In Too Deep: The Importance of The Simpsons’ Couch Gag.
Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
When did the most interesting part of The Simpsons become their couch gag? I’m serious, when did that become the work of art next to a pile of boring rubbish? But, more importantly, is it important to keep The Simpsons alive to keep these couch gags alive as well? Should we suffer the trite that is The Simpsons for the gems that are these couch gags? Well lets find out.
Now I suppose we need to examine the history of the couch gag for those who have clicked this link without understanding anything about what they’re reading. The couch gag is a short bit of animation that appears before every Simpsons episode (okay yes, there are exceptions, but on the whole this is true right across the board). It’s mostly about the Simpsons trying to sit on their couch. At the start they were simple, trivial things that most people wouldn’t think twice about. Their most popular one, the one featuring a whole circus, is the most used solely because it fills in the runtime of the episode. But as time went on and The Simpsons got worse (to the point where I find the older ‘newer’ episodes more bearable in contrast to how rubbish it is now) the couch gags seemingly got better. They got longer, more experimental. Now the downside is this is obvious: When your opening couch gag is pushing two minutes, you are literally spending a tenth of your episode on something that ultimately doesn’t matter. In fact, if we take the logic that in twenty-five seasons we’ve gone from couch gags being one percent of an episode to ten percent, it’s logical to presume that come season 250 in the year 2239 (which, at this rate, could very well be possible), the episodes will be nothing but couch gags. The couch gag will take up almost all the runtime, with the ‘episode’ being a few frames at most. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you, because it’s important that we look at these couch gags more closely. They really are the most important thing to be connected to The Simpsons right now.
Lets start with what was the inspiration for this blog: The couch gag from the first episode of Season 26. It was drawn by an Academy-Award nominated artist and was surreal as all Hell. Really quite confusing madness. But really, this isn’t the first time we’ve had a guest artist do a couch gag. So, as quickly as possible:
Banksy: He took a satirical look at the way The Simpsons is animated overseas. From my knowledge he’s the first guest artist they brought in to do a couch gag.
John K: The man known for making â€œRen & Stimpyâ€, his couch gag is… odd. It essentially breaks the rules of animation by having no consistency between key frames. An interesting experiment, since it’s essentially directionally aimed randomness, but still unusual to look at.
Bill Plympton: The man has done three, each as surreal as the last. It’s hard to describe his style beyond ‘hand-drawn’ (since, you know, all of The Simpsons is hand-drawn), but here it really does feel like it’s on paper. Interesting art style that’s telling its own story while it’s at it.
Robot Chicken: If you’ve seen Robot Chicken, you know what to expect from its stop-motion style. Likewise it’s referential and off-the-wall humour is present as well.
Guillermo de Toro: His tribute to every horror property ever made in one couch gag has made its rounds, and was my favourite Halloween of Horror segment. I won’t discuss it here, you can find it online.
Sylvain Chomet: Much like John K, his art style is very unique and entirely unlike The Simpsons. But, unlike John K, a lot of his culture is attached to it as well.
Michal Socha: A seemingly unknown artist (I couldn’t find him on Wikipedia at least), who again has quite an original art style going for him. Perhaps more than the others his is not one about the characters getting on the couch, but rather exploring concepts through animation.
Don Hertzfeldt: Yeah this is so surreal it would take a blog just to explain the concepts at play in this, something I honestly don’t have the energy to do. Lets just say it reflects the artists work quite well.
On top of all that, we also have some of the more original opening credits. From having the opening be recreated in Minecraft or Christmas-themed, or having over-elaborate stories attached to them, there are some great couch gags out there. But why do I bring all of this up?
Well, honestly, it’s the only reason I can see at this point for keeping the Simpsons going. Because the couch gags are little pieces of art in of themselves, even if the rest of the episode is pretty pointless at this point. The couch gags allow the animators to explore concepts and ideas outside the realm of the continuity found within the show. They don’t need to worry about it making sense, they’re free to do whatever they like. And it’s this freedom that leads to there being some truly fascinating works produced. Now some will complain, arguing that bringing in so many guest artists seems only to indicate that the creators really are out of ideas. I, however, disagree. By bringing in these new artists it allows them to show off their style of art to a much wider audience. People still watch The Simpsons and, by watching it, they can see these artist’s work. Even the ‘regular’ couch gags need someone’s inspiration and ideas to make work, meaning even the standard gets to be subverted. They get to do something new and interesting. If I’m honest, I’d be more than happy if, when the Simpsons does get cancelled, all the resources go into making weekly couch gag shorts. Don’t worry about continuity, don’t worry about what has and hasn’t been established, just experiment with animation to see what comes up. I can honestly say I look forward to the couch gags far more than the episodes nowadays but, well… As long as they keep them coming, I’m perfectly content with that.
So there you have it. A somewhat rambling looking at The Simpsons couch gag that doesn’t really address the issue. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.