Saturday, 19 October 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Couch Guests (Of The Simpsons)

I'm assuming you watched the opening for that last 'Treehouse Of Terror' installment of The Simpsons, directed by Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth director, Guillermo Del Toro. Many of Del Toro's creations make cameos throughout, in addition to 30+ other heroes of horror and fantasy - many of which I didn't even recognize upon first viewing. It's a lot to take in over the course of a couple of minutes.

"I kept trying to add things," said Del Toro, "but I pared it down because I wanted very much to make it as consistent with the title sequence as possible."

The great thing about The Simpsons is that 25 seasons in, they can still reinvent themselves with the help of other filmmakers and creators - some of whom are genuine fans of the show. In recent years, they've been recruiting other talents to lend brief creative vision to the series, usually during the theme song's iconic "couch gag".

"We're really pretty easy with these guest couch gags," said The Simpsons executive producer, Al Jean. "We just approach people that we admire and say, 'It just has to have a couch', and 'make what you want'."

That creative licence has given the long-in-the-tooth TV series a consistent viral push of late. As of this morning, the Del Toro opening had over 20 million views on You Tube. Not bad for a show 25 seasons in.

Fortunately, Del Toro is one of those guys who reveres The Simpsons as much as the myriad of material he references in his opening.

"I remember how groundbreaking it was to see this incredibly acerbic riff on sitcom dynamics," he told USA Today. "To get to do a love letter to two things I love, which is fantasy and horror films and The Simpsons, is great. I enjoyed myself enormously."

Personally, what I appreciate most about these openings is that, unlike the show itself, they're love letters to art and animation. The Simpsons takes a lot of flack for being anti-animated, which the creators are well aware of. Since they ditched more of their hand-drawn techniques (which was more evident in the days that director David Silverman was overseeing things), seldom does the show sway now from its rigid, static, yellow, on-model environment. But in the 2 minutes they DO decide to sway - boy, do they make up for it!

Animator Bill Plympton has done 2 versions of The Simpsons couch gag - one as a love story, the other as film noir!

Simpsons creator, Matt Groening, is a personal friend of Bill Plympton. Both of them slugged it out as underground print cartoonists before they better solidified their careers in animation. According to an interview for Notes On The Road, Groening asked Plympton to do a sequence at the Annecy animation festival in France. He agreed and sent them some storyboards.

"I had two ideas and they bought both," Plympton said. "The first one was where Homer literally falls in love with the couch and they have a baby, which is pretty racy for network television, but I'm glad they did that. They had a lot of positive feedback on that one. In fact, more people saw that Simpsons couch gag than have seen all my work since I've been doing films!"

Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi did another insane, incredibly off-model take on the family in 2011.

For me this was a shocking union to behold, because John K. had previously denounced The Simpsons during the 1990's animation boom for being anti-animated. (ie. following a firmly established set of "rules" that he was dead set against)

To be fair, The Simpsons took a few pot-shots back. Remember in 'The Front' from Season 4, when The Ren And Stimpy Show is nominated for an animation award alongside Itchy & Scratchy, and the clip is just a blank, white screen with the words Clip Not Done Yet?

Anyway, if there ever was an actual feud, it doesn't seem to exist today, even though John K's intent seems to be to satirize the same thing he lambasted The Simpsons for over 20 years ago.

"This project was the most fun I've had in years", he said in an interview for Cartoon Brew. "It has really hammered home (to me) the importance of animation in animation. I think it's possible to bring animation back to this country and make the core of it fun again, not be a mere tertiary addition to some high concept or executive's "vision"."

He said his experiment was inspired by 1930's "rubber hose" animation and some of the simplistic design elements of 1950's advertising.

"In the early 1930's, there were no set bible of rules for how to animate. The medium was too young. Every animator figured out their own unique ways of moving things.

"And the cartoons were musical. All cartoons from the 1930's to the 1950's were timed to musical rhythms. This gave everything that was happening an underlying sense of fun. The tempo was the structure of the action."

Here's a different style of couch gag done by Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, who also animates Seth Green's Robot Chicken.

Instead of me blathering on about it, watch below how much time and effort goes into making one stoopid two-minute clip!

Elusive graphic artist Banksy also did a guest storyboard for a very anti-corporate, anti-Simpsons couch gag in 2010. Why? Because The Simpsons asked him to.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, producer Al Jean let it be known that the request wasn't a product of his political leanings.

"Honestly, there was no agenda except I thought it would be great to get this guy. The concept in my mind was, "What if this graffiti artist came in and tagged our main titles?" And we got what I think is the coolest, most technically proficient graffiti artist today. I'd never seen that - a graffiti artist actually graffiti'ing the opening credits of a television show. So when you're asking for that, you're not really telling him what to do. We're a show where people are used to seeing edgy things in regards to Itchy & Scratchy, or satirizations of society, so I thought it was in line with our past and part of what's made The Simpsons great."

Slamming the parent network and the show itself is nothing new for The Simpsons, but even this one was extreme by Fox standards. Producer Al Jean admitted that portions of the opening were cut "for taste".

"I wouldn't go into (details), but it was just a little sadder," he admitted. "I don't know if the unicorn made it in the original draft."

And of course, lest we forget the less famous couch gag guest contributors - the fans. 

I'm sure part of the inspiration behind The Simpsons' Couch Gag Contest is the complete and utter lack of inspiration in writing couch gags after 20+ seasons. But I prefer to think The Simpsons is still a show "for the people", which is why they let the adoring public get involved. 

At the end of Season 24, two different couch gags were aired, created by two different contest winners - one from the U.S., and the other from Canada. Both winners were given the opportunity to visit The Simpsons' studio in LA. 

American winner, Cheryl Brown's entry was rather abstract, entitled 'Dandelions'.

Canadian winner, Ray Savaya, conceived a far more obvious (but patriotic) entry.

I hope you enjoyed this enthralling look at people who create jokes about couches. I'm quite looking forward to seeing what other guest contributors The Simpsons can wrangle for the rest of this year and for the recently announced 26th (!) season! Maybe I'll sit down and see if I can come up with my own couch gag to send in next year. Because that's what today's post has inspired me to do - continue sitting down.

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