Banksy does 'The Simpsons': Exec producer Al Jean talks about pulling off the ultimate couch gag

Al-Jean-simpsons-banksyImage Credit: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic.com; FoxWho says The Simpsons isn’t as subversive as it used to be? Last night, the animated Fox series raised eyebrows—and corners of mouths—with a daring, bleak opening credits sequence that was masterminded by Banksy, the mysterious British graffiti artist. Viewers were taken on a surreal journey into an Asian sweatshop where kittens were used as stuffing for Simpsons dolls, and a shackled, defeated unicorn was used to make holes in Simpsons DVDs. Shudder. EW.com rang up Simpsons executive producer Al Jean to get the behind-the-scenes story on the Banksy gag.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this collaboration with Banksy come about?
AL JEAN: I saw that movie Exit Through the Gift Shop, and I asked our casting director Bonnie Pietila, who’s had good luck getting people like Thomas Pynchon, if she could track Banksy down. She worked through the producers of the movie, and we just said, “Would you like to do a couch gag for the show?” He submitted boards, which were more or less what you saw last night. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it a little bit, but I showed it to [series creator] Matt Groening and he said, “We should really try to do these as close as possible to what he wants.” We all thought it was really funny. There were some small things we went through with Broadcast Standards for taste, but I was impressed—for an American TV show we did this really satiric thing, and it was 95 percent of what he wanted.

What were the small things that got edited out?
I wouldn’t go into them, but it was just a little sadder. [laughs] I don’t know if the unicorn made it in the original draft.

And you guys gave him no instruction about what to create?
Nope. He’s an artist. I just said, “It has to be in this format, and it comes off the beginning of the show.” And we did want to make sure that people knew—we have several clues, we tagged his name twice at the beginning and gave him a credit at the end just so it was clear what was going on.

What were your first thoughts when you saw what he wanted to do?
Well, my first thought was, “Well, it’s really funny.” And my second thought was, “I hope I keep my job if I do it.” [laughs] So far I still have.  But I turned to a higher power, which in this case was Matt, and showed it to him. And we all think Banksy is a brilliant artist. I thought this was a funny idea, and the show to Fox’s credit has been able to do very subversive things right from the beginning, and I think that’s made The Simpsons what it is.

You said Fox execs had some small issues, but what was their overall reaction?
I showed it to Broadcast Standards in the animatic stage. Certainly this is animated by Fox—paid for by Fox— so this is not something I can just slide in without anybody seeing, nor would I want to. So they’ve been aware of it for several months and we wanted to keep it a secret just because I thought you’d get maximum impact this morning, which I think we did.

Were you surprised that they were cool with it?
I think Fox is great. There never would have been a Simpsons if there wasn’t a Fox. And there never would have been the style of humor and what other shows have done on Fox if it wasn’t for people who were looking for something that was edgy and funny.

Were you worried that this gag did not paint the show in the best light?
I can tell you as a fact there are no unicorns working in our DVD production plant. It’s a fantasy—none of it is true. That being said, it’s funny.

Were you looking to make some sort of political statement or respond to criticism of outsourcing [the show is animated in South Korea]?
Honestly, there was no agenda except I thought it would be great to get this guy. The concept in my mind was, “What if this graffiti artist came in and tagged our main titles?” And we got what I think is the coolest, most technically proficient graffiti artist today. I’d never seen that—a graffiti artist actually graffiti’ing the opening credits of a television show. So when you’re asking for that you’re not really telling him what to do. We’re a show where people are used to seeing edgy things in regards to Itchy & Scratchy or satirizations of society, so I thought it was in line with our past and part of what’s made the Simpsons great.

A BBC News story says that Banksy’s storyboard caused delays, disputes with Broadcast Standards, and the animation department to threaten to walk out….
All the things that we do are delayed, and we have to deal with Broadcast Standards because it takes us a long time. I would say compared to what the original boards were, I think about 95 percent of it [stayed] true, and it really wasn’t unusual relative to the other stuff that we do, in terms of the length of time or the problems with it…. [The animation department] didn’t walk out. Obviously they didn’t. We’ve depicted the conditions in a fanciful light before.

