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By Anna Chan, TODAY

Ay caramba! On Sunday, animated Fox hit "The Simpsons" will air its 500th episode, a milestone that even executive producer Al Jean is a bit surprised about.

When the series first launched in 1989, he had no idea it would become such a long running success. "I'd be lying if I said I'd be here answering questions about episode 500," Jean told reporters during a conference call Wednesday.

But last fall, the end of "The Simpsons" seemed quite possible when Fox said it couldn't afford the show anymore if the voice actors didn't take big pay cuts. A deal was ultimately reached (the stars reportedly had their compensation reduced by 30 percent) for the show to continue through a 25th season for a total of 559 episodes.

But had things not been hashed out with the talent, there was a plan in place for the end of the Simpsons family saga. And in fact, viewers have already seen what would have been the series finale, according to Jean. And that was "Holidays of Future Passed," which aired on Dec. 11. It was an episode that looked ahead and (would have) provided closure to longtime fans with its peek at the family 30 years in the future.

Instead of having that episode serve as a bookend to a successful series, it now stands alone and viewers can expect at least 60 episodes to come before Jean and his team have to come up with another tidy way to end things. "I don't know where the end is. I've jokingly said, 'Why not 1,000 (episodes)? Why not 2,000?" he said.

The executive producer also noted he has no plans yet for the series finale. "No, we spent it! Right now there's no clue," Jean told reporters. "It's not a show like 'Lost' where we're going to hope to answer a fundamental question with our last episode."

One thing he does know, though, is that viewers can rest easy that their favorite characters likely won't bite it as Maude Flanders did. "People don't want to see us kill off Grandpa. They want him to be around, they want this universe to sort of stay roughly the same, just the way Bugs Bunny never killed Elmer Fudd," Jean said.

As for that big episode coming up on Sunday? "The Simpsons" will be marking it withsome controversy. As revealed last month, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be guest starring on the landmark episode titled "At Long Last Leave," in which the family gets booted from Springfield.

"Obviously he's a controversial figure and that was discussed before we agreed to let him do it," Jean said of Assange's role. "It's a funny cameo and it makes no judgements about the larger case about him."

Jean said that what the episode will do, though, is offer "a really nice emotional story about the family finding out how their neighbors really feel about them." No surprise, the townsfolks' opinion of the Simpsons isn't exactly glowing. But it won't be a big bummer. "There's a lot of little touches marking the milestone in the way we like to and at the same time celebrate and mock something," Jean said.

The 500th episode airs Sunday, Feb. 19, at 8 p.m. on Fox.

Would "Holidays of Future Passed" have been a good series finale? What's your favorite episode? Tell us on our Facebook page!


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