The 5 Artiest Simpsons Couch Gags

Banksy, Don Hertzfeldt and more

All hail the dark lord of the twin moons!

How quickly we forget what an art school nerd Matt Groening is. Every so often, producers of The Simpsons get one of their stranger pals to offer a unique spin on the characters to open an episode, and invariably, those ideas are as good as or better than the episode itself.

Groening's high-art bonafides are real—he and illustrator Gary Panter used to "split burgers and scheme about how to invade pop culture." So it would follow that the list of collaborators on Simpsons couch gags is heavy on high-art cartoonists, animators and, uh, whatever you want to call Banksy.

Mind you, Groening's guest directors come in all cultural shapes and sizes—there's a great Robot Chicken opening from last May, and Guillermo Del Toro, of course, showed up to do this beautiful/terrifying sequence for last year's Treehouse of Horror episode—but we're chiefly concerned with the gallery-haunting oddballs and geniuses whose work doesn't look like anything you'd ever see on TV. And here they are now!

Don Hertzfeldt—Clown in the Dumps—Sept. 28, 2014

Last night, the weirdest thing happened.

Like, ever.

Don Hertzfeldt, he of the hilariously un-airable "promos for the Family Learning Channel" (obviously, there is no such channel) brought forth an amazing thing: an episode of the apparently eternal television series The Sampsans from the far-future sun-date of Septembar (no, you use spell check) 36.4, in the year 10,535. Better yet, a clips show. With some very strange noises, some even stranger voice cues and, of course, Bach's Air on a G String, Hertzfeldt treated us to fond memories of that time Marge and Homer had two limbs each, that time the whole family appeared to be flagella-flailing unicellular organisms, and that time tripodal Marge croaked something loosely translated as "I will never forget you" to Hompod.

Interestingly, Hertzfeldt, like Banksy (see below) enjoys dinging the show for its vast, nay, encyclopedic variety of merchandise, notably a few items available 8,520 years from now: Sampsans Helmat, Sampsans Lasar Hat, Sampsans Moon Vest, Sampsans Ape Spray, and Sampsans Mating Gel. Really, Matt, the Ape Spray was a bridge too far.

I'm not even going to tell you how many times I've freeze-framed my way through the time travel shot in the opening.

Banksy—MoneyBart—Oct. 10, 2010

Reclusive U.K.-based graffiti artist Banksy apparently decided The Simpsons was a valuable forum for a few sharp digs at global capitalism when producers approached him after seeing his film Exit Through the Gift Shop. What's interesting about his Simpsons work (as is always the case with the artist) is how well it uses the iconography of the show. I mean, the Hertzfeldt piece is truly amazing, but it doesn't look particularly like a Groening drawing, although I'd argue it's a more interesting cartoon.

Here, Banksy has drawn boards for a bunch of jokes about how The Simpsons and related merch are produced in sweatshops, using the style guides the show has employed for years (more on how it came about here, and how it was censored by the broadcast standards department). This is Banksy's deal—his own work is incredibly diverse, stylistically—and to that much, the show was very faithful.

MichaĹ‚ Socha—What to Expect When Bart's Expecting—April 27, 2014

Polish director and illustrator MichaĹ‚ Socha is less known and less political than the guys above, but his work is no less inventive: Homer gets pushed through the door to the garage, into the living room and…down his own throat, where we get to go on a magical mystery tour of his body. Favorite bit: drinking with Barney, using his liver as the table. It shrivels and dies, of course.

Sylvain Chomet—Diggs—March 11, 2014

The French director of The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet, came on board for last year's mid-season premiere to briefly relocate Springfield to the France of every American stereotype. Homer eats live escargots by the bucketful, he has a dashing mustache, and Bart opens a box called "DIY Goose Liver Paté" containing a goose, some corn and a funnel. (Yes, it's mean, but it's funny.) Marge's dialogue turns French briefly, too. ("Ou est Maggie?!")

It's an interesting reminder that the bare-bones animation style employed on television is a function of cost, not capacity. You could absolutely make a TV show that looked like The Triplets of Belleville in every frame; it would just cost a kabillion dollars. It's always jarring to see Springfieldians in a different light, but here in particular, it's kind of nice. 

Bill Plympton—Beware My Cheating Bart—April 15, 2012

If you want a guy with serious dedication to his craft, look no further than Bill Plympton, the guy who draws every single frame of his cartoons. Plympton has been a big deal in the art cartooning world for quite a while and has logged multiple guest director credits on The Simpsons—he's had three different couch gags, but this one from 2012 is arguably the best.

The other two are loads of fun, as well—there's Maggie changing the channels from Married to The Blob and this film noir homage from Black-Eyed Please—but the above tale of woe (do we even want to know how Homer fathered that tiny little armchair? How does Marge feel about all this?) is pretty surreal, in keeping with the weirdness we've meticulously catalogued here.

If Groening et al are taking nominations for the next one, I'm going to suggest Charles Burns.