What kind of feedback are you getting this morning?
The first word I would use is enormous. Other than showing Katy Perry’s cleavage, I can’t think of anything that’s gotten this much attention. And I would say by my barometer, about 90 percent think it’s really funny and 10 percent don’t like the taste of it, which I would say has been the ratio of the great things we’ve done in the past.

Did you learn more about the identity of Banksy?
I never met him. Even my emails back and forth to him, I would email Bonnie, who would email his producer, who would email him. I’m pretty sure it’s really him because if it wasn’t him, the real Banksy would have said something.

Are there other things up your sleeve right now?
There are always are, and the only way to find them out is to watch every episode.

(Follow: @dansnierson)

Read more:
Exit Through the Gift Shop: The best movie now playing captures the scandalous joy of art as play
Banksy’s greatest hits

Comments (53 total) Add your comment
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  • Kilroy

    I wonder if I am the only one who just does not get what all the fuss was about. It was satirical, but it rates pretty low on the “subversive” scale, if you ask me.

    • Jimmy

      I agree – The Simpsons used to be subtle. They would have never stooped to such obvious hit-you-over-the-head stuff. They criticized capitalism (and by extension everyone in it) by putting a mirror up to it so we could see it for ourselves. That’s satire. This opening was just a caricature that, if anything, mocked the critics of capitalism by exagerating their criticisms – ie. unicorns being abused, kittens stuffed in toys. “Subversive”? The only thing I can think of that it “subverted” was hippies and social activists…

  • Kris

    Is it satirical? Yes, but is it funny? Not at all. I’m sorry but I have a hard time laughing at children and kittens and “unicorns” being abused to make a product even if it is fake and animated. I guess I’m just weird like that.

    • Jon

      You’re too sensitive. The point is this ISN’T how the Simpsons is made, it’s parodying everyone who things that.

      • Nathan

        Everybody’s too damn sensitive these days. Another day, another thing to be offended by, if we keep this up we’ll be no better than the muslims.

    • anonEW

      Don’t worry Kris. Unicorns in real life aren’t treated so poorly.

      • Ted

        Ahahahahaha!

        Awesome… that’s one of the best responses to a stupid comment I’ve ever seen.

        Right on anonEW. :)

      • MarkusM

        Of course they are…haven’t you ever seen The Last Unicorn?

      • Sideshow Matt M.

        I have just met you and I love you. Brilliant comment.

      • David

        Unless you buy the canned unicorn from thinkgeek.

    • AK

      The only funny part is that Al Jean doesn’t get that Banksy wasn’t laughing with them, he was making fun of “The Simpsons” and its whole method. That was not a collaboration; that was Banksy being offered a huge audience on a silver platter and seizing the opportunity to make a pretty biting statement.

      • Mike

        Then he is just part of the “problem.” Look at all the attention this is getting which means more money for the Simpsons if more viewers tune in. It’s a win win situation for both parties. He gets his art out there and the Simpsons get some more attention and maybe viewers.

      • Lauren

        AK, i think you nailed it. After seeing the movie and learning a little bit about Banksy, I’d have to agree that the joke is on “The Simpsons”. But I do think the Al knows he’s laughing at himself a bit.

      • PJ

        I’m pretty sure if he detested “The Simpsons” so much he would have simply not offered to do the bit. I don’t think he would want an organization that was against what he stood for to make more money off of his work.

      • Henry

        Exactly, AK. Those commenting that it was the opposite completely misunderstood his intentions. Banksy couldn’t care less about a 30 year old dinosaur of a show. He was, in essence, “tagging” the show just like the rest of the established landmarks he know for retouching.

    • gataroo

      I too am offended that Fox thinks the unethical treatment of Unicorns is something to joke about. PETU really should be protesting this episode as we speak. Viva la Unicorn!

    • Ashlie

      I agree. I didn’t think any of the opening sequence was funny. I mean, it’s NOT funny to see animals abused or children working in sweatshops. I know it’s meant to but I just don’t see it.

    • Abbey42

      Yes, Kris, I totally agree. Far, far too many unicorns are abused in real life. It’s hard to laugh.

    • Holly

      I agree Kris, this is not funny. The abuse of unicorns has gone on too long, to the point that they are nearly extinct. Their horns are sharpened painfully so that they can make a “perfect” DVD-hole. It’s sickening. And the stuffing of toys with kittens is still rampant in Asian factories, despite a moratorium on kitten-stuffing set by the U.N. in 2007. When will we wake up?

    • Meso Soup

      Do you even know who Banksy is?
      Look up his work and enlighten yourselves……

  • Chris

    Fox removed the video, they don’t want you to know the truth!!!

    • Kevin

      You can watch the whole episode on Fox’s Simpsons page.

  • Josh Bird

    I enjoyed it and it made me laugh a bit, and it’s nice to see something different every now and then! Too bad different couldn’t be all the time! Kilroy should be named Killjoy…

    • Wickeddoll

      It appeared to me that “Killroy” was in agreement with you. What did I miss?

  • Casey

    Although I’m not a big Banksy fan, I did think the opening last night was brilliant. Thanks to Bonnie Pietila for making it happen.

  • Josh Bird

    and I checked out some of banksy’s stuff and he’s a pretty great artist!

    • nodnarb

      I’ve gradually become a fan over the years. I’m not into graffiti at all, so it’s taken a while for me to appreciate his work… but I think his messages are very cool. BTW, if you ever saw the movie Children of Men, there’s a Banksy piece in with the collection of art that was saved.

      • Mindy

        It was actually that movie that got me interested in Bansky’s work. He has some very interesting messages. It was great to see him given a forum with the Simpsons. I loved the satire. Loved how dark it was. Thought the opening was brilliant. Kudos to the producers for airing what he wanted. And kudos to FOX as well.

  • HARKONEN

    BANKSY rules all! Everyone go out and see “Exit through the gift shop” or buy it on DVD. Support your local artist they keep us from becoming humorless automatons.

  • anonEW

    That was a really awesome opening sequence. I totally wasn’t expecting that last night, but man was it awesomely dark.

  • flippant

    This is definitely one of the funniest things The Simpsons has done in a while. Good to see they still want to stretch the limits at this stage in their history. And I’m happy to see capitalism has other uses for unicorns besides black light posters, Blade Runner, and Robot Unicorn Attack games.

    • Kevin

      I agree. Too bad this brilliant beginning was spoiled by yet another crappy latter-day Simpsons episode.

  • dougfromeagan

    Just another nail in the coffin for the has been show called the Simpsons.
    OOOh, from the land where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels penned the communist manifesto comes this anti Capitalist crap complete with child labor, animal cruelty etc.. Wow. Not funny or original.

    • TvTroz

      If coffins were getting the kinds of ratings that the Simpsons pull, cemeteries would be the hottest spots anywhere. You, sir, have poor taste. That is all.

    • Ted

      It’s amazing to me how many people in this country have such an incredibly poor or non-existent sense of humor. And they always are defensive about it… saying they enjoy humorous shows yet when they have to name them they come up with a list that blatantly shows their ability to understand varied types of humor hit a wall somewhere south of 4th grade.

    • Sideshow Matt M.

      Eat my shorts.

  • A. Rae

    I saw this, and was amazed that they actually aired it, but didn’t catch the Banksy tag… I just remember thinking “There go the Simpsons, biting the hand that feeds them again…” not the first time and hopefully not the last!

  • Alex

    The enslaved panda cracks me every time. It’s so over the top is brilliant! Kudos to the Simpsons (I never lost the faith), Banksy (the greatest plastic artist of the decade) and Fox, for having a sense of humor.

    • Kevin

      I like the severed donkey head’s tongue being used to affix the packing tape.

  • BLaT

    Congratulations to all! Other than one “Commies Bad, Capitalists Good” remark, politics is absent from this thread! Thank You!

  • Sideshow Matt M.

    This is the best thing in the last several seasons, and Banksy never ceases to amaze and provoke. Surprisingly, the episode that followed it was also of a high quality.

  • jt

    It’s funny and satirical and freaking brilliant. Lighten up.

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