“You were born to recap TV at a fourth-grade level!”
I mean, I prefer “reviewer,” but thanks.
But I kid The Simpsons, which spends half its running time in “Krusty The Clown” on a co-A-plot about Homer taking over Lisa’s TV recapping duties for the Springfield Elementary Daily Fourth Gradian. When Principal Skinner reveals that the Lisa-run school paper has lost an budget-crippling 30 bucks or so, he brings in a Billy Eichner-voiced grade school clickbait merchant to turn the venerable purveyor of Springfield school scandals into an online-only quiz and “You won’t believe what Milhouse looks like now” factory. Demoted to the lowliest job in the world, Lisa is assigned to watch every episode of a hacky, past-its-prime comedy TV show (The Krusty The Clown Show, in this case), recap the plot, and then conclude with “snarky comments and then a letter grade.”
Passing off the gig to Homer, Lisa finds that her dad is just the attention-deficient, cliché-happy couch potato for the job, and Homer becomes so renowned for his online reviews that he’s hired by Comic Book Guy and a young woman in a Firefly hoodie (or, “a regular dork and a girl one”) for their TV recap farm, CultureSmash.com. Oh, and Krusty gets so mad at Homer’s first review that he tries to kill him, a crime (involving vehicular assault and marathon strangling) that Krusty is eventually cleared of, since, as the jury explains, “That recapper gave Krusty’s show a bad grade.” Take that, me.
And yet I soldier on, pointing out that there are enough promising ideas in “Krusty The Clown” for a pair of potentially interesting standalone episodes, rather than the two half-realized ones we get here. The best of them is the story about what happens once Bart rescues the post-assault Krusty (ignoring his equally banged-up dad) and advises his TV hero to hide out in a passing circus. You know, since he’s a clown and all. Krusty’s wavering fortunes as Springfield’s biggest celebrity (give or take a Rainier Wolfcastle) have long been a slyly potent vehicle for the show’s satirical swipes at television, celebrity, excess, and the excesses of television celebrities. Here, there’s a compelling kernel of an idea about Krusty realizing he’s hated by the circus’ talented but dissolute professional clowns for his daily routine of lazy pants-dropping, cartoon-introducing, and tantrum-tossing.
Confronted by his failure to provide any single marketable entertainer’s skill in his first day under the big top (even his unicycle skills are garbage), the bereft Krusty’s embarrassment touches on the venerably reliable dramatic theme of a big star getting back in touch with his roots. And when he finally succeeds in winning over the crowd and his new, scuzzy peers (including new best clown pal Scuzzo), he’s crushed when Ding-A-Ling Brothers circus shuts down in a cloud of scandal. (Apparently someone actually watched the promotional video the circus sells.) “For the first time, I was a real clown,” laments the newly-rechristened Soggy the Clown, momentarily grounding Springfield’s most sold-out entertainer in a human story that’d be more affecting if it were given more time to develop. The same goes for Krusty’s sheepish response to Scuzzo’s stated hatred of TV clowns, where the disguised TV clown says of Krusty, “In my way, I’ve hated him all my life.” If there’s nothing sadder than a sad clown, there’s no more reliable redemption arc than an entertainer realizing that he’s forgotten why he became one in the first place, and there’s enough juice in the Krusty plot to wish that had been developed. (And not the steaming bucket of what’s termed “Hippo juice” that the clowns all use to steel themselves for the night’s capering.)
There are a few decent jokes stemming from Krusty’s time as Soggy. I loved the gag where Krusty’s initial revulsion toward the circus’ bearded lady stems not from her beard, but from the teen movie cliché gag that, at first, she’s got it tied in a ponytail. Krusty’s redemption in the ring comes from a crisply animated Rube Goldberg cavalcade of accidental feats that show how The Simpsons can pull off a big slapstick set piece better than any show on TV. And if you wondered how long it takes to hose down an elephant anus, then the downtrodden Krusty/Soggy’s got that covered. There’s a snatch of a musical number about Krusty’s reinvented love of clowning that stops just this side of show-stopping, too, although much of his time at the circus admittedly does traffic heavily in “circus folk are creepy, pathetic grifters” gags that undermine the whole redemption idea a bit.
And, hey, any time The Simpsons manages to integrate its A- and B-plots even cursorily together at this point is a win, so the fact that Homer’s carelessly dismissive reviews are what drives Krusty into a murderous, career-threatening rage gets points, too. Of course, I would say something dismissive like that at this point since, according to “Krusty The Clown” (in the words of Krusty the Clown), why should anyone care about the opinions of a “pathetic bottom-feeder” anyway?
