Krusty's origin is one of the oldest debates here at the Original Krusty the Clown Homepage. If you've been here before, you know what I'm talking about... So, who did the writers model Krusty the Clown after? According to Nik, Matt Groening confessed to being mortally afraid of clowns ever since a clown like Krusty humiliated him as a kid. It would be easy, and therefore unrewarding, to make Krusty just the typical "evil clown" (and would grow old quickly). That's why there's so much more to our favorite clown than meets the eye. Groening revealed that Krusty was based on a local TV clown named Rusty Nails that he used to watch as a kid in Portland. But that seems to me just like a halfhearted attempt to end this debate. It's obvious the writers have decided to do something a little different with Krusty, something that we only uncover little by little every time Krusty graces us with his presence on the idiot box. Where Groening and the rest of the writers are going with this character, one can only speculate. So let's speculate.
Let's start with what we know. It's apparent from some episodes that Krusty has a little Johnny Carson in his blood. It seems as though in every flashback episode, Krusty is sitting at his desk (who knew he had a desk!) in Carson fashion, or putting an invisible golf ball or interviewing an attendant from the San Diego Zoo. Jeff Baum likes this explanation the best. Holding true to Carson's form, Krusty is also celebrated for his inability to subtly read cue cards.
One of the OKH fans, Jeff Grajkowski, wrote to us with his theory on the dilemma. Along the same line as Johnny Carson, Simpsons' bigwigs announced in the Edmonton Journal that Krusty was modeled after David Letterman. One can't help but see it little in his rambunctious laugh and toothy smirk. Tony Buchanan saw a conversation with one of the writers, who coincidentally had also worked as a scriptwriter for David Letterman. Krusty’s off-stage behavior was apparently based on Dave's own antics. From what we’ve heard of Dave's off-camera demeanor, it sounds plausible... But don't just take our word on this likeness! Be our guest and judge for yourself.
As a longtime fan of both Letterman and The Simpsons, Dave LeBoeuf recognizes yet another Letterman-Krusty connection. Many years back, a character named "Flunky the Clown" would regularly visit Letterman’s studio for extemporaneous appearances/interviews. Sitting in the interviewee's chair next to Dave, Flunky (in full Bozo-Krusty regalia and always smoking a cigarette) would recount in straight-faced, deadpan style his weekend exploits in a monotone, depressed-sounding, Steven Wright-ish voice (e.g., getting really drunk, getting a bad tattoo, etc.). Although not entirely certain, Dave believes Flunky began appearing before the Simpsons first aired.
If we take a step away from the Late Night biz, we might be surprised at what we find in the world of general entertainers. Nathan Dietz suggests what he believes to be irrefutable proof that Krusty was based on Rat-Packer Jerry Lewis. Right off the bat, Lewis was hooked on Percodan, like Krusty. In fact, Lewis claims not to recall the reunion with Dean Martin on an MDA Telethon because he was so spaced-out on Percodan (as printed in the USA Today). Whether it is Lewis with the MDA telethon or Krusty with the telethon to benefit motion sickness, both are rather theatrical about their “brave little kids" (from Krusty, "you should have seen the bus those kids rode in on!"). In addition, Lewis has had several heart operations, due at least in part to his heavy smoking habit. And there was, of course, Krusty's triple bypass. Martin and Lewis broke up their comedy duo because Lewis was a selfish flake. And there was Sideshow Mel's distaste for Krusty ("I don't know, Krusteh - you've always treated me rather shabbileh").
Are there other entertainers worth considering? David Hamer has a curious point concerning Krusty’s source. He wholeheartedly believes Krusty was based upon Al Jolson. Before you dismiss him as absurd, listen to his proof. Krusty was born in Lithuania (as was Al Jolson), his father was a Rabbi (again, like Jolson), his dad objected to his profession (Jolson's dad), and finally, he's severely ill mannered in his personal life (like Jolson was)! And the Simpsons’ writers are Jolson fans... Mr. Burns spent nearly a whole episode crooning "Brother Can You Spare A Dime"!
Krusty is a clown. As trivial as this might sound, Daniel Hailey has good reason to remind us of this. Daniel believes that Krusty is Bozo the Clown (WGN, Chicago). Bozo the Clown, complete with orange wraparound hair and rough crusty voice, consistently ran cartoons much like Krusty does with Itchy & Scratchy and the Happy Little Elves. Jim Shatz-Akin added that Bozo, whose real name was Larry Harmon, franchised the clown, and thereby allowed other TV stations around the country to have their own "authentic" Bozos as hosts of afternoon cartoon shows. These Bozos were also free to do appearances at places of business and birthday parties! If this doesn’t bring to mind Krusty’s Clown college, I can’t imagine what would. Jim knew the Boston-based Bozo as a kid and was stunned to learn that his big-shoed friend was the drear host of "Dialing for Dollars" when he wasn't sporting greasepaint.
