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'The Simpsons' celebrate their 450th episode

Comics' voices fill out the cast

Another reason The Simpsons has found such long-lasting success is its voices, filled out by actors who have tackled the show's most outlandish story lines with skill and hilarious comic instincts. A lot of that was good luck. Two cast members, Dan Castellanetta (Homer) and Julie Kavner (Marge), were hired because they already worked on The Tracey Ullman Show and co-star Hank Azaria (Moe the bartender) said he initially turned down an offer to be a regular cast member before the first show aired. Here are the actors behind the coolest characters and the amazing range of voices.

Dan Castellanetta: Homer Simpson, Krusty the Clown, Barney the drunk, Groundskeeper Willie, Grampa Abe Simpson, Mayor Quimby, Sideshow Mel, others.

Julie Kavner: Marge Simpson, Selma Bouvier (Marge's sister), Patty Bouvier (Marge's sister).

Nancy Cartwright: Bart Simpson, Nelson Muntz, Todd Flanders, Ralph Wiggum, others.

Yeardley Smith: Lisa Simpson.

Hank Azaria: Moe the bartender, Szyslak, Apu "Kwik-E-Mart" Nahasapeemapetilon, Police Chief Clancy Wiggum, school superintendent Chalmers, Snake, Cletus Spuckler, Dr. Nick Riviera, Comic Book Guy, others.

Harry Shearer: C. Montgomery Burns, Waylon Smithers, principal Skinner, Rev. Lovejoy, Kent Brockman, Action Hero McBain, Ned Flanders, Dr. Julius Hibbert.

Kelsey Grammer: Sideshow Bob.

Albert Brooks: Russ Cargill (The Simpsons Movie), Hank Scorpio, Cowboy Bob, Jacques "Brunswick," others.

How does a crudely drawn animated sketch about a brutish slob with a lowbrow family who regularly chokes his delinquent son turn into TV's longest-running prime-time show after 20 years and 450 episodes?

Morgan Spurlock, the director of the acerbic documentary Super Size Me, explains The Simpsons' landmark status as the victory of a show that never talked down to its audience.

"It felt like something that was incredibly smart … (and) didn't treat the audience like you were stupid," said Spurlock, a fan of the characters since they debuted as a series of short pieces on Fox-TV's long-gone Tracey Ullman Show. He's since crafted a loving documentary tribute to the series airing at 8:30 tonight dubbed — with tongue firmly in cheek — The Simpsons' 20th Anniversary Special in 3-D on Ice.

The hourlong worshipful trek through Simpsons lore features appearances from Sting, Dan Rather, Hugh Hefner and former Simpsons writer Conan O'Brien, among many, many others.

Spurlock's film debuts tonight after the 8 p.m. airing of the show's 450th episode and includes cool factoids (the family's hometown, Springfield, is based on Portland, Ore.; DJ/producer/performer Moby has written seven interpretations of the show's sidesplitting "Mr. Plow" theme) and great quotes ("To see something like this rise out of the manure pile that was animation at the time, was amazing," said King of the Hill/Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge).

Trace the seeds of The Simpsons' success and you see a convergence of circumstance and talent so singular it makes a double lightning strike look like a daily visit from the mailman.

Here's a short list of the reasons we still dig The Simpsons:

It's funny. Yeah, it's not as funny as the years of Mr. Plow or Homer almost jumping across a ravine on a skateboard. But tonight's episode, featuring TV burnout Krusty the Clown falling for a new female sidekick, still has tons of great sight gags and laugh lines. "Five minutes of The Simpsons is still funnier than five seasons of most comedies," said Syracuse University pop culture professor Robert Thompson.

It's animated. The cast doesn't age, the sets don't look dated, the stories can go anywhere, the costs are lower, their edgy antics are more acceptable, the characters have spawned billions in merchandising and the show looks like nothing else on television.

It's evolved. On Ullman's 1987 show, the family was brutish and stupid, a mean parody of typical family sitcoms that still felt edgy and fresh. Producer James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment) gave the 1989 TV series a more palatable heart, as a dysfunctional family who somehow still loved each other. Years later, the show found new life focusing on dopey dad Homer instead of bratty delinquent Bart.

It has its cake and satirizes it, too. Every week, The Simpsons pokes wicked fun at America's over-consumerized society. Yet it has also spawned a billion-dollar commercial machine. Creator Matt Groening, a self-styled leftist underground artist, allowed his characters to fuel a network that has funneled billions to media mogul Rupert Murdoch. "I find it much more shameless than (merchandising) Hannah Montana," said Thompson.

A look at the winter TV season

Eric Deggans gives us the scoop on American Idol, 24 and other returning shows. Find it in today's Floridian section.

TiVo

Big Love, 9 tonight, HBO: Every season, this eccentric drama based on a successful businessman's secretly polygamous family in Salt Lake City somehow finds new depths, and this fourth season is no exception. This time, Bill Paxton's put-upon patriarch Bill Henrickson discovers the death of his nemesis, cult leader Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton) brings little peace, as the untimely surfacing of the news threatens his Mormon-friendly casino deal with the Blackfoot Indian tribe. It also pushes Henrickson to go public in a way few of his family members understand or can support. But the real feat here, is making a religious family building a casino and breaking laws against polygamy look sympathetic, realistic and earnest. Can they hand out an Emmy for that?

Ti-No

Archer, 10 p.m. Thursday, FX: As a lifelong James Bond nerd, I really wanted to love this cartoon comedy about a suave master spy who works for his emasculating mom, is self-centered to outlandish extremes and struggles with a less-than-cool code name, Duchess. But FX's series is mostly explicit without wit — must we endure Archer's mom (a game, arch Jessica Walter) having phone sex in her office? — and seems to miss what is most absurd about Bond-style spy adventures in the first place. In other words, Bond's already a self-involved, chauvinistic, know-it-all jerk; do we really need a cartoon upping that ante?

'The Simpsons' celebrate their 450th episode 01/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 9, 2010 7:00pm]
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