The Simpsons celebrate 500

REACHING a 500th episode is an enormous milestone in TV.

The Simpsons celebrate 500

But when the show is The Simpsons, about the anarchic family from Springfield who have tickled funny bones from Ballina to Beijing over the past 25 years, it’s appropriate. A few more birthday candles will surely be added.

In the 14th episode of the 23rd season, already shown in the US but due to be screened by Sky this summer, the citizens of Springfield have reached the end of their tether with Homer’s ‘drunken shenanigans’ and Bart’s pranks, and rise up to banish the Simpsons from the town. Being forcefully ejected from Springfield is nothing new to Homer & Co. It previously happened in a Halloween episode, a Christmas special and in The Simpsons Movie. Cast out as social pariahs, they end up living in a down-and-out community beyond the city limits called The Outlands — with none other than Julian Assange as their neighbour.

The Wikileaks founder, under house arrest in Britain and fighting extradition to Sweden for alleged sex crimes, recorded his cameo for the show over a transatlantic phone line.

Assange joins a long line of celebrities who couldn’t turn down the offer to guest on the show, including Liz Taylor, Buzz Aldrin, Hugh Hefner, Tony Blair and the Rolling Stones.

By the end of the episode, the folk of Springfield discover that life is dull without the Simpsons and invite them back to the community — much the same way millions of us around the world do every week.

At the end of the episode, a black screen pops up with a message: “Thanks for 500 shows,” it reads. “All we ask is that you go out and get some fresh air before logging onto the internet and saying how much this sucked.” Ah, yes, love ’em or hate ’em, there’s no denying the Simpsons know how to make an exit.

Originally created by animator Matt Groening as a 30-second short for The Tracy Ullman Show, this filler piece emerged from his successful syndicated newspaper strip, Life In Hell. Concerned that the print cartoon wouldn’t translate to television, Groening convinced producer James L Brooks that a new concept was needed.

“It was a different network, a different age, a different time when we started,” Brooks says. “Because there hadn’t been an animated series in primetime for a quarter of a century, it was a real fight to put The Simpsons on. Once we got there, it was very innocent. We never looked beyond just getting on the air.” After two seasons earning its stripes with Tracy Ullman, The Simpsons hit the big time in 1989 with its own primetime slot.

Executive producer on the show, Mike Scully, was at odds to explain the world’s continuing addiction to this yellow-tinted family when I interviewed him during his last visit to Kinsale.

“We’re as baffled as anyone else by the success, originally we figured it might last five years max,” he said. “I think The Simpsons has become a family show over the years — it’s gone from being the thing parents didn’t want their kids to watch to the show families now watch together.”

New generations are discovering the show, and replacing those who drift away, he said. “I think people become fans for a few years, then go away from it, then come back to it again surprised that we’re still there.” Asked to pick his favourite show, Scully, a third-generation Irish-American with Limerick and Tipperary roots, plumped for the episode in which U2 were guests. “They were great guys to work with, a lot of fun, really,” he said. “As their scene was set in Moe’s Bar, I remember Bono insisting that we should all be drinking beer, which was a real first for us and loosened things up considerably on set. There was a lot of spontaneity involved in the scripting of that one,” he said.

As the creator of the series, Groening based the characters on his friends and family in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. His parents are Homer and Margaret, and his siblings are Patty, Lisa and Maggie.

Other regulars on the show are named after Portland streets — Flanders, Quimby, Wiggum and Lovejoy.

The teenage fare of ’70s American television like Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best and Ozzie And Harriet provided the atmosphere of small town life on which Groening’s creations began to flourish.

“I guess the show worked because it really delivered the goods,” Groening said. “It’s a funny show where the characters are surprisingly likeable, given how ugly they are. It helps we’ve got this huge cast of characters that we can move around and explore their personal lives.”

Scully believes the secondary characters are vital to the show — allowing every viewer a personal favourite.

“I think you need characters like Mr Burns, Moe and Flanders to make the show complete. For my own favourite, I’d have to go with either The Comic Book Guy or Professor Frink — they always makes me laugh. When Hank Azaria steps up to the mic to record Frink, he doesn’t even know what he’s going to say half the time.”

Having hit the 500th episode milestone, Scully sees no end soon to the Simpson’s phenomenon. “It’s all about the stories, full stop,” he said. “If the day ever comes where we’re not coming up with good stories, it’s over. We’ll know it’s time to go when people stop tuning in. Television audiences do a pretty good job of letting their entertainers know when it’s time to get off the stage.”

* The Simpsons 500th, Sky One — this summer.

Simpsons fans set world record

Two Californians set a new Guinness World Record for the longest continuous television viewing by lasting through 86 hours and 37 minutes of The Simpsons.

Over four days from Feb 8 to 12, Jeremiah Franco, 22, and Carin Shreve, 33, beat 100 other contestants to win the world record and winners cheques for $10,500 each.

“It was kind of like being a kid again,” said Shreve.

“There’s not that many opportunities when you become an adult that you get to be a kid again, and that’s kind of what it was. I loved it.” Franco found the going tough: “I would say it was definitely enjoyable at first. But I think toward the end I really just wanted to get out of there.”

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