Season 1: Episode 12. Original airdate: April 29, 1990.
Well, this is going faster than I imagined.
I’ve already been doing this for two weeks, and I’m nearing the homestretch of Season 1. Considering that tomorrow’s episode is notorious for its place in the episode order (but we’ll get to that when we get to it), “Krusty Gets Busted” and “The Crepes of Wrath” were originally intended to be the final two episodes of the season. As the production order finale, “Crepes” gave a big indication of what’s to come in the next season, but “Krusty Gets Busted” boils down the major themes and ideas of this season into a hilarious and thought-provoking episode.
The first season of The Simpsons was, by and large, about the socioeconomic class structures of post-Reagan America. I’d go as far to say it was obsessed with class in the early goings, with less than a quarter of these past 12 episodes having an obvious economic through-line. It’s easy to forget how big a turning point the late 1980s were for America. We weren’t quite out of the economic slump of the Carter administration, but the middle class was moving to the forefront of American life.
As I’ve said before, The Simpsons capitalized on the changing way of life for most Americans. Yes, the middle class was growing, but the rich-poor gap was also growing. When this show premiered at Christmas 1989, the vast majority of viewers were in the same economic position as the Simpson family. In the way the show has dealt with those issues so far, it’s almost a spot-on foreshadowing to the criticisms of the 1% that are being thrown around today.
It’s fitting, then, for the show to introduce two of its most famous recurring characters in this episode, each of whom represent the two Americas that were slowly coming into focus—Krusty the Clown and his sidekick, Sideshow Bob.
Krusty is the paradigm of 20th-century plebeian entertainment; he is crude, loud, and violent. Our introduction to his show is a dead-on parody of the children’s’ entertainment I can guarantee everyone has experienced. He’s a Mr. Rogers figure on acid, and his cartoon companions Itchy and Scratchy represent the worst of the abusive shorts of the 1940s and 50s. Krusty is pure joy, unadulterated glee, and a paragon of the cheap laugh. As Bart swoons, “Comedy, thy name is Krusty.” Rather than condemn this kind of shallow entertainment, The Simpsons is true to its time and place by having Bart and Lisa rabid fans of Krusty. When he asks them what they’ll do if he gets cancelled, they scream back: “We’ll kill ourselves!”
Sideshow Bob is opposite his partner in every conceivable way. A refined and scholarly man, Bob is forced into silence while on the air so as not to inundate the audience with his intellectual prowess. He’s one of those characters that you can’t differentiate from the voice behind them, as they’re so deeply connected. Kelsey Grammer absolutely owns Sideshow Bob, and it’s impossible to conceive anyone else giving this character a voice. It’s as if the writers watched some episodes of Cheers and knew they needed to see Fraiser gone beserk. It’s such a clever idea for a villain, but one that’s so obvious. For ages, villains have been the intellectuals in their stories. Sideshow Bob just takes that familiar type to an extreme.
He’s arguably the most tragic character in The Simpsons. In essence, Bob has the logical high ground in every one of his schemes. After years of toiling under Krusty, all he desires is to raise the bar in children’s entertainment. He wants children to be taught the fine arts and high culture, to be trained for the Ivy League and beyond. He expects more of the world, and merely wants to end Krusty’s dominance on the minds of Springfield’s kiddies. For a man with such altruistic motives, it’s a shame his methods of attaining them are so horrendously misguided.
Compared to his plots from later seasons, Sideshow Bob’s scheme in this episode is plain stupid. From the very beginning, there’s never a shadow of doubt that anyone but Bob set Krusty up. Hell, even Chief Wiggum could have figured this one out. The robbery itself isn’t the interesting aspect of this episode, though—it’s Bart’s absolute faith in Krusty that says a lot about his character. Even when Lisa and the other children move on to whatever else is presented to them (i,e: Sideshow Bob’s new show), Bart refuses to abandon his hero. Perhaps this is reflective of Bart’s inability to connect to an intellectual like Bob, but I like to think it’s his unyielding devotion to Krusty.
A lot of interesting moral choices come up in this episode as a result of that devotion. Another recurring theme throughout this season has been Homer’s need for Bart’s love, and that thread reaches its climax in “Krusty Gets Busted.” Homer was the only witness to the Kwik-E-Mart robbery, and he is forced to choose between convicting Krusty, letting his son down, or lying to retain Bart’s approval. There’s obvious pain in Homer when he sends Krusty to his imprisonment, and in that cruel twist, he was sending away an innocent man.
When Krusty is liberated by Bart and Lisa’s investigative savvy, it feels like not just a victory for the Simpson children, but for the show’s unifying theme. Even though Krusty’s brand of comedy may be a sugar-laced narcotic for the youth of Springfield, it’s what they want, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. As the kids remind Marge when she questions the appropriateness of the show, she’s not meant to understand the appeal. “Krusty Gets Busted” can be viewed as a very simple thesis to this entire season. There may be upsides to money and intellect, but life has some pure joys that no amount of intellectualism or financial superiority can replace, let alone take away.