'The Simpsons' set to celebrate the big 4-5-0
Fox airing 450th episode Sunday, followed by doc special
NEW YORK -- To speak of the latest milestone by "The Simpsons" seems to restate the obvious.
Long before now, enduring life for "The Simpsons" and its brightly jaundiced folk was simply assumed. What began 20 years ago as a fluke then erupted into a pop-culture juggernaut has continued to spin yarns, spawn characters and lampoon society, with no end in sight.
On Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on Fox, "The Simpsons" is airing its 450th episode. "Once Upon a Time in Springfield" will be followed by an hourlong documentary from Morgan Spurlock ("30 Days," "Super Size Me"), fancifully titled "The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special in 3-D on Ice."
During this season, when NBC's "Law & Order" boasts of having tied "Gunsmoke" as TV's longest-running prime-time drama, "The Simpsons" has seized the mantle as TV's longest-running scripted nighttime series -- period. Ay, caramba!
"I think we could do it for another 20 years, actually," Matt Groening, "Simpsons" uber-creator, told the Associated Press at a recent "Simpsons" tribute by Los Angeles' Paley Center for Media. Then he dissolved into giggles.
"Omigod! Another 20? We'll TRY," he chortled. "We'll do our BEST!"
Here's hoping the spectacular ensemble of voice talent keeps talking to the end. After 20 years, Dan Castellaneta remains full-throated as portly, dimwitted dad Homer, Julie Kavner is tower-tressed mom Marge, Nancy Cartwright is lippy first-born Bart and Yeardley Smith is oversmart daughter Lisa.
Of course, these offscreen stars of "The Simpsons" are well served by visual artistry that, among things, keeps them shielded from the passage of time.
The show's writers play a huge role, too, with fastidiously crafted scripts that, by comparison, leave most sitcoms in the dust. (Granted, some fans may complain "The Simpsons" isn't as sharply realized as in earlier years, but still.)
"What I love about 'The Simpsons' is, it's so collaborative," Smith said. "The actors do a third, the animators do a third and the writers do a third. That's how I see it."
Also part of the acting troupe is Hank Azaria, a go-to guy for numerous characters including police Chief Wiggum, Comic Book Guy and convenience-store owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.
Rounding out the core cast is Harry Shearer, whose stable of roles includes Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Kent Brockman, Dr. Hibbert and Principal Skinner.
Besides "The Simpsons," Shearer, 66, is best-known from his role as bassist Derek Smalls in the 1984 mock musical documentary "This Is Spinal Tap," and subsequently in the real-life group that film inspired.
But Shearer, who began his career as a child actor on such early TV series as Jack Benny's weekly show, keeps a multiplicity of projects under way. These currently include a new DVD, "Unwigged & Unplugged," reteaming him musically with Tap bandmates Michael McKean and Christopher Guest. He hosts his own signature channel on the "My Damn Channel" comedy Web site.
The first "Simpsons" episode
And for a quarter-century, he has churned out "Le Show," a mostly solo act of wry humor, satirical sketches and blistering commentary, plus music (some performed by his singer-songwriter wife, Judith Owen).
"Le Show" is available through numerous radio and Web outlets, and by podcast. It's a weekly passion project that Shearer has always done gratis -- which means he's free from any vexing business entanglements.
"I never have a meeting, I never see a memo," he says. "It's between me and my audience."
Sipping an early morning orange juice during a Manhattan stopover a couple of weeks ago, Shearer describes "Le Show" as a place for him to give voice to whatever's on his mind.
"I'm an insatiable news junkie," he says, "so the reading that I do, I would do anyway. The show just gives me a way to answer back."
The sensibility of "Le Show," and much of Shearer's creative output, is conveniently echoed by "The Simpsons," even though he plays no part in its writing.
"Matt has a satirical, anti-authority streak," says Shearer. "From the beginning, 'The Simpsons' was taking the side of the family against all the authority figures and institutions that buffeted them in the modern world. Certainly, that resonated for me."
Shearer recalls the show's first script, whose characters assigned to him were highlighted in yellow. In the next script, other characters' dialogue would be highlighted for him.
Much of the time, he didn't see drawings of the new characters until months after he had created their voices, when the episode was finished: "Oh, THAT'S what he looks like!"
How many different voices has Shearer done on "The Simpsons" in all?
"The one real influence that Bob Dylan has had on my life is that, every time I'm asked that question, I give a different answer," says Shearer. "So: hundreds," he replies in a raspy Dylan-esque voice.
As the years passed, Shearer's many voices were part of the emerging world of Springfield, an oblivious community that seemed satisfied to settle for less in nearly everything: public education; organized religion; TV news and kids programming; government, law enforcement, business, and food and drink intake; and certainly environmental issues, such as the nuclear power plant that employs Homer Simpson, of all people, as a safety inspector.
What's the message of "The Simpsons"? That people, for all their highfalutin talk, are willing to settle for less if it's easier or saves them a buck?
Has "The Simpsons" taken on a new, unexpected relevance thanks to the current economic downturn, when standards for everything seem under threat?
"You look around and the only person who ostentatiously and repeatedly proclaims his pursuit of excellence is Rush Limbaugh," says Shearer, then does a perfect imitation of Limbaugh: "I'm presenting broadcast excellence."
"That's got to tell you something," Shearer says. "Everybody ELSE is just getting by."
But he, unlike most people taking stock of "The Simpsons" at this moment in its run, resists any grandiose claims for its legacy.
"Together with NFL football, 'The Simpsons' put the Fox network on the map -- whatever you think of that," he hedges. "And Fox has changed the face of network television -- you got to decide for better or worse.
"I wish I could say that we inspired an awful lot of funny, smart, irreverent, acerbic shows that took a lacerating view of the institutions of society. But I don't think we have."
Nor does he think the show -- or any contemporary satire -- really changes anything it lampoons.
"For instance, after 20 years and 450 episodes," Shearer sums up, "I don't really think 'The Simpsons' has increased the country's skepticism about nuclear power."
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