Image 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.