For an overweight, doughnut-scarfing, beer-swilling, lazy idiot, Homer Simpson sure knows how to run a marathon.
His sitcom, “The Simpsons,” presented its 400th episode Sunday, capping 18 seasons with no finish line in sight.
And the characters may just be hitting their stride.
“The Simpsons Movie” arrives in theaters July 27 with the kind of anticipation usually reserved for more sophisticated cartoon characters, like Spider-Man and Shrek.
Of course, the residents of Springfield USA possess superpowers all their own. They’ve pulled off the unparalleled feat of remaining hip in the fickle world of pop culture with barely a tweak of the brush.
Bart’s still a brat. Marge’s hair remains a towering polyester blue. Principal Skinner hasn’t put in for that long-deserved pension. But the most critical element that hasn’t changed is the sitcom’s heart. Yes, Homer tumbles down plenty of cliffs, but he’s just as likely to find time to bond, however clumsily, with his daughter, Lisa.
“The Simpsons’ is plenty goofy and wacky and has some great side gags, but we consistantly try to return to some real emotion,” said executive producer Matt Groening, who invented the characters.
Gerald Erion, a professor at Medaille College in Buffalo, N.Y., and a contributor to the book “The Simpsons and Philosophy: The Doh! of Homer,” said the series contains deep ethical themes that hold up time and time again.
He’s particularly impressed with how the show doesn’t hesitate to tackle religion, whether it’s Homer’s guilt over skipping church or Ned Flanders experiencing Job-like tragedies, despite doing everything the Bible tells him to—even the stuff that contradicts other stuff.
Alastair Norcross, a professor who teaches a course on “The Simpsons” at Houston’s Rice University, said the show’s ambitious nature is the exact opposite of so much of what passes for humor in other programs, most notably “The Itchy and Scratchy Show,” the ultraviolent, dumbed-down cartoon that Bart and Lisa are hooked on.
Norcross, in all his academic wisdom, points out another secret ingredient to the show’s long-running success: It’s darn funny.
That may sound elementary, but coming up with jokes for 400 fast-moving episodes is more impressive than Marshal Matt Dillon shooting down bad guys for two decades or Andy Rooney still finding things to be cranky about for a 29th year.
“The characters are perennially funny,” Norcross said. “The lovable idiot is always going to be funny. The evil Mr. Burns is always going to be funny. Great humor is great humor. I mean, Shakespeare is still pretty funny.”
Norcross goes so far as to include a bonus question in one of his non-Simpson philosophy classes that asks students to compare the morality of two Shakespearean characters, or to do likewise with Homer and Flanders. Students who don’t know “The Simpsons” are forced to explain their ignorance.
“Everyone should be familiar with the two greatest products of Western civilization,” he said.
To keep the jokes fresh, the writers’ room is constantly changing. More than 90 scribes have worked for the show over the years, from Conan O’Brien to a recent hire who was born after 1980, the year Bart was supposedly hatched.
“We’ve got writers now who are so young that they grew up watching the show,” Groening said. “They’re always reminding those of us who have been around longer that we’ve already done a joke that somebody is pitching.”
The most important constant behind the scenes, according to producers and cast members, is executive producer James L. Brooks, who also was responsible for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi.”
“Jim has always had creative control and makes sure there are not too many cooks spoiling the soup,” said Yeardley Smith, who provides the voice of Lisa. “If you took that magic formula away, we probably wouldn’t have lasted more than six or seven years. I firmly believe that he’s the magic bullet.”
Brooks, who has also found time over the past two decades to direct award-winning movies such as “As Good As It Gets,” certainly had his hands full this past year, overseeing both the series and the movie. Many of the writers who have worked for him over the years came back to “The Simpsons,” with one room dedicated to TV episodes and the other to the film.
Brooks said the idea of a movie first came up in the series’ third year, when writers had an idea about Bart and Lisa attending the worst summer camp on Earth, led by Krusty the Clown.
“We thought it would be a great movie,” Brooks said. “But then we decided, `No, we’re a television show’ and that shut us up for a long time because we just wanted to be a television show. Then two years ago, almost simultaneously, we all began to think we should explore it.”
Groening said they wanted to tackle the big screen while the show was still vital and popular.
“I thought, `If we’re ever going to do it, let’s do it now,’’ he said. “I thought it would be really neat to do a movie while fans are still clamoring for it.”
If Internet buzz is any indication, there is indeed a lot of anticipation. Every little detail, like the confirmed appearance of the band Green Day in the movie, is being drooled over online.
And just how long will the fervor over “The Simpsons” last? Based on Brooks’ enthusiasm, it just may go on forever.
“If you see us working on the show every week, you’d know the passion we still have,” he said. “It’s very much like we’re just starting.”