Krusty’s Judaism is reportedly something of a happy accident. The writers thought it would be funny to have Krusty collecting for a Jewish charity as a throwaway gag in an earlier episode and it just kind of stuck. In retrospect, Krusty had to be Jewish. A gentile Krusty would be inconceivable. For Krusty represents and embodies a potent archetype: the crass Jewish show-business vulgarian who gains the world by losing their soul.
Krusty is a proxy for every Jew who ever distanced himself from hardscrabble immigrant roots by shortening their name and ridding themselves of anything redolent of the old country. He’s every Catskills joke-slinger who recreated himself in an image he thought gentile America would find palatable. Krusty had to be Jewish and if Krusty has to be Jewish then he has to do a Jazz Singer episode. And if Krusty has to be Jewish and has to do a Jazz Singer episode then it follows that Jackie Mason, professional Jew has to play his rabbi father.
“Like Father, Like Clown” opens with Krusty in a funk. The adulation of the crowd leaves him cold. Krusty shuns an endlessly postponed thank you dinner with Bart for another lonely evening scrubbing his bathtub. Incidentally, I loved the left turn the gag of Krusty standing up Bart to clean his bathtub took; I expected the joke to be that Krusty has devolved into a Joan Crawford like obsessive-compulsive (that might be the one celebrity eccentricity Krusty doesn’t have) who spends his lonely evenings compulsively cleaning but nope, Krusty apparently doesn’t clean out of some insatiable compulsion; he’s just kind of a dick who would rather be doing something, anything, than doing something nice for a fan.
Bart’s capacity for being disappointed by Krusty is remarkable. Bart channels all of his idealism, faith, hope and optimism into the worst possible vessel: the delusional belief that despite all the evidence to the contrary, Krusty is a fundamentally a good person. Bart doesn’t believe in anything but Krusty. Krusty never stops letting Bart down.
Except perhaps for today. In “Like Father, Like Son” the usual dynamic is reversed. Usually, the relationship between Bart and Krusty is comically one-sided—Bart worships Krusty but Bart matters so little to Krusty that the clown barely remembers him. Once Bart discovers that Krusty is desperate to reconnect with a father whose rejection wounds him on a profound spiritual level, however, Krusty becomes vulnerable, even pathetically needy and begins to look at Bart and his family as an impossible ideal to aspire to.
Usually Bart and Milhouse would kill to bask in Krusty’s reflected glory. In “Like Father, Like Son” they have to kick him out of the Simpson home or he’ll never leave. Like most Borsht-Belt shtick-slingers, Krusty is prickly and hard on the outside but soft, tender and sweet on the inside. Shtick without sentimentality is like lox without bagels and “Like Father, Like Son” taps into a side of Krusty we seldom see: a lost little boy who never got over his father’s rejection and pines for what he sees as the domestic bliss of the Simpsons. As Lisa says with just the right note of sad, weary understanding, “A man who envies our family is a man who needs help.” Krusty is such a sap that a father and son-themed Itchy and Scratchy cartoon nearly reduces him to tears.
So Bart and Lisa get their Minister Farrakhan on trying to engineer a reconciliation between Krusty and his disapproving papa using language and arguments from scripture.
The show is irreverent enough however in its treatment of Judaism that the magic quote that brings generations together comes not from Rabbi Hillel but from a groovy cat named Sammy Davis Jr. An entertainer ends up engineering a reconciliation between show-business and faith, between the sacred and the secular. On the audio commentary, one of the writers concedes that the Jazz Singer seemed like a sturdy template for a bunch of obvious jokes about sad clowns. A lifer like Krusty would be the first to tell you, however, that there’s no shame in recycling an obvious joke, especially when the execution is this stellar.
—“Those kids were like ice out there”
—Do we ever see Krusty’s long-suffering assistant again?
—“I always suspected that nothing in life mattered. Now I know for sure. Get bent.”
—“Awww. We coulda seen a monkey!”
—“A Jewish entertainer? Get out of here!”
—“Poor Krusty. He’s like a black velvet painting brought to life”
—“Great is the car with power steering”
—“He tells stories that might never have happened but he never exaggerates!”
—“Milhouse. Know any knock, knock jokes?”
—“Didn’t Scratchy Jr. look happy playing with his dad until his head was cut off by the thresher?”
—“Let me get out my non-Christian rolodex