The Simpsons' 500th Episode, Starring Julian Assange: A Look Back at a One of America's Most Politically Relevant Shows

The weird tale of Julian Assange just got weirder: the WikiLeaks founder will appear in cartoon form on the 500th episode of “The Simpsons,” airing today. According to reports, Assange recorded his voiceovers from “a secret location” over the summer, although since he is currently on house arrest in a British mansion, it’s not hard to imagine that said location was the horse stable (or the panic room).

The Simpsons has been running since 1989, the longest-airing scripted prime-time show in television history, and for Assange to appear on a milestone episode is a perfect capper to a powerful stint as a political and cultural force. Renowned for having a distinct liberal bent, “The Simpsons” was probably the first animated cartoon with an explicit political perspective since Looney Tunes was running war propaganda storylines in the 1940s. But in 15 years, the show has never had a political figure as controversial as Assange guest as him or herself. Oh sure, it's had plenty of famous cameos—Hollywood icons like Ernest Borgnine and Elizabeth Taylor, cool musicians like Sonic Youth and 50 Cent, an abundance of stars from the sports world (in the early years), an abundance of stars from the cooking world (in the later years). Stephen Hawking and Stephen Jay Gould have repped for science, Jasper Johns for visual art, Amy Tan for novelists. But in a legacy of political relevance (and good humor) that wanes and waxes depending on the year (and collection of writers), Assange’s appearance signals a return to form, and perhaps the most dramatic political statement the show has ever made.

He is one of the most prominent political figures “The Simpsons” has ever scored. It’s not hard to imagine why: when the show portrays real people in politics (Nixon or Liddy, Clinton or Bush), it tends to be taking the piss out, and a politician would need a pretty solid notion of his or her importance to step into such a situation willingly. Case in point: the only elected American official ever to appear on an episode of “The Simpsons” as himself was Rudy Giuliani, in the 2007 episode “Stop or My Dog Will Shoot”—but his clip was pulled from the final cut after it was announced he would run for president in 2008. (That didn’t stop the show from using another actor to spoof him during the campaign.) In 2003, British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared, but only briefly, as a character welcoming the family to his country.

Even acknowledging the hazards, it’s curious that some of the politicians whose ideologies are more aligned with those of "The Simpsons" writers haven’t shown up. Al Gore has been portrayed plenty of times through the years for his deadpan style, his presidential run, and later, for his dedication to global warming awareness. But the only Gore who’s actually guest-voiced his own character on a Simpsons episode has been Vidal, in 2006’s “Moe’N’a Lisa,” when he spoofed his own novels (saying Burr was based on a commercial for Eskimo Pies).

Beyond those few, the majority of explicitly political people ever to have appeared on the Simpsons have been news anchors, pundits, or news-anchor-pundit-comedians: Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Keith Olbermann, Charlie Rose, Larry King, Dan Rather and, arguably, your boy Rupert Murdoch. Of all these men, Olbermann and Murdoch, arch-rivals to the death, run a close race as to whose appearance was funniest and most wry. In the case of Olbermann, he appears in Marge’s nightmare, naming her “The Worst Person in the World” for TiVoing through commercials. But Murdoch wins by a hair: having been taken down numerous times over the years by Simpsons writers -- who can forget, “Fox News: not racist, but number one with racists!” He actually wrote his own line: “'I'm Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire tyrant, and this is my skybox.” You can cut the irony with a knife.

Assange’s spot came about after Simpsons creator Matt Groening heard that Assange wanted to appear. The plotline, according to early accounts: the Simpsons discover the town of Springfield is secretly planning to kick them out, so they embark on a self-imposed exile to a shadowy place where they discover Assange is their Ned Flanders-esque neighbor. Executive producer Al Jean told TVsomniac, “He invites them over for a home movie and it’s an Afghan wedding being bombed.”

This scene seems to exemplify what “The Simpsons” does best: uses the guise of humor to illuminate some dark, horrific truth about America’s cultural and political situation—not the other way around. The fact that this episode -- the 500th -- will probably be one of the most-watched and that it illuminates the ongoing and pressing issue of drone strikes and intracountry terrorism in relation to the Afghan war is precisely why the show has remained relevant for such an unlikely length of time. “The Simpsons” is a vibrant program, but it would be impossible without its inherent touch of cynicism. The Assange scene also underscores why Wikileaks is important—how would we know of such heinous crimes without whistleblowers?—and it will reportedly not touch on what producers call his “legal situation," but the underlying point is made.

Of all the celebrity guest appearances on "The Simpsons," the closest in tone and honesty to Assange’s upcoming spot is likely that of Michael Moore. In 2003’s “The President Wore Pearls,” Moore’s character (as himself) joins a school union strike in solidarity with Lisa Simpson. Then, in 2004’s “Bart-Mangled Banner,” Moore was wrongly imprisoned at the “Ronald Reagan Reeducation Center”—a spoof of Guantanamo, in a plotline modeled after the provisions of the PATRIOT Act. In those episodes, some of their best, "Simpsons" writers used an outspoken and strong political figure as a lens with which to view our present.

“The Simpsons” spoofs and inverts a flawed nation, where doughnut-craving dolts runs nuclear plants, bratty prankster kids are allowed to run free, and evil, wart-afflicted imperialists are omniscient and all-powerful. And yet, a wry eye can tear it down and see the essence of it. As Homer Simpson once eloquently put it, “Facts are useless. You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true.” 

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