Couch Gags

In the last month, I’ve put in a lot of extra effort on our couch gags.

I remember seeing the first couch gag way back in late 1989 as part of the opening for episode 7G02 “Bart the Genius”. It was clever and funny, but I had no idea what the long-term plan for the couch gags was until I went to music spotting for episode 7G03 “Homer’s Odyssey” and noticed that there was a different gag in the Main Title. I asked Matt Groening and Sam Simon if the plan was to animate a new gag every week and they told me yes. I was amazed that on top of everything else that goes into producing a weekly animated series that they were going to put fresh content into the Main Title every week (of course this also included new smart-alecky things for Bart to write on the chalkboard every week). If you haven’t seen it in a while – or maybe ever – here is couch gag #1.

We do about two-thirds new and one-third recycled couch gags each season. I don’t have an exact number (maybe an über fan will help out in the comments), but this would mean that to date we’ve done about 350 different couch gags. But even the reruns aren’t always verbatim repeats of what aired previously. There will often be small tweaks of sound effects or music, or if there was any dialog in the gag, it might be changed. Hyper-observant fans of the show are rewarded for their attention to the details.

I wrote in great detail about a recent couch gag that was slipped in at the last minute and how I had to come up with a score for the gag using just library music. You can relive that tale here, if you’d like to. Well, the couch gag that was pulled from episode RABF03 back in January will finally get to air on FOX this Sunday, March 10, 2013 at the opening of RABF09 “Black-Eyed, Please”. Normally, I wouldn’t tell you much about it in advance, wanting to keep the details a surprise for everyone, but FOX put the couch gag up on YouTube this morning. So here it is and I’ll talk more about it after you’ve watched it.

The animation is by Bill Plympton who produced another brilliant couch gag for us last season. This isn’t a sequel to this first effort, just another new take on the characters. As we were watching it last week during dubbing, Matt Groening commented on how wonderful it was to see other artists’ visions of the characters. I understand there are plans to have more guest animators produce couch gags.

The decision was made to pull this couch gag off the show in January because the gun violence in it might be considered too insensitive in light of the still fresh (at the time) memory of the tragic shootings in Newtown, CT. I’m glad everyone will finally get to enjoy this very different look at our favorite yellow family.

But just a week earlier … DO THE HOMER SHAKE! At music spotting for RABF09 “Black-Eyed, Please”, Al Jean told me that we would need to have a knock-off version of the “Harlem Shake” music by Tuesday – that was only four days away. At that moment I thought, “How are we going to pull this one off?” and “What the !@#$% is the Harlem Shake?” (I hadn’t seen nor heard of the phenomenon at that point – now I’m a quasi-expert on the subject – kill me now!) The job fell to both Scott Clausen (Alf’s son) and me to come up with a suitable “Harlem Shake” score – two scores, actually … a 30-second and a 20-second version. The 30 would be for Internet viewing, the 20 would be inserted into RABF06 “Gorgeous Grampa” as the couch gag. Scott went off trying to compose something that sounded like “Harlem Shake” but was original. I headed off to music libraries to see if there were any cues that fit the general groove and mood and could do the job. All of Scott’s and my initial work was rejected as not being close enough.

Sidebar: Why not use the actual “Harlem Shake” music, you ask? All those videos on YouTube are using the original music without permission from the owners of the song. BUT, as is often the case with digital media these days, the owners don’t seem to be in any hurry to sue because of all the tremendous free publicity, and none of the YouTube posters are making any money off of their homemade “Harlem Shake” videos. THE SIMPSONS would be another story. We would broadcast the song on national TV, put it on a DVD someday, play it in reruns until dinosaurs ruled the earth again. Given the time constraints and the potential licensing costs, we simply could not make a deal to license the song.

So, after show runner (for this episode) Matt Selman rejected Scott’s and my first attempts and learned that the original could not be licensed, he came up with a pretty cool solution. He had Scott compose a sound-alike version that captured the spirit of the original while incorporating Danny Elfman’s SIMPSONS THEME into the work. This had the dual effect of protecting us from any infringement claims – it’s OUR theme – and gave us the creative freedom to parody the “Harlem Shake” and make it a SIMPSONS original. Then Dan Castellaneta was called in for an emergency vocal session where he uttered the opening line: “Homer Calarita!” (total gibberish), the middle line “Do the Homer Shake!”, and the closing pièce de résistance “Homer did a rip-off!”. This final bit of brilliance, besides being funny in its own right, clearly announced to the world that we were not doing the “Harlem Shake” but our own “rip-off”, seemingly dreamed up by Homer. Throughout the rest of the song, you can hear Homer in the background chanting a rhythmic string of “D’ohs”. Dan sang these “wild” – in music editing terms this means that he did not sing them to any rhythm guide or pre-recorded track. He just riffed to his little heart’s content. When I got Scott’s finished tracks, I cut all of Dan’s singing into the song and laid each “D’oh” into the groove with varying rhythms and syncopation.

The Internet version went “live” on YouTube on Friday, March 1, 2013 and, as of this posting, has been viewed 23.5 million times (!) Some people love it, some hate it, but, as you all know, there is no such thing as “bad” publicity. Click here if you’re one of the few who haven’t seen it yet.

What a fun, crazy ride on the couch it’s been since the start of 2013. I’m ceaselessly amazed that the show continues to spark the imagination of our writers, animators, and composers and, in turn, our audience. I’m still one of the proudest members of Team Simpson and how appropriate to sing the show’s praises today, March 7, 2013 – the day the cast sat down at the table read for the first episode of Season 25! Here’s to 25 more!

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Hello? Is Anybody Still Out There?

I think I hit a little slump there. Now I can better appreciate what writers and columnists who write for a living must feel when they have to write on demand, make it engaging, and turn it in on time.

When I got into post-production on the “final four” four this season, I just couldn’t quite focus on writing. There was a lot of work to do on these last four episodes and before I knew it six weeks had passed by without a new blog post. Sorry about that. I’ll try to not let that happen again. D’oh! There’s more to read…