At 500 Episodes, How Does 'The Simpsons' Say Something New?

The long-running show's writers explain how their creative process works, two decades in.

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Fox

In 1987, half of Europe was controlled by the Soviet Union. Then Matt Groening, mostly known at the time for being creator of the syndicated comic strip "Life in Hell," started working on a series of animated shorts. They would air on the Tracey Ullman Show, on a then-fledgling FOX network.

James L. Brooks and Sam Simon, writers, producers, and veterans of sitcoms including Taxi and Cheers, took note of Groening's work and assembled a writing staff. By December 17, 1989, when The Simpsons premiered as a half-hour series, the Berlin Wall had fallen. The Warsaw Pact's last Stalinist, Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu, was under siege. Two years later, when FOX moved the show to Thursday nights to compete against The Cosby Show on NBC, the USSR was in ruins.

Coincidence? Well, yeah. Obviously. But the time-frame gives you some idea of just how long the show has been on the air. In the 499 episodes and 23 seasons since that fateful December day, we have had a Clinton, an Obama, and two Bushes in the White House. We've seen Keaton, Clooney, Kilmer, and Bale as Batman. We've been through a pair of Internet bubbles, three wars, and at least a dozen Brett Favre retirements and comebacks. Along the way, the population of these United States has jumping from 248 million to 312 million, meaning more than 64 million Americans alive today have never known a world without Maggie, Lisa, Bart, Marge, and Homer in it.

With Sunday's airing of "At Long Last Leave" on FOX, 8:00 Eastern, the family that defined dysfunctional hits its astonishing 500th episode—a mark reached by only two other primetime scripted TV series, Gunsmoke and Lassie. Neither of which was funny. And neither of which had a tenth of the social impact.

Being animated has helped, of course. The characters never have to age. But the show hasn't succeed merely by avoiding the horrors of a cute child star growing to a surly teen on screen.

The Simpsons was revolutionary for being the first show on TV about TV. Ostensibly the story of a nuclear family (pun intended) living in the generic American town of Springfield, USA, The Simpsons, as media scholar Douglas Rushkoff has noted, is really a show about media itself. The first, and by far the most literate TV show to take on mass media and its discontents as a theme, Homer and company have been deconstructing pop culture for our edification and pleasure since the gang at Community were getting meta in grade school. Be it Hitchcock movies, infomercials, the superficial and sensationalistic local news, or Thomas Pynchon novels, the show is a crash course in popular culture, nearly compulsively cataloging and critiquing other media forms.

The Tom and Jerry parody Itchy and Scratchy, for instance. That show-within-a-show obsessively watched by the Simpsons kids was dazzlingly original for pointing out—usually in bloody detail—the rather uncomfortable truth that many Saturday morning cartoon shows for kids are insanely, even sadistically violent. Having that disturbing fact about mass media confirmed by mass media is not only funny, but a profound comfort to an audience.

Al Jean was on that first writing staff in 1989. Now an executive producer with eight Emmys and a Peabody, he oversees the series' production as showrunner. Jean told us about the very unusual guest for episode 500: Julian Assange. Currently under house arrest Britain and fighting extradition to Sweden, the WikiLeaks founder recorded his cameo over the phone.

"That was a first," Jean said.

Assange joins a mind-boggling roster of guest stars who've been on over the decades, one that reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Bob Hope, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Steven Jay Gould, Steven Hawking, Werner Herzog. Really. It goes on and on. Consider just the "J" section, for instance, which includes Jeff Bezos. Jasper Johns, Johnny Carson, and John Updike. British Prime Minster Tony Blair was on. While he was in office.

Presented by

Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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