Sunday, February 16, 2003

'Simpsons:' No end in sight

After 300 shows, 14 seasons, it's still TV's funniest show


On a typical TV show, Bart Simpson would be in college by now.

Or jail. (Who am I kidding?)

But The Simpsons isn't your normal TV series, thank goodness. In its 14th season, celebrating its 300th episode, The Simpsons is still the funniest show on television (8 p.m. today, Channels 19, 45).

It's amazing. The Cosby Show kids grew up and left TV. Same thing happened on Roseanne and Home Improvement.

Yet Bart Simpson remains permanently stuck in fourth grade on Fox's ageless comedy, which is on track to pass The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet as TV's longest-running situation comedy.

Only in animation can characters develop without getting older - or any smarter. That's what makes Homer Simpson still such a lovable goof, the father who puts the fun in his dysfunctional family. (D'oh!)

Since The Simpsons debuted as a weekly series on Jan. 14, 1990, some pretty good shows have come and gone: Seinfeld, Spin City, Mad About You, Home Improvement, Grace Under Fire, Dharma & Greg.

[photo] Lisa, Maggie, Marge, Homer and Bart promise to keep audiences laughing on the 300th episode of The Simpsons tonight on Channels 19 and 45.
| ZOOM |
But Homer and Bart, and the rest of the Springfield gang, keep rolling on because they can go anywhere, and do anything.

They can go to the moon, or go to hell (and see Richard Nixon). They can go back in time, or into the future for daughter Lisa's college years (with a "Rolling Stones Steel Wheelchairs Tour" poster in her dorm room). It's a completely boundless (and budgetless) universe.

"Any idea you come up with costs the same amount of money - if you send them into space or if you make them tiny and send them down a toilet," says David Mirkin, a Simpsons writer and former executive producer.

"If you try to do that on a live-action show, they say: `OK, that joke is $75,000, and that joke is $150,000.' You can't do it on TV. But animation basically allows you to have the production values of a very expensive film every week, so it's just fantastic for the imagination."

Typical high jinks

For the 300th episode, The Simpsons go back in time to show Bart's TV commercial for "baby stink breath." Before the show ends, Homer ends up skateboarding with Tony Hawk, and blink-182 comes to Springfield.

That's another reason people get animated about The Simpsons: Everyone comes to Springfield. More than 300 actors, rock stars and celebrities have appeared in the cartoons, from Aerosmith to Buzz Aldrin; Paul McCartney to Ed McMahon; Johnny Carson to Johnny Unitas; and Barry White to Betty White.

"In the beginning, there were a few big stars who were willing to be on the show - Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson (as singing bricklayer Leon Kompowsky) and Meryl Streep," says cartoonist Matt Groening, who created The Simpsons in 1987 as vignettes for Fox's Tracey Ullman Show. "But now everyone wants to be on the show." (Go Phish!)

For the few people The Simpsons can't get, producers rely on the show's gifted voice actors to provide a line from, say, former presidents George Bush, Jimmy Carter or Nixon.

7:30 p.m.: In a repeat from November, Homer goes to a rock 'n' roll fantasy camp with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, Lenny Kravitz and Brian Setzer(Channels 19, 45).
8 p.m.: Homer tries to win Bart's affection by skateboarding with Tony Hawk in the 300th episode (Channels 19, 45).
8:30 p.m.: Lisa competes in a spelling bee hosted by George Plimpton in another new episode (Channels 19, 45).
11 p.m.: James Lipton interviews The Simpsons cast, a repeat of last Sunday's Inside the Actors Studio (Bravo).
The six original cast members - Dan Castellaneta, Dayton's Nancy Cartwright, Julie Kavner, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer and Hank Azaria - bring to life the entire city of Springfield, more than 50 central and recurring characters.

"We have uniquely talented voice people. They are really great comic talent ... inventive, creative people," says executive producer James L. Brooks, who produced a decade of iconic TV shows in the 1970s: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Taxi and Lou Grant.

Millions toon in every week, however, for the brilliant words from more than two dozen writers. The writing staff is a mix of old hands (former executive producers Mirkin, Mike Scully, Mike Reiss) and young guys who grew up watching the show.

"The newest writers are the most fiercely protective of the characters and of the history of the show," Groening says.

The Simpsons scripts are thicker than other sitcoms producers say, because of the layers of sight gags and background jokes. True Simpsons geeks know a laugh can be hidden in a sign on a passenger jet ("Air Delaware") or in front of a church ("Today's Topic: He Knows What You Did Last Summer" or "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Salvation.")

Marge once shopped a sale offering "Greeting Cards $5/lb."

Each show is packed with pop culture references - Viagra, Rogaine, Casablanca, corporate sponsorships, Mary Tyler Moore, body piercing, Perfect Strangers and the Kennedy Center Honors. And that's just in tonight's episode.

Often the writers' favorite target is their own Fox network, with cutting references to Celebrity Boxing and other shows. Once the show opened with Bart writing on the blackboard: "Temptation Island was not a sleazy piece of crap."

Temptation Island has come and gone, too. So have more than a half-dozen prime-time animated series launched in the past 10 years: Family Guy, Family Dog, Fish Police, The Critic, Home Movies, The PJs, Mission Hill, Beavis & Butt-head and God, The Devil and Bob.

In fact, TV's lack of a successful prime-time cartoon following The Flintstones (1960-66) made it difficult for Brooks and Groening to sell The Simpsons to Fox, then TV's fledgling fourth network.

"There hadn't been an animated show in prime-time for over a quarter of a century, and it was a real fight to get them to put us on," Brooks recalls.

"They said, `Don't do a series' because it was so expensive to make 13 shows. They wanted us to do four specials, and we fought against that. We wanted a chance to do a series and see what it did - and it worked."

Formula still works

It's still working. The Simpsons is Fox's highest-rated scripted series (No. 22) this season, watched by 14.25 million people every week. Only the twice-weekly American Idol (Nos. 2, 3) and Joe Millionaire (No. 7) reality shows average more viewers on Fox. And The Simpsons ranks higher (No. 14) with viewers 18-49, the demographic most advertisers demand.

Last month Fox renewed The Simpsons for two more seasons (the 15th and 16th). At an average of 22 new shows per season, The Simpsons could pass Ozzie & Harriet's record (435 episodes) as the longest-running TV sitcom in six years.

So how long can The Simpsons run before they finally become Nielsen under-achievers?

"I don't know. We're assuming it can run for 16 years, so far," Brooks says. The producers have been reluctant to negotiate long-term renewals with Fox "because we're really haunted by never letting the show go lame."

Groening sent shockwaves through Simpsons fans not too long ago by saying the beloved cartoon is closer to its end than the beginning.

"We've been on since 1987, so that means I don't think we're going to be on for another 16 years. That's what that meant," he explains.

"That's what I get for trying to be creative in an interview. So now my new answer, to make everyone happy, is: `There is no end in sight.' Which is true."

Cartwright - who initially auditioned for Lisa, then became inspired by a rendering of Bart - puts it this way: "As long as everybody's happy, and as long as they can maintain the integrity of the show, I think this show could go forever. I do. Because the public really, really loves it."

Forever? Aye carumba! But that's how long Bart will be stuck in fourth grade anyway.


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