Just as Homer sometimes fails to properly appreciate Marge's buxom, blue-haired beauty, fans of The Simpsons tend to take the show for granted. The series, which begins its 16th season on Nov. 7 (with the annual ''Treehouse of Horror'' Halloween-themed episode), has been so funny for so long that it can feel like an inexhaustible natural resource, like comedic tap water. But as a conversation with longtime Simpsons executive producer Al Jean reveals, maintaining the quality of the longest-running sitcom in television history isn't easy. Here are six facts worth knowing about the new season and beyond:
More guest stars are coming Liam Neeson voices a priest who helps Bart and Homer consider converting to Catholicism (Homer likes the part with the wine); James Caan visits Bart's treehouse after he converts it to a junior Playboy Mansion; and Lucy Liu plays a bureaucrat when Homer pretends to be married to Marge's gravel-voiced sister Selma so she can adopt a Chinese baby. Other guests will include Fantasia Barrino (as a talent-show competitor, natch), Kim Cattrall (as Marge's former schoolmate turned glam newscaster), Ray Romano (as a new pal for Homer), and Houston Rocket Yao Ming (as himself). Best of all, when Lisa takes legal action against Bart, Gary Busey will appear as the narrator of videotape titled So You've Got a Restraining Order.
Finding new ideas isn't easy But it helps that Springfield's population seems to be almost infinite. ''There are so many characters,'' says executive producer Jean, who's been working on the show since its first season. ''I was a math major, but I couldn't off the top of my head calculate the possible number of combinations of them.'' And the writers don't mind some repetition. ''I'm not too strict about it,'' Jean says. ''Just because we went to an amusement park once doesn't mean they can't go to another one. I don't want to repeat jokes, but there are recurring themes.''
Staying topical helps In one new episode, Homer is in change of planning the Super Bowl halftime show but can't think of an idea, so he turns to Ned Flanders for help. Ultimately, the halftime entertainment offends viewers by being too wholesome and religious. In another plotline, Grandpa Simpson has trouble affording prescription medicine, so he and Homer smuggle it out of Canada. ''It becomes a little like Midnight Express,'' Jean says. Finally, Springfield will legalize gay marriage, and a character (Jean wouldn't confirm rumors that it's Marge's other sister, Patty) will have a same-sex wedding ceremony. (Is that Rupert Murdoch we hear muttering, ''Worst episode ever''?)
Bart will stay prepubescent As immortal pen-and-ink creations, the Simpsons have an advantage over other sitcom stars. ''Change is one reason that people start turning away from shows they like,'' Jean says. ''I remember watching Happy Days and going, 'Fonzie's the principal now?' We don't do that. A great show from season 16 fits right in to season 3. And Bugs Bunny never turned 80, you know? I think we're playing in the same ballpark.''
They're working on the movie The show's writers are working on the long-promised feature film, with a possible 2008 release date. They've even laid down some possible plotlines (not that they're ready to reveal any). ''There are a couple things on the show that I steered away from what might be in the movie,'' Jean says. ''The biggest thing is you don't want to do a movie that's not reflective of the quality of the show, and you don't want the quality of the show to slip because you're doing the movie. So we're taking a little time.'' Or rather, a lot.
Season 17 is in progress. The 2005-2006 season includes an episode where in which Moe, with the aid of Lisa, becomes a Charles Bukowski-like poet. Also, Bart will start spending more time with Marge, until bullies accuse him of being a mama's boy, and Mayor Quimby will face a recall leaving Homer to run for the office. No word yet on plots for 2007-2008, but we may check back next week.