Last night, “The Simpsons” killed off a character and then did a crossover on “Family Guy.” But much, much more importantly it had one of its best ever opening credit couch gags. Once Homer Simpson burst into the living room, the reins were handed over to acclaimed animator Don Hertzfeldt, perhaps still best known for his mind-melting, Oscar-nominated short “Rejected.” Homer found himself shuffled through time, first to the ’80s, when “The Simpsons” were originated, then into the deep, deep future, when everything is computerized and the letter “i” appears to be no more.
“The Simpsons” tend to do the couch gag — along with Bart’s chalkboard, one of the only things that differ episode-to-episode during the opening credits — in-house. Every now and then they farm it out, and the results can be brilliant. Once they gave it to Banksy, who imagined the show as made in a dank sweatshop out of a nightmare, complete with a tired unicorn. Other guest couch gag animators include John Kricfalusi, Sylvain Chomet, Bill Plympton and Guillermo del Toro.
Hertzfeldt’s nearly two-minute opening lampoons the idea of “The Simpsons” as an undying cultural entity, kept on the air not only for 25 years but apparently into the infinite. His deep futuristic version of the family are done in his signature stick figure style, but the language of the show — not just the spoken kind but the format as well — is nearly as alien as “Worker and Parasite,” the impenetrably abstract Eastern European show that briefly replaces “Itchy and Scratchy” on a now 20-year-old episode.
It’s also an opportunity for those piqued by the couch gag to dig into the work of Hertzfeldt, which is uncommonly brilliant. He’s a true retro animator; his characters are not only stick figures, but he never uses computers; any animation technology he uses is as young as what Walt Disney and company used to make “Fantasia” in 1940. (When he depicts things like outer space, the results are jaw-droppingly beautiful.) You can see obvious glee in someone who's probably been watching "The Simpsons" for years getting a chance to turn, say, Marge Simpson into a talking hair cloud.
Over the years Hertzfeldt has gone from a post-modern jokester who made things like “Billy’s Balloon” — in which red balloons lead an apocalyptic attack on children — to mature without being boring. But all of his films since the start are to some degree serious, exploring his own anxieties about dating, maturing, having children, sickness, mortality and humankind’s insignificance in the universe. His “Simpsons” couch gag touches on the same cosmic ideas as in his genius “The Meaning of Life,” which imagines creative ways for humans could evolve over the millennia. He touched upon this concept even more personally in his only feature, the stunning “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” about an everyman diagnosed with a possibly fatal disease. You can watch more of his work on his YouTube channel.
Oh, and if you were wondering [SPOILER, if you haven’t seen it yet], the 553rd episode of “The Simpsons” killed off Krusty’s father (Jackie Mason).
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