Last night, the 27th season of The Simpsons came to a close. But, before it did, the top of the show featured a clever rendition of the show’s recurring opening sequence couch gag. This one created by the award-winning Polish animator Michel Socha, who uses black and white stick-figure-like animation to playfully pay tribute to IKEA’s iconic ready-to-assemble furniture.
Inviting guest animators to craft a novel (and often highly stylized) couch gag is something The Simpsons has been doing more and more in recent years. Notable “guests” have included Banksy, Guillermo del Toro and Bill Plympton. In addition to attracting big name talent, this practice has also infused the title sequence with a flair of artistic splendor.
So today, to celebrate some of this incredible animation work, we wanted to highlight ten of our favorite Simpsons couch gags from over the years…
1. “Clown in the Dumps” (Guest Animator: Don Hertzfeldt)
In this Simpsons Couch Gag, idiosyncratic animator and filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt conjures up an amazing potpourri of sci-fi circumstances featuring American’s favorite four-fingered family. Almost as interesting as the animation itself, is hearing the artist talk about his process.
“When I did the Simpsons piece,” Hertzfeldt explained in an interview with the A.V. Club, “one of the steps in our original agreement was, okay, please deliver us a synopsis, please deliver us storyboards, please deliver us an animatic. I don’t storyboard, I’ve never made an animatic for anything. [Laughs.] And so I was just like, ‘Guys, can I just deliver the thing and if you don’t like it, I can go back and change things?’ Which is what I did. I feel like if I had to pitch projects, if I had to storyboard projects, they’d be very uninteresting. It’s not really until I’m in it that the sparks are actually happening to make an interesting image.”
2. “MoneyBart” (Guest Animator: Banksy)
The first thought I had watching Banksy’s Couch Gag was: wow, what an interestingly dark (yet fun) take on the commercialization.
The second thought: wait, how did The Simpsons even manage to track him down?!
Getting in touch with the notoriously reclusive graffiti artist was certainly a challenge, and it would seem a great deal of the credit should go to casting director Bonnie Pietila. According to a New York Times interview with The Simpsons executive producer Al Jean, it all began after he saw Exit Through The Gift Shop. “We should see if he would do a main title for the show,” Jean recalled. “So I asked Bonnie Pietila, our casting director, if she could locate him, because she had previously located people like Thomas Pynchon. And she did it through the producers of that film. We didn’t have any agenda. We said, ‘We’d like to see if you would do a couch gag.’ So he sent back boards for pretty much what you saw.”
3. “Bart Stops to Smell the Roosevelts” (Guest Animator: John Kricfalusi)
Best known for creating Nickelodeon’s Ren & Stimpy (on which he wore the hats of animator, director, producer, writer and voice actor), John Kricfalusi has proven to be a truly original voice in the world of animation for a couple of decades now. For proof of that, look no further than the Couch Gag himself.
Kricfalusi was the second artist The Simpsons commissioned to guest animate. But only the man who came before him (Banksy), Kricfalusi boldly chose to adapt the visual motifs to his own personal aesthetic (as opposed to carrying forward with the iconic Simpsons look and feel). This decision–and personal reclamation of character and tone–set a precedent than most of the ensuing guest animators would later follow.
So, one can’t help but wonder, how did The Simpsons producers react to Kricfalusi’s off-brand ideas? Extremely well, it would seem. “I had lunch with Al [Jean] and Matt [Groening] a couple times,” Kricfalusi explained in an interview with Cartoon Brew. “Matt told me to break all the Simpsons rules. The whole bit is only 35 seconds long so it’s not like we could write a big story. We thought we should just do a quick scene that distills and caricatures the essence of the Simpsons. I only got one note: ‘Do we need so many reaction poses of Bart?’ Tom Klein, who produced Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse cartoons with me eons ago, is the producer of The Simpsons and he was very helpful and supportive on the project too.
4. “Treehouse of Horror XXIV” (Guest Animator: Guillermo del Toro)
Guillermo del Toro’s opening sequence is an epic homage to the entire canon of horror films. As such, it contains dozens of references to flicks both old and new.
