TV URBAN LEGEND: The famous opening sequence of “The Simpsons” was created to save on animation time.
With “The Simpsons” recently renewed for its 27th and 28th seasons, it’s becoming difficult to think back to a time when the show not only didn’t exist but there were doubts whether it would ever exist. In 1989, as Matt Groening and his crew tried to make the transition from animated shorts on “The Tracey Ullman Show” to their own half-hour series, pretty much everything was up for grabs. I have written in a previous TV Legends Revealed about how Groening planned early on for Krusty the Clown to be Homer Simpson in disguise! That’s how up in the air things were in those early days.
However, the biggest area of contention wasn’t the plot details but rather the production, specifically the animation. The studio that produced the “Tracey Ullman Show” shorts couldn’t do the full series, so they had to farm out much of the work to a Korean studio. When the first episode was screened for Groening and fellow producer James L. Brooks, they were outraged at how bad the show looked. The first episode animated, “Some Enchanted Evening,” was almost completely reworked and went from being the series premiere to the Season 1 finale. The “Simpsons” staff asked for a series of changes for the next episode set to be animated, “Bart the Genius,” and if improvements weren’t made, they were prepared to stop production entirely. Luckily, there were improvements, so the producers made a deal with Fox to delay the debut of the series until December 1989, with a Christmas special, before launching the rest of the series in 1990 (“Some Enchanted Evening,” when it was intended as the premiere, originally was scheduled for September 1989). It was this state of unease that led to the amusing origins of the famous “Simpsons” opening sequence.
The “Simpsons” Christmas special (“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”) didn’t have the famous opening sequence, because Groening didn’t come up with the idea until the second episode, “Bart the Genius. His reason for creating it was simple: to cut down on animation time.
If they had to produce 24 minutes of animation for a half-hour show, they could cut down on the amount of work required each week if they had a long opening sequence. So they came up with the minute-and-a-half opening that follows the Simpsons as they arrive home from their daily activities. A minute and a half is very long for a show’s opening. “Gilligan’s Island,” for instance, is famous for having a long opening and it was just one minute. Groening, by the way, wasn’t a big TV watcher, so he didn’t realize that the days of long openings had passed, and that “The Simpsons” stood out.
Because the plan was to be able to re-use the animation in every episode, Groening felt he had to make it up to fans, so he came up with the idea of having two aspects of the opening credits change in each episode: what Bart Simpson writes on the chalkboard and how the Simpsons sit on their couch (in the first couch gag, as they all pile on to, they squeeze in so tightly that Bart is shot into the air and lands in front of the television). Amusingly enough, in a sign of how unfinished all of this still was at the time, the first time the opening sequence aired with “Bart the Genius,” Homer doesn’t shout when he is nearly hit by Marge’s car. They simply forgot to add it in that initial episode.
The theme for the opener was written in two days by Danny Elfman and yet it has become his most famous work. He told John Glionna of the Los Angeles Times:
The artist envisions his own obituary. “It’ll say, ‘Danny Elfman, who wrote the theme to ‘The Simpsons,’ etcetera,'” he cringes. “That’s what I’ll be remembered for.” Air-brushed for all eternity by the project on which he spent the least amount of time. Like, two days.
Elfman met in 1989 with the cartoon’s creator, Matt Groening, who shared sketches of Homer, Bart, et al. “I told him, ‘If you want something retro, I have it. If you want contemporary, I’m the wrong guy.” Groening wanted retro. Elfman jokes that the manic little riff he conceived earns him $11.50 every time it’s played, no matter where in the world. “I met some artists [in India] and we were talking about American movies and I mentioned a few of my projects,” he says. “Not one of them registered, until I mentioned ‘The Simpsons.’ Then their faces lit up. They were really impressed by that.”
By the end of the first season, the producers had much better control over the animation on the show, so starting with Season 2, a new opening was created. It was virtually the same sequence, only re-drawn to make it look more polished, with new characters added to the various scenes. (In the original opening, Homer is at work with some unnamed character, as Mr. Smithers hadn’t been introduced. In the second opening, Homer is shown with Mr. Burns and Mr. Smithers in the background.) However, it cut down the length from one minute and 30 seconds to one minute and 15 seconds. They also created two alternate openers, one 45 seconds long and one 25 seconds long, to use on episodes that went long on story. It was during this sequence that they added a third rotating gag, as now Lisa Simpson also plays a different song each episode.
The second opening lasted from Season 2 until Season 20, when an HD version was finally created, with a few notable updates to the same basic sequence, including two more rotating gags (a billboard outside of Bart’s school changes and a different creature flies through the clouds at the start of the sequence).
This video does a great job showing the differences between the three openings (although it shows four, I don’t believe #2 and #3 are actually different), including the two pieces of the original opening that were removed for time (Lisa riding her bike and Bart stealing a Bus Stop, leading to a bunch of bus passengers missing their bus)…
The legend is…
Thanks to Matt Groening’s excellent commentaries for The Simpsons DVDs. They’re such a wealth of awesome knowledge! And thanks to John Glionna for the Danny Elfman quotes.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!
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