- The Simpsons opening sequence
The Simpsons opening sequence is an element that begins almost every episode of the American animated television series The Simpsons. Starting with the season 20 episode "Take My Life, Please", the opening sequence was redone to go with the high-definition format of the show, and replaced the previous one with numerous differences and alterations. It is the second permanent revision of the opening sequence in the show's history, the first of these occurring with the premiere of the show's second season, and Ralph jumped the 20th Century Fox logo.
- 1 The sequence
- 2 Development and variations
- 3 Other versions
- 4 Guest directed versions
- 5 Parodies within the show
- 6 Reception
- 7 References
The first season opening sequence, starting with the second episode "Bart the Genius", features a number of differences from the later opening sequences. This includes a scene where, in place of Mr. Burns and Waylon Smithers at the power plant, a co-worker is seen eating a sandwich with a pair of tongs. Other scenes include a band rehearsal, featuring a high-pitched saxophone solo, and a drive home in a red sedan. In addition, Bart snatches a bus stop sign, having been distracted by Krusty the clown image on the televisions on display at a nearby electronics store, forcing several Springfield citizens who were waiting for a bus to chase the one passing by. Lisa is then shown riding her bike. She also gets home first, so Homer only has to dodge Marge after he gets out of his car. Notably in "Bart the Genius", the famous high-pitched scream of Homer's when he runs from Marge's car into the house is absent. The scream is added in the third episode, "Homer's Odyssey".
This sequence opens with the show's title zooming in on the camera while moving forwards through clouds. While zooming through the clouds, the words "The Simpsons" appear. It continues to zoom in on the town and then through a window of Springfield Elementary, where we see Bart writing lines on the class chalkboard, as a punishment. When the school bell rings, Bart leaves in a hurry and skateboards out of the school doors. The next shot shows Homer in the power plant wearing a safety mask while handling a rod of plutonium with tongs. The evening whistle blows and Mr. Burns and Waylon Smithers watch as Homer takes off his mask and drops the tongs to leave work. As he does so, the plutonium bounces into the air and sticks to his back. The next shot shows Marge and Maggie checking out at a supermarket. Maggie is inadvertently scanned along with the groceries, rung up at a price of $847.63 and dropped into Marge's shopping cart, as she is wondering where Maggie went, then sighing in relief when Maggie pops up from one of the shopping bags. Lisa is shown next, being ordered out of a band rehearsal by Mr. Largo for her unorthodox saxophone playing; she continues to improvise on her way out of the room.
The family is then shown on their way to the house at 742 Evergreen Terrace; Homer drives along in his car and throws the plutonium rod, which he has noticed stuck to his back, out the window. As it bounces off the curb, Bart skates by and starts weaving his skateboard through a group of various characters, including Helen Lovejoy, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and Chief Wiggum. As soon as Bart crosses the road, a car drives past and Maggie is seen inside with a steering wheel, but when the camera zooms out her wheel is revealed to be a children's toy and Marge is actually the one driving with Maggie mimicking Marge's movements. Marge and Maggie both honk their horns and then there is a camera whip pan across a crowd of characters towards the Simpsons' house.
The family all arrive home at about the same time. Homer arrives first, parking his car in front of the garage, while Bart hits the car roof with his skateboard and then touches down. As Homer steps out of the car, he quickly dodges Lisa zooming by on her bike and says, "D'oh!", and then screams at the sight of Marge's car coming towards him. The scene then shifts to Marge's sight, inside her car, showing Homer running away from her until he goes in through the door. Upon entering their house, they speed towards the living room couch, segueing into the couch gag. After the gag, the television displays the executive producer credits, after which the screen goes black and the episode starts.
A new permanent opening sequence was animated for the show's transition to the High Definition format, premiering with the Season 20 episode "Take My Life, Please." This sequence is similar to the previous one, but features many visual changes that take advantage of the wider format.
