“Bart The Fink” (season seven, episode 15; originally aired 2/11/1996)
In which Krusty can never be replaced…
Bart Simpson’s appeal partly stemmed from his puckish irreverence and snotty disregard for authority. He was a symbol for rebellion, a chaos-conjuring nihilist with spiky yellow hair. Especially in The Simpsons’ early years, his brattiness and attitude were played up, but Bart is both essentially good-hearted and fundamentally a child. Nowhere is Bart’s age (eternally 10 years old) more apparent than his enduring hero-worship of Krusty The Clown. “I’ve based my whole life on Krusty’s teachings,” Bart says during the first-season episode “Krusty Gets Busted.” He means it.
Bart loves Krusty with a fervent devotion specific to childhood. The clown portrayed by Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofski is up on a pedestal cushioned with a thick layer of innocent idolization, immune to the skepticism with which Bart regards most other adults. Bart loves Krusty despite his misdeeds, and his relationship with Krusty functions as a funhouse mirror for the relationships children have with their pop-culture heroes. Bart would never do anything to hurt Krusty because, to him, Krusty The Clown is magic, no matter how many times he breaks Bart’s heart.
Which is why the central dilemma of “Bart The Fink” is so devastating to Bart. He inadvertently gets Krusty arrested for tax evasion, which swiftly dismantles the clown’s life. After discovering Krusty’s illegal Cayman Islands bank account, the IRS garnishes Krusty’s wages, takes control of Krusty Burger, and auctions off his belongings, leaving the avaricious kidder destitute, at least by his standards. He continues to perform with a slashed budget, but his show is called “Herschel Krustofsky’s Clown-Related Entertainment Show” and it lacks room in the budget for throwin’ pies. Krusty changes into a grey sweatsuit that’s the most unambiguous sartorial signal for completely giving up ever featured on an animated show.
Krusty’s lost fortune exposes his fixation on status. “I was a big cheese. A huge cheese! And now I gotta ride the bus like a shnook. I gotta live in an apartment like an idiot. I gotta wait in line with nobodies to buy groceries from a failure!” he tells Bart outside his sold-off mansion. Krusty refuses to indulge Bart’s attempts to console him. He abandons the guise of the friendly clown; it’s no longer lucrative. Throwing off the clown suit in favor of those dingy sweats is one thing, but throwing off Bart’s worshipful gaze is another. Even seeing his hero stripped of his stature and indifferent to his fans, Bart continues to idolize Krusty.
Depressed by his lost fortune, Krusty kills himself by flying his soon-to-be-auctioned private plane into a mountain, careening his plane over a spattering of Springfield mainstays, including Principal Skinner as he stumbles upon his mother and Superintendent Chalmers coming home from a date.
Following Krusty’s death and funeral, where Bob Newhart is roped into delivering a eulogy, Bart is haunted by visions of the clown he loved. “Mom, I just saw Krusty!” he tells Marge. “Yes, dear. In your mind.” “No, on the street!” “On the street in your mind.”
Bart’s not going insane: When Krusty’s plane exploded, the clown didn’t die. Bart realizes all the times he thought he saw Krusty have something to do with the sea, so he and Lisa go down to the docks and ask The Sea Captain for help. (He’s on the phone a customer when they come in. “Call me back, Ishmael,” The Sea Captain says.) They discover that Krusty is indeed alive, and living as Rory B. Bellows, a metal salvager with a boat on slip eight.
Earlier in the episode Bart was apologetic, but once he discovers Krusty is alive and may shirk his clown duties, he has no problem needling his hero. Bart doesn’t hold the man in the same esteem as he holds the performance. Rory B. Bellows doesn’t have the same sway, though he is the same man, superfluous third nipple and all. Bart’s love for Krusty, just like the rest of Krusty’s audience, is conditional. The man must be the clown. It doesn’t take much wheedling from Bart and Lisa to convince Krusty that the respect he gains from being famous is what he really lives for. It’s interesting to see how savvy Bart and Lisa are about Krusty’s motivations, especially Bart. He knows how little Krusty regards him and he doesn’t care. He just wants him to get back on television.
The resolution is too pat, with Krusty’s issues with the IRS getting brushed off by a single line at the end of the show. Lisa should have way more of a problem with Krusty faking his own death not once but twice to evade the IRS. And if the solution to Krusty’s tax woes was so simple, why persist living off the grid and on the sea? Bart and Lisa’s insistence that Krusty return to the limelight is rendered unnecessary. There was no need for the show to undercut the narrative weight of the episode in order to return things to the status quo; after years of primetime cartoons divorcing themselves from continuity (see: South Park’s repeated execution of Kenny, or that time Brian the dog died and then resurrected a few episodes later on Family Guy) the ending seems tidy for the sake of being tidy. That’s a quibble, though, about an otherwise deftly paced, funny episode.
- The cold open, where the Simpsons are instructed to spend the night at a haunted house in order to receive an inheritance from their great aunt Hortense, finds humor subverting audience expectations. There are no ghosts, and everyone had a great night’s sleep. “Their tap water tasted better than ours!” Lisa says.
- There’s a Mad About You sign on the bus.
- “Tacos? Public broadcasting? I won’t have you kids throwing your money away like that!”
- At Krusty’s funeral, one of the attendees has Kermit The Frog on his arm. It’s not David Crosby. That attendee is the likeness of John Swartzwelder, the episode’s writer. Swartzwelder was the most prolific Simpsons writer and he is notoriously reclusive (Nathan Rabin called him the “J.D. Salinger of comedy writing” in an earlier Simpsons Classic review marking his first writing credit).
- Sideshow Luke Perry is also at the funeral, a callback to “Krusty Gets Kancelled.” In the fourth season finale, Perry is revealed as Krusty’s half-brother.
- The way Kent Brockman says “tax avoision” is a winking reference to William Shatner’s creative pronunciation of the word “sabotage” in Star Trek. Shatner argued with his director over the correction way to say the word (“You say sabotage. I say sabotaage.”) That’s what Brockman’s insistence on “avoision” comes from, although “avoision” was actually used as a term in anti-taxation literature in the 1970s.
- Jimbo’s real name is Corky.
- I wondered what the name of Krusty’s plane was referencing. Turns out I needed to brush up on my World War II history. “I’m On-A-Rolla Gay” is a play on the Enola Gay, the name of the B-29 plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Dark.