They’ve invaded our homes for the past quarter century – or have we invaded theirs? Whichever way the influence has flowed, the Simpsons have been a part of our TV lineup for a generation. Twenty-five years of Homer’s buffoonery, Lisa’s naiveté, Bart’s shenanigans, and countless other traits from characters with whom we feel like we’re on a first-name basis—because we are. It’s a show that has both infected and reflected American culture, no stranger to skewering celebrities and politicians. And it’s been that way since 1987.
Over its epic run, the show has notched some mind-boggling accolades: it’s the longest-running cartoon series, the longest-running sitcom and the longest-running scripted prime-time series in American television history. The show has received 27 Emmys and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And in June 1998, TIME named Bart one of the most influential people of the century. In February, The Simpsons aired its 500th episode, a huge milestone for a show that started as a short animation bit on a sketch-comedy show, The Tracey Ullman Show, on April 19, 1987.
And there’s more to come. In October, Fox reached a deal with the cast and crew to create two more seasons. Though a hefty pay cut was involved – the six main voice actors saw their $440,000 per episode salaries slashed by 35% – the Simpsons family will continue their unforgivingly funny riff on American society until 2014 at least.
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Despite the disappointment on the business end, the cast of The Simpsons is hardly worried about keeping the show going. Yeardley Smith, who’s been behind the squeaky, nasal-y voice of Lisa Simpson since the show’s Tracey Ullman days, says there’s such a camaraderie among the team members that it continues to propel the show forward. “There’s such respect for what everyone brings to the process, and it probably helps that we only work two days a week,” Smith says. “There’s not really a chance to be annoyed.” Smith is 47, but each Sunday on Fox she is eternally 8 years old.
‘We have probably the largest writing team for a half-hour show. After 500 episodes what else do you say?” Smith wonders. A question like that has never seemed more rhetorical. The Simpsons frequently tackles real-world problems like nuclear war, corrupt politicians and obnoxious neighbors with such grace and humor that we forget how grave or stubborn the problems are. “People do feel like the Simpsons are real people, but because we’re cartoons we get away with so much more,” she says. “They’re incredibly political and take no prisoners, and that makes them endearing.” The very first long-form episode of the show, 1989′s “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” takes on themes of financial instability and familial happiness that are timeless, or at least just as relevant today as they were more than two decades ago.
If regular humans like Smith have been behind the character growth of the yellow, ping-pong-ball-eyed sort-of-humans that populate the Simpsons’ world, the characters have returned the favor. “[Lisa is] a better version of me,” says Smith. “She’s smarter and I think she ultimately has more confidence in herself, probably, and when she has a crisis of confidence it doesn’t last as long as it does for me.” That’s probably because the characters only have 22 minutes to reconcile any problems, but still, there are lessons to be learned from such efficiency in the face of life crises.
The same, sadly, can’t be said of the crisis that is contract negotiations. The show has survived the recent rough negotiations between the the cast and Fox, but not without scars. Smith labeled the network “the biggest bully on the block. There seemed to be no appreciation for 24 seasons of really dedicated, enthusiastic work.” This, more than anything, has forced her to confront the show’s ultimate mortality. “I feel like when the show is over, it will be as if a really dear friend has moved away and is never coming back,” she says.
When that friend is well and truly gone, Smith will continue to busy herself with a line of shoes she recently launched called Marchez Vous. A little bit of whimsy can be found in the personas that she invents for each shoe, giving each of them theatrical names like Giselle and Claudine. But each Italian-made piece of footware has an inherent classiness, too. If you see a little bit of the yin and yang of Lisa in that—the absurd creature in the sensible red dress and pearls—well, that’s no accident.
“She’s just so charming to me,” Smith reflects. “She never gets old.” And a generation’s worth of viewers hope she, and the rest of the Simpsons family, never do.