The Simpsons, Season Six, Episode Fifteen, “Homie The Clown”

“Krusty was originally supposed to be Homer’s secret identity” is one of those facts that every hardcore Simpsons fan is completely unsurprised to find in one of those “25 Things You Never Knew About The Simpsons” videos on Youtube, alongside “Marge was originally supposed to have bunny ears under her hair”. I get the vibe that fans in general had this idea of Matt Groening as some supergenius singlehandedly responsible for everything good and wonderful about the show (certainly, that’s the vague picture I had in my head as a kid); these days, after facts like that coming out and the random bits of baffling opinions and decisions (like how he hates the upcoming crossover with The Critic despite it being completely awesome), coupled with the at best mixed reaction to Disenchantment, has left people feeling like he was the Ringo Starr of his own show, someone lucky enough to show up at the same time as a bunch of geniuses. I think the truth must be not so much in the middle as to the left of the whole argument. I forget who it was in the comments that observed that Groening managed to cut out a lot of racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes, but I feel like that’s key to what he brought to the table. Writing an episode of a television show, coming up with cool ideas, and running a writer’s room are three different skills, and having an opinion on something is a whole other thing entirely. I suspect Groening’s contributions were the kinds of things that tend to be invisible and hard to quantify, stuff like maintaining and encouraging a positive creative atmosphere.Jonathan Brough (a prolific Australian TV director) once told me that you don’t have to be very funny to direct comedy, because you’re there to respond to the action more than anything, and I suspect that’s the role Groening tended to play.

Anyway, zooming in on the actual episode, one of the ways you can spot a Swartzwelder script is that they tend to be light on emotional content – I haven’t read his books, but by all accounts they are pure absurdity generators with none of the heart we generally associate with the show that made him quasi-famous. This is a lesson in the power of collaboration and the way different talents can synthesise into a cohesive whole, greater than the already great sum of their parts. But in this case, the inherent emotion to be found in the idea of Homer taking on the role of Bart’s hero isn’t really present; there are a lot of ideas floating around, but in Homer’s case, his motivation for taking up the Krusty mantle is because he’s the perfect American consumer, completely malleable and willing to buy into any commercial that crosses his path – his monotonous intonation of “Clowns are funny” is hilarious, frightening, and more hilarious because of how frightening it is. I’m always in awe of how the show can keep taking the same idea into new territory – in this case, that genuine thoughtful understanding is always better than mindless consumption – without ever feeling like a retread. It stands in stark contrast with It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia; that show finds a single idea, throws it into the tiny bubble the characters have created for themselves, and watches the characters totally destroy it. It’s like taking a picture, drawing something on it, photocopying it, and then doing that over and over until the original picture is completely distorted (and that’s what makes it funny). With The Simpsons, I guess the best metaphor is actually these essays. Take one idea (“spiritual enlightenment is more satisfying than material pleasure”), filter it through a concept, (“stealing cable will make you feel bad”) and process it as completely as you can until you come to a conclusion, then take that conclusion and filter it through something else, rewriting it over and over until you understand it as completely as possible.

Anyway, zooming in on the actual episode, I also love looking at this as characterisation for Krusty. I don’t think you can get a purer example of his character than the image of him waving goodbye to the kids, keeping his smile in view for as long as possible as the curtain falls, then his face falling before he lights a cigarette – I especially love how the encroaching shadow of the curtain creates a mood of, you know, darkness falling. It’s the fundamental conflict between Krusty’s dedication to and cynicism for his job in a two second image; if you like, it’s as much the failure of Krusty to live up to the image of a children’s entertainer as Homer is a failure to live up to the image of a husband and father. I love how deeply this episode delves into both sides of Krusty – on the one hand, how brazenly he spends money (the gag of him lighting cigars with increasingly ludicrous objects keeps getting funnier), on the other, how much of his job genuinely is a craft that he keeps working at, both through the things Krusty teaches at the school and through Homer’s various clown gigs (it even finds ways to make jokes at the expense of Krusty’s cynical professionalism – “Hey Bill, what did that cost us?”). In that same spirit, I love Homer quickly discovering the appeal of celebrity, getting all the free stuff Krusty has coming to him. This is the real American dream, getting free shit because you happen to have the right face, and you could see how Krusty would eventually go down the road he’s on.

Chalkboard Gag: Next time it could be me on
Couch Gag: The family sit on air while parts of the couch come in to sit on them.

This episode was, as I said, written by John Swartzwelder and directed by David Silverman, who considers this the greatest episode he directed, and the downright genius staging of the final bike trick is a pretty good argument in favour; I’m as impressed by the animation as the mobsters are by the trick. Dick Cavett cameos, and Mirkin considers it the meanest they’ve ever been to a guest, though he didn’t object. I find it hilarious even though I know nothing about Cavett at all.

There’s a common gag where an audience politely applauds something silly (“I warsh mahself with a rag on a stick!”), and in that spirit we have “You might consider robbin’ ‘em!” followed by the clowns dutifully taking notes. It’s such a musical effect.

The title is a reference to In Living Color sketch Homey D. Clown. Krusty lights a cigarette with a copy of Action Comics #1. Homer sculpts his mashed potatoes in a manner reminiscent of the movie Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Much of the gangster stuff riffs on The Godfather, a single shot of Fat Tony references a shot in The Maltese Falcon, and Don Vittorio is a reference to both William Hickey and Don Ameche.

Iconic Moments: 4. “I don’t think any of us expected him to say that.” | “Stop, stop, he’s already dead!” | “My dad’s a pretty big wheel down at the cracker factory.” | “I’m seeing double here! Four Krustys!”
Biggest Laugh: