Sunday’s episode of Fox’s “The Simpsons”
will surpass the classic Western “Gunsmoke” as the longest-running prime-time scripted series, with 636 episodes.
Ramon Padilla and Karl Gelles
Leave it to The Simpsons’ Homeric sweep.
As Fox’s animated classic closes in on another TV milestone, the most episodes of a scripted prime-time series, it connects directly with Gunsmoke, the show it surpasses with Sunday’s 636th episode (Fox, 8 ET/PT).
Dennis Weaver, a star of the iconic CBS Western, guest-voiced an aging Western movie star in 2002.
Simpsons creator Matt Groening likes Gunsmoke (1955-1975) and remembers Weaver — “a good sport” — but you can’t blame him for forgetting a few of the hundreds of guest appearances that make up just one of hundreds of trivia lists relating to Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson and their many Springfield neighbors.
“I actually sometimes meet a famous actor and say, ‘Aw, you should do The Simpsons sometime.’ And they say, ‘I already did,’ “ he admits.
The appearances go back decades. The Emmy- and Peabody-winning series, which starts its 30th season this fall, began in 1987 as animated shorts on Fox’s sketch-comedy series The Tracey Ullman Show before getting its own 1989 Christmas special and launching as a series on Jan. 14, 1990.
In an exclusive mid-April interview, Groening discusses the upcoming milestone; an early indication of The Simpsons’ exceptionalism; repetition; criticism of convenience-store operator Apu Nahasapeemapetilon as an Indian stereotype; and whether an end date is in sight.
What kind of significance does this milestone, 636 episodes, have for you?
Matt Groening: We certainly didn’t expect to last this long. … When we started, we didn’t even know if the Fox network was going to last, much less our own show. Fox was an experiment, and they allowed us to do pretty much whatever we wanted.
It looks like The Simpsons may outlast the larger Fox corporation, with Disney seeking approval to buy much of the company.
Groening: Somebody pointed out that we predicted the sale of Fox to Disney (along with the election of President Trump, the U.S. curling team’s gold-medal win over Sweden at the Olympics and other successful prognostications). We have so many contradictory predictions that eventually some have to come true.
What led you to think The Simpsons would be something special?
Groening: The episode where Homer skateboards over Springfield Gorge — almost (Season 2’s “Bart the Daredevil” from 1990). It made me realize we’ve really got something. It’s like classic Warner Bros. (Looney Tunes), but we can do our own variation. Homer goes over the cliff. He doesn’t make it. He hits the wall all the way down. The skateboard lands on his head. He gets raised up on a gurney and bangs his head all the way up. He gets put in an ambulance that hits a tree. The gurney rolls out and he goes over the cliff again. It’s that extra plummet. That’s The Simpsons at its best.
The show is a forum for comedy ideas. There are very sophisticated references to great literature and cinema as well as the most basic slapstick cartoon gag.
Does Homer’s fall from a cliff in the April 29 record-breaker pay homage to that early scene?
Groening: Whenever anyone goes over a cliff on The Simpsons, we definitely have in the back of our minds the classic Springfield Gorge scene.
Is it difficult to remain relevant and avoid repetition?
Groening: We always try to surprise ourselves and then hope we surprise the audience. After doing so many episodes, those surprises become harder to think up. I’m very proud of some of the places the show has gone in recent years, including giving the couch-gag spot to outside animators (including Banksy, Bill Plympton, Don Hertzfeldt and this year’s Oscar winner for best director, Guillermo del Toro).
(As for repetition), now we have writers on the show who grew up with the show. What’s great is they have the history memorized. They’ll say, “You did that in Episode 178.”
Do you have any thoughts on the criticism of Apu as a stereotype?
Groening: Not really. I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.
In the April 8 episode, which addressed the Apu criticism and reignited controversy, what did it mean when Marge said, “Some things will be addressed at a later date,” and Lisa said, “If at all”?
Groening: We’ll let the show speak for itself.
You began as rebels. Is it an adjustment to become the establishment?
Groening: When we first started, we were part of the downfall of civilization. Bart said he was “an underachiever and proud of it, man.” Simpsons T-shirts were banned in grade schools. I felt that the controversy at the beginning of the show was, again, people pretending to be offended by Bart’s very mild sassiness. I knew it would blow over. At the heart of our show is a churchgoing family who eats dinner together every night and is very traditional. They drive each other crazy but they do love each other.
How long will The Simpsons continue?
Groening: I don’t see any end in sight. It’s always possible. (But) I live in denial of death, much less the cancellation of The Simpsons.
Is there anything left on your Simpsons accomplishment list?
Groening: We need our own full theme park. We’ve got some rides and a Krusty Burger at Universal (parks), but we need a 600-foot-tall statue of Homer at the center of a (theme) park. … And you eat dinner in his head.
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