“Kamp Krusty” (season 4, episode 1; originally aired 09/24/1992)
There’s television that entertains and then there’s television so transcendent, so brilliant and so perfect that decades on the mere mention of a particular episode’s title or individual gags are enough to induce a warm wave of nostalgia and good vibes, a Pavlovian shiver of pure delight. In its prime, The Simpsons was the second kind of show, the kind that rewires an entire generation’s sense of humor and worldview, that creates memories that endure and resonate long after bullshit like graduations, birthdays, seminal romances, and parental deaths fade from memory.
That might seem a little hyperbolic but we’re talking about the fourth season of The Simpsons here. At its best, The Simpsons wasn’t just funny or smart or wildly entertaining: it was important. In the vast wasteland of network television at the time, a safe, homogenous realm without Adult Swim or South Park or any of The Simpsons’ myriad other descendants and acolytes, it was a beacon of anarchic wit, subversion and sophistication, a show that helped define multiple generations.
It was beautiful and it was glorious and it created a tsunami of goodwill and rapt appreciation that has carried it further than any animated show in the history of television. Time had done nothing to diminish the Herculean accomplishments of The Simpsons in its prime. If anything, time has only enhanced them.
Nearly two decades on, “Kamp Krusty,” the iconic first episode of The Simpsons’ fourth season, still feels bracingly dark and sharp and uncompromising. The episode begins with the ecstatic destruction of an elementary school at the hands of weapons-wielding juvenile delinquents and only gets darker and more subversive from there.
“Kamp Krusty” opens on every child’s favorite secular high holiday: the last day of school, that giddy milestone when the soul-crushing drudgery of schoolwork and responsibility gives way to the exhilarating freedom and promise of, in Otto’s eloquent turn of phrase, three months of SpaghettiOs and daytime television.
Bart is psyched until brutal reality descends upon him in the form of a report card riddled with “D-”s that fatally compromises his chances of going to Kamp Krusty for a glorious season of one-on-one time with his idol. In the first indication that what we’re watching is not quite what it seems, Mrs. Krabappel responds to Bart’s desperate pleas that he won’t be able to go to Kamp Krusty without pulling at least “C”s by impulsively changing his grades. “Well, it isn’t fair to the other children but, alright!” Krabbapel enthuses brightly.
This transgression signals a distinct shift from reality to fantasy, from the plausible to the preposterously awesome. In a somewhat uncharacteristic move, stuffy old Principal Skinner then takes to the PA system to announce, “I trust that you all remembered to bring in your implements of destruction! Now let’s trash this dump!”
Over the liberating strains of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” the students then turn into a heavily armed mass of pure destruction. Nelson pulls out a flamethrower and wreaks havoc while Bart favors a machine gun and Groundskeeper Willie drives a tractor through a wall. It’d be impossible to imagine a sequence like this occurring in a network sitcom today, what with traumatic memories of Columbine and Virginia Tech still fresh in responsible folks' memories.
Yet, in 1992, The Simpsons had the chutzpah and brass-iron balls to put deadly weapons in the arms of delinquent youngsters and have them completely obliterate their school. As the opening scene. Of its fucking season-opener. In moments like this, The Simpsons wasn’t just funny: it was dangerous. No wonder it gave authority figures and stuffy busybodies like Barbara Bush (who tellingly called it the dumbest thing she’d ever seen while simultaneously crowing about her love for the Mensa-friendly America’s Funniest Home Videos) fits.
The sequence is funny and transgressive and a hell of a motherfucking way to open a season (talk about throwing down the gauntlet) but it also fits the show thematically. For “Kamp Krusty” is ultimately all about the systematic breakdown of adult institutions at the hands of renegade children and what could be a bigger “fuck you” to the adult world than Bart with a machine gun destroying the prison that is his elementary school?
Back in the real world, Bart tries to convert his “D-“s to “A+”s, a ruse even Homer is able to see through, but Homer lets Bart go to Kamp Krusty anyway because he doesn’t want him hanging around all summer. Upon arriving at Kamp Krusty, Bart and Lisa learn a quick, brutal lesson in the conflict between fantasy and reality when they’re greeted not by their beloved Krusty in the flesh but rather by a poorly edited video of Krusty promising, “I’ll see you in a few weeks. Until then I’ve turned things over to my bestest buddy Mr. Black.”
