Homer's Odyssey (and some of his fellow voyagers)

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As the 500th episode of The Simpsons airs in America, Michael Bywater looks back at a record number of guest stars and asks why we're still not jaundiced by our yellow friends

Episode 500! Way to go! Yay! Cool! Wow! Why? How? That's three-and-a-half days of continuous TV. Who'd have thought it in December 1989, when The Simpsons made its US debut? Not me, though I can remember where I was when I saw it.

I was in front of the TV, just where one always is when great events take place. The TV was in America, obviously. But a Great Event it wasn't. Nobody sat in front of the TV then, thinking: "Wow! I'm watching the very first episode of The Simpsons!"

I didn't think it was all that great, really. Animation imitating real life, as it always had done in the past. Now it's the other way round. And the family dysfunction was more important than the satire on the American working class. Nobody would have predicted then that it would become the longest-running scripted TV series.

So why? How? What is it? I mean, apart, obviously, from the brilliant writing (Americans pay scriptwriters, lots of them), animation and voice acting, the way it broke out of the four walls of traditional sitcom. Marge, Moe, Homer, Bart, Wiggum – collectively, they're adorable. Collectively, they're us, except more so.

Particularly, for 500 episodes, Homer has been our own Odysseus. He has the authentic Homeric nostos, the overriding need to get home and be safe. Like Odysseus, Homer is perpetually waylaid, but by his own curiosity, utter lack of self-knowledge and affable idiocy. He's drawn off course, not by Circe, Sirens, sorcery, monster and whirlpools, but by beer, doughnuts, religion, competitions, overeating, nuclear meltdown, idleness and every stranger who comes to town.

And there have been a lot of strangers. The Simpsons holds the record for the most guest appearances in TV history. Some have been distinguished actors playing characters in the show, whether regularly (Kelsey Grammer as Sideshow Bob), or one-offs like Isabella Rossellini, Steve Buscemi and many more. Fine. They're still actors playing roles. It's what actors do. But what about the people who've played themselves? Easy to understand why professional performers would do it, like Sir Elton John, Sting, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and Neil Patrick Harris.

We can even understand Michael Jackson, who played himself playing a fat white mental patient who thought he was Jackson. Except the real Michael Jackson was credited as John Jay Smith, and wrote a special song for the episode that Sony wouldn't let him actually sing.

Then there are the mysteries. Stephen Hawking appeared as himself not once, but four times. Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen, too.

And Rupert Murdoch. Twice. Introducing himself as: "Rupert Murdoch, billionaire tyrant." Why? Murdoch doesn't have to; he owns them, via Fox TV. What does Hawking get out of it, or any of the others? It can't be the urge to be associated with something cool, because one of the strengths of the show is that it's never been cool. It's a family show with family values.

Perhaps they are endorsing something more. Yes, it's a great comedy. But behind it all is that old nostos thing. The need to get back home. As Homer says: "I just try and make the day not hurt until I can crawl back in with you."

Ain't that the truth?

Identity Parade: Can you name the guest stars? (answers below)

1. Which TV icon comforted Homer when he thought he was about to die?

2. Marge's crush on which Beatle launched her career as a painter?

3. Hollywood royalty arrived in the form of Lisa's supply teacher. Who?

4. In 1992, who stepped in when Bruce Springsteen refused to appear?

5. Which 89-year-old comic entertained the troops at Fort Springfield?

6. Which crooner provided a private performance for Marge and Homer?

7. Who recorded Maggie's first word before appearing as herself?

8. In 1993 which A-lister presented an animation award to Grampa?

9. Who serenaded Marge with 'Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe'?

10. Which internet entrepreneur appeared at a billionaire's club?

11. Whose private jet crash landed after a chandelier malfunction?

12. Which cameo had to be cancelled when he ran for the real Presidency?

13. Which former child star took on the role as Krusty the Clown's love child?

14. Who recorded their part in 50 seconds after a real war broke out?

15. Which architect does Marge turn to build a concert hall in Springfield?

16. Which author appeared with Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe and Michael Chabon?

17. Which chef reduces Marge to tears when he serves up a four letter rant?

18. Which Hollywood actor opened a Springfield comic-book store?

19. Whose make-up remover dissolved a lock to free Homer from jail?

20. Which actress's holiday home does Homer crash into in a paraglider?

21. Which TV host helped Maggie work through her problems?

22. Homer hijacked whose tour in a bid to become sanitation commissioner?

23. Who investigated the curious case of the Springfield Files?

24. Which actor was gunned down mob-style at the Springfield toll booth?

25. Which couple agreed to appear, provided Lisa remained a vegetarian?

26. Who saved Lisa after Springfield was taken over by Mensa boffins?

27. Which band co-starred with Hugh Hefner to resurrect Krusty's career?

28. Who wrote the 2006 episode in which he attempts to seduce Marge?

29. Which actress won a real-life Emmy for her Springfield cameo?

30. Which tycoon threw Homer out of his executive box at the Superbowl?

31. In 2001 Homer's own drinking den had the ultimate house band. Who?

32. Which pop legend bizarrely agreed to appear as a mental patient in 1991?

33. Which literary recluse wrote his own lines but didn't show his face?

34. Which former Manchester United star exposed Lisa as a diver in 2007?

35. Whose cameo was taped from a secret location for the 500th episode?

Answers

1. Larry King. 2. Ringo Starr. 3. Dustin Hoffman. 4. Sting. 5. Bob Hope. 6. Tom Jones. 7. Elizabeth Taylor. 8. Brooke Shields. 9. Barry White. 10. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. 11. Elton John. 12. Ex-New York mayor Rudy Giulliani. 13. Drew Barrymore. 14. Tony Blair. 15. Frank Gehry. 16. Jonathan Franzen. 17. Gordon Ramsay. 18. Jack Black. 19. Dolly Parton. 20. Kim Basinger. 21. Jerry Springer. 22 U2. 23. Gillian Anderson. 24. James Caan. 25. Paul and Linda McCartney. 26. Stephen Hawking. 27. Red Hot Chilli Peppers. 28. Ricky Gervais. 29. Anne Hathaway. 30. Rupert Murdoch. 31. REM. 32. Michael Jackson. 33. Thomas Pynchon. 34. Cristiano Ronaldo. 35. Julian Assange.

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