D'oh! Can It Be Simpsons' 10th?

By Seth Sutel

© Associated Press, January 11, 2000.

``I've never done anything worthwhile in my life. I'm a big worthless nothing.'' - Homer Simpson, shortly after being fired.

``There, there, Homer. You'll find a job. You've caused lots of industrial accidents and you've always bounced back.'' - Homer's loving wife, Marge.

``Overachiever'' is hardly the word that comes to mind when one thinks of Homer Simpson, but let's give the guy a little credit. After all, he did clinch a number of awards at his high school reunion, including oldest car, most weight gained, most hair lost, lowest-paying job, and most improved odor.

Homer may not be a big success in his world, but he's a runaway hit in ours. Now the longest-running prime time entertainment show that's still on TV, ``The Simpsons'' celebrates 10 years on the air this Friday with a bash that includes getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

As if there were any need to confirm the huge role they have carved out in American culture and the entertainment business. It's hard to imagine that a decade ago parents were furious about the message the incorrigible, wise-cracking Bart was sending their kids, or that then-President Bush held out the Simpsons as an example of what was wrong with American families.

It's a long way from ``The Tracey Ullman Show,'' when Homer, Marge and their spikey-haired kids first penetrated our minds in 1987 with short animated segments between comedy routines. Two years later they had a Christmas special, and their first regular season began Jan. 14, 1990.

Since then, the Simpsons and their screwball (but let's face it, all-too familiar) approach to life have done much more than make animated shows safe for thinking people again. They gave a huge boost to the Fox network in its critical early years, a debt readily acknowledged by Sandy Grushow, chairman of the Fox TV Entertainment Group.

``The bottom line is that 'The Simpsons' is this network's flagship show. It's largely responsible for putting this network on the map,'' Grushow said. He said ``The Simpsons'' and ``The X-Files'' are the two most profitable series Fox ever made.

The Simpsons also spawned a number of other prime time animated programs, including ``King of the Hill,'' and launched the career of Conan O'Brien, who was a writer for ``The Simpsons'' when he was named to replace David Letterman as host of ``Late Night'' in 1993.

Even people who work for the show are surprised it's lasted so long. After all, creator Matt Groening was best known for the brutal, angst-ridden humor in his cartoon strip ``Life is Hell.'' Mother Jones magazine ran a cover story at the time of the show's launch titled ``TV is Hell: Can Matt Groening's Subversive Humor Survive Prime Time?''

More than merely surviving, the Simpsons won an Emmy their first season and caused a sensation among viewers. Not everyone was amused, though. Parents worried about Bart claiming to be an ``Underachiever - and proud of it.'' Barbara Bush called the show ``the dumbest thing'' she ever saw.

Mrs. Bush eventually came around, as did many other viewers initially put off by the merciless satire of institutions like church, school, work and family. Not to mention Homer's celebration of his own stupidity and his seemingly inhuman appetite for donuts and beer.

With so much time having passed since the Simpsons first joined us, it's fair to ask whether their popularity is a sign the show has toned down or whether our culture has simply become more accepting of the Simpsons and their special way of viewing the world.

To Mike Scully, the show's executive producer, the answer is clear: It's American attitudes and culture that have changed, while the show has stayed pretty much the same.

``There was a lot of controversy when the show first came on for its portrayal of the dysfunctional family,'' Scully said. ``But after 'Beavis and Butthead' came along, suddenly we were 'Leave it to Beaver.' We've gone from the show that parents didn't want their kids to watch to the one they sit down WITH their kids to watch.''

So what makes millions of us tune in every week? For many, it's the mixture of high-brow humor with gut-wrenching laughs that gives the show its appeal. In the same episode with clever references to Moby Dick or Shakespeare, Barney the barfly will emit a beer belch so powerful it makes his lips flap like a pennant.

At the end of the day, though, the positive message of familial love pushes through all the cultural satire.

``We'll get complaints once in a while about Homer's drinking, but he isn't presented as a role model. He's an idiot,'' Scully said. ``People don't look up to him for drinking too much or being lazy, but they look up to him for loving his family.''

One of the most remarkable feats the show has pulled off is its sterling reputation among intellectuals. Two prominent scientists have made guest appearances on the show, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist whose brilliance has been compared with Einstein's. Never mind that Homer initially mistook Hawking for Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine; both men use wheelchairs.

Scully explains the reasoning behind inviting Hawking on the show and having him do a scene with Homer in Moe's bar: ``It was a chance to get the world's smartest man and the world's stupidest man together in the same place.''

But perhaps the highest high-brow endorsement earned by the Simpsons came in 1998 when the American poet laureate, Robert Pinsky penned a reflection titled ``My Favorite Show'' for The New York Times Magazine, saying the Simpsons ``penetrated to the nature of television itself.''

How many more years have the Simpson got left? Executive producer Scully has stopped predicting, having been wrong twice before.

``I guess we'll get off the air when the American public asks us to.''

Submitted by Eric Wirtanen

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Last updated on January 12, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (