(20th Century Fox)
In terms of grabbing headlines, "The Simpsons" continues to be on a cultural roll this season.
The show announced last month that Katy Perry -- deemed too steamy for "Sesame Street" -- would be featured on an upcoming episode of the animated Fox show. Then last week, as "The Social Network" hit theaters, the two-decades-and-still-rollicking comedy featured a cameo from Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Sunday night, though, "The Simpsons" pulled a self-satirizing coup that quickly went viral, getting the London street artist Banksy to create its opening sequence -- the first time an outside artist has storyboarded the "couch gag." At 38 seconds into the titles and familiar breezy theme, the scene takes a dark, politically sharp turn, as sweat-shop workers in sub-Dickensian conditions are shown cranking out mass-production "Simpsons" merchandise. (Even unicorns, pandas and kitties can't escape the cruelty of this cartoon commercialism.)
"The Simpsons," like so many cartoon shows, is partly animated in South Korea, where the coloring and tweening can be done much more cheaply than in the United States. Rough Draft Studios has operations both in Southern California and Seoul. "The Simpsons" also employs the California-based studio Film Roman. In other words: Banksy's fantasy sequence was playful but in truth, none too subversive.
Banksy reportedly first invoked "The Simpsons" several years ago with this street art. Some of the stunt artist's most provocative projects include installing the figure of a Gitmo prisoner at Disneyland and installing a hoax cave painting at the British Museum in London.
Update: "This sort of thing is fascinating in how it spread -- it really leapfrogged. ... " "The Simpsons" show-runner and executive producer Al Jean tells Comic Riffs of the video virality of Banksy's opening. "We were totally surprised that it caught on so big,"
Part of their surprise, Jean explains, is because the show has always been willing to skewer itself and its own mega-success: "We've been that way from the beginning, self-mocking."
The idea to hire Banksy was Jean's, after he saw the film about his street art, "Exit Through the Gift Shop." "I wanted to contact Banksky about seeing the film. ... I can't say for sure [how we found] Banksy. Our casting director, Bonnie Pietila, is great at finding people that are hard to get. She got Thomas Pynchon [twice] and Gary Larson. And five years ago, we tried to get J.D. Salinger, [though] that was a no-go."
Banksy was more than game, Jean says: "We were both interested in getting something out of it. Banksy, as successful as he is, was doing well before, but now is several degrees more well-known. ... I really wish I had bought as much Banksy artwork as I could have before it aired."
"Simpsons" consulting producer Tom Gammill tells Comic Riffs: "I hear Fox made Banksy tone it down." Jean confirms that the original sequence was a bit darker still: "In the original version, the unicorn didn't live. The panda couldn't have been hit with the whip. This is not [up to] broadcast standards."
"He sent the boards to us and I said, 'I'm not sure we can do some of this,' "Jean recounts. But [series creator] Matt Groening said: 'We should do it!' He wanted it to be as close to the original vision and still have it air on an American broadcast network." (A representative for Groening said the "Simpsons" creator was traveling and unavailable to comment on the episode.)
"By my estimate, the public reaction has been about 90 percent positive," Jean says. "It's turned out to be one of the most successful things ever on Hulu."
Note: Starz Media announced Monday evening that it has reached a deal to sell its California-based animation studio Film Roman -- whose productions include "The Simpsons" -- to an investors group led by ex-Film Roman honcho Scott Greenberg.