You know that a show has been around a long time when they start measuring milestones in episodic increments of 50. But it's understandable that "The Simpsons" should want to make a big deal out of hitting 350 episodes with this Sunday's installment.
As the legendary Fox series wraps up its 16th season, the denizens of Springfield are wading in some uncharted prime-time waters. When executive producer Al Jean boasts that "The Simpsons" "just enjoyed the best 16th season of any comedy ever," that's because no other comedy has ever made it this far.
How many episodes is 350? More than the combined total of "Seinfeld" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." "The Simpsons" will pass "Dallas" (357 episodes) on the all-time series list before 2005 is out. Then it takes aim at the only two comedies to have produced more segments: "My Three Sons" at 380 episodes and "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet" at a somewhat astounding 435.
Can "The Simpsons" really make it to 435 — a feat that would require the show see a (gasp) 20th season?
"You know, I can't believe I'm saying this, but it's really not out of the question," Jean admits. "The cast is already signed through season 19. I think we'll get at least that far. It required such a long negotiation to get the cast under contract for four years that I think it's likely we'll do them."
The show is renewed through a 17th season. The only conventional entertainment show to run at least as many years was 20-year war horse "Gunsmoke," though it need also be noted, of course, that "Law & Order" is nipping at the "Simpsons' " heels as it looks to a 16th season come fall.
At an age when any other comedy would be sputtering on fumes, "The Simpsons" is still pulling in respectable ratings — it's the only thing keeping the lights on for Fox on Sunday nights this season — despite the fact that older episodes run at all hours of the day and night in syndication.
"My best hope in the beginning was that maybe we'd be some kind of cult thing like ‘Fawlty Towers’ that would go for five years," admits Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer and Grampa, among many others. "Now we're more than three times that far."
People often ask Castellaneta how all of this happened, how this "Tracey Ullman Show" spinoff could survive fickle tastes and prime-time comedy lulls and the dismissive industry tag of being a mere cartoon.
The usual explanations for its uncanny longevity surround the fact that the characters never age and the magic of animation allows the writers to go places where live-action could never tread.
"I have to say that it really does come down to the writing," he believes. "I've actually written a few scripts myself, and it's just amazing how much time and effort goes into it. There are rewrites, rewrites of the rewrites, tweaks. And there's no fear in the writers room. It's all about getting it as good as it can possibly be."
Of course, the conventional wisdom has it that "The Simpsons" has suffered a great nosedive in quality — and that if it hasn't yet officially jumped the shark, it's clinging to the shark's fin. But Jean will have none of it.
"Have you ever known people to say that something is better now than it was in the past?" he asks. "Of course not. You have to take it all with a grain of salt. I remember during our fourth season, Entertainment Weekly wrote that we were going downhill. When the fourth season DVD was released, they said it was the 1927 Yankees of comedy.
"That isn't to say we don't do some bad shows now and didn't then. But I say that by and large, the shows we're doing now are just as good as any I've been involved with."