NEW YORK - To speak of the latest milestone by The Simpsons" seems to restate the obvious.
Long before now, enduring life for The Simpsons" and its brightly jaundiced folk was simply assumed. What began 20
years ago as a fluke then erupted into a pop-culture juggernaut has continued to spin yarns, spawn characters and
lampoon society with no end in sight.
At 7 p.m. Sunday on Fox, The Simpsons" will air its 450th episode. Once Upon a Time in Springfield" will be followed
by an hour-long documentary from Morgan Spurlock (30 Days," Super Size Me"), fancifully titled The Simpsons 20th
Anniversary Special in 3-D on Ice."
During this season, when NBC's Law & Order" boasts of having tied Gunsmoke" as TV's longest-running prime-time
drama, The Simpsons" has seized the mantle as TV's longest-running scripted nighttime series - period. Ay,caramba!
I think we could do it for another 20 years, actually," Matt Groening, Simpsons" uber-creator, said at a recent
Simpsons" tribute by Los Angeles' Paley Center for Media. Then he dissolved into giggles.
Omigod! Another 20? We'll try," he chortled. We'll do our best!"
Here's hoping the spectacular ensemble of voice talent keeps talking to the end. After 20 years, Dan Castellaneta
remains full-throated as portly, dimwitted dad Homer, Julie Kavner is tower-tressed mom Marge, Nancy Cartwright is
lippy first-born Bart and Yeardley Smith is over smart daughter Lisa.
Of course, these off-screen stars of The Simpsons" are well-served by visual artistry that, among things, keeps them
shielded from the passage of time.
The show's writers play a huge role, too, with fastidiously crafted scripts that, by comparison, leave most sitcoms in
the dust. (Granted, some fans may complain The Simpsons" isn't as sharply realized as in earlier years, but
What I love about 'The Simpsons' is, it's so collaborative," Smith said. The actors do a third, the animators do a
third and the writers do a third. That's how I see it."
Also part of the acting troupe is Hank Azaria, a go-to guy for numerous characters including police Chief Wiggum, Comic
Book Guy and convenience-store owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.
Rounding out the core cast is Harry Shearer, whose stable of roles includes Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Ned Flanders,Reverend Lovejoy, Kent Brockman, Dr. Hibbert and Principal Skinner.
Besides The Simpsons," Shearer, 66, is best-known from his role as bassist Derek Smalls in the 1984 mock musical
documentary This Is Spinal Tap," and subsequently in the real-life group that film inspired.
But Shearer, who began his career as a child actor on such early TV series as Jack Benny's weekly show, keeps a
multiplicity of projects under way. These currently include a new DVD, Unwigged & Unplugged," reteaming him
musically with Tap bandmates Michael McKean and Christopher Guest. He hosts his own signature channel on the My Damn
Channel" comedy Web site.
And for a quarter-century, he has churned out Le Show," a mostly solo act of wry humor, satirical sketches and
blistering commentary, plus music (some performed by his singer-songwriter wife, Judith Owen).
Le Show" is available through numerous radio and Web outlets, and by podcast. It's a weekly passion project that
Shearer has always done gratis - which means he's free from any vexing business entanglements.
I never have a meeting, I never see a memo," he says. It's between me and my audience."
Sipping an early morning orange juice during a Manhattan stopover a couple of weeks ago, Shearer describes Le Show" as
a place for him to give voice to whatever's on his mind.
I'm an insatiable news junkie, so the reading that I do, I would do anyway," he says. The show just gives me a way to
The sensibility of Le Show," and much of Shearer's creative output, is conveniently echoed by The Simpsons," even
though he plays no part in its writing.
Matt has a satirical, anti-authority streak," says Shearer. From the beginning, 'The Simpsons' was taking the side of
the family against all the authority figures and institutions that buffeted them in the modern world. Certainly, that
resonated for me."
Shearer recalls the show's first script, whose characters assigned to him were highlighted in yellow. In the next
script, other characters' dialogue would be highlighted for him.
Much of the time, he didn't see drawings of the new characters until months after he had created their voices, when the
episode was finished: Oh, that's what he looks like!"
How many different voices has Shearer done on The Simpsons" in all?
The one real influence that Bob Dylan has had on my life is that, every time I'm asked that question, I give a
different answer," says Shearer. So: hundreds," he says in a raspy Dylan-esque voice.
As the years passed, Shearer's many voices were part of the emerging world of Springfield, an oblivious community that
seemed satisfied to settle for less in nearly everything: public education; organized religion; TV news and kids
programming; government, law enforcement, business, and food and drink intake; and certainly environmental issues, such
as the nuclear power plant that employs Homer Simpson, of all people, as a safety inspector.
What's the message of The Simpsons"? That people, for all their highfalutin talk, are willing to settle for less if
it's easier or saves them a buck?
Has The Simpsons" taken on a new, unexpected relevance because of the current economic downturn, when standards for
everything seem under threat?
You look around and the only person who ostentatiously and repeatedly proclaims his pursuit of excellence is Rush
Limbaugh," says Shearer, then does a perfect imitation of Limbaugh: I'm presenting broadcast excellence."
That's got to tell you something," Shearer says. Everybody else is just getting by."
But he, unlike most people taking stock of The Simpsons" at this moment in its run, resists any grandiose claims for
Together with NFL football, 'The Simpsons' put the Fox network on the map - whatever you think of that," he says. And
Fox has changed the face of network television - you got to decide for better or worse.
I wish I could say that we inspired an awful lot of funny, smart, irreverent, acerbic shows that took a lacerating
view of the institutions of society. But I don't think we have."
Nor does he think the show - or any contemporary satire - really changes anything it lampoons.
For instance, after 20 years and 450 episodes, I don't really think 'The Simpsons' has increased the country's
skepticism about nuclear power," Shearer says.