Simpsonic Business as Usual?

October 11, 2010
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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.


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20 Responses to “ Simpsonic Business as Usual? ”

  1. Omar on October 11, 2010 at 12:31 PM

    Thank you for taking the time and space to expand on this intro (in something more substantial than 140 characters). Couldn’t the racialization at play be criticizing the overall ignorance often associated with American culture? The fact that The Simpsons is such a seminal piece of the American vernacular would offer Banksy an amazing platform to push forth these stereotypes. Then again, there is the question of whether the audience is able to digest this as a stereotype or rather if this just reinforces the stereotype. I could also be giving Banksy a much more generous reading than others, but I figure his previous works have warranted this generosity.

    • Jonathan Gray on October 11, 2010 at 1:22 PM

      Omar, I often find The Simpsons to be mocking the stereotypes that it uses, driving them to an extreme to make fun of their use, not to suggest their accuracy. But here it all happens so fast, and there’s so little visible attempt to counter that stereotype that I think it would be too kind of us to assume it, or at least to see it as part of the critique.

  2. Noel on October 11, 2010 at 12:38 PM

    I’ll dive in with a brief thought since I have to go back to work shortly after this.

    I’m less than crazy about the opening, for the reasons Jonathan outlines above in the “uncomfortable questions” paragraph and my answers to those questions (The show’s writers and producers aren’t targeted in the opening, only the evil 20th Century Fox, which I find really problematic). Though, I don’t feel I want “cute answers”, so much as I want the satire to hit other folks involved in this process, too.

    The sweatshop point is well taken, however, especially the bit about other animation centers not having the same popular conceptualization. Clerks: The Animated Series did something similar years ago, too, and is just as problematic (though far sillier). It, too, engages in some seriously odd and mixed racialization between Japan and Korea (though Japan is increasingly outsourcing its animation to Korea as well, so take for it what you will.).

    All that said, the unicorn was funny. I couldn’t help but laugh at the reveal, even though I knew where it was going once I saw the horn. Which made me feel all the more complicit…

  3. Sean Duncan on October 11, 2010 at 1:02 PM

    “Inevitably, the sequence’s critics dislike it because of their own answers to the above questions.”

    I’d argue that some of us who dislike this sequence dislike it not because of “our own answers,” but because of a lack of faith in the show’s creators to sustain any kind of dialogue about this. In other words, I have a heavy skepticism that discussion is really what they were after here, or that it will lead to anything other than some momentary head-scratching or self-satisified beard-stroking by liberal elites.

    This thing is a one-off with an insultingly weird pan-Asian sensibility (as you point out), one that uses Banksy’s fame to lend it some kind of legitimacy, and one that cops out at the end by laying all the blame on Fox (which, as you rightly point out, makes no sense). It just seems like a self-important gag that went wrong, not a form of interesting commentary.

    Also, IMHO, it’s another sign that The Simpsons should have been cancelled many, many years ago. It’s not that it’s offensive, it’s that this tripe is just not even remotely close to *funny*.

    • Jonathan Gray on October 11, 2010 at 1:16 PM

      But your lack of faith is therefore your belief in there being an answer, not a knowledge of a determinant answer. By saying that, I don’t mean to create a contrast between your belief and some magical truth elsewhere — my point simply is that the sequence requires speculation and unpacking, and is open. And I think that’s a success, if the speculation and unpacking are about such issues.

      Sure, it could go way farther in its critique. But there’s always a danger in evaluating satire that we come from the direction of what more could’ve been said, rather than from the direction of what less could’ve been said. Swift could’ve said/done way more in “Modest Proposal,” Dr. Strangelove is remarkably incomplete, and I often wish The Daily Show would broaden its attack to some other areas. But satire can’t do everything. The key is whether or not it’s masquerading as a complete attack, and this isn’t, I’d argue. Which is not to let it off the hook — rather, it’s to pose that satire’s success requires an audience, and that it works best when it gets that audience talking.

    • micah holmquist on October 11, 2010 at 5:41 PM

      I don’t think the show has ever been able to consistently bring up a topic if it did not involve one of the characters, so expecting more than this seems unreasonable.

      However, now that I think about it, there was the “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bangalore” that portrayed most SNPP being outsourced to India and the Indian exploiting western misconceptions about their lack of intelligence in order to improve their working lives.

