Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: The Simpsons famous opening sequence was created to save on animation time.
With The Simpsons renewed for their 27th and 28th seasons, it is becoming difficult to think back to a time where the show not only did not exist but there were doubts whether it would ever exist. Back 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 at one point early on for Krusty the Clown to be Homer Simpson in disguise! That is how up in the air things were in those early days. But the biggest area of contention in those days was not the plot details of the show, but the production of the show, specifically the animation. The studio that did the original The Tracey Ullman Show shorts could not do the full series, so they had to farm out much of the work to a Korean animation studio. When the first episode was screened for Groening and his fellow producer, James L. Brooks, they were outraged at how bad the show looked. The first episode animated, “Some Enchanted Evening,” ended up being almost completely reworked and went from being the premiere of the series to the season finale of Season 1 of the show. The Simpsons staff asked for a series of changes for the next episode set to be animated, “Bart the Genius,” and if improvements were not made, they were prepared to cease production on the series entirely.
Luckily, there were improvements, so the staff of the Simpsons made a deal with Fox to delay the debut of the series until December of 1989, with a Christmas special, before launching the rest of the series in 1990 (“Some Enchanted Evening,” back when it was going to be the premiere of the series, was originally set for September 1989). It was this state of unease with the animation that led to the amusing origins of the famous Simpsons opening sequence.
The Simpsons Christmas special (“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”) did not have the famous Simpsons opening sequence. This is because Groening did not come up with the idea for it until the second episode, “Bart the Genius,” and his reason for creating it was very simple – to cut down on animation time.
If they had to produce 24 minutes of overall animation for a half hour show, they could cut down on the amount of animation that they’d have to do every week if they had a very long opening sequence. So they came up with the minute and a half opening to the show, showing the Simpsons all arriving home from their various daily activities. A minute and a half is very long for the opening of a show. Gilligan’s Island, for instance, is famous for having a long opening and it was only a minute long. Groening, by the way, was not a big TV watcher, so he didn’t realize that the days of long openings had passed and that The Simpsons’ opening particularly stood out because of that.
Because the plan was to be able to re-use the animation in every episode, Groening felt that he had to make it up to fans a little bit, so he came up with the idea of having two aspects of the opening credits change in each episode, what Bart Simpson is writing on a chalkboard in the beginning while he is in detention and how the Simpsons sit on their couch at the end of the episode (in the first couch gag, as they all pile on to the couch, they squeeze in so tightly that Bart is shot into the air and he lands in front of the television).
Amusingly enough, in a sign of how unfinished all of this stuff still was at the time, the first time the opening sequence aired with “Bart the Genius,” Homer does not shout when he is almost hit by Marge’s car towards the end of the sequence. They just plain ol’ forgot to add it. It was added in all subsequent episodes.
By the end of the season, the show had much better control over the animation on the show, so starting with Season 2, a new opening was created. It was almost exactly the original opening, only re-drawn to make it look more polished, as well as add new characters to the various scenes (like in the first opening sequence, Homer is at work with some unnamed character, as Mr. Smithers had not even been introduced at that point in time. In the second opening sequence, Homer is shown with Mr. Burns and Mr. Smithers in the background). However, it cut down the length from one minute and thirty seconds to one minute and fifteen seconds. They also created two alternate openers, one forty-five seconds long and one twenty-five seconds long, to use on episodes that went long on content. 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 the show finally did an HD version of the opening, with a few notable updates to the same basic opening 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 YouTube 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!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com.