'The Simpsons' Hits a Landmark

Homer Simpson is gunning for you, Matt Dillon.

With Sunday's premiere (Fox, 8 ET/PT), "The Simpsons" will tie "Gunsmoke's" record of 20 seasons on the air.

The writing staff keeps track of the longevity milestones, executive producer Al Jean says, but creator Matt Groening only cops to one record for the iconic Springfield family, its friends and neighbors. "I think we've used more yellow paint than any other TV show," he says.

Both believe the show is still performing strongly despite recording 445 episodes, including a season premiere that has Homer and neighbor Ned Flanders teaming as bounty hunters and Marge Simpson unwittingly going to work at an erotic bakery. "The writers and animators continue to amaze me," Groening says.

He has proof of the show's staying power, too: its 10th Emmy for outstanding animated series, bestowed this month.

"Every time we get an Emmy, it buys us a couple more years" on the air, Groening says. "That gives us one year to wreck the show and one year to run it into the ground."

Actually, they probably have more time for demolition, if they so choose, with the voice actors signed for four years, including the one that starts this weekend. That would put the show over the 500-episode mark, leaving it trailing only Dillon's "Gunsmoke" (633) and "Lassie" (588) for the most episodes of an entertainment series.

Other evidence of "The Simpsons'" continued vitality includes "The Simpsons Movie," which took in $526 million worldwide, and The Simpsons Ride, which opened this year at Universal theme parks in California and Florida.

Jean says there will be a movie sequel, but there are no plans yet and it probably wouldn't happen until the TV show ends production.

Asked for a favorite "Simpsons" moment, Groening chooses slapstick over satiric, each a show specialty.

"There's an episode from a few years ago in which Homer tries to kill a spider in his garage and ends up getting his neck smashed repeatedly by the automatic garage-door opener. It's just an exquisite little piece of mayhem," he says.

His rare disappointment comes when he feels a gag or concept contradicts the history of the show, "such as when we found out that Principal Skinner was really an imposter."

If the show seems to be more political these days, Jean says that it's just reflecting a more politicized "us vs. them" society of recent years.

Even though production begins nearly a year before broadcast, some upcoming shows are timely. When the Simpson house is foreclosed, neighbor Ned Flanders buys it back and rents it to Homer, Marge and company.

"Things turn nasty," Groening says.

In another, when Bart befriends a Muslim boy, Homer suspects the boy's family of organizing a terrorist plot. In a segment of "Treehouse of Horror XIX" (Nov. 2), the annual Halloween trilogy, Homer tries to vote for Barack Obama, but the machine keeps casting ballots before attacking him. That episode also features "It's a Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse."

After such a long time, Groening says a major show challenge is to avoid repeating itself, as sometimes happens. He disagrees with critics who question the quality of the show as it ages.

"We've had our ups and downs, but it seems like most people who say the show has gone downhill don't watch it," he says. "The latest episodes are as clever, complicated, sophisticated and wild as any we have ever done."

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