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Mmmm ... Couch Gags: The Story Behind Those Awesome 'Simpsons' Openings

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey-based opening segment

"The Simpsons" couch gag is the stuff of TV comedy legend. And this Sunday, it takes on one of our most enduring tales as Homer & Co. skewer "The Hobbit." Yahoo TV sat down with "Simpsons" showrunner Al Jean about this week's installment, titled "The Couch Gag: Part One of Six," and the genius that is the show's opening.

 

Watch for Homer as Thorin Oakenshield, Marge as Gandalf with Bart, Lisa, and Maggie as hobbits on an unexpected journey to their couch through such far-flung lands as Springfield, Shelbyville ... and Funkytown. Along the way through fantastical lands, our intrepid quintet encounters a motley crew of monsters.

There's Gollum Moe learning why you shouldn't put a ring on it just because you like it; Troll Lenny, Troll Carl, and Troll Barney getting a last call courtesy of the sun; a racist elf hotel; Burns as Smaug (which reminds us that Benedict Cumberbatch needs to come back and do more "Simpsons" guest voices tout de suite); and Jimbo, Kerny, and Dolph as specters guarding the ultimate prize.

Don't mistake any of those barbed jokes for disdain, though. "I'm going to see the next 'Hobbit' movie," Jean is quick to point out. "All love intended. But it sums up my feelings about the first one."

[Related: Yahoo Movies Breaks Down the 'Hobbit' Sequence in 'The Simpsons']

That follows last week's epic — and we do not use that term lightly — EPIC Halloween couch gag directed by horror master Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth," "Pacific Rim"). It was three minutes so dense with references that Yahoo Movies made its own decoder. And even that fell short, according to Jean: "I don't think they quite got everything, it's so intensive."

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[Related: Decoding the Horror References in Guillermo Del Toro's 'Simpsons' Opening]

"It's great to find this piece of real estate on the show — the couch gag — where we can do this stuff after 25 years," Jean says. "It's really exciting to all of us." The show plans to continue mining the new/old ground with (among others surprises Jean was unwilling to divulge) a segment directed by returning animation legend Bill Plympton in January.

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Moe as Gollum

There are a few fish too big for even "The Simpsons" to land, though. Studio Ghibli — the studio behind Japanese animated classics like "Spirited Away," "My Neighbor Totoro," and "Grave of the Fireflies" — was unable or didn't want to do it, so Jean and crew did it themselves. "We do a sort of homage to them also coming up in January, but that's us doing them... those movies [have] the most beautiful character design in the world."

[Photos: The Best Parts From All 23 'Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror Episodes]

The key to a solid couch gag parody, Jean says, is that the thing you're playing with is "iconic enough that you can make fun of it, and you know it's going to be around when you animate it a year later."

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Burns as Smaug and Homer as Thorin Oakenshield

They've already done "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," and "Game of Thrones." The latter two are a continuing obsession for the writing staff. Every Monday morning when they're both on, he says, the "Simpsons" writers' room breaks into two discussion groups: one for "Mad Men" and one for "Game of Thrones." So, probably just like your office.

"The Simpsons" airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Fox.

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