpsons – plus a gorgeous nod to Elvis Presley’s 1968 Comeback Special. 10
Homages, spoofs, fantasies
If any Simpsons episode merited the inclusion of a parody of primitive post-war Soviet animation, this is the one. ‘Worker and Parasite’ – “Eastern Europe’s favourite cat and mouse team!” – riffs on a reference point even more removed from the popular consciousness in the early 21st century than it was back in 1993, yet it is still funny, partly due to Krusty’s reaction (“What the hell was that?!”) and partly because it just looks so earnestly and plausibly disturbing.
In complete contrast, the episode opens with a few minutes of the glittering game show The Springfield Squares. Just as the episode itself gathers together a great bundle of actual personalities, so this spoof gathers together all of The Simpsons’ in-house celebs. Even Princess Kashmir and the Capital City Goofball get a square each. It’s nice to see they look out for each other too (“A 50ft tidal wave is heading this way; all game shows off the beach!”) 10
Emotion and tone
There’s a tone of jubilation throughout this episode: jubilation at having bagged so many famous names, but also at having reached the end of the season. You can definitely sense an end-of-term feeling. The writers seem demob-happy and in the mood to bask in their own status and that of the show itself. This kind of behaviour doesn’t come across as unseemly, however. The grandstanding fits right in with the theme of the episode and overlays the antics of Krusty and co with an attractive coating of ritzy trimmings, like an extra layer of tassles on a theatrical curtain. The very last frame of the series – the entire family plus special guests gathered in awe around a tap-dancing, according-playing Johnny Carson – strikes just the right note of valedictory triumph. 10
One of the best finales ever.
[*sotto* That told those little SOBs…]