Monday, January 4, 2010

Issue #7: The Idiot Box Part I (Comedy Television)

The main focus of Spawn of Bozo is films. But the horror of evil clowns knows no bounds, and I think it appropriate that from time to time we take a look at those red-nosed demons that have occupied our television sets.

With the exception of a handful of children's shows (which we'll discuss in another post) there have been no television series devoted entirely to clowns. However, a number of well-known series have featured clowns in one or more episodes. Again keeping with the theme, we'll be looking at only episodes where the clowns are more or less creepy. You know, more than usual.

We'll also be sorting the episodes by genre. In future editions of SoB we'll take a look at clowns in Sci-Fi and Horror Television, clowns in Classic Television, and clowns in Children's Television. But right now we're going to look at clowns in Comedy Television.

Given that comedies are supposed to be, well, comedic you might not think we'd find a lot of creepy clowns in them. And you'd be right. In general when clowns make appearances in comedies they're there to add to the ha-ha factor. Usually they show up as part of the old fear of clowns shtick. That's fine, but it gets old after a while. So when you find something that's really well-done it's a tiny little miracle.

Let's take a gander at two of my favorite creepy/funny episodes.

Season 1 of The Simpsons began in December of 1989. Because only 13 episodes were ordered and that first season ended in May of 1990 it would be Season 2 before the show aired the first of what would become a Halloween tradition. "Treehouse of Horror I" debuted on October 25, 1990. The annual "ToH" episode has been a staple of the series ever since.

While every "Treehouse of Horror" episode is worth watching, it is "Treehouse of Horror III" that interests us. Airing on October 29, 1992 it was the fifth episode of Season 4.

The episode consists of a trilogy of scary stories told at the Simpsons' Halloween party, the first of which is titled "Clown Without Pity." It opens on Bart Simpson's birthday. Homer, in typical fashion, has completely forgotten about his son's special day. In a last-minute attempt at salvaging the occasion he rushes out to--where else--the House of Evil to look for a present.

The proprietor of the shop (an enigmatic Asian fellow meant to be an homage to shopkeeper Mr. Wing from 1984's Gremlins) suggests that Homer purchase a Krusty the Clown doll. Which he does.

The character of Krusty had appeared in a number of Simpsons
episodes prior to "Treehouse of Horror III," and was a well-established part of the show. Although decidedly creepy in an I-wouldn't-leave-him-alone-with-my-kid-in-a-tent kind of way, he wasn't exactly scary. He was more pathetic than anything else.

In "Treehouse of Horror III," however, he is decidedly insane. Well, the doll Krusty is. Homer brings him home to Bart, who is delighted with his gift. But as soon as Homer is left alone with the doll it shows its malevolent side. "I'm Krusty the Clown and I don't like you," he says when Homer pulls the string that activates him. A moment later he adds, "I'm Krusty the Clown and I'm going to kill

Homer tosses Krusty away, only to be confronted by the doll a moment later when it crawls over the side of the couch brandishing a butcher knife.

This scene--and in fact the entire episode--is based on the campy 1975 made-for-television movie Trilogy of Terror starring Karen Black as a woman tormented by a Zuni fetish doll that comes to life. If you haven't seen it you really need to, because your life will be forever changed. Nor will you ever look at your microwave the same way again. It's that good. Trust me. I saw it when I was 7 and have never forgotten it.

Okay, so the Krusty doll continues to try to kill Homer, attempting to harpoon him when he's taking a bath and chasing him through the house. He also takes up with Lisa Simpson's Malibu Stacy doll, which is creepy for a whole raft of reasons.

Homer, determined to rid himself of the evil clown, puts him in a sack of stinky socks and drops him into Springfield's Bottomless Pit. But of course Krusty escapes, only to increase his attacks on Homer. My personal favorite bit is when he tries to drown Homer in a dog bowl.

Marge, fearing for her husband's life, phones the maker of the Krusty doll and requests the assistance of a technician. The man arrives moments later and immediately diagnoses the problem: the switch on the back of the doll has been switched to EVIL instead of GOOD. Doh!

Now fixed, Krusty becomes Homer's slave, catering to his every whim. But he's still creepy. And he always will be. Because he's a clown doll.

Fast forward 12 years to March of 2004. The sit-com Frasier
has been on the air for 11 seasons. Its star, Kelsey Grammer, also provides the voice for the Simpsons character Sideshow Bob. First appearing in a speaking role in the episode "Krusty Gets Busted" in 1990, Sideshow Bob is the former sidekick to Krusty the Clown. Eventually he tries to frame Krusty for armed robbery and ends up in prison himself. They have a very complicated relationship.

Now comes the sixteenth episode of Frasier
's eleventh season. Titled "Boo!" it centers around Frasier trying to get back at his father, Martin, for startling him on several occasions and embarrassing him in front of others.

Frasier, as you probably know, is a psychiatrist. In this episode he is treating a patient with severe coulrophobia, the infamous fear of clowns so many of us suffer from.

Fun Fact: The word
coulrophobia is believed to originate from the Ancient Greek term kōlobathristēs, which translates roughly to "one who walks on stilts."

Frasier first tries to ease the woman into viewing clowns with less fear by introducing her to a Jack-in-the-box. This does not go well. And why would it? What's to love about a tiny clown flinging itself out of a box at you after you've listened to hideous music while waiting for the inevitable to happen? Nothing. That's what.

Still determined to help the woman, Frasier gets hold of a clown costume. His plan is to dress up in it and allow his patient to interact with a clown she trusts. You know, because the whole Jack-in-the-box thing was such a success and naturally a life-size clown is way less terrifying. Apparently this is something he learned at Harvard, where a lot of progressive ideas seem to originate.

Frasier then decides to kill two birds with one stone and use the costume to scare his father. Luring Martin to the front door of their apartment, he sneaks up behind him while holding a cleaver.

The results are spectacular and unfortunate. Martin is not only scared, he has a heart attack (just a small one, but still) and ends up in the hospital. Frasier, who at first is credited with saving his father's life, is then blamed for almost ending it when his role in the shenanigans is revealed.

Indignant over being blamed, Frasier attempts to storm off. Only when the doors of the elevator into which he plans to exit open they reveal his clown-phobic patient. Seeing him, she becomes hysterical.

I know it isn't exactly a creepy clown episode, but it's creepy enough. Frankly, Frasier dressed as a clown skeeves me out more than some of the flat-out scary clowns in the movies we've looked at in the past few weeks. Just look at his face in the photo on the right.

Would you want that turned in your direction?

I didn't think so.

Rating (out of 5):

"Treehouse of Horror"

5 Clowns


4.5 Clowns