This Sunday, Feb. 19, at 8pm ET/PT, The Simpsons will air its milestone 500th episode, “At Long Last Leave,” in which the Simpson family is evicted from Springfield and joins an off-the-grid community outside of town.
But it doesn’t look as if The Simpsons will be evicted from the hearts and minds of millions of fans any time soon. The show’s recent deal with FOX means it will be going through at least Episode 559, and the series remains a Sunday-night staple for the network, even in the wake of cast renegotiations and almost blasphemous rumors of cancellation recently.
Given how long the show has been on, and how it has evolved — both in the technical ways it is created, and in its focus and tone — it makes sense to talk to a person who’s been there since the beginning.
A few days ago, series executive producer Al Jean (pictured left, opening the festivities for The Simpsons 500th Episode Celebration on Feb. 13) took part in a conference call with reporters to talk about the 500th episode, and The Simpsons in general.
Jean has worked on the show since it became a series in 1989. He has credit on over 400 episodes, and has been a showrunner for over 250. In addition to eight Emmys, he has won a Peabody Award for his work on the series. Just a few of the Simpsons episodes that Jean has written or co-written include “Moaning Lisa,” “The Way We Was,” “Treehouse of Horror II & III,” “Stark Raving Dad,” “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala (annoyed grunt) cious,” “Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder,” “Day of the Jackanapes” and the Emmy-winning “HOMR.” Jean also served as writer and producer on 2007′s The Simpsons Movie, working heavily on the film throughout its four-year production.
Here’s some of what Jean had to say on various Simpsons-related topics during the call:
ON WHY “THE SIMPSONS” HAS BEEN ABLE TO LAST FOR 500 EPISODES
I think there are several reasons. I think that the way that the show was conceived by Matt [Groening] and Jim [Brooks]. It is just such a rich universe and such a story that people like to see repeated. I think the fact that the characters don’t age is key. I think if Bart was really 40 and living on his parents’ couch it would be too sad. And we just work really hard. Everybody on the show just really takes it seriously and acts like it’s the first season and we’re fighting for our lives.
HIS THOUGHTS OF THE POTENTIAL OF “THE SIMPSONS” AS A SERIES WHEN HE FIRST JOINED IT
What they sent us — they were looking for writers to turn it into a half-an-hour show — was Tracey Ullman shorts compiled on a videocassette. I thought they were really funny. The job was only two days a week. It was turned down by several people before us, but I liked [creator Matt Groening's comic strip] Life in Hell very much, and it was a chance to work for [executive producer] Jim Brooks, so I thought it was going to be a good job. I’d be lying if I said I’d be here answering questions about Episode 500. They would’ve locked me up, but that’s it. I just thought it was a really exciting opportunity.
ON HOW THE SIMPSONS AS A FAMILY ARE DIFFERENT TODAY FROM THE SIMPSONS OF 1989
I think the world maybe has gotten a little bit more post-apocalyptic in its thinking. You see a lot of sort of dire prognostications, bleak visions of the future. So I think that the show reflects that a little bit, but we were never that optimistic about big institutions and governments. We were always more interested in the relationship of the family.
ON COMING UP WITH ALL THE COUCH GAGS AND BART’S CHALKBOARD WRITINGS IN THE INTROS OVER THE YEARS
At the beginning, Matt and [executive producer] Sam Simon wanted to change the credits every episode, because, as you recall, when we debuted there were much longer credits on the shows, and they wanted to do something that would keep it interesting, and you would never feel that any episode was the same as the others. Over the years, we’ve often cut back to where it’s just the couch gag being new.
I’ll be honest. The toughest part is to do the chalkboard — I don’t even know how many he is to write with chalk on blackboard because it’s just kind of like an archaic form, and we try to avoid that one. … although Bart’s [predictions] on the chalkboard have been excellent. He called the housing bubble and the Super Bowl. Read the chalkboard before you invest.
But the couch gags are a real inspiration, and some of our best couch gags, I think we’ve done in the last 100 episodes.
ON WHAT HAS MADE THE SIMPSONS CHARACTERS SO ICONIC
There are a lot of different things. One thing, I think, is these are very universal designs, and even a child — like our daughter can draw Homer and you recognize it as Homer, and she’s only seven. These characters are really the kind of universal looks. They stand out when you’re flipping a channel. People stay on it and watch it. It just tapped into something that there was a real place for, and I’m lucky to have been there when it started.
ON “THE SIMPSONS” BECOMING A GLOBAL PHENOMENON
Part of it is, I think, the world hates America, so we’ve really cashed in on that. And I think that, more seriously or somewhat seriously, that it’s about a family, and no matter where you go, people have a family, and it’s usually a family that doesn’t work perfectly. So it relates very well to anyone who looks at it.
