"Then I had this crazy dream that my family were all just cartoon characters and that our success led to some crazy propaganda network called Fox News." –Bart Simpson
If Seinfeld had lasted as long as The Simpsons has, its finale would have featured a graying foursome closing in on 55 (60 for Kramer), far nearer, of course, to that much-derided condo in Miami Beach or to those discounted movie tickets than their selfish, or childish, or birdbrained shenanigans would have you believe. Eighteen seasons of The Sopranos–which ends in June after "only" eighty-six episodes–would make it statistically impossible for any of the original cast of wise guys not to be dead or incarcerated. And God only knows who would watch a Friends featuring a menopausal Monica and a Flomax-popping Chandler suffering from, as it’s wont to be called these days, BPH. No half-hour comedy has ever enjoyed as long of a run as The Simpsons, and, if Seinfeld (nine seasons), Friends (ten seasons), The Cosby Show (eight seasons, one of which matched Cliff and Claire directly against Homer and Marge on Thursday nights) and the other NBC Must See TV warriors are any indication, no half-hour comedy ever will.
Terribly animated (at least by Pixar or Dreamworks standards), unabashedly crude and, at times, prone to deus ex machina endings (including one featuring a robed, sandaled and bearded God who actually booms, "Deus ex machina!" as he sets things right), The Simpsons will present its 400th episode on Fox on May 20. It’s important to note the "on Fox" part, as there would be no Fox, let alone a Fox News, without The Simpsons. Indeed, the importance of The Simpsons to Fox was perhaps best illustrated in an episode of Family Guy, another Fox cartoon (and cheap Simpsons knock-off to some, delightful refurbishment of the genre to others), in which its protagonist rattles off some twenty-nine failed Fox programs that network execs had used to try and bolster the paltry Simpsons-Cops-America’s Most Wanted triad they were currently (and quite lopsidedly) using to entice primetime viewers.
Further proof of Homer’s influence on American culture was later made manifest when a Fox animator, Family Guy‘s Seth MacFarlane, crashed the gates of the Establishment and delivered the Class Day speech at Harvard’s 2006 commencement exercises. (Tim Russert did the honors in 2005; former President Clinton will take to the rostrum this year.) And though The Simpsons is typically associated with (and sometimes berated for) a leftist/liberal outlook, its pure literary, comedic and intellectual appeal is such that, during the run-up to the Iraq War, even National Review commentator Jonah Goldberg swiped "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," an epithet for the French coined by Groundskeeper Willy, for his own criticism of French refusal to join George W. Bush’s Coalition of the Willing.
Remarkably, after eighteen years, The Simpsons never strays far from a "smartest show on television" discussion. Actually, it never strays too far from much of anything it laid down in Episode 1, "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," a Christmas special aired December 17, 1989, which featured the first mainstream animated characters who drank beer to excess, bet the family savings at the dog track and said "damn," "hell" and "ass" like the rest of us (and like their nonanimated TV cousins). The Daily Show, a current contender for that "smartest show" claim–and, like The Simpsons, often bandied about by the likes of Olbermann when they aspire to hipness–has juggled formats, correspondents and hosts (even if Craig Kilborn’s two-year tenure was long ago eclipsed, if not downright forgotten) during the show’s eleven-year stint on Comedy Central. The Simpsons, in contrast, has featured in three different decades the same characters, the same settings and the same scenarios. The Simpsons is the Gordie Howe of sitcoms. Creator Matt Groening has watched as knockoffs, heirs apparent both worthy and unworthy and even an entire network devoted to cartoons of the swearing, non-Saturday morning variety, come, struggle for a time and–more often than not–go.