3.6 Like Father, Like Clown
Bart and Lisa try to get Krusty the Clown and his father, Rabbi Hyman Krustofski, to reconcile after a 25-year estrangement.
The Simpsons brought in two rabbis as consultants for this episode, and it’s here that the series separates itself from the likes of Family Guy and South Park. The Simpsons brings in Jewish consultants when doing a storyline that concerns Judaism. They bring in Japanese actors for an episode that involves a Japanese restaurant (“One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”). I’m by noooo means saying The Simpsons is perfect or never not appropriative, but by comparison Family Guy and South Park’s cultural research amounts to a room full of white guys getting high and seeing who can do the most offensive accent.
One of the Jewish consultants was Harold M. Schulweis, a longtime author and spiritual leader who died of heart disease in 2014. Upon reading the script for “Like Father, Like Clown,” he said, “It was profound…I was impressed with the underlying moral seriousness.” He wasn’t even a fan of the show. Can you name a single religious-themed Family Guy episode that a spiritual leader would have praised in the same way?
If you want to illustrate just how much Family Guy and South Park can’t carry The Simpsons’ intellectual jock strap, play this episode back to back with When You Wish Upon a Weinstein and Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo.
(For what it’s worth, When You Wish Upon a Weinstein is 100% garbage, but I do think Mr. Hankey is redeemable insofar as you can fuck off if you don’t think a talking Christmas poo is funny.)
The smell test for good v. bad satire is whether a bigot could find comfort in the humour, and no anti-Semite could possibly find comfort in the The Simpsons’ pointed yet humane satire of religious excess.
Jackie Mason is fantastic as Hyman Krustofski. He plays a man whose spiritual devotion has warped his capacity to love his child unconditionally. It’s a tale as old as…well, spiritual devotion. My favourite Hyman moment is when he says to young Krusty, “If you were a jazz singer this I could forgive.” It’s one of many references to Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927), which this episode parodies. He has so many little lines that are just great, like “Seltzer is for drinking, not for spraying.” Mason won an Emmy for his performance in this episode.
It’s funny and delightful that Springfield now has a Lower East Side where Krusty grew up. A couple episodes ago Springfield was a town big enough for a sizeable mafia; in “Marge vs. The Monorail” it’s a much smaller town with a centralized population. The Everytown, U.S.A. that is Springfield is so malleable in size and scope, which is a dynamic you can only really pull off in animation.
Like with “One Fish, Two Fish, Blue Fish, Blowfish,” the sound design really makes this episode. Alf Clausen has been the sole music composer for The Simpsons since 1990. Chris Ledesma has edited music for every single episode of The Simpsons, from the glory years to the ‘hey maybe Downton Abbey is on’ years. Together they make the music fit the emotion, narrative, and theme of every episode, while also staying faithful to the Danny Elfman-composed main theme. Just like they evoke mob movie themes in “Bart the Murderer,” they evoke Jewish themes in “Like Father, Like Clown.”
A couple moments I love are the father/son themed Itchy & Scratchy bit (I love it when they make the Itchy & Scratchy bits fit the episode) and the radio show that takes the piss out of Atheists with the annoying caller who asks, “With all the suffering and injustice in the world, do you ever wonder if God really exists.” I consider myself a lower case ‘a’ atheist and think there are many good arguments for Atheism, and that this is not one of them. I mean come on, let’s suppose there is some intelligent designer we might choose to call God; I doubt she’d be too concerned about what’s going on in this particular speck of a 91 billion light year-wide (observable) universe.
My one criticism of this episode would be that the Moneypenny-esque character who serves as Krusty’s secretary doesn’t really hit. I can’t say for sure what the writers were going for here; perhaps by making Krusty oblivious to her unconditional love, they want us to see the extent of the damage done to Krusty by his estrangement from his father. It might have worked if they hadn’t tried to have their cake and eat it too, as they did with Princess Kashmir in “Homer’s Night Out.” Like with Kashmir, they put “Ms. Pennycandy” there to make some point but then flippantly toss that aside by making her a totally uninteresting caricature. It’s a very minor part of the episode so I would still rank “Like Father, Like Clown” very highly in Season Three. They also could have made more of the fact that Lisa does all the heavy lifting and Bart gets credit for the reconciliation. Like, have Lisa and Pennycandy share a moment? An eyeroll? I dunno, something?
I appreciate how the episode resolves itself through Bart and Lisa learning Jewish scripture and using it to convince Rabbi Krustofski to accept his son (yes, I know they get to him with a Sammy Davis Jr. quote, but bear with me). Rather than the simplistic, conservative option of convincing Krustofski that his religion is wrong (an approach that -hi!- never fails to be problematic in real life), the episode takes the more sophisticated route of convincing Krustofski that the values he is bringing to his religion are wrong.
I seem to be in the minority here, but I think family reconciliation is, in general, overrated. Abuse is abuse, neglect is neglect, and the relationship escalators we view as linear and sacrosanct should not have to include forgiveness if you’re not ready for it and the other party hasn’t demonstrated growth. So the fact that I’m still so high on this episode is a testament to how good it is. Krusty is long past anger, but the episode doesn’t treat him like he has to be; it instead focuses that energy on his father, who was in this case the aggressor.
This episode is part of why Krusty is in my top five favourite characters (along with Millhouse, Jasper, Lisa, and Kodos/Kang).
Best Moment: Bart in a steambath with a group of Jewish scholars debating the Torah.
Best Quote: “Let me just check my non-Christian rolodex.” -Reverend Lovejoy