This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons: Season 30 Episode 14
After 30 seasons, The Simpsons have a lot more to look back on than forward to. Episode 14, “The Clown Stays in the Picture,” takes another in a series of peaks into their past for a revelatory look to add to the series canon, whether we remember it or not. Krusty the Clown is a local hero. Well known on every TV set in Springfield except the Flanderses. Up until now, his only nationally recognized appearances was as the Adam West-era Batman villain Clownface. We knew that Bob Newhart was vaguely familiar with the name.
What we didn’t know is Krusty the Clown costarred in a hit comedy film called “Good Cop Dog Cop.” It spilled so much popcorn a sequel was a natural. All of Hollywood’s biggest names, Danny DeVito, Cher, Spielberg, Eddie respected the money he made. But his thwarted attempt at motion picture fame was thwarted by something Krusty keeps secret, the likes of which can only be admitted on a Mark Maron podcast.
It seems Krusty the Clown had the soul of an artist while he was making his early bones in film. “The Clown Stays in the Picture” looks past the comic performer’s penchant for bowing to the lowest common denominator or the stalest of jokes. (Did we ever find those kids’ noses?) We see what could have been. Krusty says he won’t make “Good Cop Dog Cop 2: Golden Revolver” unless he gets to act in something more serious. The science fiction novel “The Sands of Space” is so serious it has been deemed unfilmable. This is the book that drove Francis Ford Coppola to wine and made Stanley Kubrick a recluse. It seems to be the perfect vehicle for someone trying to prove they have something to prove.
The studio decides to go along with the idea, just to heel the dog cop into submission. They deem it a hippy dippy vanity project, hire a has-been to direct it, and a never-was to do everything else. It turns out Krusty takes the low-budget project very personally. So when the director starts turning it into schlock, Krusty blows his nose in the guy’s ascot, and fires him. The director quotes silent star Lillian Gish, telling Krusty to go crap in a hat, before he mysteriously drowns, and the clown announces he is going to make the picture himself. The way it should be, if only he can decide what that should be.
This is where we find young Marge and Homer. They were still dating and decided to spend time together working as assistants on the film. Marge was full of optimism and Homer was slightly less fat than he was going to be, and remains. They both had hair, and saw themselves as Burton and Taylor. Krusty sees himself as a fake who is going to fall on his ass, and not in that on-stage funny way.
Marge sees behind the bleached skin to the sad clown underneath. They say in Hollywood nobody knows anything, and Krusty knows a lot less than that, and Marge convinces him that’s just enough to finish the movie. Krusty promotes her to assistant to the director, and finds the assurance he needs to be reassured.
Romantic adventures don’t happen to assistant to the directors. Marge winds up spending most of her time on what was supposed to be an extended acquaintance date with Homer setting up shots and watching dailies with Krusty. Because he knows less than everyone else he needs more. And more and more he gets needier and needier until he has to summon an anesthesiologist so he can take a nap. Dr. Nick surprises Krusty with dream-filled narcotic sleep. The clown stays true to his comic roots, envisioning a variation on the Buster Keaton classic Steamboat Bill Jr. In the iconic scene, Homer gets crushed as the front of the house falls on him, while Marge safely fits through the window.
Krusty’s jealousy gets Marge’s then-boyfriend into every dangerous detail on a film shoot. In an early episode, Homer became one of an army of Krusty the Clowns when Krustylu Studios was hemorrhaging money and opened a school. The graduates went on to make all the crap appearances Krusty wouldn’t touch with a ten foot clown pole. Tonight he does that to Homer. Marge, the optimist, misinterprets Krusty’s concern for Homer with her patent good natured aplomb. She delights in telling her boyfriend that Krusty said it would shame if something happened to Homer and laughs and laughs. She is an enabler through and through.
When Homer falls into a crevasse, trying to capture a space lizard in a sandstorm, as-yet-unborn Bart and Lisa teach their future father a thing or two about love. They get it through his apparently hallucinating brain with the help of the cloudy desert sky. We see Krusty lose his signature green lock, leaving a more than balding man who resembles Homer quite a bit. Bart isn’t the only person on the show who turned Homer into a father figure, like the one he respects: Krusty. Marge also apparently can see the humanity behind the humor in equal measures for Krusty and Homer. The Simpsons toyed with the idea of revealing Homer to be the semi-beloved TV clown of Springfield early in its run.
Everyone in Springfield falls in love with Marge. Artie Ziff has made it his lifelong ambition to marry her. Montgomery Burns kidnapped Tom Jones for a private performance to impress her. Sure, she’s a national treasure and possibly the hottest blue haired lady in Springfield. She’s certainly more alluring than Luanne Van Housen, the town’s other azure topped woman. But as it seems it’s about to be overdone we learn Krusty isn’t looking for romantic love. He wants a therapist, counselor, rabbi and assistant who will never overshadow him.
The episode threads some irreverent needling of Hollywood production. Everyone on the crew powders up before shots. We also learn the Sea Captain Horatio Peter McCallister lost his leg on this movie set. Maybe someday we’ll learn why he needs two glass eyes.
As is her wont, Marge finds the good in everyone, even in Krusty, who admits it is only when he’s with her that he gets that way. He concludes this is why he never want to see her again. This is a spark of the classic Simpsons. This episode is less sentimental than recent stories and is a better for it. This has been easing uncomfortably close to cloying for a few years now. A lot of people lay this at the feet of Al Jean, but every now and then we get a selfish man doing a selfless act and are relieved he’s learned his lesson and will never do it again. The audience laughs when Krusty is trying to be serious and it’s the best lesson of all.
“The Clown Stays in the Picture” was directed by Timothy Bailey, and written by Matt Selman.
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, Professor John I.Q. Nerdelbaum Frink Jr., and Moe. Harry Shearer is Seymour Skinner, Kent Brockman, C. Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers. Guest stars: Marc Maron as himself.
The Simpsons‘ “The Clown Stays in the Picture” aired Sunday, February 17 at 8:00 p.m. on Fox.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.