“Krusty Gets Kancelled” (season four, episode 22; originally aired 05/13/1993)
How do you end one of the greatest, if not the greatest single season in television history? If you’re the writers and producers of The Simpsons and the season in question is the fourth, then the answer is easy: stars! Lots and lots of stars! More stars than there are in the heavens! At the end of its fourth season, the show decided to throw itself a party and invite more or less every famous person in existence, including every living U.S. president. Of course, there are limits to even The Simpsons' power so it only received one actual response, a politely worded “no” from Ronald Reagan.
But the show needed a reason to flood the screen with stars; it needed a cause to attract all these celebrities. It found one in reviving the eternally troubled career of its quintessential show-business phony, Krusty The Clown, a gentleman who embodies much of what’s cheesy and tasteless and awful yet strangely irresistible about the entertainment industry.
Yet the show’s dazzling star power sometimes comes at a cost. At its weakest, “Krusty Gets Kancelled” feels like a show tailored specifically for the massive egos of its guest stars. In that respect, it’s an unfortunate harbinger of the show’s celebrity and guest-star-fixated future. Johnny Carson, for example, initially turned down a chance to appear on the show because he didn’t like the way he was originally written as a freeloader. So the role was re-written to make Carson appear super-human: a dynamo capable of lifting a car over his head and singing opera—at the same time. It’s still a moderately amusing joke and Carson was a huge, huge get, a semi-recluse who doled out public appearances stingily following the end of his Tonight Show run but there’s still something a little disconcerting about the preeminent satire of the twentieth century allowing celebrities to help dictate how they’d be portrayed on the show. “Krusty Gets Kancelled” flatters its roster of guest stars. I suspect that’s a big part of the reason the show was able to book Carson, Hugh Hefner, Elizabeth Taylor, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bette Midler and to a much lesser extent, Luke Perry, who is revealed to be Krusty's half-brother, to appear on a single animated sitcom. Unfortunately, in its second half, “Krusty Gets Kancelled” becomes more about celebrities than satire; the story sometimes seems to serve the celebrity cameos rather than the other way around.
Ah, but that’s mere nitpicking on an episode that’s more than just solid: It’s often transcendent. The hilarity and ingenuity begin with the way Springfield is whipped into a frenzy of excitement over the imminent arrival of something or someone called “Gabbo” before anyone in Springfield has the fuzziest notion who or what Gabbo might be. Excitement, anticipation and confusion about this mysterious “Gabbo” goes viral in a decidedly pre-Internet way: people can’t stop talking about Gabbo and guessing who or what he might be. Homer, the sage that he is, guesses that this Gabbo mania might, in fact, be about “some guy named Gabbo.”
The sheep-like folks of Springfield don’t even have to know what or who Gabbo is to blindly follow him. Before Springfield gets its first glimpse of him, Homer says of this magical new mystery entity, “He’ll tell us what to do!” And isn’t that what the terrified people of Springfield are really after? A strong leader to liberate them from the terrible burden of free will?
Sure enough, Gabbo is both greater and lesser than his deafening advance hype suggests. He’s greater in the sense that he’s an entertainment dynamo of a ventriloquist dummy who can dance and sing and quip and move about independently like some manner of demon-possessed hell-beast. Gabbo can do the impossible: At the end of his spectacular introduction to the people of Springfield a series of tiny jets soar over the stage as a magnificent, if unlikely, climax to his dazzling opening spiel. And he’s lesser in the extent that he’s ultimately just a dummy with the nasal, grating whine of Jerry Lewis—along with Lewis’ raging contempt for his audience.
Gabbo and his ventriloquist Arthur Crandall are depicted as the children’s entertainment of tomorrow but they’re unabashedly throwbacks in every conceivable sense. Gabbo himself is a vaudevillian ham while Arthur Crandall is a very proper gentleman out of the 1950s. Gabbo’s name, meanwhile, boasts an even earlier vintage: It comes from The Great Gabbo, a 1929 melodrama about a disturbed ventriloquist who becomes obsessed with his dummy.
So part of the sublime joke of “Krusty Gets Kancelled” lies in the notion that contemporary audiences would get whipped into a frothing frenzy over a pair of weird, vaguely European emissaries from entertainment’s distant past. Ah, but it isn’t just Gabbo’s mega-watt personality that has Springfield mesmerized: He also comes with an unmistakably Bart Simpson-like catch-phrase in “I’m a bad widdle boy!” that quickly wriggles its way into the vernacular. Mayor Quimby, ever the opportunist, harnesses the power of Gabbo when he tells an audience, “I admit I used the city treasury to fund the murder of my enemies but as Gabbo would say, ‘I’m a bad widdle boy.”
Krusty can’t compete. Who possibly could? We’re talking about Gabbo here—but Krusty is ballsy and desperate enough to try to battle the TV titan on his own terms by developing a own ventriloquist act that predictably goes awry when the dummy’s jaw falls off and Krusty tries to soothe his mortified audience by ensuring them that the dummy is a dead thing that can feel no pain. This, however, just horrifies his audience further.
Things are bad all over for Krusty. He can’t even show Itchy & Scratchy anymore, so he’s forced to show what he assures audiences are “Eastern Europe’s favorite cat and mouse team: Worker And Parasite, a duo whose class-conscious antics border on avant-garde, if not downright incomprehensible.
Gabbo and his infernal controller/master can’t keep themselves from kicking Krusty while he’s down and out. In a bit they stole from Steve Allen (by way of Krusty), they crank-call the desperate clown pretending to be a Japanese camera company offering $2 million dollars for a commercial. Krusty doesn’t exactly improve his tattered reputation by obliviously enthusing of the faux-offer, “Me rikey velly much!”
It ultimately falls upon Bart and Lisa to save their disgraced hero's career by assembling the aforementioned murderer’s row of super-celebrities for Krusty’s comeback special. The Krusty comeback special affords the show an opportunity to further spoof and pay homage to show-business past: The set mimics that of Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special, while, in one of my favorite gags in the episode, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are asked to change the raunchy lyrics on “Give It Away” to “What I’d like, is I’d like to hug and kiss you” in a winking homage to The Doors being asked to censor and alter its lyrics for a performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Jim Morrison famously defied The Ed Sullivan Show but the Red Hot Chili Peppers couldn’t be more delighted to revise its lyrics to make everyone happy.
This portion of the episode is surprisingly light on jokes, if heavy on star-power: Midler is called upon to repeat her famous performance on the final Tonight Show, while The Red Hot Chili Peppers and “Sideshow” Luke Perry do what they do best: play rock music and get shot out of a cannon, respectively.
“Krusty Gets Kancelled” peaks early but is still a worthy finale to a spectacular season. After all it accomplished in its fourth season, The Simpsons deserved a victory lap or two, so it can be forgiven for flattering some of the mega-stars it lured into its dazzling orbit.
- Well, folks, that brings the fourth season of The Simpsons to a close. I’ll take a brief break and return to write about its fifth season in November. Thanks for taking this journey with me. It’s been a goddamned pleasure, it really has.
- Luke Perry’s appearance really dates this episode, doesn’t it?
- “Oh Rex Morgan, M.D. You have the prescription for the daily blues”—Homer speaking profound truth
- I love that when it all falls apart, Krusty immediately goes to selling his hair and auditioning for porn films. He stays classy, that one.
- I don’t know about you, but I thought the fourth season of The Simpsons was quite good.