Couch Gag

by Site Author

Everyone who teaches has a handicap to overcome. For some, it’s simply a fear of public speaking. For others, it’s an inability to make the material interesting.

My problem has always been time. I have always been afraid of running out of material in front of a class. I speak quickly, and a few times, early in my career as an assistant professor, I found myself at the end of my notes with 30 minutes left in the class.

Undergraduates don’t mind professors who end class early, but there is a kind of shame in not giving the students their money’s worth. At the same time, classrooms can become excruciating when the instructor is just running out the clock. Students usually recognize this and turn to their laptops or phones for distraction.

For years, I was always unsure what to do if those last 30 minutes were empty. Eventually, it was The Simpsons that saved me.

The show has been on the air now for 26 seasons. At this point, every living human being has seen Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart, and Maggie. No matter how sheltered, you’ve spent 22 minutes with them at least once.

The show’s creators, early on, had a problem. Some stories just couldn’t fill the 22-minute slot. They could have stretched out those stories, adding mediocre gags and superfluous plot twists. Instead, the show’s creators took a different approach: they created the couch gag.

In each show’s opening sequence, a slew of events befall the main characters as they meet on their living room couch. In one episode, the family comes into their living room to discover The Flinstones already seated on their couch. In another, the family sits on the couch only to discover that their heads are mismatched. In another, the family finds their living room transformed into an M.C. Escher painting. (My favorite is the couch gag Banksy created for the show.)

During the show’s early seasons, the writers would match exceptionally long couch gags with exceptionally short scripts. The couch gags then filled in the remaining time, but did so while adding comedy and developing an inside joke between the writers and the show’s fans.

Taking a cue from The Simpsons, I started adding discussion questions, classroom exercises, and stories to the end of my lecture notes. I hold onto them as a kind of contingency plan, in case I run out of material. They are my couch gag.