The "Simpsons" crew is in the middle of its record-breaking 24th season, the Emmy and Peabody Award winner is still racking up accolades (the show received six Annie nominations this week), and stars like Tina Fey, Justin Bieber, and Seth MacFarlane are lining up for guest appearances.
But as Otto Mann, Bart Simpson's bus driver pal, finally gets his shot at DVD cover box glory with this week's release of "The Simpsons: The Fifteenth Season" DVD and Blu-ray box sets (Fox Home Entertainment), one goal continues to elude "Simpsons" showrunner Al Jean and his Springfieldian cohorts: landing a former or current president to make a guest appearance.
"The show is such a great calling card that we get almost anybody we ask for, but we've given up going after any presidents," Jean says. "We never asked Obama or the second Bush, but we did ask everybody else going back to Nixon, and you ask often enough and you get enough nos, you stop asking."
Even first lady Michelle Obama, who has made guest appearances on everything from "The View" and "The Biggest Loser" to "The Tonight Show" and "Restaurant: Impossible," turned down an invitation to appear in the Season 21 episode "Stealing First Base," in which her character ended up being voiced by Angela Bassett.
"It's one of those things. Yes, it would be enormous, I'd love to do it, but there are just certain things you don't see ever happening, so I'm not too optimistic," Jean says of landing a presidential voice. "I think part of it ... Tony Blair did it, and I think they have more latitude to make fun of themselves in England. I think here everybody is so petrified of, say, Rush Limbaugh taking a shot at them for doing 'The Simpsons' that they steer clear."
The POTUS and first lady quest aside, the "Simpsons" crew did land former Attorney General Janet Reno for an upcoming episode, in which she'll play herself and preside over a school trial when bad boy Bart is accused of (yet another) misdeed.
Fey guest-stars in "Black-Eyed, Please," in which she plays a substitute teacher who is curiously immune to Lisa's efforts to kiss up to her. The Biebs makes a cameo in the upcoming installment "The Fabulous Faker Boy." And "Portlandia" stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein guest-star in Dec. 9's "The Day the Earth Stood Cool," playing a pair of Oregon hipsters who move next door to the Simpsons with their son (voiced by Patton Oswalt).
At the end of the episode, the latest "Simpsons" (sure to be viral) video short will find Mr. Burns explaining the fiscal cliff.
And then there's "To Cur With Love," the Dec. 16 Christmas episode, which Jean says moved the entire writing staff to tears when it was pitched by writer Carolyn Omine.
"It's based on a true thing that happened when [Carolyn] was a kid," Jean says. "Homer, he is kind of aloof with Santa's Little Helper, because he had a dog as a kid that bit Mr. Burns, and they had to give it away so Burns wouldn't destroy it.
"It was the most moving story pitch I've ever been at, and that's our [Christmas] episode. I think it helped that you knew this had really happened to Carolyn, but it's a great show."
Also still ahead in Season 24, Jean describes a Milhouse-centric episode in which Bart's BFF gets a haircut that makes him look just like his father, so he dresses like his pop, walks around on stacked paint cans, and tries to wreak adult havoc.
"We have another one where Zooey Deschanel comes back," Jean says of Deschanel's Mary Spuckler, one of Bart's many loves. "It's an 'Annie Hall' kind of thing, and ['Sherlock' star] Benedict Cumberbatch was at the table read, and he said, 'Oh, I could do a couple of these voices,' so we put him in the show. He was really funny."
The 24th season finale is also locked in, co-written by Jean, and will find Homer and the fam planning to spend the day at an amusement park and ending up on the home planet of "Treehouse of Horror" favorites Kang and Kodos.
"It's a really gorgeous-looking episode. And it's real, as opposed to our other episodes, our Halloween episodes, which are 'unreal' ... well, as if any of them are real," Jean says with a laugh.
As for current DVD cover boy Otto, Jean confirms a long-running rumor about the character: He was modeled after former "Simpsons" writer Wally Wolodarsky (who is much better-looking than Otto, Jean points out -- "and smarter").
The Season 15 box set, in addition to Otto's smiling face, includes audio commentaries by the "Simpsons" crew, TV critic Alan Sepinwall, documentarian Michael Moore, and a very special guest that should delight the show's devoted fans when the identity is revealed on the set; deleted scenes; sketch galleries; commercials; a gallery of photos from the 500th-episode celebration; and "The Unusual Ones," a feature on the show's animators.
"The Simpsons" color palette lends itself to Blu-ray, so the show looks fantastic on that format, and series creator Matt Groening's DVD introduction and the disc menu animations created for the release -- Otto-themed this time around -- make for another great "Simpsons" package.