The sequence opens as usual with movement through cumulus clouds, while a 3-eyed crow flies by. The crow is sometimes replaced by characters, like the once deceased Shary Bobbins flying by using her umbrella. The camera then zooms past the nuclear power plant and into the town square where Jimbo and Kearney saw off the head of the statue of Jebediah Springfield which falls onto the head of Ralph Wiggum, who is holding an ice cream cone. As it falls on him, he inadvertently tosses the cone onto the statue's face. The camera then weaves through several buildings and structures, featuring a "chalkboard gag" towards Springfield Elementary and zooms through the familiar window where Bart writes lines as punishment on the chalkboard. The bell rings and Bart skateboards out of the school doors, plowing into a pile of leaves raked up by Groundskeeper Willie and exposing Barney Gumble underneath.
Homer is shown leaving the power plant and, as in the previous opening sequences, a uranium bar falls into his clothing as he leaves. This time, in the background of this scene, Lenny Leonard is standing on a ladder trying to change the "days without an accident sign" from 2 to 3 days but then falls off the ladder onto Carl Carlson who is standing at the bottom of the ladder. The scene changes to Marge at the supermarket check out. Among the products Marge is buying is Tomacco juice & Mr. Sparkle detergent. Maggie is scanned, and the price doubles from $243.26 to $486.52, before she is put in the shopping cart. When Maggie pops her head out of the paper bag, Marge looks relatively calm and does not panic, unlike in the previous sequences. Maggie shakes her fist at Baby Gerald, who is right beside her in another shopping cart. In band practice, Mr. Largo dismisses Lisa, who plays a solo as she leaves and then pokes her head back in the door to finish it.
Homer is then shown driving home and discards the stuck uranium bar out the window; it lands in Otto Mann's lap and he eats it. Bart skateboards past Otto before weaving through several townspeople: a sword-swinging Sideshow Bob, Helen Lovejoy, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and his octuplets, Moe Szyslak, Comic Book Guy, Disco Stu, the Crazy Cat Lady, the Rich Texan and Chief Wiggum, who shakes his cosh at Bart as Bart crosses the road. Hans Moleman pokes his head out from a manhole, which slams down on him when Marge drives over it. Maggie is shown in a booster seat in the middle while Grampa sleeps next to her. When Marge and Maggie honk their respective horns, Grampa is startled awake and his dentures fall out.
The camera pans across Springfield. The driveway scene remains almost exactly the same, except Marge's car now hits Homer and carries him on the hood until it stops short, flinging him ahead to smash a Homer-shaped hole through the door. The Simpsons run into the living room and a couch gag is shown, before the credits are displayed on a new widescreen flat panel television, which will sometimes fall to the ground and break. Unlike the previous opening sequences, there is no cut to black and the episode begins immediately.
Development and variations
Creator Matt Groening developed a lengthy opening sequence for the first season of The Simpsons, in order to cut down on the animation necessary for each episode, but devised the two gags as compensation for the repeated material each week. In the first of the original gags, the camera zooms in on Springfield Elementary School, where Bart can be seen writing a message on the chalkboard. This message, which changes from episode to episode, has become known as the "chalkboard gag". The other gag is known as a "couch gag", in which a twist of events occur when the family meets to sit on their couch and watch television. Groening, who had not paid much attention to television since his own childhood, was unaware that title sequences of such length were uncommon by that time. The episode "Bart the Genius" was the first to feature the series' full title sequence. The theme, which plays over the sequence, was composed by Danny Elfman in 1989, after Groening approached him requesting a retro-style theme. The piece, which took two days to create, has been noted by Elfman as the most popular of his career.
The season two episode "Bart Gets an F" featured a revised opening sequence, which was shortened by fifteen seconds from its original length of roughly 1 minute, 30 seconds. The opening sequence for the first season showed Bart stealing a "Bus Stop" sign; whilst the new sequence featured him skateboarding past several characters who had been introduced during the previous season. Starting with this season, there were three versions of the opening: a full roughly 1 minute 15 second long version, a 45 second version and a 25 second version. This gave the show's editors more leeway.