The Bozo Show format was employed by scores of lookalikes across the country in the 50’s and 60’s. The local Bozo would play pranks a bit before introducing cartoons (including, in later years a series of lousily-animated Bozo shorts voiced by Harmon himself), and conduct contests among the youngsters in his live studio audience. As Bozo gained popularity, Bozo licensed products swept the nation. The Bozo franchise scheme allowed affiliates to plug local sponsors by giving away their products as prizes.
Jeq tells us that while Larry Harmon was the original Bozo the Clown, he never performed that role at Chicago's WGN. The original WGN Bozo was Bob Bell. The second, and current, WGN Bozo is Joey D'Aurio. Apparently, on the premiere day of "Bozo's Circus" in Chicago, Bozo did not appear, due to a licensing disagreement with Larry Harmon Enterprises. Wouldn’t it be an interesting twist if Krusty franchised himself out of his own show?
John Teeter remarks that anyone that has grown up in Portland (like he and Groening did) sees a great similarity between Krusty and Oregon children's host, Ramblin’ Rod. Ramblin’ Rod has had a children cartoon show in the Portland area for over twenty-five years and did commercials and other promotional gimmicks in the spirit of our beloved, Krusty. We have to take into account where Greening grew up to determine the real identity of Krusty...
Dan Nappo always thought Krusty was based on a recurring character in the National Lampoon of the late eighties. The feature was called "Evil Clown Comics" and the protagonist was a clown who's hair and face resembled Krusty, but whose career was less successful and infinitely more unethical. This clown used to smoke and drink like there was no tomorrow. There might have been a connection between the two comic characters because both the Lampoon and the Simpsons featured writers from Harvard. It wouldn’t be the first time the Simpsons incorporated elements of National Lampoon (see, the Itchy and Scratchy debate).
Krusty, of course, personifies the peculiar incongruity many people harbor towards clowns: to laugh or to be wary? Steven Spielberg, among others, tapped into this potential in "Poltergeist" (the famous scene where the clown-doll attacks the little boy). And there was Steven King’s “It”. The list of disconcerting clowns is almost boundless.
Durway suggests that Krusty might have been a rip-off of once famous
Barnum & Bailey Circus clown Lou Jacobs. Jacobs had the same chrome-dome
& wreath of bright hair, red ball nose, exaggerated lips and floppy
shoes. It's possible that since Jacobs was so well known so long ago, he
actually originated our perception of a stereotypical clown! Jacobs was
also Jewish, an important facet of Krusty’s persona. While Lindsey couldn't
cite any sources, a trip to the library would probably supply a multitude
of pertinent facts. Anyone want to do the legwork?
Firsthand, Personal Experiences
Perhaps if we can't figure out who Krusty was modeled after, maybe we can take a stab at where his name "Krusty" came from. Carl Cook suggested that perhaps the name came from a tv show he did in the mid 1970's while a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. It was a late night, campy, college cable-show called, "Crusty's Coop". The premise: Crusty was an old prospector that lived in a chicken coop!
Matt Groening was the editor of the school paper at the time and an avid fan of the show. Groening visited the set before writing a pretty funny article about the program. Years later, Carl ran across that old Cooper Point Journal article, and got to wondering...
If Groening did in fact remember the old
wacko on cable TV and borrow the name, what an honor that would be for
Carl! Remember, Krusty wanted Chester J. Lampwick to paint his chicken
coop (read here "Krusty's Coop") It wouldn't be so hard to believe
that he borrowed something from his college days after all, the Simpsons
live on Evergreen Terrace! If not, it's fun thinking that it could
be so. Hopefully, Matt will write in and confirm this theory. For more
on this story, see our exclusive.
Clarabell the Clown
John Stitt grew up in the Bronx in the 1950s. His parents worked at a bakery that sponsored the "The Howdy Doody Show". As sponsors, the bakery received bricks of free tickets to the show. Every Saturday, John went to the "The Howdy Doody Show" with his sisters. To give you an example of how many times he went, in the beginning of "Back to the Future, Part 3", Marty wakes up in 1955 to a clip of the Peanut Gallery on TV... no one was more suprised than John to see his 5 year old face on the screen!
That very episode featured a clown named Clarabell. The NBC studio was always lit up like daylight and the studio was an oven even in winter. That Saturday was the last John ever spent with Howdy Doody... That episode Clarabell invented a faulty popcorn machine. Popcorn pouring out (which from John's vantage point was two stagehands dumping popcorn trough a hole in the back of this plywood sheet), Buffalo Bob screamed for Clarabell to come back and turn the crazy machine off! But no one was screaming more than the Peanut Gallery... It was at that point John noticed Clarabell standing off to the side smoking a cigarette with his clown costume unzipped and pulled down to the waist. Remember, it was hot in the studio... Clarabell had a tattoo on his bicep which said "Mother". Five year old John decided to alert Clarabell to the problem and when he stepped down to get close to him, Clarabell lunged at him and hissed "Get back, kid!" If ever a clown has gone feral, Clarabell had.
John ran screaming for the exit. It took
two security guards, Buffalo Bob and both John's sisters to subdue him.
In the background was Clarabell, sneering evilly at John...
Let's get this whole debate settled for once and for all. If you have any information as to who this clown really is, email it to me.