The purpose of the Simpsons couch gag has changed in the YouTube era. It used to be a quick gag to reward us for sitting through the opening (just like the blackboard gag). Now it’s often a self-contained mini-cartoon, obviously intended to go viral — even if the Fox lawyers eventually spoil everything by pulling the clips off YouTube. It’s really become the Simpsons answer to the very YouTube-friendly Family Guy cutaways.
Still, maybe it’s because I’m used to the Simpsons era where a long couch gag was just a sign of an episode that ran short (remember the dancing/circus one that was intended to be the longest ever? Now it’s not even close), but I’m not always blown away by these long gags. Mainly because they are just that, long, and I like The Simpsons best when it’s most concise. So they’re getting a lot of attention for last night’s couch gag, outsourced to the provocative British artist Banksy:
But they already did essentially the same gag in the fourth season episode “Itchy and Scratchy the Movie,” and they did it in only a few seconds. The great thing about The Simpsons in its prime is that it could pack a tremendous amount of satire into a very short joke. Just as they could sum up all the absurdity of the entire MacGyver series with one line of dialogue (“Don’t thank me, thank the moon’s gravitational pull”), one shot and one line from Kent Brockman could say about five different things about the outsourcing of American animation to overseas studios. Today the only show that can do that kind of gag, sometimes, is 30 Rock, which has taken up the Simpsons mantle when it comes to making large points in apparent throwaway jokes. (One recent example is “Outsourced is the new Friends,” which sums up all of NBC’s Thursday night troubles, as well as its unhealthy obsession with its own glorious past, in five words.) Certainly The Simpsons doesn’t do it as well.
By the way, on the DVD commentary for “Itchy and Scratchy The Movie,” director Rich Moore remembers that the Korean animators were so offended by this scene — specifically, by the implication that they were sweatshop workers, which they were not — that they almost refused to animate it.