"Take My Life, Please" (season 20) was the first episode of The Simpsons to air in 720p high-definition television, though not the first time The Simpsons appeared in high-definition, as The Simpsons Movie was rendered in HD. With the new broadcasting system came a new opening sequence. It was the first major permanent change to the show's introduction since the opening added in season two; previous changes have included variations in the duration of the intro, and special one-shot introductions for the Treehouse of Horror Halloween episodes, as well as a handful of others. This new intro also includes some 3D animation when the camera pans over Springfield. The Simpsons creator Matt Groening told the New York Post: "The clouds at the very beginning of the main title were always unsatisfying to me. My original direction to the animators was to make the clouds as realistic as possible, and as we go through the clouds we enter this cartoon universe of The Simpsons. Finally, after a couple of decades, they've gotten closer to what I had in my mind. Not perfect, but better."
The two original variations were further expanded to these variations:
- Something different flies across the screen at the beginning (HD opening only).
- The billboard in front of the elementary school changes (HD opening only).
- Bart writes something different on the chalkboard.
- Lisa may play a different solo on her saxophone (or in some instances, on a different instrument entirely).
- The family attempts to sit on the couch as something goes awry in an often surreal manner.
The billboard gag is a running visual joke added to the opening sequence with the updated 2009 high-definition opening. In the gag, a billboard is seen on the roof of the building across the street from the elementary school as the camera pans through the town. The billboard changes every episode. The first episode with a billboard gag was "Take My Life, Please" where the billboard says "Krusty: Now Doing Funerals".
The chalkboard gag is a running visual joke that occurs during the opening credits of many episodes. In this gag, Bart Simpson is writing a unique phrase on the chalkboard repeatedly; when the school bell rings, he immediately stops writing and runs out of the classroom. The message changes from episode to episode. Chalkboard messages may involve political humor such as "The First Amendment does not cover burping", pop culture references such as "I can't see dead people", "I was not the sixth Beatle" and meta-references such as "I am not a 32 year old woman" and "Nobody reads these anymore". In The Simpsons Movie, the gag, "I will not illegally download this movie," is a reference to piracy. The animators are able to produce the chalkboard gags quickly and in some cases have changed them to fit current events. For example, the chalkboard gag for "Homer the Heretic" (season four, 1992) read, "I will not defame New Orleans." The gag had been written as an apology to the city for a controversial song in the previous week's episode, which called the city a "home of pirates, drunks and whores". Many episodes do not feature a chalkboard gag because they are cut to make more room for story, plot development and advertisements.
During the opening sequence, Lisa is seen being ejected from band rehearsal due to her non-conformist playing. She exits the room playing a saxophone solo, which sometimes changes. Some of the solos have similarities with pieces by Donovan, Frank Zappa, James Brown, and Charlie Parker. The Simpsons composer Alf Clausen said that the session musicians who perform her solos do not try to play at the second grade level and instead "think of Lisa as a really good player." Lisa plays the baritone saxophone, but according to Matt Groening, "she doesn't always play a baritone sax because the animators don't know what it looks like, so it changes shape and color from show to show." In two episodes Lisa plays a trumpet instead of a saxophone and in another, she plays a fiddle. In one instance, Lisa plays a solo on a clarinet. In episode "500 Keys" season 22 episode 21, Lisa play the violin in opening and credits. In Bart Stops to Smell the Roosevelts, Lisa plays a tuba.
The couch gag is a running visual joke near the end of the opening credits and it is frequently used to make the show longer or shorter, depending on the length of the episode itself. In the syndicated version for the episodes from seasons 1 to 5, the couch gag for the episode is usually replaced with the one from season five's "Rosebud" where The Simpsons find an exact double of themselves on the couch (though the syndicated versions of the later episodes retain their original couch gags). The couch gag changes from episode to episode, and usually features the Simpson family's living room couch. A typical gag features the Simpson family running into the living room, only to find some abnormality with the couch, be it a bizarre and unexpected occupant, an odd placement of the couch, such as on the ceiling, or any number of other situations.