  4. Jeffrey Sconce on October 11, 2010 at 1:07 PM

    Interesting also how both Banksy and “The Simpsons” gain something here, “The Simpsons” get cache for allowing Banksy to use their opening as a canvas and Banksy gets exposure for his anti-branding brand.

    And am I imagining things, or didn’t “The Simpsons” already do a cutaway gag to their labor force in Korea (or perhaps that was from the MacFarland empire).

    • Myles McNutt on October 11, 2010 at 1:21 PM

      Via Jaime Weinman, who was talking about it last evening, the cutaway you mention:

    • Andrew Seroff on October 11, 2010 at 4:37 PM

      It is absolutely win-win. The entire internet exploded with discussion, instant viral status. They both get HUGE publicity (not that Banksy really needs it) in the most valuable demographic. My money is on a massive and very much needed ratings bump for The Simpsons in the following weeks.

      • micah holmquist on October 11, 2010 at 5:35 PM

        I doubt this will lead to any increase in the ratings, as I just don’t see that happening with The Simpsons again. (I could be wrong.)

        I also suspect that this has raised Banksy’s profile. What’s his movie grossed? $3 million. The Simpsons is watched live by over twice that many people. And I don’t see how Banksy would not benefit from a higher profile.

        • Andrew Seroff on October 12, 2010 at 11:03 AM

          I said that Banksy didn’t need the publicity because anyone who is remotely familiar with the modern urban art and graffiti scene knows the works of Banksy intimately.

          I didn’t think of Banksy in the term of his film, because I honestly don’t believe he’ll tread into the realm of the popular arts again. If he should however, you’re right, the publicity was probably extremely helpful, since being the most famous, A-list graffiti artist is apparently worth…well, about $4 M worldwide.

      • Jonathan Gray on October 11, 2010 at 8:20 PM

        Over the years of studying The Simpsons, I’ve often predicted ratings bumps when something like this or like their Iraq War statement in “Treehouse of Horror XVII” comes along … and then they inevitably stay the same.

        That said, one of the reasons that bumps don’t tend to happen is because their ratings are still really solid. Last week, for instance, they pulled a 4.1 in the 18-49 demo, with an 11 share (last night’s ep dropped, but it was up against MLB and football, so everything dropped), better than Family Guy and only bested by football and Desperate Housewives in the evening. To put this in context, if it was a new show this, its 22nd season, it would be considered the obvious hit, since that’s a better demo rating than either Hawaii 5-0 or Mike and Molly. My own guess is that there are, at this point, so many people who have liked the show at one time or another, that only a small portion of them need to check in on it every once in a while to guarantee a strong rating.

  5. Elisabeth on October 11, 2010 at 1:22 PM

    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

    I might be missing something, but why are you assuming this is in any degree an accurate portrayal of the show’s labor practices? I took it as a humorous exaggeration of what a western audience might expect an Asian animation studio to be like, one no more realistic than anything else on the Simpsons.

    .. in other words, a joke. That’s how I took it: As a jarring, shocking joke, and one we certainly have to think about for many of the reasons you raise, but as a joke nonetheless.

    • Jonathan Gray on October 11, 2010 at 1:32 PM

      interesting take, Elisabeth, and this might help Omar’s point above about it making fun of stereotypes rather than peddling them.

      To clarify, though, I’m not saying it’s accurate — as my final par. suggests, I don’t think it is. And the unicorn kinda tipped me off, too 🙂 But certainly in the way that many people have responded to it on blogs and Twitter, etc., clearly many feel that it purports to be accurate inasmuch as it suggests brutal labor practices and exploitation. And I guess I’m less interested in what it is than in how people react to it … which of course makes your take on this an important interpretative possibility, but it doesn’t close down other possibilities.

  6. Josh S. on October 11, 2010 at 2:02 PM

    Jonathan, a few thoughts. You mention above that the Simpsons has a ‘no notes’ stipulation in their contract. Though this is the officially stated dynamic, could you say something further about show production and culture industry influence, and how the relationship affects content?

    Like Noel above, I found the opening sequence to be funny–that it may or may not elucidate something about inequities in commercial production and consequent audience passivity is a legitimate question; but that it aired on the Fox network no doubt is what has ‘scandalized’ the wave of bloggers who want to exude politically correctness.

