“Homie The Clown” (season six, episode 15; originally aired 2/12/1995)
In which Homer looks like a fool—and it almost costs him dearly…
He couldn’t have known it at the time, but when Matt Groening created Krusty The Clown, he was giving himself and his future Simpsons collaborators a gift that would keep on giving. Like Itchy and Scratchy and the Harvard-educated eggheads who script their animated exploits (and look an awful lot like the Harvard-educated eggheads who write The Simpsons), the clown prince of Springfield provides endless opportunity to satirize the crass, wasteful ways of showbiz. No money-making scheme is too shameless for Krusty, no piece of merchandise too shoddily made or potentially toxic. Biographies of pop-culture giants like Charles Schulz and Jim Henson depict their subjects as staunch crusaders for their characters, signing off on every T-shirt, toothbrush, and plush toy. Groening has practiced similar vigilance—but through Krusty, he and The Simpsons staff have indulged the craven impulse to auction off their creativity to the highest bidder.
Krusty’s merchandise-mania reaches a new height of madness in “Homie The Clown,” an episode in which he’s not just giving the greenlight to Krusty Crowd Control Barriers and the Lady Krusty Mustache Removal System—he’s cranking out living, breathing copies of himself. One Krusty for every market, in fact (even that underserved “Brooklyn” region of Texas), an opportunity for The Simpsons to take advantage of another notion that was always floating around the writers’ room: The character designs for Krusty The Clown and Homer Simpson are practically identical. Legend has it that at one point in the show’s history, Krusty was to be revealed as Homer’s showbiz alter ego, a twist that would certainly lend some poignancy to Bart’s undying Krusty worship—but would also critically wound one of The Simpsons’ most beloved recurring characters. But hey: There’s no soreness about the switcheroo in “The Principal And The Pauper” 16 years after that episode first aired, right? RIGHT?
Of course, “Homie The Clown” was drafted by a Simpsons fixture who was spending less time in the writers’ room at the time: In another bit of series lore, season six is reportedly the point at which John Swartzwelder was granted a bypass from rewrite sessions, instead writing scripts at home and letting his colleagues alter them as they saw fit. This is one way to cultivate a mythological status that ultimately pulls a diner booth and false rumors of inspiring Ron Swanson into its orbit; another way is to write clever little jackknives of TV comedy like “Homie The Clown.”
For most of its running time, “Homie The Clown” bounds along like a trifle of a “Homer gets a new job” episode, pulling the character through a gauntlet of embarrassments as if he’s some kind of… well, you know, guy with makeup on his face whose antics and humiliation are intended to inspire laughter. But this is a Simpsons episode that rewards patience and close attention: Remember that Krusty is in deep to Fat Tony. Remember that the only course Homer flunked at Krusty’s Clown College involved “everyone’s favorite, the Spin Cycle Fantastique trick.” And make note of the fact that the more time Homer spends in the Krusty suit, the more intense his avarice becomes—and the easier it is to mistake him for his greasepainted boss.
It’s a good thing that a mistaken-identity thriller starring Homer and Krusty makes for such enthralling, airtight viewing. Aside from the most basic of traits—Krusty’s greed, Homer’s impulsiveness, The Legitimate Businessman’s Social Club’s desire to spray bullets in every direction—“Homie The Clown”’s priority list slots premise much, much higher than character. It’s the sort of thing that gives later-period Simpsons episodes trouble, a “why not?” approach to storytelling necessitated by longevity and archly acknowledged in the “We Didn’t Start The Fire” parody from season 13’s “Gump Roast.” (“Maybe Moe gets a cellphone / Has Bart ever owned a bear?”) The show was far from exhausting such character-based fodder at this point in its run, but there are points during the low ebb of Homer’s journey into professional Krusty impersonating where “Homie The Clown” leans hard on its setpieces and one-liners. They’re spectacular setpieces and one-liners (This whole review could just be a dissection of “My dad’s a pretty big wheel down at the cracker factory”), but it rings a little hollow until Chief Wiggum pulls over the green-haried goon he thinks is Krusty. Once the lust for free stuff gets a grip on Homer, the script sets him on a collision course with Krusty’s portion of the episode, giving The Simpsons further cause to prod at the pitfalls of fame—and setting up an inevitable climax that still manages to be one step ahead of the audience at every turn.
That’s where it pays to remember that tiny bicycle. Homer can’t complete the Spin Cycle Fantastique if his life depended on it—until his life actually depends on it. With both the fake Krusty and the real deal in mob custody, old Italian stereotype Don Vittorio Di Maggio (who Hank Azaria plays by rubbing sandpaper on his Luigi Risotto voice) pledges to spare the clowns if they both make the trip through the loop. The sequence that follows is a fantastic piece of slapstick from director David Silverman, one that synthesizes disparate reference points (visual gags shipped in from an old single-reel comedy, a brief interpolation of the love theme from The Godfather) into a grand finale that’s uniquely Simpsons. It’s a rapturous payoff to what’s come before it—when the mobsters applaud as if they’re kids in Krusty’s audience, it even reaches back to the very first frames of the episode. For a half-hour that’s partially about the noble underpinnings of the clown’s profession, it’s especially appropriate that “Homie The Clown” ends on a note of such sincere spectacle.
In spite of the thick layer of money insulating his heart and brain (“I thought the Generals were due!”), Krusty The Clown lives to entertain. That’s the concept at the core of every Krusty Brand product and every cat skin handed out by Krusty’s Clown College: Hershchel Krustofski so loves to make people laugh that he wants to extend that desire into every part of his audience’s lives. The drive takes him to some dark, dark places, but it’s ingrained in every move Groening, Swartzwelder, and the other classic-era Simpsons writers scripted for him. Though they criticized the decisions made by Krusty and the real-life sellouts who inspired him, they could also sympathize with the character. And if you don’t believe the show’s braintrust isn’t, in some small way, chasing showbiz omnipresence and immortality by pumping out product, get back to me after the show’s 25th season wraps up.
- This week in Simpsons signage: Krusty’s Clown College (Formerly Willie Nelson’s House). Clearly the Red Headed Stranger didn’t have a friend in Troy McClure.
- If we’re counting “the son of the guy who played Huggy Bear” as NFL running back Justin Fargas, then there are cameos from two pro football players in “Homie The Clown”—Lady Krusty spokesman Johnny Unitas being the other.
- In a ranking of self-deprecating Simpsons guest shots, Dick Cavett’s would have to end up pretty close to the top spot. He absolutely savages himself in “Homie The Clown”: “My time’s almost up here, so I’d just like to say: I know Woody Allen.”
- Homer’s churlish attitude reminds Cavett of Groucho Marx, but Homer would be a bad scene partner for Margaret Dumont: “Kill. Wealthy. Dowager.”
- Homer Simpsons, providing a brief clinic on the versatility of the English language: “Who am I clowning? I have no business being a clown. I’m leaving the clowning business to all the other clowns in the clowning business.”