Longer couch gags, such as one seen in "Lisa's First Word" have sometimes been used to fill time in shorter episodes, such as in "The Front" and "Cape Feare". An extended couch gag was also seen in the first episode to use the new opening sequence, "Take My Life, Please", where the family chases their couch on a tour across the world.
In 2006, the British television channel Sky1 began advertising The Simpsons using a live-action recreation of the series' opening sequence directed by Chris Palmer. Except for the very first shot in which the logo appears out of the clouds, every piece of the opening is present in this version, with even multiple chalkboard and couch gags filmed. Attached to the end of this sequence is the message "Come home to The Simpsons on Sky One." The recreation was used instead of the regular opening titles in the season 17 episode "Homer Simpson, This Is Your Wife", first broadcast on the Fox network on March 26, 2006. The live-action opening had also become an Internet hit before it was aired in front of "Homer Simpson, This Is Your Wife", and it was Groening's decision to use it. Al Jean commented in a press statement that he was "just amazed there are people who want to be known for looking like the Simpsons."
A Christmas-themed version was animated for "Kill Gil, Volumes I & II" and later re-aired with "The Burns and the Bees". It begins with two lines of instrumental "O Christmas Tree" and then the normal theme music begins. This version is similar to the normal version, except for several key differences:
- Everything outside is covered with snow
- Bart's skateboard has been replaced with a snowboard
- Everyone is wearing winter clothes
- Mr. Burns and Smithers have been replaced by a Scrooge-esque Burns and Ghost of Marley-esque Smithers, and there are several Christmas banners in the plant
- Lisa's saxophone solo is a jazzy version of "Deck the Halls"
- Bleeding Gums Murphy, who is now deceased, has been replaced with Jasper in a Santa costume. Maude Flanders, however, remains in the pan across Springfield, despite having also died.
- Marge and Maggie's supermarket and car sequence have been cut
In the end, the family sits on the couch and the camera then pulls out to reveal that the family was reflected in a Christmas ornament, which rests on a Christmas tree.
The Simpsons Movie and callback
A completely different sequence was created for The Simpsons Movie and features an orchestrated version of "The Simpsons Theme" as adapted by Hans Zimmer. The cumulus clouds are displayed in 16:9 television aspect ratio, with black matte bars at either end of the screen. As the "The Simpsons" logo appears out of the clouds, Professor Frink flies past in one of his inventions carrying a banner marked "MOVIE" and proclaims "Moo-vie! On the big screen!!" On the movie's DVD he says, "On the small screen!" The camera zooms in on the town, with several major landmarks popping-up. The scenes changes to Mr. Burns, who collapses by the extra weight of the toothpaste applied to his toothbrush, which is given by Smithers. The camera then zooms past Moe's Tavern into the Kwik-E-Mart where Apu is secretly changing the expiration date on a carton of milk from 2006 to 2008. The camera cuts to Springfield Elementary where Jimbo, Dolph and Kearney are hoisting Martin Prince up a flagpole by his underwear and saluting it as if it were a flag. The camera then zooms through a window of the school where Bart is doing the chalkboard gag which is "I will not illegally download this movie", before quick-fading to Green Day who are hosting a concert at Lake Springfield, playing their rendition of "The Simpsons Theme".
"He Loves to Fly and He D'ohs" (season 19) was the first new episode to air following the release of The Simpsons Movie, and the episode's opening sequence is a callback to the film. Bart writes "I will not wait 20 years to make another movie" on the chalkboard and skateboards through Springfield, which is still recovering from the dome incident. Several movie characters reappear, including president Schwarzenegger, the Multi-Eyed Squirrel, Colin, Russ Cargill, and the Medicine Woman. We also see that the Simpson's house is still under construction and the silo is strapped to Homer's car. Plopper the pig is also featured for the first time in the series, during the couch gag and Homer refers to him as "my summer love."
