Krusty the Clown is among the least explicitly Jewish Jewish television characters. One could consider oneself a more-than-casual fan of The Simpsons, someone who has seen a quarter or one half of its 505 (!!) episodes (or, to be realistic, let’s say one half of the first 200, e.g., the good ones), and be ignorant of Krusty’s background, which is only the focus of two episodes (again, out of 505!).
According to the Internet, Krusty is supposed to be based on Jerry Lewis, and indeed both make funny faces, are beloved by the French, and have substance addictions. But we are trying too hard if we don’t point to the resemblance most obviously suggested in the Season 3 episode in which Krusty, asked to say grace at the Simpsons’ Evergreen Terrace abode, proceeds to recite the motzi and, prompted by Lisa’s characteristic prying, reveals that his real name is Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofski. (“A Jewish entertainer?” wonders Homer. “Get out of here.”) He is Al Jolson, which is to say he is also Al Jolson’s character in The Jazz Singer: an entertainer who has betrayed his father—”my father was a rabbi,” sighs Krusty, “his father was a rabbi, his fathers’ father was a—well, you get the idea.” To a lesser extent, he is the comedian Jackie Mason, who also comes from a long line of rabbis, but who clearly does not feel so weighted by that burden that he couldn’t guest-star as the voice of Krusty’s father, Rabbi Hyman Krustofski.
There is betrayal: Rabbi Krustofski is shamed that the sandwich named after his son at Izzy’s Deli features “ham, sausage, and bacon with a smidge of mayo—on white bread” (maybe they should call that the Ted Danson). There is, of course, reconciliation at the end: Bart’s quotation (supplied by Lisa) from the Babylonian Talmud fails to move the rabbi, who easily ripostes with a different authority; but a melodramatic line about Jewish persecution from the autobiography of Sammy Davis, Jr., leaves the rabbi with no response. Mason won an Emmy for the part. In a post-Golden Age episode (Season 15), he returns, and Krusty gets bar mitzvahed.
But that’s about it. You most likely don’t remember Krusty saying the brucha (his word). You remember him betting against the Harlem Globetrotters (“I thought the Generals were due!“); taking a break to show an Itchy & Scratchy sketch; nearly killing Bart by merchandising shoddily made cereal that has o-shaped pieces of metal in it; hosting an unfortunately named Krusty Komedy Klassic at the Apollo Theatre; and, of course, having unleashed the sinister Sideshow Bob on the world.
Ultimately, we see Krusty as the Simpsons do: as an entertainer. In fact, Krusty is one of the earliest Simpsons characters, tracing his origins all the way back to Matt Groening’s shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show—and even there, in the The Simpsons‘s Mesozoic Era (they looked like this), he is not a stand-alone character, but somebody the Simpsons watch on television. From the beginning, he’s the TV actor within the TV show—the other prominent example being local news anchor Kent Brockman, born Kenny Brockelstein.
Because in the world of The Simpsons and in the Simpsons’ world, that’s who the Jews are. And so Krusty’s Jewishness ultimately says the most when it articulates what makes The Simpsons distinctive. You would probably have to go back to the mid-1960s and The Andy Griffith Show—and cede the rule-proving-exception of South Park, which owes a self-acknowledged, tremendous debt to The Simpsons—to find a quality and popular television series that isn’t either set in a major city or among a milieu from a major city: in either case, among people for whom Jews are neighbors, bosses, friends, or enemies—just other people. The Dick Van Dyke Show had Carl Reiner playing Sid Caesar. Mary Tyler Moore’s boss was Ed Asner. The doctors in M*A*S*H* are sophisticated city-folk transplanted to a warzone. Dallas was in Dallas, Cheers in Boston, The Cosby Show in Brooklyn. Oh, and then Seinfeld happened, and you can take things from there.
But there was and is The Simpsons. We don’t know what state Springfield is in, but we do know that it’s the sort of small American town that actually doesn’t typically have many Jews (Krusty grew up “on the Lower East Side of Springfield,” literally ghettoized). If they do have Jews, they are likely to be entertaining you on television. More than any other show, Jews can watch The Simpsons and watch them watching Krusty, and watch Krusty through their eyes, to feel like real Americans. Or, at least, the sort of Americans that would eat a ham sandwich with mayo—on white bread.
Previously on Network Jews:
Annie Edison from NBC’s cult favorite Community
Schmidt from FOX’s breakout hit New Girl
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at Tablet Magazine. He tweets here.