Last night, the opening credit sequence “couch gag” for The Simpsons was a little different. The show turned the gag over to British graffiti artist Banksy, and under his direction, the upbeat Danny Elfman theme song cut, the music and colors became dour, and we were transported to an Asian animation sweatshop working on The Simpsons. The camera panned lower and lower through layers of Saruman orc-factory-like gloom and industrial production, now of Simpsons merchandise – tshirts, toys, and DVDs. The Asian workers toiled alongside skulls, presumably of their lost colleagues, and with an enslaved Panda and unicorn. Proving a way with words and wit, executive producer Al Jean commented on the show’s first guest couch gag, “This is what you get when you outsource.” See the clip below for the whole sequence:
This is an impressive use of a paratext (commenting on other paratexts, no less!).
The Simpsons’ opening sequence always offers fun variants in the blackboard and couch gags. Some of Bart’s blackboard lines have been provocative (such as “I did not see teacher applying for welfare”), but we mostly know what tone to expect. As with all opening sequences, it’s a familiar totem. Messing with opening sequences is thus always interesting, and here it’s especially effective. The tone changes, the color changes, and it’s prolonged – way beyond the length of most couch gags. It’s also made clear that this is from a different author (hence the Banksy tags all over the first part of the sequence), which makes it all the harder to work out who is talking here. Is FOX in on the criticism? Is Matt Groening? The whole Simpsons crew? While we might be familiar with guest directors on television shows, this is the first time I’ve heard of a guest director of an opening sequence. Once it’s over, no less, the show returned to business as usual. While the clip above doesn’t fully convey the effect of this, its cut from a dying unicorn back to the peppy Elfman theme song gives us a hint of it, since it’s transported us so far away from The Simpsons and The Simpsons opening sequence that we know that going back is awkward and feels wrong. What I like about this is that it makes the audience complicit – now that we’ve seen this criticism of the show’s production, we’re just going to go back to watching an episode about a little league baseball team? What does that say about us – not just about Rupert Murdoch, FOX, and The Simpsons – and about our role in facilitating all this?
The sequence therefore poses a dilemma and a problematic that must be solved or reconciled. It requires discussion. After all, the other part of this is that it leaves us wondering who signed off on this. Immediately afterwards, given the sequence’s attack on FOX, I started seeing many, many variants on Twitter and blogs of the following sentiment, “Wow, I’m amazed FOX let that on.” First, let’s dispel a myth – FOX can’t decide what goes on The Simpsons. James L. Brooks negotiated a “no notes” policy into the show’s contract, so FOX can either play something or cancel the show; they don’t get to nit-pick. But in pointing that out, I’m nit-picking. Since what’s important here is not whether FOX did know about and approve the sequence, it’s how this makes people think of FOX differently, especially when so many people likely believe FOX either approved it or didn’t know it was happening. So, once more, it requires some unpacking.
And finally, it leaves us with uncomfortable questions about Groening and co. How are they complicit, and are they simply making this a joke so that they and we can say, “Oh yes, that is bad, isn’t it? But we know about it, so it’s all okay. Let’s just get back to business as usual, shall we? Pass the Cheetos”? I was left with many conflicting responses here myself, on one hand thinking it was a brilliant statement, on the other hand feeling deeply uncomfortable that this is the show’s response to its labor practices – making an opening credit sequence rather than actually fucking doing something about them. Yet, the contestation of authorship in which the sequence engages leaves us wondering whether the American animators (who are largely responsible for the couch gags, by the way – these rarely involve the writers) can do anything about The Simpsons Factory. Those American animators, after all, aren’t a wonderfully privileged lot – they’re paid more than their Korean counterparts, for sure, but they’re still jobbing animators, who FOX makes pay huge sums for their own artwork if they want to give a cell to a kid or friend for a present, for instance, and who are hardly tearing around Burbank in their new $80,000 sports cars. As such, the sequence not only draws our attention to the deeply problematic labor practices that surround the show, but also to the contested and conflicted nature of production and authorship, reminding us that there are many different people involved, and inviting us to ask who precisely does what, and how much control anyone has.
Inevitably, the sequence’s critics dislike it because of their own answers to the above questions. But for me, the sequence works precisely because it doesn’t offer its own answers, instead posing a whole slew of questions. That may piss a lot of critics off, as satire often does when people want cute, simple answers, but this is Bart’s blackboard, not Beck’s.
… Yet I also feel obliged to tack on a concern with the racialization at play. It has yet to be confirmed that the Korean animation studio is a “sweatshop,” as depicted here – yes, its workers make less than Americans would for the same task, but the leap from this to “sweatshop” has always struck me as racialized (we don’t call production studios in Vancouver or Prague “sweat shops,” for instance), especially when some critics slip and think the show is animated in China or (as a reviewer of my Simpsons book insisted) in “South East Asia.” The sequence’s creation of an undifferentiated, silent and obedient, animal-torturing Asian here only exacerbates that racialization. The Simpsons is animated in South Korea (not the North, as the uniformed head of the studio here might suggest), dolphin-killing would seem to be Japanese, and pandas – along with much construction of toys – are Chinese. Yet they’re all in a big Asian factory (albeit also housing a unicorn, and hence clearly fantastical). Sadly, this aspect of the sequence doesn’t offer itself up for discussion, and much of what I’m seeing online skips over it entirely.