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A milestone for 'The Simpsons'

Show celebrates 300th episode Sunday

By Todd Leopold

The Simpsons
America's favorite family: Lisa, Maggie, Marge, Homer and Bart Simpson.

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(CNN) -- When "The Simpsons" debuted as a series in 1990, doomsayers cried it was The End of Western Civilization.

The show's yellow-headed figures were everywhere: on T-shirts, lunch boxes, available as collectible figurines. Schoolchildren chanted "Ay, caramba!" and "Don't have a cow, man" and "I'm Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?" to unsuspecting teachers. On the show, nothing was sacred, nothing was beholden.

Even the Fox network -- the august home of "21 Jump Street" and "The New Adventures of Beans Baxter" and "Married ... with Children" -- was caught off guard by the popularity of the show featuring this upstart family, a group once consigned to shorts during "The Tracey Ullman Show."

"The Simpsons" -- befuddled nuclear power plant worker Homer, tall-blue-haired homemaker Marge, bratty Bart, thoughtful Lisa, baby Maggie, and all their neighbors, friends, and fellow residents of Springfield, U.S.A. -- had arrived. And the end was at hand, the critics said.

Thirteen years later, a funny thing has happened on the way to doomsday: "The Simpsons" is now one of the most-honored and best-loved (not to mention popular) series in television history.

Indeed, pop culture expert Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television, calls it not just one of the best TV shows in history but "among the best comic American art of any medium," up there with Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain, the Marx Brothers, and "Peanuts."

"It shows just how good television can be," says Thompson.

'It's more popular than ever'

On Sunday, "The Simpsons" will reach another milestone -- its 300th episode (Sunday, 8 p.m. EST, Fox). Moreover, the show has been renewed by Fox for two more seasons. By the time that contract is concluded -- in spring 2005 -- the show will have become the longest-running sitcom ever, besting "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet."

Simpsons 1991
The Simpsons' looks have changed slightly over the years. Here's the family in 1991.

Meanwhile, the show has become enmeshed in not just American culture, but Western culture, period. Millions can identify its characters, sing "Oh! Streetcar!" or "The Monorail Song," or at the very least, know where "D'oh!" or "Mmmmm ... doughnuts" is from without explanation. The show is popular the world over.

It's also a merchandising bonanza.

Peter Byrne, the executive vice president of Fox licensing and merchandising, estimates the show has arrangements with more than 500 licensees worldwide, and each licensee may have up to 200 products. The merchandise is distributed in about 55 countries. "It's more popular than ever," he says, though he declines to provide a dollar figure. (It's certainly more popular on television: ratings are up 12 percent this season.)

The "Simpsons" swag includes goofy gifts, such as a Homer Chia Pet; sporting goods, such as fishing lures; and food products such as Butterfinger chocolate bars.

The licensing division works closely with "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening and the show's producers, and there are a few areas it won't touch. Alcohol, for example, despite Homer's fondness for Duff beer.

"As the show is managed for the long haul, we do the licensing program for the long haul," says Byrne.

'So literate, so layered'

Simpsons rock stars
Many episodes have featured rock stars. On the current season's premiere, guests included Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Lenny Kravitz and Brian Setzer.

If you'd have told Groening back in 1990 that there would be a long haul, he probably would have laughed. He credits the show's staying power to its timing ("We were in the right place at the right time," he told The Associated Press), the power of producer James L. Brooks ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," the movie "Broadcast News") and its animated format, which allowed the show to avoid meddling Fox note-givers.

"There's nothing glamorous about a network executive peering over the shoulders of people making goofy drawings," he told the AP. "They'd rather hang around the edges of a sitcom set and say an actress needs to have a more revealing blouse."

"One of [Brooks'] stipulations was no notes from network executives," Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer Simpson and many others) said on a recent "Simpsons" cast episode of Bravo's "Inside the Actors Studio."

The animation has also allowed the show to exist outside of time, Thompson adds. The characters never age, so there's never a concern of "characters outgrowing their parts or becoming ridiculous," he says.

And then there's the writing.

"It's just so dense, so literate, so extraordinarily well-written, so layered," Thompson says. The show appeals to children with "these brightly colored people with grocery-bag-shaped heads," he says, and then it will throw in a Schopenhauer joke, he observes.

Of course, there are some who say the show has passed its peak. Jon Hein, the creator of the Web site -- which charts the rise and fall of TV shows and other pop culture -- says "The Simpsons" is by far the most popular topic on his Web site, and there have been rumblings that the show has leaped the fish, or at least started turning into chum.

"The plots have gotten rehashed, the jokes have gotten less funny, and the characters have dropped in quality, especially Homer," writes one poster, noting that Homer is now dumber than ever. Others gave up when one well-known character, Maude Flanders, was killed off.

'It's never afraid of spoofing itself'

Hein doesn't buy it.

"I truly believe it's constantly reinventing itself," he says, adding it's the one show that was said to have "never jumped" in his "Jump the Shark" book. "It's never afraid of spoofing itself." The show has even done two bits making fun of the prospect of jumping the shark.

The show does try to stay edgy, says Groening, which means ruffling a few feathers.

start quoteIt shows just how good television can be.end quote
-- Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television

"Periodically we get in trouble," he said to the AP. "We offend somebody and Fox feels intimidated by them."

Yet it's even become beloved by frequent targets, such as religious fundamentalists.

"We have been on the air long enough we've gone completely around from being denounced by conservative Christians ... to myself being the subject of cover stories in two Christian magazines hailing the show as the most moral show on TV," Harry Shearer, the versatile voice of Rev. Lovejoy and many others, said on "Inside the Actors Studio."

The show probably will continue as long as Groening, the producers, the writers and the cast (Castellaneta, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, and Shearer) want it to. For sustained excellence, the only comedy Thompson can compare it to is "The Andy Griffith Show," which ran eight seasons and went out on top (if you don't count spinoff "Mayberry RFD," anyway). "M*A*S*H" ran 11 years but grew tired toward the end; "Seinfeld's" post-Larry David era still raises hackles among aficionados.

"Even if it stopped now, its combination of longevity and quality has never been matched," Thompson says. The show is exceptional also in that it has done so with a revolving door of writers, as well as survived its initial faddishness with Bart. The golden era began when the writers turned to Homer, and Homer, Thompson says, "is one of the great comic creations. ... He's complex in his own lack of complexity."

That might be hard for Homer -- the man who created a jingle that went, "Call Mr. Plow, that's the name, that name again is Mr. Plow" -- to understand. But he'll have plenty of time to study. With 300 episodes and more, the show will be rerun forever.

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