You might have thought that the seminal animated series The Simpsons ran out of good bits for its “couch gag” introduction by now. After all, the show is in its 22nd season — that’s 467 episodes — which is a long, long time to keep coming up with ideas.
And, for the most part, audiences seem to have accepted the opening sequences for what they’re worth: amusing asides. At least in recent memory, the couch gag has not exactly been poignant, meaningful or controversial.
Then, the Oct. 10 episode came along and changed all that.
This particular sequence begins as usual — Bart writing on a chalkboard and Homer being lax with nuclear products — but dramatically changes course right as the family sits down on its couch.
Lights flicker and the camera zooms out: It’s a sweatshop full of workers drawing individual animations cels of the characters. A young barefoot boy carries a drawing and rinses it in toxic waste. Underground, kittens are thrown in a woodchipper , their white fluff used to stuff Bart Simpson dolls. A panda, pulling a loaded cart, is whipped. A weary Asian man punches out the centers of DVDs on the horn of an emaciated unicorn. Somber orchestral music reminiscent of the Schindler’s List score plays in the background. And to top it all off, the gag ends with a shot of the 20th Century Fox logo surrounded with barbed wire.
It’s a sequence that conjures up several emotions and reactions. There are a plethora of facial expressions that might occur from watching it: possibly an incredulous eyebrow raise, perhaps squinting coupled with a slightly dropped jaw or maybe even an awkward chuckle.
After all, this isn’t the usual lighthearted fare we’ve come to expect from the show. How could this have passed muster? How did it get past the censors and hawk-like eyes of Fox management?
Welcome to today’s world of culture jamming.
Culture jamming is the delicate art of subverting mainstream aspects of pop culture, using the original medium as a weapon against itself. The tactic is delicate because — when done right — the result is subtle but disarmingly effective.
The concept of the Oct. 10 Simpsons opening came from the mind of Banksy, the intriguingly talented (and secretive) graffiti artist from Britain. His portfolio of incognito street art is a veritable treasure chest of culture jamming.
One notable example is a giant mural spelling out the words “One Nation Under CCTV,” another shows an olive branch-holding dove with a bulletproof vest and a target on its chest. When the producers of The Simpsons reached out to him for some contribution, he sent them storyboards for this bombshell of an opening. The idea begged the question: Could it be done?
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about for a little bit,” executive producer Al Jean said in an interview with The New York Times. But when questioned about the relevancy of the conditions portrayed in Banksy’s criticism, Jean was quick to deny it.
“I have to say, it’s very fanciful, far-fetched,” he said. “None of the things he depicts are true. That statement should be self-evident, but I will emphatically state it.”
Jean is right, of course. No pandas are whipped in the production of The Simpsons. Boxes are not taped using a dead dolphin’s tongue. There is no unicorn abuse.
Obviously, the images portrayed are fanciful. But is there some truth behind the façade of the ridiculous?
This is the question that culture jamming strives to conjure. The technique preys on the potentially ignorant, the naïve, those who “just don’t get it.” All the others are left with a glaring message that also happens to be glaringly out of place, heightening the impact.
Remember Stephen Colbert (of The Colbert Report fame) at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner? He waltzed in and calmly tore President George W. Bush, the Bush administration and the media apart, using his humor and persona as a front for the scathing criticism delivered (an excerpt: “The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where [Bush’s] stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday as he did Monday. No matter what happened Tuesday.”)
Turns out, Colbert was invited by the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association who, according to New York magazine, “hadn’t seen much of Colbert’s work.”
The often-elusive nature of culture jamming is what makes understanding the method and results so complicated. Yes, Jean and show creator Matt Groening wanted Banksy’s couch gag to happen. That makes sense, considering that the show has a history of satirizing its network.
But the sequence also makes the commercialization and growth of The Simpsons just look bad. Could it be that the true meaning of the sequence actually slipped past everyone involved but Banksy himself? Some comments by Jean are illuminating.
“Obviously, the animation to do this was pricey. I couldn’t have just snuck it by Fox. I’ll just say it’s a place where edgy comedy can really thrive, as long as it’s funny, which I think this was,” Jean said. “None of it’s personal.”
I’m not so sure I buy that. Here’s the million-dollar question: Is the sequence really funny, or does it just seem funny? Those are two completely different things, leading to two potentially completely different meanings.
Outsourced consumerism and worker abuse, fueled by the licensing abilities of major networks, is a current reality. And the opening certainly doesn’t seem to simply be a light jab at the network. So who’s actually laughing?
In the end, I can only think of one person: Banksy himself, who’s probably very pleased at the impossible mission he just pulled off.
Eddie Kim is a sophomore majoring in print journalism. His column, “Culture Clash,” runs Thursdays.