On Sunday, Feb. 19, "The Simpsons" marks an extraordinary feat -- its 500th episode.
The characters, which began as droopier versions in 20-second cartoons on "The Tracey Ullman Show," have evolved, as creator Matt Groening and star Dan Castellaneta discuss in a long and very rare interview with Zap2it.
First, though, consider some numbers. Now in its 23rd season, the show has won 27 Emmy Awards, is seen in more than 100 countries and has 37 million likes on its Facebook page.
Guest stars have included Buzz Aldrin, Anne Bancroft, Tony Blair, Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Denver, Stephen Hawking, Michael Jackson, Jack Lemmon, Jack LaLanne, Paul Newman, the Ramones, J.K. Rowling, Elizabeth Taylor and John Updike. It's in the Guinness Book of Records for having the most guest stars.
Before they worked together, Groening loved Castellaneta's improv work, and Castellaneta read Groening's "Life in Hell" comics; the two still get a kick out of each other.
Question: Did you have any notion "The Simpsons" would have such a life or that it would provide your livelihoods?
Groening: I thought the show would be a hit. It was always defined even when they were 20-second cartoons on "The Tracey Ullman Show." It was designed to be a TV series. However, I didn't think it would be that successful. Maybe we would get it on the air. I didn't think we would have it on the air 25 years later. I have been working with Dan since '87, and I still can't believe those voices come out of his mouth. I am always reminded of when Dan and I were in New Orleans and walking around the French Quarter, I would throw out ideas to Dan, and one was an idea (that has not been done) when the Simpsons get a pet baboon, and it's very aggressive, and the Simpsons have to live on the first floor of the house.
Castellaneta: (In Homer's voice) Stay there, Coco! Don't play with that! That is the remote. That's mine. I am beginning to think this is not a good idea.
Q: What are your favorite lines?
Groening: My favorite line you ever said on the show was in the ill-fated monorail episode. The control panel opens up, and a mother possum is hanging by (her) tail, and Homer says, "I call the big one Bitey." He doesn't understand it is a possum. And he is perfectly happy that it bit him.
Q: Who have been some of your favorite guest stars?
Castellaneta: Harvey Fierstein is really great. He played Homer's assistant, secretary. It was a really interesting character, who basically would fall on a bomb for Homer. I thought it was pretty cool to meet a lot of these rock and roll stars that we had guest on the show, and going to London and meeting the Who.
Groening: The high point of my life was watching Dan crack up Mick Jagger.
Castellaneta: Mick Jagger said, "Homer, we want you to come to the concert." But Homer thought he would play in the band. And Mick Jagger said, "We just need you to check the mic." Homer said, (in Homer's voice) "Can't you do it?"
Groening: No one ever said that to Mick Jagger.
Q: Who would you still like to have on the show?
Castellaneta: He was our first big name.
Q: Any other stories from guest stars?
Groening: When Paul and Linda McCartney guested on the show, we made Lisa a vegetarian, and Paul said he would do it as long as Lisa remained a vegetarian, not a vegetarian of the week, and it has given us a great deal of material.
Q: Are either of you ever surprised by what you can get on TV?
Castellaneta: (Anchorman) Kent Brockman was on (the air). The town split in two, and they drained the river and found gold at the bottom, so we can buy water so everyone can be taking golden showers. And Kent Brockman was snickering, and I thought, "That is never going to make it on." And some of the most innocuous -- you can't show Homer's butt crack more than twice. That's because we don't want anyone to get too turned on.
Q: When you're clicking through stations, will you stop and watch?
Castellaneta: I will watch.
Groening: When you are working on these episodes, you are trying to make them as good as possible and spend long hours trying to make it look tossed off. To then be able to look at it years later, generally I find I like them more than I did at the time.
Q: Why is the show a legend?
Castellaneta: Certainly the length of the show, how long it has run. The show carved out new territory. I feel it has influenced a lot of movies and other television shows. You even think some Simpsons were blown up into movies. I have seen some plots of movies, and I have said, "Wait a minute, we did that five years ago." But I am not saying "The Hangover" was taken completely from "The Simpsons."
Groening: It is fun to know that you entertain people over a long number of years, and some kids have grown up, their world has always been a world in which "The Simpsons" are always on TV. And that we have done this comedy that is basically a checklist of all of the different ways there are of doing jokes, parodies and homages to older movies and silent movies and cartoons and many autobiographical elements of whoever wrote the scene.