If you watched last week’s episode of The Simpsons, you may have noticed something a lot more different about the intro to the show. The United Kingdom’s favorite artist vandal, Banksy storyboards and directs the opening sequence to the Simpsons. In classic Banksy fashion, he paints a dark, and creepy vision of the world. In this piece Banksy takes the viewer behind the scenes of the process of animation, marketing, and promotion of an animated series like The Simpsons.
How did “The Simpsons” manage to track down Banksy, the pseudonymous British artist, and get him to create the powerful opening-credit sequence from Sunday’s episode, which seems to reveal the torturous sweatshop responsible for the show’s creation? And how, after all that mockery, have the producers behind that Fox animated series been able to retain their jobs? Al Jean, an executive producer and the longtime show runner of “The Simpsons,” pulled back another layer of the curtain and explained the stunt to ArtsBeat on Monday afternoon.
Q. How did you find Banksy to do this, and now that it’s done, how much trouble are you in?
A. Well, I haven’t been fired yet, so that’s a good sign. I saw the film Banksy directed, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” and I thought, oh, we should see if he would do a main title for the show, a couch gag. So I asked Bonnie Pietila, our casting director, if she could locate him, because she had previously located people like Thomas Pynchon. And she did it through the producers of that film. We didn’t have any agenda. We said, “We’d like to see if you would do a couch gag.” So he sent back boards for pretty much what you saw.
Q. Were you concerned that what he sent you could get the show into hot water?
A. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it for a little bit. Certainly, Fox has been very gracious about us biting the hand that feeds us, but I showed it to Matt Groening, and he said, no, we should go for it and try to do it pretty much as close as we can to his original intention. So we did. Like we always do, every show is submitted to broadcast standards, and they had a couple of [changes] which I agreed with, for taste. But 95 percent of it is just the way he wanted.
Q. Can you say what got cut out?
A. I’ll just say, it was even a little sadder. But I would have to say almost all of it stayed in. We were thrilled. It was funny, I watched “Mad Men” last night and I wondered if this was my Don Draper letter to The New York Times. I knew just how he felt. But it was great to have a secret.
Q. One of the things Banksy is known for is disguising his identity. How can you be sure that you were dealing with the real him?
A. The original boards that we got from him were in his style and were certainly by an extremely proficient artist. We were dealing with the person that represented him making the movie. I haven’t met him, I don’t even know what he looks like, except what the Internet suggests. And he’s taken credit for it now so I’m pretty sure it’s him. We went through the people that made the movie so I assume they would know how to get to the real him.
Q. Even compared to how “The Simpsons” has mocked Fox in the past, this seemed to push things to a different level. Are you sure there’s no one higher up than you on the corporate ladder who’s displeased with this?
A. I think that we should always be able to say the holes in our DVDs are poked by unhappy unicorns.
Q. Has Banksy’s criticism made you reconsider any of the ways you do things at “The Simpsons” in terms of producing the show or its merchandise?
A. I have to say, it’s very fanciful, far-fetched. None of the things he depicts are true. That statement should be self-evident, but I will emphatically state it.
Q. A lot of the show’s animation is produced in South Korea, but not under those conditions.
A. No, absolutely not.
Q. And even that closing shot of the 20th Century Fox logo surrounded in barbed wire?
A. Approved by them. Obviously, the animation to do this was pricey. I couldn’t have just snuck it by Fox. I’ll just say it’s a place where edgy comedy can really thrive, as long as it’s funny, which I think this was. None of it’s personal. This is what made “The Simpsons” what it is.