Fair enough. The relationship between The Simpsons and its critics has long been a source of good-to-not-so-good-natured jokes from the show. And I can attest that the A.V. Club being parodied by The Simpsons was a big fucking deal around these parts. The Simpsons is The Simpsons after all, one of the most influential and, in its day, exemplary TV comedies of all time. Being parodied by The Simpsons is a point of pride for anyone in the industry, from the very top to the bottom-feeding bottom. So, fair game, Simpsons. Always a pleasure.
And if I flatter us (and myself) to think that the A.V. Club isn’t necessarily the sort of clickbait (or “swiperag,” in Eichner’s lingo) recapping site the show is going after here, the jokes occasionally have the authentic ring of industry familiarity, at least. The premise of the episode putting me on guard, I tried to remember how many times I’d used phrases like Homer’s unimaginative but authentic-sounding critical boilerplate in my reviews. (At least I can attest I’ve never complained about overuse of the comedic rule of threes, to my knowledge.) And the idea of Homer live-tweeting Krusty’s attempt to run him off the road (“It’ll be the first time he’s killed in years.”) certainly rings some bells concerning how spending your nights trying to process everything around you through the filter of dispassionate but entertaining evaluation can turn into an occupational hazard. To expound a bit, it’s genuinely a relief sometimes to watch a show no one’s paying you to write about—like Krusty, the grind can numb a guy into forgetting just why TV drew you to it in the first place.
Still, when Marge—pissed at Homer for reflexively murmuring offhand critical analysis of their “snuggling”—storms out of the couple’s bedroom, Homer lampshades the ongoing joke by assessing, “Marge created what feels like false jeopardy.” “Oh, it’s earned,” snaps Marge on her way out the door, once more aping the sort of reviewer language that, again, I’m scanning to recall how often I’ve used. The thing is, well, joking about a manufactured, rushed, unsatisfying conflict isn’t as good as coming up with a better-realized one. Like Krusty’s story, I’d have liked to see The Simpsons spend an additional half-episode deconstructing what Homer’s obsession with life as a professional evaluator of the thing he loves does to his appreciation of it. I mean, the show has already done that (substitute food for TV), but the idea of Homer the bottomless consumer confronting the nuances of consumption is, or should be, an equally bottomless well of sharper satire than “Krusty The Clown” has to offer.
The payoff of Homer’s story comes, instead from his discovery of a global TV conspiracy. (Courtesy of guest villain and voice acting all star Pete Serafinowicz.) Deciding to resign his post for the sake of his marriage, Homer confronts Serafinowicz’s Lex Luthor-like exec (of corporation Google-Disney), only to learn that he and his army of keyboard-tapping recapper drones are only pawns, their inevitable B-minuses strategically turning off viewers to such a degree that the ever-expanding networks and streaming services don’t even have to bother making most of the shows. Homer’s shocked “Peak TV is a lie!” at the revelation that there is actually no such thing as the perennial B-minus factory USA Network is funny enough, I suppose. But, for all the defensive TV critic ink spilled here, there’s a lot to satirize (and, dare I say, criticize) about the current TV reviewing (sigh, or “recapping”) model that doesn’t need a big wheeze of a manufactured conspiracy gag to work. The Simpsons used to be, can be, and occasionally still is a razor-sharp and hilarious critic of pop culture itself, and “Krusty The Clown” shows what happens when the show’s creators swing and miss. Maybe a little constructive criticism would help.
- My favorite joke, perhaps because it cuts with a double-sided satire the episode could use more of. Krusty, simultaneously strangling and car-bashing Homer: “Like my show!” Homer, being strangled and car-bashed, but maintaining his critical mien: “Why, is it season four again?”
- As fun as it would be to give “Krusty The Clown” a B-minus as a goof, it really is a B-minus episode.
- Chief Wiggum, explaining to the groggy Homer the lengths at which he’ll stop to solve the crime: “A motorcycle guy will whip you right in the face with his chain. They don’t care!”
- Bart, after the circus gets shut down: “What am I supposed to run away to, college?”
- Some of Homer’s critiques: “The Walking Dead—too much walking, not enough dead.” “Stranger Things—Spielberg’s back! C-plus.”
- The jury, outraged at Homer’s B-minus for Outlander: “That show knows what it wants to be, c’mon!”