The Simpsons Clowns Around with Stephen King in “Not It”
A very special Treehouse of Horror installment takes on Stephen King’s It, as The Simpsons season 34 calls “Not It.”
This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 34 Episode 5
Pennywise doesn’t do kids’ parties, so The Simpsons called on a local clown so desperate for laughs he’ll play any house. Krusto the Clown only gets bookings every 27 years. That’s just a slightly better average than Krusty the Clown, who was lucky to get cast by “Treehouse of Horror” for its tag team production of Stephen King’s It. “Not It,” the title claims, but there are no backsies.
“The Shinning” from season 6’s “Treehouse of Horror V,” an almost shot-for-shot parody of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, is a gold standard for “Treehouse of Horror” movie parodies. But it only had one setting, the hotel, and took up one segment. “Not It” benefits from the extended play, but is not up to the non-Treehouse full-episode parody episodes “Das Bus,” a spoof of Lord of the Flies, or last season’s two-parter, “A Serious Flanders,” which drew on Fargo. Neither of these, however, were exact replications.
“Not It” follows the beats of the original, right down to how scary It is. The opening scene with young Barney only has two real laugh lines, one by his mother, and then it’s chomp chomp chomp. But The Simpsons really bites down on Stephen King himself. Springfield is renamed Kingfield, “a great place to bury your kids,” and every store, restaurant, bar, and I believe a dry cleaner, pays him the horrific honor of being turned into New England clam chowder you can spit through your nose giggling at. It is truly a loving kiss of death.
Barney’s lone laugh line is actually an important foreshadowing of the events to follow, because the jokes are frightening, but few in the midst of the eerie atmosphere. The backgrounds are another story, visual gags run amok over King’s entire literary output. The highlight of the episode is the diversity of the clownish killings. From hanky-chains to drowning in seltzer spray, every fate perfectly matches the universal fear of clowns. Even the Kingfield Clown Archives’ motto is the imposing “E Pluribus Unicycle.” (“Burn that bike,” Krusty demanded in season 6’s “Homie the Clown,” after Homer parked his not baggy enough pants on one.) The sad clown laughing on the outside has his most fun with the innards.
The episode opens in the past, mirroring King’s novel, as does the rivaling gang of bullies, led by “super-intense-kid” Chalmers and the future generation of town educators; and the school outsiders – Moe “the scuzz,” sci-fi paperback fanboy Carl, Comic Book Nerd, and tomboy Marge, collectively known as the “Losers Club” – who just want to be left alone. Homer’s best friend Barney is only one of many missing children of Kingfield, where competition to disappear must be harsh.
Each of the “Loser’s Club” has seen an evil clown lurking somewhere, it besmirches Moe’s mother as a ventriloquist’s dummy and Comic Book Nerd’s memory will scare the daylight savings out of you, but Homer is the only one to call on it for help. This is probably one of the reasons Marge calls him a “thing.” The secret-admirer poem should have been a giveaway, because there really is only one chimp in town, and also because Comic Book Guy, at any age, is a horrible liar. It is a shame we don’t get to hear more of his unfiltered verbal takedowns. Even so, the internal struggles are well played, with one being particularly ill-timed. The young love at the center of King’s story has its heart ripped out when it provides an alternate future where Bart could be the smart kid. Maggie probably still won’t learn to talk.
“Not It” condenses all the individual revelations about Krusto’s origin into one creepy group hug. The ever-so-slight warp of Kent Brockman’s beloved voice announcing “The Yuk-Yuk Hour with Krusto” sets nerves on edge, where they teeter between titter and terror until the clown utters a truly scary punchline about his 27-year-interval feeding habits. It works very well on both levels, itchy and scratchy.
The scene captures a modicum of real peril because, as this is a “Treehouse of Horror” production, it doesn’t have to follow canon, and anyone can die. But the more frightening thing is how the trick to conquering the evil clown mirrors the real Krusty the Clown’s true nemesis: technical issues. On the way to the final first battle The Simpsons also encounter their own worst nightmare, besides football overtime: Fox Affiliates. The series loves to slap its broadcaster’s face now and then, and Moe’s unrelated facial lines about a new fetish are classic single-entendres.
The Li’l Stinker cherry bomb trick goes back to Daffy Duck in the Looney Tunes cartoons, where Bugs Bunny is upstaged in a joke that can only be told once. Chapter II’s take teaches there is nothing scarier than an unfunny clown. But evil laughter is better than none, so Homer gathers the old gang together to suffer the worst tragedy of their adult lives, canned laughter. Only by aiming straight at the heart of the media can The Simpsons take on Stephen King, because Krusto is only the beginning.
In the 27-year interim, Kingfield turned more Kinglike, with misspelled pet semetaries, and shops like Needless Crap Secondhand Store and Dr. Sleep’s Mattresses. Moe’s has become D’ohs, and Homer is the guy with the dirty rag pouring drinks. He did personalize it slightly, keeping pickled donuts rather than onions in the jar at the bar. Moe is a rockstar ventriloquist, Carl followed those science fiction tales into space, and Comic Book Guy and Marge never reveal their actual professions, but we can see a Gal Pal Hard Seltzer – “Drown yourself in fizz”- promotional ad behind her. The sign signifies how much each of the former losers have conquered their fears. “We ain’t exactly children no more,” Moe says. The adult anxieties make for a clever replacement until they get filibustered.
The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” episodes are always season highlights, and the extra added clowning is a welcome treat (the official Treehouse of Horror: XXXIII is set to premiere next week). Written by Cesar Mazariegos, and directed by Steven Dean Moore, “Not It” is quite scary, at times, and every frame carries both thrills and spills. The clown motif provides a panorama of ways to make the audience choke on laugher, even before a school bully’s intestines get twisted into balloon animals. The parody works best because of the details, and some of the lines are individually hysterical. Not all, but it’s not It, which gives its clown all the last laughs, even when modified for a Gen Z audience.