Just as with all new technology, 360 video is a medium that every content creator is scrambling to master, with varying levels of success. But with the accompanying virtual reality experience during the opening sequence of its 600th episode, The Simpsons creators proved that virtual reality is an environment in which America’s favorite cartoon family can thrive.
The Simpsons viewers were invited to watch the virtual reality couch gag— a couch-themed Planet of the Apes parody appropriately titled “Planet of the Couches”— before the episode “Treehouse of Horror XXVII” premiered Sunday night. A similar couch gag appeared within the actual episode, but the VR version, which can be viewed through the app “Google Spotlight Stories,” was longer and included exclusive, original content.
First and foremost, the sequence was executed well from a visual standpoint. A good virtual reality experience guides viewers through the action, which was achieved through subtle movements, such as when a bird flew across the scene, or when Homer spoke, which reminded the audience that they should be looking at him. It may sound like a given, but assuming the audience will know where to find the main action in a 360 video is a rookie mistake that leaves viewers confused.
Not only did animators succeed in doing virtual reality the right way, they used it to advance their storytelling.
A good virtual reality experience also allows viewers to explore the scene before beginning the action. And therein lies the genius of bringing The Simpsons into the world of VR: their subtle, visual humor succeeded on an all-new level.
Subtle humor, by nature, is more participatory than other genres of comedy that The Simpsons explores. Physical jokes, like any time Homer gets hit and shouts his famous “d’oh!” catchphrase, are easy to find funny, as are the show’s sarcastic and irreverent jokes. The viewer doesn’t have to work hard, or have any prior knowledge of the show to be able to laugh at the misfortune of Homer Simpson.
On the other hand, subtle humor requires much more work on the viewer’s part. Sometimes it relies on viewers’ ability to pick up on cultural references, which can go right over their heads if they aren’t informed. For example, a character in the seventh season of the show mentioned that he got his Ph.D. from “Springfield Heights Institute of Technology.” While at first glance it doesn’t seem interesting in the slightest, a closer look at the institute’s acronym is pretty funny when you realize that the joke made it past FOX’s censors.
Adding these kinds of jokes in a 360 video elevates them even more. Not only do viewers have to recognize that they are in fact jokes, but they also have to actively pivot around the setting in search for them. There’s a sense of satisfaction in noticing a partly hidden pop culture reference amidst the excitement of the rest of the scene.
Within the actual episode, jokes about the state of the world today— Homer sporting an “Ivanka 2028 pin,” Lisa participating in a modern-day Hunger Games and the opening credits including lines such as “Developed by James ‘This year is really happening’ Brooks”— proved that The Simpsons can comically dish out topical humor just as they have been for the past 599 episodes. Elevating those jokes with new, emerging technology proved that writing isn’t the only realm where the creators can stay current.