Michael Price has been around for the 300th, 400th and now 500th episodes of The Simpsons. He even remembers the first gag he was assigned to write back in late 2001, which oddly enough was for the 300th episode — the one where Bart finds out he was once Baby Stink-Breath. It involved finding one of Bart’s old commercials on a taped episode of Perfect Strangers and finessing a “Don’t be ridiculous” reference into the script for authenticity.
One of his more recent contributions will figure more prominently into the show’s already untouchable legacy. Price is the writer of the 500th episode, “At Long Last Leave,” which airs 8pm Sunday on FOX. The story revolves around Springfield’s residents finally getting fed up enough with the destruction wrought by Homer’s numbskullery, Bart’s pranks and Lisa’s do-gooderism that they decide to banish the family from the town.
Wait, that sounds a little like the plot of The Simpsons Movie, doesn’t it?
“I think it’s different from the movie in that it sort of does reference back the entire history of the show, the collective experience of Springfield vis-a-vis the Simpsons, whereas the movie they were forced to run away due to that very specific thing (i.e., Homer dumping toxic pig waste into Springfield’s water supply),” Price says. “Beyond that, I can’t tell you. (laughs) There certainly are similarities to the movie, but I think we liked it enough to go with it anyway.”
That points to what Price says is among the greatest challenges in writing for a show that’s been on 23 seasons — finding original stories to tell.
“That’s always the hardest part,” he says, “coming up with stories that are interesting to us. Recently, before the holiday break, we had our two story days where the whole staff gets together with [showrunner] Al Jean, Matt Groening and Jim Brooks, and we pitch our stories that we want to do for the next season. I’m always impressed by just the degree of really interesting and fun stories that haven’t been done before.”
When he wrote “At Long Last Leave” — a title that reflects Price’s love of musical theater, being a takeoff of the Cole Porter song “At Long Last Love” — he didn’t do so with an eye toward it being the 500th episode. Price says, in fact, that when the writers were pitching ideas for this season they were only “vaguely aware that we were coming up on that number.” But the themes of the story, which allow a review of the characters’ histories, resonated enough to have it take the landmark post, one Price says he’s “deeply honored” to have on his resume.
While the episode itself doesn’t have much in the way of blatant acknowledgment of the 500-episode milestone, Price says there is a special couch gag for the occasion.
During his years with the show, Price has been privy to several contract negotiations between the voice actors and the network, many of which appear to be contentious from the outside. There was heavy speculation going into this season that The Simpsons had finally run its course, and that it was entering its final two seasons. But Price says that isn’t necessarily the case, and that regardless of what’s going on with anybody’s contract, the atmosphere in the studio has always been a pleasant one.
“It’s very congenial, very happy,” he says. “Even in the past, when these sorts of things have gone down to the wire in terms of these deals, I think everyone sort of understands that this is how the business operates. In my experience, there’s never been any sort of residual effect afterward. We’re all just happy to be working on the show. … As long as we go along and continue to get the ratings … I think there’s no reason the show couldn’t go beyond these next two years.”
With a mind toward the future, Price was able to share a few upcoming story lines and guest stars. One episode he’s currently penning will see Itchy & Scratchy Land close down, which leads to Homer and Bart obtaining a small steam-engine train from the amusement park and restoring it to run in their back yard. This attracts the attention of fellow model-train enthusiasts like Rev. Lovejoy and Comic Book Guy, who at first just want to help out, but then end up taking over. Steve Carell recorded a voice spot for early next season, as did Brent Spiner from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who will voice a group of robots working at the nuclear power plant. Steve Coogan will turn up as the director of a cruise ship, and Portlandia‘s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein play the husband-and-wife team that lead a hipster invasion of Springfield.
Photo: © 2012 TCFFC