‘The Simpsons’ Marks 600 Episodes With Latest ‘Treehouse of Horror’
The great American playwright George S. Kaufman famously said, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” Oh, yeah? Tell that to The Simpsons!
Fox’s star-spangled salute to sass and sarcasm—conceived by Matt Groening, James L. Brooks and Sam Simon—bypassed Gunsmoke in 2009 to become the longest-running scripted primetime series in American TV history. Now in its 28th season, The Simpsons will air its 600th episode on October 16. But who’s counting?
“When we hit 100 episodes, we opened the show with Bart writing on the chalkboard, ‘I will not celebrate meaningless milestones’—so that must mean our 600th is six times as meaningless!” cracks showrunner Al Jean. “Yes, this is a big accomplishment, but we don’t want to pat ourselves on the back about it. That would be against everything we stand for. Oh, who are we kidding? It’s incredibly cool.”
Chilling, in fact. The 600th also happens to be the show’s annual Halloween trilogy episode, “Treehouse of Horror,” which is always a gruesome delight. “There are no rules with our Halloween shows,” says co-executive producer Joel Cohen, who wrote this year’s installment. “But there are certainly times when we’ve gone, ‘Whoa! This is getting a little too gross!’ Then we pull back on the mangling a bit—just to the edge of bad taste.”
Behold the horrors to come: “Treehouse XXVII” kicks off with a quickie cold open in which a quartet of baddies—including Sideshow Bob and the dead Frank Grimes—shows up to raise hell because they feel wronged by the Simpsons. The first tale, “Dry Hard,” is a riff on the California drought with the children of an extremely parched Springfield fighting each other to the death. The grand prize? Access to Mr. Burns’s personal reservoir. Yes, The Simpsons is only now getting around to skewering the Hunger Games saga. “But in a way it’s good we waited,” notes Cohen. “Now we can pay tribute to all four crappy movies at once!”
There’s even more child gore in “BFF,” a story of Lisa’s imaginary friend Rachel (voiced by Sarah Silverman), who gets jealous and goes on a murderous rampage to eliminate Lisa’s real-life pals. The episode concludes with “Moefinger,” a James Bond spoof that reveals Moe’s dive bar isn’t what it seems. “Moe and the other barflies are secretly running a high-tech spy network that’s trying to save the world,” Jean says. “Some of the action takes place at a Steely Dan concert where everyone is on drugs. We actually got [band cofounder] Donald Fagen to make a guest appearance and say, ‘Drugs at a Steely Dan concert? I never thought I’d see the day.’” Jean makes no bones about it: “When we want to meet a certain celebrity, we write them a part.”
So far, that’s worked like a dream. The Simpsons’ roster of voiceover guest stars is a veritable Mount Olympus of showbiz immortals. Among them: Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, Mel Brooks, Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor, who voiced Baby Maggie’s very first word: “Daddy.”
But Jean, a former Republican from Michigan, is careful that the series not come off too Hollywood elite. “Jim Brooks has always been adamant that we take all points of view and never talk down to anybody,” says Jean, who admits it’s getting harder to write satire now that we all find ourselves living in one. “The idea that a Republican candidate for president would talk about the size of his penis during a television debate is beyond anything we would have come up with in the writers’ room.”
Still, the show stays timely—not easy when scripts are locked and loaded 10 months before they air. One upcoming episode finds Grandpa Simpson getting such crummy treatment at the local VA hospital that he heads to Cuba for better health care. In another, filthy rich Mr. Burns—clearly the show’s Trump figure—is running a for-profit university.
But underneath the jokes and the jabs lies what may be the true secret of The Simpsons success. “We re-up your faith in humanity,” says actress Yeardley Smith, who gives voice to the savvy, socially conscious 8-year-old Lisa Simpson. “While everything from the political scene to the weather changes drastically, we are a constant. We are a reminder that, no matter how crazy things get, love will last, families endure, values matter.”
Of course, it helps that this madcap, mustard-yellow clan never ages a day. “We are frozen in time,” says Smith. “Homer will always be a slob and a jackass, and Marge will always forgive him. Bart will forever be a brat. And Lisa will never feel like she truly fits in. But they support each other. They hang in, no matter what.”
Even when The Simpsons does come to an end—and all monoliths crumble in time—it will probably not be the end. “To my mind, the best way to go out would be to have the final episode conclude with the Christmas pageant at Springfield Elementary School that began our first episode back in 1989,” says Jean. “That way, it won’t really be an ending at all. It’ll turn the series into one continuous loop that will play on forever.”
The Simpsons, Sundays, 8/7c, Fox