The Simpsons outdid itself with a recent Breaking Bad-inspired opening sequence, complete with Marge as a blue cupcake-peddling tycoon and a closing shot of a live-action Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul watching the show. In its two decades of airtime, Matt Groening’s magnum opus has gained a reputation for its shrewd pop cultural references, often condensed into its iconic “couch gags,” which preface every episode. Over five seasons and 524 episodes, that’s a lot of couch gags — and a lot of pop cultural references. Here are the best cultural couch gags from The Simpsons‘ impressively long tenure.
Game of Thrones
One iconic television opening parodies another with a gag that’s simultaneously hilarious and too meta to handle. There’s the HBO fantasy series’ signature theme music, the houses as game pieces/machinery (metaphor alert!), and key locations labeled in medieval font, but best of all are the more subtle references that mix the two shows, including three-eyed crows erupting from a power plant and Grandpa Abe’s faced carved onto the “weirwood” in the family’s backyard. It’s enough to make us wish the show were ambitious enough to do an episode-length take on the HBO hit, but this fifty-second clip was certainly a good start.
Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner
It’s a five-minute Looney Tunes short condensed into five seconds. Wile E. Coyote paints a trompe l’oeil couch on the living room wall, successfully gets the majority of the Simpson family to smash into said wall, yet ultimately fails to trick baby Maggie who is, of course, the Road Runner in this visual analogy. Delivering the bird’s signature “meep meep” before speeding offscreen, Maggie leaves behind her mom and siblings sitting down quietly to watch TV and her Dad having busted through the wall altogether. Compared to some of the more highbrow stuff Simpsons writers are known for slipping into their scripts, this gag is one of the more accessible cultural references on the show’s spectrum.
In a quintuple-whammy of referential humor, the intro to Season 15’s “‘Tis the Fifteenth Season” casts every member of the Simpson family as a different classic anime character. Each character gets his or her own dramatic entrance: Homer is the protagonist of Ultraman; Marge is one-fifth of superhero team Science Team Gatchaman; Bart is Osama Tezuka’s iconic character Astro Boy; Lisa is none other than Sailor Moon; and Maggie is transformed into a tiny Pikachu. The jaunty theme music and Japanese bench swapped for the regular couch are both nifty details that complete the setting.
It’s not the cleverest or most understated reference in the world, but this Simpsons-style video for “Tik Tok” (which takes up the whole opening sequence, not just the couch gag) makes our list for its sheer WTF factor. There’s Edna Krabappel pulling Groundskeeper Willie into a classroom, Jimbo and company literally blowing up phones, Homer refusing to leave a bar, and Otto the bus driver passing out drunk at the wheel. The actual couch gag consists of the entire town holding up the family mosh pit style. It’s weirdly fun and nonsensical, if only for the mental image of buttoned-up Lisa as Ke$ha.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
There’s almost no setup and barely any movement, just a few seconds of an insanely detailed tableau that parodies the iconic cover of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Almost every member of the show’s mind-bogglingly huge ensemble cast is lined up in the background as the final chord of “A Day in the Life” plays. The objects surrounding the flowery show title include cans of Duff beer, the head of town founder Jedediah Springfield, and the three-eyed fish that makes occasional appearances throughout the series. The inclusion of the family’s earliest incarnation as poorly sketched characters on The Tracy Ullman Show is a particularly genius touch.
The Simpsons tips its hat to its predecessors in this brief tour of nuclear-family sitcoms throughout the decades. We watch our favorite fivesome transition from black and white to color, move from a tiny apartment to a suburban home to a 1970s modern house to a bar, and switch up their wardrobes to perfectly mirror the characters from The Honeymooners, The Dick van Dyke Show, The Brady Bunch, and Cheers. (The last one may not be a family sitcom, but it’s cute to see Maggie cast as a blue-collar worker grabbing a drink at the end of the day.) It’s an interesting way for Groening to acknowledge television’s past and evolution, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way.
Short, sweet, and silent. As we follow Homer into the garage, the screen abruptly shifts from color to black and white. Homer dances onto the screen as Charlie Chaplin, then sits down with the rest of the family. There’s no real satire, but it’s a perfect example of what the couch gag can be: a smart cultural reference that would be hard to work into a narrative or make into a full-on joke, but fits in perfectly as a five-second animated short.
Blue Man Group
In the second-best treatment of the indigo trio ever to appear on a Fox sitcom, the family walks in to find the Blue Man Group doing an elaborate drum routine in their living room. The context-less performance is funny enough, but the cherry on top is Homer’s muttered, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “What the hell?!” We know, Homer. We know.
In a couch gag that manages to be both as highbrow and as meta as it gets, The Simpsons takes on legendary Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte by providing its own spin on his most iconic work, a picture of a pipe that reads “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Proclaiming “This is not a couch gag,” the frame then pans out to two appropriately fancy-looking museum-goers examining the family portrait, martini glass in hand. Is Matt Groening attempting to make a grandiose commentary on the nature of art, voyeurism, and television viewership? Or is this just another clever visual gag? Take your pick.