The Simpsons, Season Seven, Episode Fifteen, “Bart The Fink”

I often say that this show’s most underrated virtue is its worldbuilding. Not only in the sense that so few sitcoms go out of their way to develop the feel of a specific place that Springfield does, but in the sense that even the ones that do don’t do it the way The Simpsons does. It isn’t just that there’s a supermarket and a nuclear power plant and a TV clown, it’s that all these things are Types of things, tapping into a cultural artifact that has all the power of a regular thing of its Type. In this case, Krusty is the Celebrity, or if you prefer, Entertainer. A little thing that cracked me up is seeing him sign autographs for kids, completely stonefaced and not even looking at any of them; this is what he does, this is what he is. This episode, he’s used in a classic story: the Celebrity Death Conspiracy Theory. When people achieve iconic status, becoming the brightest stars in the sky, they become flattened into simple ideas, and people as a whole are primed to start flagrantly making shit up to complicate them again. This goes moreso when celebrities die, and into absolute overdrive when they die under even vaguely mysterious or horrible circumstances. Elvis’ death is the classic example, and it definitely feels like the one that motivated this story; one of the theories I’ve heard is that Elvis faked his death to get away from being a celebrity, which is basically what Krusty does here. It’s something that makes The Simpsons feel like it takes place in the American consciousness – I don’t think I’ve ever heard a confirmed case of someone definitely faking their death (which you’d think would happen at least once), but this whole thing is the kind of story we tell ourselves about America.

But we also get why we tell these stories. I realised on this watch that I keep remembering the line “I gotta ride the bus like a schnook” as being from Goodfellas when it actually comes from this episode. One of the other things I always say about The Simpsons is that it’s about the perpetual battle between our base desires and our need for deeper spiritual and emotional fulfillment, and Krusty is, as the platonic ideal of a Celebrity, someone whose appetite for base desires grew alongside his financial success while his spiritual needs withered and died – from this perspective, the ending where Bart convinces Krusty to return to being a celebrity by appealing to his desire to be respected reveals celebrity worship (and the desire to be worshipped as a celebrity) to be that need for spiritual/emotional fulfillment that’s been warped. From a story perspective, I love that Krusty’s downfall is precipitated by the discovery of his secret, illegal Cayman Islands account, because they always struck me as unnecessary for people who had achieved a certain level of success. I always end up thinking of that line from Entrapment – “What can you do with five million dollars that you can’t do with four?” But of course, when your life is about consumption, quantity is quality.

Of course, it’s Bart who holds this whole thing together. There’s an extent to which this is Bart’s version of “‘Round Springfield”, where he has to deal with his pop culture hero being dead. It makes me think – one of the side effects of parents failing to nurture your particular talents and interests is you end up looking outwards for that kind of validation and education, and I’d say that’s another thing the show consistently captures very well. Unlike Lisa, Bart’s idolisation of his hero isn’t something thoughtfully considered or part of his conscious self-conception, but come to think of it, it is further evidence that he’ll end up going into drama later in life; I know we actually have seen Bart working on the show, but it’s easy to imagine him doing exactly what Krusty does. What are Bart’s pranks if not elaborate, spectacular stunts? What are Krusty’s stunts if not pranks that found a socially acceptable outlet? Bart trying to keep Krusty in the game is as much him trying to assure himself the game is even worth playing. Certainly, the fun of being an entertainer is something the show grasps; the ending feels genuinely sentimental as Krusty and the kids walk home, hand-in-hand, Krusty giving his signature laughter.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The couch prints out a picture of the family.

This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Jim Reardon, with Bob Kushell coming up with the idea. It was inspired by the tax problems of Willie Nelson and, in fact, by the conspiracy theories that Andy Kaufman had faked his death. Bob Newhart guest starred in the episode as himself, and his slow style of speaking meant many of his lines had to be cut.

The opening joke subverting the whole ‘stay in a haunted house’ cliche is brilliant. “What I wouldn’t give for something to interrupt this awkward moment” is another great example of what I like to call ‘offscreen story jokes’, where we catch just a glimpse of some big story that happens to be interrupted by the main action. 

The title is a reference to Barton Fink. Krusty’s airplane is “I’m-on-roller-gay”, which is a parody of the name of the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The “secret, illegal” account guy is a parody of Sydney Greenstreet as he appeared in Casablanca. Swartzwelder appears at Krusty’s funeral with a Kermit muppet on his hand.

Iconic Moments: 2. “I’m sorry, I can’t divulge any information about that customer’s secret, illegal account. Oh crap, I shouldn’t have said he was a customer. Oh crap! I shouldn’t have said it was a secret! Oh crap! I certainly shouldn’t have said that it was illegal! Oh, it’s too hot today.” | “Why, you could wake up dead tomorrow.” Both the line itself, and the image, which is often used to jokingly imply the writer is stupid.
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