And, of course, because it’s animated, we’re able to use local talent. In countries that don’t speak English, the people who do the voices of the characters become big stars. I was talking to the syndicator from Germany. He sad, sadly, the woman who voiced Marge passed away, and when they aired the new voice, 16,000 people wrote in saying, “Why did you get rid of the old Marge?” They had to take out an ad explaining what had happened. The local Simpsons are extremely popular.
ON WHETHER ANY CHARACTERS WILL BE KILLED OFF THIS SEASON
No. We did it a little bit with Maude Flanders and Bleeding Gums Murphy. I think that people don’t want to see us kill off Grampa. They want him to be around. They want this universe to sort of stay roughly the same, just the way that Bugs Bunny never killed Elmer Fudd. It’s really kind of similar.
ON HOW CLOSE THE VOICE TALENT CAME TO LEAVING LAST FALL
I think it was less of a close call than people thought reading the coverage. What happens is the cast has two, three, four-year contracts, and when they expire then they’re renegotiated. It’s not a holdout. It’s not a walkout. It’s the way business works. This was actually a very early signing. The network had said that the cost of the show that we were doing was prohibitive, and as you can see, shows like House did come to an end because of cost. They said if you can get it down to a certain number we’d love to keep going as long as you can, and we did. Going through the whole budget, including the cast, and everybody just loves it so much that they said, “To keep it going we’ll work with what we see as a genuine concern.”
We had an episode which we just aired last Christmas called “Holidays of Future Passed.” Had we ended the series that would’ve been the last episode. We were prepared to do that, but in my opinion, having been privy to it, I don’t think it ever really got close to that point. … I personally wouldn’t want to do the show without the people that we have. I mean, they’re obviously integral to it, and we’ve done so many episodes I can’t conceive of it without them. Had they not signed, we would’ve stopped the show.
ON WHETHER THEY HAVE A SPECIAL EPISODE PLANNED IN CASE THE SERIES ENDS
No. We spent it. Right now there is no clue and no plan. It’s not a show like Lost, where we’re going to hope to answer a fundamental question with our last episode. I’m sure whatever we do it’ll want to have a little bit of closure, but also just be really emotional and true to the series.
ON WHAT TO EXPECT IN THE 500TH EPISODE
There are a lot of little touches marking the milestone the way we like to, sort of, at the same time celebrate and mock something. And then there’s a really nice, emotional story about the family finding out how their neighbors really feel about them, and it’s not good, and they have to deal with that.
ON WIKILEAKS FOUNDER JULIAN ASSANGE DOING A GUEST VOICE IN EPISODE 500, AND TRACKING DOWN SUCH HARD-TO-FIND GUEST STARS
Obviously, he’s a controversial figure, and that was discussed before we agreed to let him do it. It’s a funny cameo, and it makes no judgments about the larger case about him. So, yes, he’s in it, and we had to record him over the phone. It was a very kind of cloak-and-dagger thing, but we’ve been specializing in finding people who can’t be found, so we thought it’d be especially unique for the 500th episode. I don’t think he was on the 500th episode of Gunsmoke. …
I had heard through Matt Groening, and I don’t know who told him, that Mr. Assange was interested in being on the show. So we had our casting director, Bonnie Pietila, who also tracked down Banksy and Thomas Pynchon, try to locate him and she did. If there’s a missing person you want to find, she’s the person to contact. …
The Banksy thing I thought was amazing, and I never even met him or talked to him. It was all via email, so he could be a woman for all I know. We had Tony Blair on the show. That still boggles my mind. … I think [The Simpsons] is just one of the most recognized — for lack of a better word — literary accomplishments in history. Really, you go around the world, and someone like Julian Assange says, “I’d like to be on The Simpsons,” which is just something I never would’ve conceived of 20 years ago.
ON THE CHALLENGE OF KEEPING THE SERIES GOING STRONG
Once you get the idea, we have 20 great writers, and you can really develop it in a way that I think is funny and emotional. But I’d be crazy if I wouldn’t say it’s harder to come up with new ideas now than 100 episodes ago. And it’s not just 500 [episodes], because we often do two or three storylines in an episode, so it’s really more like 1,000. I don’t even watch the other animated shows. Then I would just sit here going, “It’s been done.”
ON JUST HOW MUCH LONGER “THE SIMPSONS” CAN GO
We’re definitely going to do a total of 559. That’s what the new deal is for, but I honestly think — because, again, it’s a show with a really rich universe, many characters. It centers on a family, which is extremely universal. I don’t know where the end is. I’ve jokingly said, “Why not 1,000? Why not 2,000?” But that sounds as preposterous to me now as 500 did then, so I really don’t know.
Al Jean photo credit: Phil McCarten/FOX
The Simpsons: “There’s No Disgrace Like Home” photo credit: © 1990 Fox Broadcasting. The Simpsons ™ and © 1990 TTCFFC. All Rights Reserved.
The Simpsons: “At Long Last Leave” photo credit: © 2012 Fox Broadcasting. The Simpsons ™ and © 2012 TTCFFC. All Rights Reserved.