Back at home, meanwhile, Homer and Marge thrive in their children’s absence. Freed from the tyranny of having to look after Bart and Lisa they evolve into their best possible selves: Homer loses weight and gains hair (nearly enough for a combover, he excitedly announces) and the couple experiences a de facto second honeymoon filled with non-stop fucking. When the kiddies are away, the adults will play.
At Kamp Krusty, Bart and Lisa are put in the care of Dolph, Jimbo, and Kearney, sadistic bullies who transform the children’s lives into a living hell of grueling death marches, making bootleg designer wallets for the Hong Kong market under sweatshop-like conditions, and other crucibles of the pint-sized damned.
When a weak and traumatized—yet resilient—Lisa tells Bart, “I feel like I’m going to die Bart,” Bart tries to cheer her up by telling her, “We’re all going to die.” When Lisa clarifies, “I meant soon,” Bart wearily concedes, “So did I.” In an exquisitely worded letter home, Lisa writes “Dear Mom and Dad. I no longer fear Hell because I’ve been to Kamp Krusty. Our nature hikes have become grim death marches. Our arts and crafts center is, in actuality, a Dickensian workhouse.”
The only thing that keeps Bart from giving into complete hopelessness and despair is his unshakeable belief that Krusty will eventually appear to save his adoring fans from their cruel fate. This, friends, is the unkindest cut of all. In the gleefully cynical world of The Simpsons, adults don’t just let you down: They let you suffer while they frolic at Wimbleton, eating strawberries, heckling John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl and get knighted by The Queen.
Kamp Krusty holds out the promise of quality hang time with its beloved and famous namesake but the best it can manage is slathering clown make-up on a clearly blotto Barney and presenting him to the assembled as a laryngitis-ridden Krusty. Barney can’t even be bothered to remember the name of the towering icon he’s supposed to be impersonating—he seems to think he’s playing a clown named “Crunchy”—let alone do a convincing impersonation.
Still, hope dies hard. The campers want to believe this is the real Krusty—Ralph hopefully concedes that this ersatz Krusty is “funny” but not “ha-ha funny”—until that becomes impossible and dissatisfaction turns into a full-on revolt with Bart as the revolution’s guiding force and figurehead.
“Kamp Krusty” then turns into a clever riff on Lord Of The Flies with a soupçon of Apocalypse Now thrown in for good measure. The fantasy of the opening sequence—overthrowing a corrupt adult institution through brute force—has become a glorious reality, for Bart and his peers at least. Even the kids at “Image enhancement” (i.e “Fat”) camp get into the act.
The only thing that can staunch this rebellion is an appearance by Krusty, who returns from England and promises to atone for his misdeeds by taking his campers to the happiest place on Earth: Tijuana, where the episode ends with a glorious illustration of a lost artform: the still photo montage (for a truly exceptional example of the breed, check out Superfly).
“Kamp Krusty” begins where it ends: with children doing things that children should never do, whether that’s destroying a school with a blowtorch or enjoying the sordid sights and sounds of Tijuana in the eminently questionable company of an authority figure whose idea of making good on a promise involves taking impressionable children to a world capital of vice and debauchery.
The season opener of The Simpsons’ fourth season has lost none of its freshness, wit or boldness over the years. It’s timeless in the best possible sense, 22 minutes of hilarious anarchy that more than stands the test of time. “Kamp Krusty” would seem to set the bar prohibitively high but a mere glance at the episodes to come—“A Streetcar Named Marge,” “Homer The Heretic,” and “Lisa The Beauty Queen” are the next three episodes—suggests otherwise. God bless you, The Simpsons. You were truly doing God’s work.
- “My chunky brothers! Gorge yourself on the trough of freedom!” Such a gorgeous joke.
- I love how quickly Barney switches sides and chants, “We want Crunchy! We want Crunchy!”
- “Someone put a torch to these permanent records!”—every delinquent child’s fantasy
- Kamp Krusty is built on an actual Indian burial ground! That’s probably the only part of Krusty’s spiel that isn’t a goddamned lie
- “For you fat kids my exclusive program of diet and ridicule will really get results!” Oh but things are grim over at Chief Starving Bear Weight Loss Center.
- I find it hard to believe Krusty’s autobiography was self-serving with many glaring omissions. Seems out of character.
- Goodness, there are way too many great lines and moments for me to rattle off here. Feel free to throw in your own.
- Welcome back, y’all. This should be fun. I promise not to fuck these up as badly as I have in the past.