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The Simpsons Get Into Dodge

Homer Simpson, Ned Flanders, The Simpsons Fox

Homer Simpson meet Matt Dillon. No, not that Matt Dillon.

Come Sunday, The Simpsons turns 20 seasons old, thereby tying Gunsmoke as the longest-running comedy or drama series in TV history.

Don't think this fact has escaped the powers that be in Springfield.

"You know, I hate to admit it," Simpsons executive producer Al Jean told reporters in a press-conference call this week. "We actually do count episodes."

As such, Jean doesn't need to be told that The Simpsons, standing at Episode No. 420 going into Sunday's season premiere, has a ways to go to catch Gunsmoke in terms of sheer output of adventures. The Western, which came into the world as a radio drama, produced about 635 prime-time episodes between 1955 and 1975.

"They used to do 40 [episodes] a year," Jean said, "so that's a tough one."

Less tough is the task of leaving its mark. The show's characters, says author and TV historian Ed Robertson, are simply "ubiquitous."

"If you think of the ways they have permeated pop culture in general, but also marketing, they're omnipresent," Robertson says. "I think there's a fair chance in 20 years we'll still be talking about The Simpsons, more so than Gunsmoke."

For those unfamiliar with the still-running TV Land reruns, Gunsmoke revolved around the goings-on in dusty Dodge City, where Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) kept the law.

While a classic Western and a postmodern animated comedy about a fractious clan seem to make for an odd couple in the record books, they arguably share a certain trait. If Homer Simpson isn't the perfect father, then, Robertson says, Matt Dillon wasn't the perfect hero.  

"Matt Dillon wasn't so much a gunslinger as a man with a gun and a job to do," Robertson says.

Jean thinks Homer and crew's relatability is the key to the show's success. Relating how last year's Simpsons movie made even more money overseas than here, Jean said, "There are families everywhere you go, and there are families like the Simpsons. I've been in places like Italy, and they say, oh, yeah, there's a guy in the kitchen—he's just like Homer."

Sunday's historic season opener will find Homer taking up bounty hunting, and wife Marge taking up employment at an erotic bakery. In short, the family's still got spunk.  

Awarded its 10th career Emmy this month for Outstanding Animated Program and still a solid ratings performer for Fox, The Simpsons seems to be nowhere near its end. Most key to the show's future, said Jean, was the voice cast's new four-year deal, which was finalized over the summer.

Somewhat safely assuming The Simpsons is picked up for a 21st, Gunsmoke-surpassing season, don't expect Homer, much less Bart, to show their real ages. Ever.

"In terms of the basic template of the show, my goal is always to return it to where it started," Jean said, adding: "Bugs Bunny never turned 80."

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