The Simpsons, Season Four, Episode One, “Kamp Krusty”

Up until now, I’ve been buying the show on Youtube, but now we’ve reached the point where I started collecting the show on DVD a few years ago, and let me tell you, putting in the disc was a thrill. Of course, I’ve watched my collection twice over before starting this project, but getting to talk about it with you guys and to finally reach this point after over a year created a sense of anticipation in me, one that was rewarded with “Kamp Krusty”, a powerhouse of an episode. Structurally, the plot is pretty riff-heavy, but the characters, morality, and sense of humour of the show have been refined and polished to a mirror sheen, blasting through in minutes what would previously take up entire acts; I’m pretty sure most scenes are over within a minute, contributing to the frantic pace (it reminds me a lot of Repo Man).

Which is good, because this episode doubles down on the bleakness in the show’s worldview. I’m always tickled by the fantasy lives of the characters, and the show opens with Bart’s dream of the last day of school, the students and faculty tearing the place apart to the sound of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” (favourite detail: Nelson with a flamethrower) and Mrs Krabappel not only fixing his grades so he can go to Kamp Krusty, but also allowing him to slap her on the ass and call her ‘toots’. Homer’s fantasies always get the bigger laugh out of me, but I love how well the show captures a child’s view of the world, and it leads nicely into the other half of the equation: the boring, unpleasant reality.

We’ve often talked about how the show’s most underrated aspect is how it makes boredom hilarious, and I believe I’ve summed up two of the ways it did it: a fairly straightforward expectation-reality structure to the jokes that hit like a brick to the face, and a fast pace that shows the boredom without lingering on it. The third way was absurdity, and interestingly the opener and the rest of the episode switch over where the absurdity lies – the first act shows us Bart’s rather ridiculous expectations and then shows the grim reality of having to forge his grades (love that Homer is outright insulted that Bart thinks he could get away with that – “A D turns into a B so easily! You got greedy.”). On the other hand, Bart and Lisa go to camp with rather reasonable expectations of having fun, only to have the whole thing turn into an increasingly absurd apocalypse.

Last week, beloved commentor mcquack dismissed season three’s “Separate Vocations” as a great episode of a Nickelodeon show but a mediocre episode of The Simpsons; I think there’s always been a ‘kid’s show’ vibe hanging over the Bart and Lisa episodes of the show, with some added Simpsons cynicism (for example, on this network Bart can say ‘crappy’). This episode captures the overall disappointment of going to camp as a kid and discovering it’s nothing like all those Disney Channel Original Movies, and then escalates it further, from simple cheap and dangerously substandard equipment all the way up to a Dickensian sweatshop.

Underlying all of this is a satire of the entertainment industry. Bart and Lisa’s entire predicament happens because Krusty happily signs his name to a shoddy product for the money (this is the episode where he utters his iconic line, “They drove a dumptruck full of money up to my house! I’m not made of stone!”), and the evil Mr Black, coordinator of the camp, is clearly just shitting out as cheap a product as he can to maximise profit, with Jimbo, Dolph, and Kearny taking advantage of this so they can enact cruelty. Bart holds on to the fantasy of Krusty showing up all throughout his ordeal, and when Mr Black tries passing off Barney as his hero, it’s enough to send Bart over the edge and into an uprising.

Throughout this is a runner that appears to be nice and pleasant, but is deeply cynical – Homer lets Bart go to camp despite his failing grades because he never did want the little hellion running around the house all summer, and while the kids are away, Homer and Marge are actually much happier, with Homer losing weight and gaining hair (“I’m this close to having a combover!”). Mainly, it’s just a bunch of jokes about how stressful having kids is, but having spent three seasons coming to the conclusion that the characters all became trapped in a deeply unpleasant situation makes it a little stronger.

The episode concludes with Krusty getting a call about the camp and rushing to the scene, apologetic and deciding to take the kids to Tijuana. As hilariously cynical as it is that Krusty would think Tijuana is an appropriate place to take children, it’s a forgiving note to end the episode on; for all its bleakness, the show couldn’t go all the way all the time.

Chalkboard Gag: This punishment is not boring and pointless.
Couch Gag: The Simpsons run in to find the Flintstones on their couch.

This episode was written by David M Stern and directed by Mark Kirkland. After watching the episode, James L Brooks suggested it be made into a movie, Al Jean observed that the episode actually ran a little short (the Kamp Krusty song had to be extended to get to time), and “if we can’t make it to 18 minutes, how can we make it to 80?”

Some of the story is ripped from “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” by Allan Sherman. The Kamp Krusty song was inspired by the 60s TV show Camp Runamuck. The scene of Lisa paying a horserider whiskey to deliver her letter is lifted from The French Lieutenant’s Woman. When the kids take over the camp, there are multiple references to Lord Of The Flies. Kearny beats a drum while the kids work in the sweatshop, which is a reference to Ben-Hur. The episode ends with “South Of The Border” playing.

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