Oakily dokily! 'Simpsons' hits 250

By Bill Keveney

© USA Today, November 3, 2000.

With The Simpsons' 250th episode coming Sunday, the question arises: Just how long can the longest-running prime-time cartoon keep going?

"I thought we would start and then live forever," Simpsons creator Matt Groening says. "But that's how I feel about life, which obviously is untrue."

Maybe, but this is animation we're talking about, and Groening and executive producer Mike Scully have given up trying to predict the expiration date of Springfield's most famous — and infamous — family.

"I joined the show at the beginning of season five. My feeling then was that I was thrilled to get a chance to be on the show before it was over," Scully says. "Nobody was talking about season 12."

In recent years, Groening has offered a facetious answer to the longevity query — two more years, one to coast and one to run it into the ground — but he sees the show continuing as long as it keeps the creative collaboration responsible for its long success.

"The actors, the writers, the animators and the musicians are all on board with a singular vision of a really messed-up American family and their crazy neighbors," he says.

As a cartoon, The Simpsons appeals to children and adults on different levels, which has allowed the program to continue to attract new fans. Animation also has fewer physical boundaries and plot restrictions than live-action comedy, Groening says.

The future may hold a theatrical movie, but that's not likely until after the pop-culture icon finishes its prime-time run. With solid ratings and strong merchandise sales, that may not happen for a while. Acting and studio deals remain to be worked out, but Scully expects at least one more season after this one.

"The biggest surprise is we don't stink yet. Normally, when you've done 250 shows, you should be well past your prime," says Scully, who will take over a new Fox comedy, Schimmel, after finishing work on the 12th season.

Groening, who spends much of his time on his other Fox cartoon, Futurama, a comic strip, Life in Hell, and a comic book company, said The Simpsons has changed since its start as a short on The Tracey Ullman Show.

"The show's gotten wackier and Homer's gotten dumber than I had originally envisioned," he says.

Some fans, joined lately by a few print critics, contend that the more fantastic plots and the focus on Homer are signs the show is running out of ideas, though the show still boasts its usual gang of eccentric characters. Many of those critiques come from nitpickers whose devotion to the show borders on absurdity, Groening says. New ideas are tougher to find after more than 200 episodes, he and Scully say, but fresh ideas remain and the show's writers are still intrigued.

The season premiere finds Homer upset that Springfield is getting a second area code, meaning he will have to dial three extra numbers. The Who makes an appearance, adding to the show's long-running roster of star cameos. Drew Barrymore will pop up soon, providing the voice of the daughter Krusty the Clown didn't know he had . Authors Stephen King, John Updike and Amy Tan will play themselves.

The 'N Sync episode will introduce a new boy band — Bart, Milhouse, Nelson and Ralph . In other upcoming plots, Marge takes in a parolee, a snowstorm strands students at Springfield Elementary, Sideshow Bob (Kelsey Grammer) returns with another murderous plan, and doctors discover why Homer is stupid .

After an irreverent beginning that led to criticism from President Bush, The Simpsons today is sweet and even tame compared with harsher comedies, including South Park and Family Guy, Groening says.

In the early days, Bart was the original breakout character, but Homer — the symbol of guiltless, middle-aged male desire — became the star over the years.

"There's a lot more you can do with a grown man than you can with a 10-year-old boy," says Scully, who adds that the entire family — naughty Bart; socially conscious Lisa; pacifier-loving Maggie; and repressed Marge — is integral to the show.

He says The Simpsons still shakes things up, too, as when it killed off Maude Flanders last season, a passing that drew criticism.

"The show still interests us," Scully says. "In any given season, maybe four episodes come out great. Most of the rest are good. I've always felt even in a bad episode, you get 10 big laughs. That's more than a lot of sitcoms."

That may be why few sitcoms hit the 250 -episode milestone. But don't expect any commemoration on Sunday. That would be too predictable. The offbeat show picks its own benchmarks as it did in 1995 with "The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular."

Caption: 'Woo-hoo!': The infamous maladjusted family continues to attract new fans. (Fox)

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