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TODAY contributor

Explainer: 10 greatest moments on 'The Simpsons' couch

  • Image: "Simpsons"
    "The Simpsons" took on Ke$ha's "Tik Tok."

    In 1990, when most TV series openings had been reduced to a few seconds of a logo, "The Simpsons" fought the trend with a long opening featuring bits highlighting the family members, and a different beginning and ending every week (with some repeats now and then).

    Bart's blackboard gags got the most attention in the beginning, defining the show's first breakout character. But the sequence of the family crowding onto the living room couch in front of their TV ultimately eclipsed it.

    It's understandable why the couch gags didn't immediately get attention. They started out simply with variations of problems fitting everyone in or the couch breaking, but after 21 years of development and more than 270 different gags, the sequences have ranged from the surreal to the scientific, from homages and parodies to inside jokes only an obsessed fan would get, and from three seconds to more than a minute and a half in length. Some obviously stand out, while others deserve more attention.

  • The Banksy job

    The couch gags got special attention recently when the producers allowed an outsider to create one, and British graffiti artist Banksy is by definition an outsider. So what viewers got was a zoom-out from a static picture of the family on the couch to see a poorly lit cartoon sweatshop with rows of workers painting animation cels and a small boy taking the finished frames and dipping them in a vat of toxic stuff.

    In an environment of debris, rats and human skulls, the camera then pans to the merchandising department, where things get even grimmer — and sillier — with small, furry animals getting tossed into a woodchipper to provide stuffing for Bart dolls, and a sickly unicorn punching the center holes in video discs.

    Then zooming out again, it's revealed that this is all taking place in a dirty brown building shaped like the 20th Century Fox logo. Even compared to past "Simpsons" bits, rarely has the hand that feeds a TV show been bitten so well.

  • Big musical number

    Image: "Simpsons"

    The first time the family "performed" in a couch gag was early in season two, when they lined up to do the "Walk Like an Egyptian" dance, then bounded onto the couch with a "Ta daa!"

    But the first really elaborate performance came two years later as they started a high-kicking dance, to be joined by a Rockettes-style chorus line and unicyclists. As the living room was replaced by a massive stage, fire-eaters, dancing elephants and more joined the family.

    It must be noted that while the couch gags have included many references to other TV shows, the similarly staged "Family Guy" opening didn't debut until six years later.

  • Meet the Flintstones (and the Simpsons)

    Image: "Simpsons"

    At the beginning of season four, TV critics were comparing "The Simpsons" to the previous most successful prime-time cartoon, "The Flintstones." So it was only appropriate that Homer and family would find Fred, Wilma and Pebbles already seated on the Simpsons' couch. It was repeated four years later for the 167th episode, which broke "The Flintstones' " record of 166.

    The next year, the Simpsons found sitting on their couch ... themselves (this has become the most often repeated gag in syndication). Then, to start their 11th season, they met themselves as they were originally drawn in 1987 for short segments on "The Tracy Ullman Show" (not pretty), and screamed and ran off.

  • Turning Japanese

    In a futuristic city, the family assembles on a bus-stop bench as various Japanese cartoon characters. And if you can name them all, you may be an anime geek! Homer is Ultraman (on a smaller scale — the original was 40 feet tall), Bart is Astro Boy (or Mighty Atom for purists), Lisa is Sailor Moon, Maggie is Pikachu and Marge is Jun from "Gatchaman" (or Princess from "Battle of the Planets").

  • A Rocky (and Bullwinkle) path

    Matt Groening has frequently credited "Rocky and Bullwinkle" as an inspiration. He paid homage by giving Homer and Bart the middle initial J, as in Bullwinkle J. Moose, Rocket J. Squirrel and their creator, Jay Ward.

    So a "Bullwinkle"-themed couch gag was inevitable, but few expected anything based on the short bumper that was run at the end of each "Bullwinkle" cartoon. The original was one of the most surreal cartoon sequences of its time, with lightning and a crumbling world consuming the characters, but ending happily as they pop out of the ground in a field of daisies. "The Simpsons" version was a near-perfect copy, sure to freak out anyone not familiar with its source.

  • Claymated!

    There had previously been a couch gag where the family entered the living room as bouncing balls, then popped out into their usual shapes. But years later it was remade, not in the usual cell animation, but in 3-D claymation with an extra character on the couch: the first clay cartoon superstar, Gumby.

  • Li$a?

    Usually, the show breaks the format of its opening only for the annual Halloween "Treehouse of Horror" episode (and even those often include a couch gag). But earlier this year, the show started with a minivideo of Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" with various characters, starting with Lisa, lip-syncing the vocal to a Simpsonized depiction of the lyrics. But even this ended with the family going into the living room and getting on their couch, which was then hoisted into the air by some other characters. You might call it crowd surfing meets couch surfing.

  • Zoomed so far out it's in

    In an homage to the classic educational short "Powers of 10," the view zoomed out from the living room beyond the city of Springfield beyond the planet Earth beyond the Milky Way galaxy ... where it diverged from the strict science of the original to watch galaxies turn into atoms, molecules and skin cells at a spot on Homer's head, prompting him to say, "Wow."

  • The evolution of Homer

    Another science-based sequence (although most likely inspired by an award-winning beer commercial that covered the same area backward)  started with a yellow, single-celled organism that looked oddly familiar (and went "D'oh!" when it divided). It evolved into a jellyfish, then a fish (which evaded an octopus resembling Mr. Burns), then crawled up on land, developed into an early rodent (where it was menaced by dinosaurs resembling Bart and Lisa), then into an ape, then early man (where it crossed paths with Moe, who was de-evolving back down to a rodent).

    Then it moved forward through European and American history until it became modern-day Homer entering his house and sitting down on the couch while Marge asked, "What took you so long?"

  • When gags collide

    There have been other couch gags done as variations or remakes of earlier gags, but one, which took the show's opening full circle, worked equally well both ways. The first time, it was a surreal moment as Homer, Marge, Lisa and Maggie arrived not in their living room, but at the classroom from the beginning of the opening where Bart is writing on the chalkboard "I WILL NOT MESS WITH THE OPENING CREDITS."

    Ten years later, it's back to the living room, but with Bart writing on a portable blackboard "I WILL NOT BRING THE CHALKBOARD HOME"

    Craig Wittler is a media writer in central California.


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