This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons: Season 29 Episode 14
Clowns used to be funny. They rode tiny unicycles, strangled balloons until they looked like cute dead animals, and wore obscenely baggie pants that were surprisingly comfortable. They were filled with low-brow wit, whimsy and usually wine. Kids loved them. Rodeo riders depended on them. Elephants pantsed them. Then Kramer on Seinfeld admitted was afraid of clowns and all hell broke loose. Pennywise from Stephen King’s It dragged the clown into the sewers, American Horror Story turned pancake makeup into a counter-revolution, and Bill Irwin put the last nails on the coffin. On The Simpsons season 29, episode 14, “Fears of a Clown,” Krusty and Bart take the funny back, with interest.
Just four episodes short of surpassing Gunsmoke in episodic longevity, Principal Skinner throws a heavy ball into a game of bombardment and lets loose a rumor that he will be retiring, effective Taco Tuesday. Springfield Elementary throws him a going away party, complete with a rap from Ralph Wiggum where he rhymes “Karate” with “Karate,” and then adds another “Karate” for artistic emphasis. The whole school turns out, even superintendent Chalmers, who says some genuinely nice things about the former Armin Tamzarian who was taken in by Mrs. Skinner as an abused son of her own. This alone should have set off warning flags to Bart.
Bart is a natural class clown and an insufferable prankster. He is a master of the art form, and quite clever when dissembling order into clownish chaos. Bart gets bested by rank amateurs in the art of the prank. Granted, he is outnumbered, and they did plan this for months, putting as much effort into the set up as Paul Newman and Robert Redford put into The Sting. Much, much more than the great Jackie Gleason put into The Sting II. Yet, Bart is honeyed in the same manner Carrie in Stephen King’s Carrie was bloodied, from a bucket up above. But Carrie didn’t have to face the added humiliation of bird seed. That is a line even master of horror King wouldn’t cross. But there you have it. This is the ghastly twist that cannot be unwrung. Bart unleashes the thigs they don’t show on pajamas.
For April Fool’s Day, The Simpsons unleashes the most psychologically scarring prank has yet pulled. Bart fooled the entire town to think a young kid fell down a well, toyed with Miss Krabappel’s affection, threw a cherry bomb down a toilet when Mrs. Skinner was on the bowl, and lines up Springfield Police’s entire inventory of megaphones to blow out all the windows in town. Bart’s latest escapade sets the whole town running and screaming at the very idea of buffoonery.
The practical joke has impractical consequences. It drives the town clown down in the rating, as advertisers scramble to escape the nightmares of squirting lapels, and rubber noses. Krusty finds himself, once again, rendered obsolete by the Simpson family. The only thing scarier than a clown in today’s toxic environment is a blue haired man with a bone through his head wearing nothing but a grass hoop skirt. The Krusty the Clown Show is cancelled, leaving one very sad clown.
Bart’s already made the rounds of juvenile detention, even Montessori prison, but because he is in privileged class in a suburban town, the local judiciary decides that boys will be boys. Marge points out spoons will be spoons and they’re not getting away with a thing. She sees her son on the same downward spiral of the aforementioned cherry bomb and thinks tough love is the only way to save her son from a life of nogoodness and feeding the snakes all the peanut brittle.
Part of being a parent mean doing things your kid will never talk to you again for, but even Lisa knows Bart couldn’t shut up for that long. Homer digs the pain in deeper by comfortingly reminding Marge that at the very least she’ll hear from Bart on his death bed, when he’s dying. He is enthusiastically callous, completely unselfconscious and optimistic. This is one of the many talents of Dan Castellaneta, brutal hope that can be mistaken for caring.
Marge and Homer try to make amends with the clown who’s life is in tatters, as he is watching reruns of The Real Ex-Wives of Krusty. They remind him that a lot of great funnymen were deliberately unfunny in dramas. But the jaundiced jester has gone deep into a nihilistic existential crisis. He knows he doesn’t exist unless someone is laughing at him. It’s a real problem. But not one he can mine for drama. He doesn’t have it in him to be a serious actor. He can’t learn the methodical sense-memory lessons of Stanislavsky because he has no genuine emotion. His acting depth is about the same as a foot bath.
Nonetheless he takes the part of the suicidal Willie Loman knockoff character in Springfield Theater’s production of The Salesman’s Bad Day. The Salesman will be a career-saving role for Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofsky. It is being directed by the only man who can make it work: Famed thespian-whisperer Llewellyn Sinclair shouted by the voice of recurring guest tonsilist Jon Lovitz. Sinclair digs deep into his bottle of valium to come up with just the right inspiration for Krusty to give a once-in-a-lifetime performance.
Bart grows during his 28 day sentence at Tomorrow’s New Horizon Rehab clinic. He grows into more of a pranking monster than he was at his prime. He tries to be good. He follows all the steps, apologizes for all past misdeeds, makes Reverend Lovejoy put on a collar only to muzzle back his unholier than thou mouth. But when Bart apologizes to Groundskeeper Willie, he falls headlong off the wagon. The long-suffering custodial engineer never knew his tools could be used for such rebellious rancor, and puts Bart back on the path to anti-righteousness.
During the magnificent Bart Simpson Apology Day, the boy decides to get revenge. But then, both because of the rigorous rehabilitation he’s gone through and the Simpsons chestnut that characters have a change of heart at the last minute, Bart repents, truly repents. His sense memory reminds him he doesn’t want to humiliate his mother, and that empathy leads him to warn an entire bleacher-full of pending sorry-seeker that the joke is once again on them. He is too late, of course, and here is where the redemption comes. Bart learns an important lesson. It is funny to drench a bunch of tight-ass, sanctimonious hypocrites.
And Krusty learns that all those voices he was afraid to listen to all these years, were right. He’s nothing but a clown, and if he has to drop his pants for a laugh, it’s better than eight seconds of silence. Krusty gives in to his basest urges and it works. He takes the adapted words of America’s greatest playwright and sprays seltzer all over them.
“Fears of a Clown” works as comedy better than horror, but it is still frightening that the only thing that saves the bad characters is further bad behavior. This is a subversively happy ending where nothing changes, as the natural order is ruled by disorder. Bart and Krusty overcome the need to better themselves. They embrace the very toxins they push on civilization and the world is a better place for it. The episode is not a retread of old premises and it feeds The Simpsons’ mission statement. Tis better to be funny than noble, and slings and arrows are hysterical.
“Fears of a Clown ” was written by Michael Price, and directed by Steven Dean Moore.
The Simpsons stars Dan Castellaneta as Homer and Abe Simpson, Julie Kavner as Marge Simpson, Nancy Cartwright as Bart Simpson, Yeardley Smith as Lisa Simpson. Hank Azaria plays Kirk Van Houten, Chief Wiggum and Moe. Harry Shearer is Seymour Skinner, Kent Brockman, C. Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers. Guest stars: Damian Kulash as himself, Jon Lovitz as Llewellyn Sinclair and Tim Nordwind as himself.
Chalkboard: This is the last episode. April fool.