A special opening sequence, featuring the cast lip dubbing to Ke$ha's single "Tik Tok", was animated for "To Surveil with Love" to promote "Fox Rocks" week. This is the first canonical episode that does not feature "The Simpsons Theme" in the opening sequence in any capacity, in the show's history. The sequence features the characters performing actions that relate to the lyrics of the song, such as Lisa waking up and taking Milhouse's glasses, Groundskeeper Willie brushing his teeth with a bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey and barflys fighting in Moe's Tavern. Elements of the standard opening sequence are spliced in and altered, such as Mr. Largo singing and dancing out of the music room, various characters dancing during the pan across Springfield, and Homer and Marge running through the front door of 742 Evergreen Terrace. The Simpsons run into the living room and sit on the couch, which is then lifted into the air by several other characters celebrating their arrival. The TV scene is shown, but in a different angle.
Guest directed versions
British graffiti artist and political activist Banksy is credited with creating the opening titles and couch gag for the season 22 episode "MoneyBART", in what amounted to the first time that an artist has been invited to storyboard the show. Jean first took note of Banksy after seeing his 2010 film Exit Through the Gift Shop. According to Jean, "The concept in my mind was, 'What if this graffiti artist came in and tagged our main titles?'" Simpsons casting director Bonnie Pietila was able to contact the artist through the film's producers, and asked if he would be interested in writing a main title for the show. Jean said Banksy "sent back boards for pretty much what you saw." Series creator Matt Groening gave the idea his blessing, and helped try to make the sequence as close to Banksy's original storyboards as possible.
Approximately the first half minute of the opening sequence remains the same, with a few oddities: the word "BANKSY" is sprayed onto a number of walls and other public spaces. The chalkboard gag ("I must not write all over the walls") is written all over the classroom walls, clock, door, and floor. After the Simpsons arrive at home, the camera cuts to a shot of them on the couch, then zooms out to show this as a picture hanging on the wall of a fictional overseas Asian animation and merchandise sweatshop. The animation color quickly becomes drab and gray, and the music turns dramatic à la Schindler's List. A large group of tired and sickly artists draw animation cels for The Simpsons among piles of human bones and toxic waste, and a female artist hands a barefoot child employee an animation cel, which he washes in a vat of biohazardous fluid. Small kittens are thrown into a woodchipper-type machine to provide the filling for Bart Simpson plush dolls. The toys are then placed into a cart pulled by a sad panda which is driven by a man with a whip. A man shipping boxes with The Simpsons logo on the side uses the tongue from a decapitated dolphin head to fasten shut the packages. Another employee uses the horn of a sickly unicorn to smash the holes in the center of The Simpsons DVDs. It is then revealed that the sweatshop is contained within a grim version of the 20th Century Fox logo, surrounded by barbed wire, searchlights, and a watchtower.
The Simpsons is storyboarded at Film Roman, a company based in California. The storyboards, voice tracks and coloring instructions are then sent to AKOM, a company in Seoul, South Korea. According to Nelson Shin, the founder of AKOM, they received the storyboard for the sequence in August 2010. Believing the sequence to be "excessive and offending" he pushed for some of the darker jokes to be removed. He was successful, though "not nearly as much as he had pushed for." For example, in the storyboards, the workers were wearing conical Asian hats, but these were removed. Fox's standards and practices department also demanded a handful of changes, but, according to Jean, "95 percent of it is just the way [Banksy] wanted." Banksy told The Guardian that his opening sequence was influenced by The Simpsons long-running use of animation studios in Seoul, South Korea. The newspaper also reported that the creation of the sequence "is said to have been one of the most closely guarded secrets in US television – comparable to the concealment of Banksy's own identity." Although conceding to the fact that The Simpsons is largely animated in South Korea, Jean went on to state that the scenes shown in titles are "very fanciful, far-fetched. None of the things he depicts are true. That statement should be self-evident, but I will emphatically state it."
