Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: What’s the deal with guys who don’t seem to possess any integrity? I mean, what’s up with that, am I right? Is it just that they’re so money-hungry, they’ve lost any sense of ethics or honor? Or have they somehow managed to adjust their own internal sense of morality to such a degree that they find themselves unashamed of things that would make the rest of us cringe in shame? Huh? Hello? Is this thing on? I know you’re out there!

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Despite the clownish exterior (really, just clown exterior), Krusty The Clown possesses arguably the most pathos of any Simpsons character not named Moe Szyslak. The few episodes centered around the man born Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofsky (a.k.a Rory B. Bellows) have mined his personal life to surprisingly dark effect, most notably and recently in the premiere of season 26. Krusty-centric episodes are not always terribly successful, but they are close-ups of a character whose painfully shallow personal life is mined for laughs that occasionally feel at odds with the depths of depression that’s been revealed in him. Thankfully, when it comes to installments focused on Springfield’s most famous possessor of a superfluous nipple, “The Last Temptation Of Krust” ranks among the best of the bunch. A smart, winning story about Krusty once more bottoming out artistically (though unlike last time, here he leaves his show somewhat by choice), it finds him becoming a George Carlin-like personality, speaking truth to power, only to bounce back to his old self by the end of the half hour.

The source of Krusty’s crisis and subsequent retreat from his shill-for-everything identity is a disastrous performance at a charity event to fight soil erosion. (Luckily, it counts toward his community service.) And Krusty’s awful jokes are a thing of beauty: Both terrible and offensive in equal measure, they manage to alienate everyone in the room except the Simpson kids—including episode guest stars Jay Leno, Steven Wright, Janeane Garofalo, Bruce Baum, and Bobcat Goldthwait. Although, to be fair, they’re more scornful than offended—TV dinner jokes are the “Carrot Top sucks” of stand-up comedy, apparently. Which is when he goes for the flapping dickey.

After the brutal performance and overhearing the other comedians making fun of him (the unseen Internet Comic gets in a particularly good zinger), Krusty starts to realize he’s lost touch with comedy. The dreadful review the following day drives this home, so he schedules a press conference to announce his retirement. This leads to one of the best and worst moments of the episode, and also just so happens to be the pivot on which the entire plot turns. Having his retirement announcement spontaneously morph into his triumphant comeback is a great beat, and makes for efficient narrative economy allowing the show to get to the good stuff involving Krusty the counter-cultural badass. The perfect exchange of his confused, “What the hell are you laughing at? I’m just telling the truth,” with the reporter responding, “And it’s funny!” is about as succinct an explanation as you’re going to find for the essence of good comedy. It’s an “emperor has no clothes” realization that nonetheless gets at an essential truth, thereby becoming autological—an example of the very thing it’s describing. These are the moments that, in its best episodes, The Simpsons can churn out in brilliant succession.

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Only, here it gets a little weird. Watching it again, Krusty’s Howard Beale-like outburst is not only strangely off, it’s downright sexist. He starts off with a diss on Leno for reading wacky headlines, which, sure, who can’t get behind that; but mocking contemporary stand-ups for crappy bits about airplane peanuts quickly spins into a tirade about female comedians, and how they’re too vulgar. “This is supposed to get you a husband?,” he exclaims, to wild applause. Frankly, it’s awkward. Earlier in the episode, the humor comes from how behind the times Krusty is; his racist caricature and outdated bits are funny because the world has moved on. In this moment, his ideas are just as creaky and retrograde, yet somehow this is the “truth” that everyone else is also thinking? If the implication was that the crowd (and, by extension, everyone in Springfield) somehow holds equally ridiculous views, it doesn’t land. And, given the audience outrage at his earlier act—not to mention his subsequent posture as someone who rails against the status quo—that implication wouldn’t make sense. Meaning, the very scene that drives the story into its third act comes across more than a little fraudulent.

Fortunately, that’s the show’s weakest moment, because outside of his cranky oration, it’s mostly all gravy. (Official Krusty-brand gravy, of course.) The episode is stuffed with scenes of crack comic timing, demonstrating that Donick Cary’s script knows exactly how to deploy these characters to maximum effect. After Bart tries to reassure Krusty, following his bombing, that Lisa and he “both agreed you killed,” Krusty’s “Really?,” followed by, “Lisa, huh?” is a masterstroke. Similarly, when the newly ponytailed Krusty ends his keeping-it-real set at Moe’s (re-christened the “Brew Ha Ha”) by burning money, the crowd follows suit, and as Homer demands more cash from Marge to set aflame, the brief exchange between her and Lisa is an episode highlight. Her trust in Lisa demonstrates once again the myriad ways the Simpson women are (barely) keeping this family afloat. (And Skinner’s defensive, “It’s my allowance, Mother, and I’ll burn it however I want”? Killer.)

The centerpiece of the episode is Krusty’s transformation into countercultural stand-up, and watching it now, it’s noteworthy just how toothless Krusty’s attempts at speaking truth to power really are. In addition to his press-conference railing against fellow comedians, his bit at Moe’s is just some invective against “Madison Avenue fat cats” using images of dead celebrities to hawk products. It’s spot-on in terms of the kind of thing Krusty would immediately latch on to as an easy target of commercialized culture, especially since this episode aired during the era when deceased stars were first starting to be regularly shoehorned into ads, Forrest Gump-style. Mostly, it provides the perfect counterpoint for the ad execs who seduce Krusty back into the world of celebrity spokesman. It gives Springfield’s biggest brand endorser a complete 180 degree spin—only to spin him right back to his old self minutes later.

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Ultimately, while the show sympathizes with the countercultural perspective, it’s too fond of Krusty’s shameless anything-for-money self to really condemn him. (Shows that live in licensing-fee houses are rarely the first to cast officially endorsed stones.) The ending, where Krusty confesses to Bart that his heart is less in comedy than in shilling for products, is a bit on-the-nose, but a nice thesis statement for who this character is, and what he’s best at doing, at least for the purposes of The Simpsons. It may highlight the difficulty of making such an ethically bankrupt character the soul of future episodes, but it also gives him a deep well of sadness to mine for both heart and humor. It’s well-trod territory at this point, but “The Last Temptation Of Krust” navigates it almost perfectly. Speaking of navigating perfectly, have I mentioned the Canyonero’s rugged four-by-four efficiency? And talk about roomy!

Stray observations

  • This week in Simpsons signage:

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  • Plus, let’s go ahead and assume that, had Gil Gunderson not been invented only a month prior, he would 100 percent have been the put-upon shoe salesman. That guy is totally Gil, he just doesn’t know it yet.
  • Despite all the material to work with in this episode, the commentary track on the DVD is sadly dominated by a chatty Jay Leno, running roughshod over everyone else. It’s almost like people who get into stand-up comedy are continually looking for validation or something!
  • Fun trivia: According to Yeardley Smith, post-bender Krusty is the first official appearance of bloodshot eyes on The Simpsons.
  • Bart: “Were you drinking gasoline?” Krusty: “Yes, I was drinking gasoline, Mother.”
  • Love the newspaper headline: “Dog Kills Cat, Self”
  • Best “what an unexpected predicament!” line of the week: “Whoops! Sorry, son—I didn’t know you, Jay Leno, and a monkey were bathing a clown!”
  • Marge spits out her wine at Garofalo’s mention of getting her period. Never change, Marge.
  • Thanks so much, folks! Don’t forget to tip your bartenders!

Next time: It’s important to always keep an eye out for anyone trying to commit insurance fraud. Luckily, Emily L. Stephens is on the case, which means “Dumbbell Indemnity” isn’t going to sneak anything past her watchful gaze.

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