If (like me!) you found yourself unsure of several illusions, this handy guide from Screencrush lays out all the horror references in nitty-gritty detail.
5. “Diggs” (Guest Animator: Sylvain Chomet)
In 2014, French animator, illustrator and filmmaker Sylvain Chomet dazzled Simpsons fans with his enticingly bizarre take on The Simpsons. Like Kricfalusi, Chomet (best known for The Illusionist, The Old Lady and the Pigeons and The Triplets of Belleville Paris) left a dent on Springfield by bringing Fox’s beloved cartoon family into his unique visual vortex.
6. “What to Expect When Bart’s Expecting” (Guest Animator: Michel Socha)
Unlike last night’s Ikea-influenced couch gag (also created by Socha), the artist’s first foray into Springfield began with a very different aesthetic. In “What to Expect When Bart’s Expecting,” Socha used a mix of CG and 2D animation and an ominous red and black palette to create an opening much more in like with his 2008 short Chick.
For Socha, this opportunity to guest animate was a major career milestone. Not only because the prestige of those whose ranks he was joining, but because The Simpsons has been a longtime favorite show of his. “I started watching the series in the mid-nineties,” Socha recounted in an interview with Animation World Network, and have been a huge fan of the Simpsons up until now…What is cool about The Simpsons is that it never gets old and I always have smile on my face watching the series.”
7. “Married to the Blob” (Guest Animator: Bill Plympton)
Legendary animator Bill Plympton–famous for his meticulously crafted hand-drawn films–has created not one, not two, but a very impressive three opening sequence couch gags for The Simpsons. Each is beautifully crafted and worthy of several viewing, but we chose his work on “Married to the Blob” for the vibrant dream-like quality he manages to infuse through a series of backgrounds/landscapes that feel simultaneously eccentric, exciting and cozy.
8. “Mathlete’s Feat” (Guest Animators: Rick and Morty Team)
What are Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty doing in Springfield? Wreaking havoc left and right?! Apparently Simpsons creator Matt Groening is a big fan of the show (he did a commentary track for the Rick and Morty Blu-Ray). If nothing else, it’s great to see great animated storytelling respecting (and crossing over with!) great animated storytelling.
9. “Teenage Mutant Milk-Caused Hurdles” (Guest Animator: Steve Cutts)
Unlike many of those who have guested a Couch Gag on The Simpsons, Steve Cutts is unique in that he doesn’t come from a background in film or television (nor is he, you know, a famous graffiti artist). Instead, Steve Cutts made a name for himself online, where several of his shorts have become viral hits. You can see several of Cutts’ animated shorts on his YouTube Channel (in particular, we highly recommend checking out MAN and The Walk Home).
Like Michel Socha above, Cutts was also a longtime fan of the series. “I’d grown up watching The Simpsons every week,” he said in an interview with Cartoon Brew, “so to be part of that legacy was a bit of an honor to say the least.”
Initially, after being offered the opportunity, Cutts thought about attempting a much bleaker tone and palette than his final animation. “I toyed with the idea of doing something darker in tone,” he explained. “With more social commentary, or even a comment on the nature and longevity of the show in general, but I felt that both Banksy and [Don] Hertzfeldt had already covered this territory.” So instead, seeking to tread new terrain, Cutts opted for a more vibrant, turbo-charged aesthetic. One which moves briskly–with an action-series like gusto–and is filled with nods to fixtures of ’80s pop culture (like Miami Vice, He-Man and The Mask).
10. “The Fabulous Faker Boy” (Guest Animators: Robot Chicken Team)
No list of Simpsons Couch Gags would be complete without highlighting the amazing stop-motion animation work of the Robot Chicken Team. Between the murder of Ned Flanders, Homer turning into a donut and some suburban drift-racing, it’s just a beautiful blend of both look and tone between The Simpsons and Robot Chicken.
If you’re interested in animated video production, be sure to contact us at IdeaRocket for any of your animation needs.