After the positive response to the opening sequence by Banksy, creator Matt Groening and Jean came to Canadian animator and creator of The Ren & Stimpy Show, John Kricfalusi and asked him if he could do something similar for the episode "Bart Stops to Smell the Roosevelts". Originally, they only wanted him to do the storyboards and then let their regular crew animate it, but Kricfalusi insisted on doing the animation himself, explaining that "If we had done it that way, no one would even have known that I had anything to do with it because it would have ended up on model and all pose to pose". On The Simpsons, the animators draws key poses and then let tweeners interpolate between those poses. The interpolation however, is a straight a to b animation. That way the animation ends up having the characters just going from pose to pose. Kricfalusi explains that "On the Simpsons I wanted to try moving the characters in crazy fun ways, not just looking funny each time they come to a stop", and further elaborated "that the way things happened was even more important than what was happening in my work. You can’t write visual performance. You have to actually draw it."
He showed Groening and showrunner Al Jean his Adult Swim shorts and Groening responded by giving him free hands to do the 35-second-long segment. Groening told him to break all The Simpsons rules, but Kricfalusi explains that he "tried not to break any rules in the characters’ personalities, just in the execution of the visuals. I didn’t follow any models—not even my own". The more rules he broke, the more pleased Groening and Jean were with the result. Contrary to Banksy, who lives a life in secrecy, Kricfalusi was involved in every detail and even oversaw the dubbing of the final soundtrack. While Kricfalusi animated the 2D parts, he had John Kedzie to help him with the computer graphics and Sarah Harkey and Tommy Tanner to do the assistant animation.
The couch gag for the episode was critically acclaimed by television critics. Amid Amidi of Cartoon Brew calls the opening revolutionary and explains that "in 35 short and sweet seconds, he liberates the animation of The Simpsons from years of graphic banality." He continued: "The visual look of the show, which has been so carefully controlled by its producers, becomes a giddy and unrestrained playground for graphic play, and the balance of creative authority is shifted from the writers’ room to the animators in one fell swoop." When comparing the segment to Banksy's, Amidi concluded that it is "in fact, far more subversive because he focuses almost exclusively on making a pictorial statement, relegating the show’s dominant literary elements to the back seat." Similarly, Television Blend's Katey Rich wrote that she appreciates "The Simpsons always being willing to push the envelope in different ways", but admitted that "it's gonna take [her] some time to get the gangly-legged Marge Simpson and the leering Homer Simpson out of [her] brain."
Parodies within the show
The opening sequence has been parodied within five episodes of The Simpsons:
- A short parody as The Thompsons in the episode "Cape Feare", when the Simpsons go into a witness protection program to evade Sideshow Bob.
- As The Hurricane in the episode "Hurricane Neddy". Grey clouds appear, and the word 'The Hurricane' pops out in the same manner as the real opening. Similar vocals sing "The Hurricane", and then the letters are blown away to show parts of Springfield being destroyed.
- In "Simpsons Bible Stories", Bart is writing a chalkboard punishment in hieroglyphics when he hears Moses/Milhouse's horn being blown and leaves the classroom.
- As Three weeks later in "The Heartbroke Kid". Instead of writing on chalkboard, a now overweight Bart is seen buying and eating chocolate from a vending machine. He cracks the pavement when he leaves the school, bends a lamppost, runs over pedestrians, hits Marge's car, sending it spinning off-screen, and crushes the roof of Homer's car, before stumbling into the living room suffering a heart attack.
- In "Little Big Girl", Bart is awarded a driver's license. Bart is seen at the chalkboard writing "So long suckers". He bursts through the school doors in Homer's car, instead of on his skateboard, and speeds away. Instead of dodging all the obstacles seen in the standard opening sequence, he runs them over. As Homer pulls into the driveway and steps out to enter the house, the other car lands on him, and Bart walks into the house.
The opening sequence has multiple times been picked as one of the best title sequences of all time on TV. In a 2010 issue of TV Guide, The Simpsons opening title sequence ranked #1 on a list of TV's top 10 credits sequences, as selected by readers. Michael Saba of Paste magazine ranked it in fourth place on his personal top ten in 2010.
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