    That the show outsources production wasn’t perceived as a problem for the past 18+ years, until the _show itself_ revealed the source of our proffered pleasures…this is a crucial point about receptive rhetoric. In the past the Simpsons = clever social critique; this opening seems to remind viewers that the Simpsons = Fox, Murdoch, and everything that goes into such a dynamic, regardless of ‘official’ contracts.

  7. […] Simpsonic Business as Usual? [Antenna] – Jonathan Gray’s excellent piece discussing the tensions evident in Bansky’s Simpsons’ opening sequence: “… 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.” […]

  8. Myles McNutt on October 12, 2010 at 3:41 PM

    Note that, although FOX initially submitted a copyright claim against Bansky’s copy of the video on YouTube, they have since dropped that claim – just another interesting part of this saga.

    As for my own thoughts on the video, I’m with Jonathan’s excellent piece in that it seems problematic: knowing that this was merely Bansky’s concept, and that it was animated and directed by the Simpsons staff themselves, creates some serious concerns about authorship which complicated its impact from the moment I saw it.

    I also think we can’t discount how our general opinion of the Simpsons affects our reading of the clip; as someone with absolutely no interest in the series’ current episodes, there are two ways this could have gone: either I was going to be shocked that the Simpsons would make such a sudden grasp at relevance, or I would be so disillusioned with the show that this would seem desperate. While I appreciate it aesthetically, I think my response was more in line with the latter option, and that meant that I was more intrigued than excited about its potential.

    I’m glad it is starting this conversation, and I think it was a worthwhile endeavor which created some really interesting dialogue – however, at the end of the day, I’m not particularly interested in the text itself beyond the paratextual response it elicited.

  9. Matt on October 12, 2010 at 4:47 PM

    I concur with the general consensus in that the video constitutes a problematic paratext in the SIMPSONS mythology. The questions it raises in terms of authorship are particularly interesting (and troubling, to a certain extent).

    However, personally, I am specifically interested in how the paratext situates itself in the overall aesthetic canon of the show’s opening sequences. As Prof. Gray has astutely observed, the iconic SIMPSONS prologue derives panache from obvious alterations. Here, the conventional narrative is complemented via the inclusion of ‘Banksy’ graffitis. This (undoubtedly debatable) authorial intrusion alters viewers’ perception of the sequence. In other words, it allows for a more perceptive reception of the all-to-familiar material. It generates a new interest in the standardized prelude of the show(I doubt, though, that the ‘Banksy’ label was exclusively utilized to attract more viewers).

    As opposed to the conventionalized opening, the ‘Banksy’ rendition is composed of two narrative strands. The common family-centric segment is complemented by an additional vignette, steeped in self-referentiality, pastiche and socio-critical commentary, themes that typify and define the show. The explicit content aside, the aesthetic approach of the ‘Banksy’ interlude conveys the essential characteristics of THE SIMPSONS (though they are, admittedly, less pronounced now than in the golden age).

    The ‘Banksy’ opening undoubtedly overshadows the content of the actual episode. In this sense, its prominent status links it to the ‘Evolution of Homer’ sequence. In spite of clear thematic and aesthetic differences, both opening sequences represent enriching contributions to the internet discourse on the show as well as the show’s artistic canon.

    I am poised to see how the showrunners comment on the hype the sequence generated. Apparently, Al Jean (if I remember correctly) issued an official statement (unfortunately, I cannot view HULU in Germany).

    Even though I can relate to your disinterest in the show I cannot desist watching it. I have been watching it since I was 10. And this sequence put a smile on my face, despite its somewhat troublesome essence.

  10. Andrew on October 14, 2010 at 9:06 PM

    I’m with Elisabeth on this. This seems to be more of a critique on popular culture’s understanding of labour practices than an actual critique of labour practices. The reason we’re not having a deeper discussion is the simple fact that we are not capable of having a deeper discussion. All we really know is that it’s bad in someway and that somebody should do something about it. How or why is it bad? We use our imaginations for that part, and that’s the part that Banksy is critiquing.

    I do believe we need to have a deeper discussion of labour practices. Wondering why the Simpsons would broadcast such a scathing self-critique is not it.

  11. Jonathan Gray on October 30, 2010 at 5:58 PM

    See this follow-up, about the Korean animators’ response:,8599,2027768,00.html