During Sunday night’s 500th episode of “The Simpsons,” the family is booted from the town they put on the sitcom map after Mayor Quimby declares them "Springfield's unending nightmare."
"We're like family to you," Homer protests, before being tarred, feathered and run out of town on a parade float emblazoned, "Simpsons Go to Hell."
Homer and Co. merit a parade, if not the scorn. After more than 22 years and 250 hours of comedy, Springfield without the Simpsons is as about as unimaginable as TV without "The Simpsons."
The episode, which included an epic opening montage of couch gags and a cameo by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, proved vintage “Simpsons” – embracing the show's role as an integral part of the pop culture it feeds off and satirizes.
One of the biggest laughs in Sunday's episode came in the opening, which declared the 500th installment "the most meaningless milestone of all!" Sure, an overreliance on referential (and self-referential) humor and guest stars can be a pitfall – one “The Simpsons” has stumbled into at times like a head-over-heels Homer. Even Sunday night’s plot harkened to “The Simpsons Movie” from 2007. But then again, we’re talking about a program where in-jokes about the show losing its comic mojo are 15 years old.
“The Simpsons” makes us laugh, even when it isn’t at its best. Perhaps more significantly, the show's humor echoes through much of the TV comedy landscape the program helped shape. The first animated sitcom since “The Flintstones” to succeed in prime time made cartoons a cool form for edgy humor, spawning “Beavis and Butt-Head,” “South Park” and “Family Guy.” Cartoon Network’s whole “Adult Swim” line-up likely would have never waded into the entertainment pool if “The Simpsons” hadn’t cannonballed into the deep end first.
The cartoon also has influenced flesh-and-blood sitcoms with its sardonic take on human relations and its fast-paced, pop-culture-driven humor. There’s no “30 Rock” without “The Simpsons.”
“30 Rock,” of course, owes as much to “Saturday Night Live,” the only show comparable to “The Simpsons” in terms of its longevity, comic fodder and impact. At their best, both shows serve as funhouse-mirror reflections of the times. Both thrive on great writing. (They share writers' room links to Conan O’Brien, whose irreverent yet rarely cruel sense of humor embodies a comic sensibility that's proven durable over the last two decades.) Both shows, rife with ups and downs, spur debates over which eras were strongest.
“SNL” benefits from a regular infusion of new cast members. The cast of “The Simpsons” stays the same, but the show flourishes on the change around it. There wasn’t an Internet to speak of and Assange was a mere 14 when Matt Groening's creations debuted 25 years ago as crudely rendered players in interstitial segments on “The Tracey Ullman Show.”
“The Simpsons” series began in 1989, just after “The Cosby Show” ended its amazing four-season run as TV’s top program. The Huxtables were America’s first family of television comedy – until Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie stole the title. The Simpsons’ couch, if it weren’t animated, would belong in the Smithsonian.
In Sunday night's episode, the family is exiled to a "Mad Max"-like, off-the-grid settlement they share with Assange and a variety of outcasts. In the end, the townsfolk of Springfield, whose lifeblood is dysfunction and underachievement, follow the Simpsons to the Outlands.
Homer had it right: The Simpsons are family, and like family, they’re not easily dismissed, even when they grow old and a little tired at times. And like Springfield, we may never be able to shake them.
The show will be around for a minimum of two more seasons and 59 more episodes. While the prospect of a possible 600th episode spectacular prompts ambivalent emotions, it's still anything but a waste of time to watch the show that gleefully celebrates wasting time. So sit on your own couch, crack open a Duff and keep rolling in the D'oh!
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.