Ray Romano provides the voice of Ray Magini, left, Homer Simpson s new pal in Sunday s 350th episode of The Simpsons.
Where has the time gone? It seems like only a few short years ago that The Simpsons emerged fully developed from the womb of The Tracey Ullman Show to begin its own amazing TV life cycle. Since then, it has outlasted quality sitcoms such as Cheers, Seinfeld, and Friends, and become the longest-running primetime animated series in television history.
Along the way, the sharply written, subversively witty show has managed to pick up a truckload of honors, including a Peabody Award and an amazing 21 Emmy Awards.
On Sunday night, The Simpsons will mark its 350th episode at 8 on Fox (WUPW-TV, Channel 36, in Toledo). To put that into perspective, that's more than the combined total of Seinfeld and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The Simpsons is winding up its 16th season, and is the longest current-running comedy on TV, animated or otherwise.
Not bad for a series that was originally considered shockingly seditious but turned out to be an enduring example of "family values" in a medium that tends to make short work of warmhearted sitcoms, which The Simpsons is, in a weird sort of way.
After being created by cartoonist Matt Groening in 1987 as a series of 30-second sketches for The Tracey Ullman Show, The Simpsons premiered on Fox as a half-hour special in December of 1989, and then became a regular series the next month. At the time, its creator was known for his irreverent "Life in Hell" comic strip, which had debuted a decade earlier and is still carried in more than 250 newspapers.
At the time The Simpsons came along, Ronald Reagan was winding up his presidency, Roseanne was the top-rated TV show, and Bart Simpson was a smart-mouthed 10-year-old kid. Today, of course, all of that has changed - except that Bart is still with us, and he hasn't changed, or aged, a bit. He's still the classic "underachiever" whose grades ride an academic roller coaster from F's all he way up to D-minuses and back again.
Bart's 8-year-old sister, Lisa, is still the intelligent, sensitive second-grader who shuns meat and plays the saxophone with all the virtuosity of her blues idol, the late "Bleeding Gums" Murphy. And Maggie remains the cute little baby who can say more with a suck on her pacifier than most people can with a soliloquy.
Matriarch of the family is Marge Simpson, she of the towering blue hair and endless patience with her bumbling husband. That would be Homer, who works as a safety inspector at a nuclear power plant, a job that's so important that once, during a strike, Homer's critical responsibilities could be filled only by a brick placed on a lever.
This is, simply put, America's most colorful family. The Osbournes? In your dreams. The Gottis? Get outta here.
One of the neat things about the show is that its characters never age, and if lovable bonehead Homer is any barometer, they don't get much smarter over the years, either.
Homer is just as likely today to open up his beer-sodden soul and bust out with a line such as "English? Who needs that? I'm never going to England!" as he was the first season of the show.
As a testament to the program's "cool quotient," over the years a steady stream of celebrities - from Tony Bennett to Johnny Unitas, Meryl Streep to Mel Gibson, Paul McCartney to Rupert Murdoch - has lent voices and images to The Simpsons.
In Sunday's milestone episode - featuring guest appearances by an unlikely pair of celebs, comedian-actor Ray Romano and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking - Marge orders Homer to fix a hole in the roof of their house while she takes the kids to see Grandpa at the retirement center.
As they arrive at the center, Marge preps the children for their visit. "OK, kids," she says. "We only have time for a quick visit to Grandpa, so as soon as he feels loved, we're out of there."
Meanwhile, Homer meets a guy in a bar named Ray Magini - voiced by Romano - who just happens to be a roofer. Homer hits it off with the guy so well that he later tells Marge that Ray could just be "the one" - his new best friend. "We think alike, we act alike, we finish each other's sandwiches," he says.
The trouble is, nobody but Homer has seen Ray, and when he fails to show up to fix the roof, Marge and the children conclude that Ray doesn't really exist, except as a figment of Homer's tortured imagination. Daughter Lisa even points out helpfully that the man's name, Ray Magini, is an anagram for "imaginary."
For his own good, Homer's family has him committed to a mental institution where he undergoes a series of shock treatments, which he doesn't find altogether unpleasant.
Needless to say, things work themselves out, and Homer - and Ray - end up on top in the end.
The show itself hasn't been at or near the top of the ratings in some time - it's not even in the top 60 shows for the current TV season - but its cult of fans still numbers in the millions, and many of them are squarely in the younger, free-spending demographic that advertisers love.
And it's become a bona fide pop culture icon. Homer's trademark grunt of "D'oh!" has been preserved for the ages in the Oxford English Dictionary ("expression of dismay usually accompanied by a slap to the forehead").
There's no telling how long The Simpsons will continue - it's already been renewed for its 17th season on Fox and Groening says he still enjoys doing it. But as long as it's around, we'll continue to be treated to its peculiar and distinct insights on life, such as this gem from Homer:
"Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It's what separates us from the animals ... except the weasel."
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