#41: Like Father, Like Clown

Season 3: Episode 6. Original airdate: October 24, 1991.

It’s hard to believe how much everyone loves Krusty. Actually, it’s not hard at all to understand Springfield’s deep affinity for him and his show, but real-world viewers often see the true Krusty, who makes it awfully hard to care about him. He’s usually kind of a dick, doing everything possible to avoid dealing with his fans, even those like Bart who saved him from prison back in “Krusty Gets Busted.” However, I don’t think my experience with recent episodes of the show have affected my view of any character as much as Krusty, because his story is much more nuanced and ultimately tragic than I would have expected. After seeing this episode, I finally do understand the unabashed love for Krusty, and thank goodness for it.

Of course Krusty is Jewish. It’s such an natural extension of his character that I half-assumed he was of Hebrew descent all along. I applaud the show for wanting to do an elaborate homage to The Jazz Singer, because it’s so in line for what we’ve come to know about Krusty. He’s a tortured showbiz personality, having abandoned his integrity, morals, and family for his career. His misanthropy even extends to his associates, like Miss Pennycandy, who operates  as a Smithers of sorts to Krusty’s ignorant Mr. Burns. He’s a deeply cynical, flawed man, which is what makes his breakdown at the Simpsons’ dinner table even more resonant.

Upon revealing his Jewish heritage, Krusty tells the story of his troubled relationship with his father, a rabbi from a long line of rabbis who denounced his son’s comedic tendencies. Krusty’s ambition couldn’t be bridled, though, and his father’s embarrassment creates a 45-year rift between them. The attention to detail in Krusty’s past is wonderful, particularly his original name, Herschel Krustofski, which illustrates even more his sacrifices to make it in show business, something that works as an emotional beat and a great joke. That synergy of heart and comedy is what’s making these early seasons so special, as I’ve said before.

An interesting reversal occurs after Krusty’s meltdown. Before spilling his guts to them, he couldn’t care less about the Simpsons or their love for him. He just showed up to their house out of necessity, and his mind was clearly still on Schnapps night at the Friars Club. Once he confides in them, he becomes a major nuisance to the family, attaching himself to them as a sort of emotional support. His honesty with himself opens up an entirely new dimension to his character, and it manages to make Bart and Lisa even more dedicated in their fandom.

They set out to help Krusty, much like they did in Season 1, and track down Rabbi Krustofski. The rabbi is voiced by Jackie Mason, and I can’t possibly think of a better fit for this character. Mason is the consummate Jewish entertainer, and it’s a nice play on type to see him portraying such a hard-line spiritual man. He nails the specific cadence and vocal tone of his character, and gives some incredible line readings such as his frustrated ramblings while on the phone with no one (“What’s this, I hear the phone ring, then suddenly there’s nothing. I’m listening and there’s no talking!”). He is nothing if not devoted to his beliefs, and Lisa and Bart find themselves stymied when he refuses to listen.

Their only option is to beat him at his own game, using scripture against him to prove he needs to reunite with his son. The show hired actual scholars in Jewish history and doctrine for this episode, and their research pays off. These scenes could have been used as a satire of religion, but instead functions as a respectful discussion of belief and compassion within a faith. Of course, for every verse Bart and Lisa throw at Rabbi Krustofski, he has another to refute them. They have to resort to a hail mary to convince him, and they find a quote that moves him:

“The Jews are a strange bunch of people.  I mean I’ve heard of persecution but what they went through is ridiculous.  But the great thing is after thousand of years of waiting and holding on and fighting, they finally made it.”

Rabbi Krustofski is baffled by the quote, as he doesn’t recognize it. Bart tells him it came from none other than Sammy Davis, Jr. The rabbi is floored, seeing a new connection to his son’s chosen path in life, and finally understands that Krusty didn’t do anything to betray his heritage. What follows is a touching reunion at Krusty’s studio, with father and son speaking to each other for the first time in 45 years. It manages some wonderful poignancy without becoming saccharine, as this is still Krusty we’re talking about.

Even after being reunited with his father, Krusty will still be somewhat of a jerk—but that’s okay. As one of the great modern showbiz tales, fictional or otherwise, Krusty’s story only helps us empathize with him even more. The more we learn about him, the more we can understand his plight and sacrifice. His story is a heavy one for an animated sitcom, but the beauty of The Simpsons is its ability to keep us laughing as it enters such fascinating, potentially dark territory.

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