[SPOILER ALERT: Do not read until you have watched Sunday night’s episode of The Simpsons, titled “Clown in the Dumps.”]
Say a prayer — Jewish, preferably—for Rabbi Hyman Krustofski, who passed away Sunday night on the season premiere of The Simpsons. The stern, principled father of Krusty the Clown (voiced by Jackie Mason, who won an Emmy in 1992 for the role), expired while telling his down-and-out son who was in the throes of a comedy career crisis, “If you want to know my honest opinion of you, you’ve always been… eh.” The poignant father-child story, which prompted Lisa to fret that Homer would be next to go, ended a yearlong mystery over which character would meet his/her demise. EW spoke with Simpsons executive producer Al Jean about the good rabbi’s demise, what this means for Krusty moving forward, the hype around the event, and yes, that eerie, unsettling, trippy couch gag by Don Hertzfeldt, who wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated short film Rejected.
EW: Why was Rabbi Krustofsky marked for death?
AL JEAN: I was just trying to think of a story and I thought, “It would be a good father-son story if the rabbi passed away and the last thing he said to his son was, “I think you’re eh.” That the last word that Krusty heard from his dad was “eh,” and that he had to try to reconcile himself with that, and try to find an answer for this lifetime relationship. I thought we did it in a way that I hope is touching but is real and is just the little ways that people make peace with their past…. Then [last fall, journalists] were asking me on a phone conference what shows we had coming up and instead of just saying that, I thought it would be a little sneaky to say that the character had won an Emmy and the next thing I knew it was a huge, worldwide story. So from that point on, we tried to tease it as best as possible but as you can see, there’s really about three clues you can give. It’s pretty obvious. What’s funny is at the [Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in July], we said, “Okay, we’ll make the title kind of easy and it should be really obvious,” so I said, “Clown in the Dumps.” And then there were people going, “(gasps) You’re killing Krusty???” And I was like, “What? In the dumps doesn’t mean you’re dead. It means you’re sad.” I thought it was so obvious. I would be nuts to kill Krusty. Everybody loves that character.
EW: What do you say to fans who might be disappointed that a bigger character didn’t die? Do you think the hype got away from you guys?
JEAN: No, for three reasons. For about six months, I’ve been saying this is overhyped. People said it’s an iconic character [who dies], but I never said it’s an iconic character. I never used those words.
EW: Right. You said “beloved.”
JEAN: He is beloved. Jackie Mason is wonderful. And he’s still with us. Secondly, we’re not the kind of show that does these really horrific things to its characters. Everybody loves these characters, and I would never kill Krusty. I thought I was never even implying that. But people misinterpreted “Clown in the Dumps,” and then once I was tied into this craziness, I said, “Okay, I guess we should go with it.” But the third thing is I think it just works as a sweet show, which is most important. It was something that would be a good exploration of the characters. I thought it’d be good to say, “This is what people think of heaven but it’s not exactly what you’re going to get—it’s more what you do on Earth that matters.”…. If you look back at the clues we gave, everything adds up, so I would find that satisfying. I wouldn’t feel like I was misled.
EW: Could Rabbi Krustofski still return in flashbacks or dream sequences?
JEAN: Sure. We told the actor that didn’t mean the end of his part in the show. He certainly could come back as a memory of Krusty.
EW: Are there plans for that?
JEAN: We haven’t recorded him yet, but it’s likely.
EW: How did Jackie take the news?
JEAN: Our casting director, Bonnie Pietila, deals with the guest cast, so she called him and said, “Well, we’re going to kill the character, but this doesn’t mean it’s the end of you being on the show.” He’s great, and actually he’s a real rabbi too. [Mason was ordained as a rabbi before quitting to become a comedian.] As a character, being a rabbi and exploring death is a good thing to do, and I think we dealt with different traditions of death… He was fine [with it.] He was happy to do it. He found out about it a week after it all broke. Julie Kavner [who voices Marge] came up to me because she didn’t know, and she said “Who’s going to die?” And I said, “It’s Krusty’s dad and the last thing he says is, ‘Krusty, you’re eh,’ and she says “That’s a good story!” She might have been afraid that we were killing Selma or something—she didn’t know.”
EW: Will we see a kinder, different Krusty in subsequent episodes?
JEAN: Actually, yes. That’s one of the few changes that we would make is that he would actually be a little bit more of a generous person. He is who he is because he thought his father had never given him the respect that he wanted and actually [his father] did, so I think Krusty will be a little more confident and a little more generous.
EW: The opening couch gag? That was so crazy. My mind melted.
JEAN: That was all Don. And it turns out that it looks a little bit like a reference to the FXX marathon, which I thought was cool. It’s definitely the most insane one we’ve ever done. And it’s got so many layers. I give him all the credit. What an amazing thing to start the show off with.
EW: Did you just say to him, “Go nuts and do whatever you want”?
JEAN: We had seen his work. He was recommended to us by our director Mike Anderson and he did that Oscar-nominated short Rejected. We knew this was the kind of thing he would do. He said he wanted to do the Simpsons in the deep, deep future, so we had an inkling, but it was even crazier than we thought, which I thought was great. That guy’s really brilliant. I hope this exposes a lot of people to his work.