"One reason that the DVDs only come out one season per year is because we want to take the time and make them all really good," says Jean, who also oversees the production of the DVD releases. "The writers are always fighting to put in more extras and to do commentaries on every one. It just takes a while, because we're still doing the show, and we don't want the show or the DVDs to suffer. I think people expect a certain something from a 'Simpsons' box set."
As for the show's future, Season 25 is already a go, and "Family Guy" creator -- and upcoming Oscar host -- Seth MacFarlane has already recorded his guest appearance, when he'll use his distinctive voice to try to woo Marge.
"We approached him. First of all, he's got a great voice. And as you saw when he hosted 'Saturday Night Live,' he's very versatile," Jean says of MacFarlane, who has engaged in friendly back-and-forth ribbing with the "Simpsons" crew throughout the years. "We thought it would be really funny to get him to do a voice on our show. We knew the network would be really happy about it. I had had an idea about Marge going on a website thinking she's ordering cupcakes for Homer, but instead of Dolly Madison, it's like Ashley Madison, where married people go on to cheat.
"She meets a guy, and I thought, 'Well, what would be a perfect use for his voice is that he's the guy that she meets accidentally on this website. And he was hilarious. He sings some Sinatra, at our request, not his. We put it in, but he was glad to do it. He's really funny. It was a really great guest role."
Jean says that though the "Simpsons" writers have already penned more than 500 episodes, the animation format and the deep bench of Springfield citizenry keeps them knee-deep in plot fodder.
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't more difficult now than it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago, but the fact that there are just so many characters you can go to ... it's about a family, so that's a very central theme to human life," he says.
"We just passed 500 episodes. That's the hardest part of it. We've used really a thousand plot lines, since we do two plots an episode, so there's no question there's a lot of us going, 'Nope, we did that. And we did that.' But I think there's still a lot of funny stuff left to do."
Other noteworthy TV DVD releases this week:
"Eastbound & Down: The Complete Third Season" Blu-ray (HBO Home Video)
In July, Danny McBride announced a surprise fourth season as wild-man baseball player Kenny Powers, who in Season 3 got another shot at his pro career in the States when he joined the Myrtle Beach Mermen and another shot at being a grown-up when he was forced to take care of his son. The Season 3 guest stars who watched him struggle with both include Matthew McConaughey, Seth Rogen, Don Johnson and Lily Tomlin as Kenny's parents, Jason Sudeikis, Craig Robinson, and series producer Will Ferrell. Extras on the Blu-ray set include eight audio commentaries with McBride, deleted scenes, and a blooper reel.
"Ancient Aliens: Collector's Edition" (A&E Home Entertainment)
Did aliens visit prehistoric humans and leave them with info that led to the basic math and science principles that have guided civilization? Or are such theories pseudoscience and pseudohistory? Both sides have their proponents, and this collection of all four seasons of the History Channel series -- now the No. 1 show on H2 -- will help you make up your own mind. Of special note as we get closer to Dec. 21: "The Doomsday Prophecies," the Season 4 episode about the Mayan apocalypse prediction.
"In Search of ... the Complete Series" (VEI)
Before there were several cable networks completely focused on exploring the unexplained phenomena of the universe, "Star Trek" legend Leonard Nimoy hosted this 1976-1982 series that devoted episodes to witchcraft, conspiracy theories, UFOs, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, Jimmy Hoffa, the Titanic, Jack the Ripper, Abraham Lincoln's assassination, voodoo, ghosts, cryogenics, Vincent van Gogh and, yes, the Mayas, among dozens of other topics. The 21-disc set includes all 144 episodes of the Nimoy-hosted series, plus two Rod Serling-hosted specials that aired before the series, as well as all eight episodes of a 2002 revival that was hosted by "X-Files" star Mitch Pileggi.
"Star Trek: The Next Generation -- Season Two" Blu-ray (Paramount Home Entertainment)
Is it worth upgrading to Blu-ray? Yes. The show looks the best it has ever looked, and the box set includes deleted scenes, new cast and crew interviews, the 25th anniversary cast reunion, and audio commentary on the new extended version of the Season 2 gem "The Measure of a Man."
"Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXV" (Shout! Factory)
Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Tom Servo, and Crow T. Robot are back to mock more deserving so-bad-they're-good flicks, which in this collection include "Kitten With a Whip," "Revenge of the Creature," "Robot Holocaust," and the truly delicious "Operation Kid Brother," the 1967 007 spoof starring Neil Connery (yes, Sean's little bro) as the younger sibling of England's best superspy, who's called on to thwart baddies when big brother isn't available. Bonus features include a documentary on "Creature" director Jack Arnold, featurettes on the post-"MST3K" lives of stars J. Elvis Weinstein and Bill Corbett, and info-packed introductions by Hodgson and Nelson.
"The Donna Reed Show: Season 5" (MPI)
There are no bonus materials, but the set does include digitally remastered versions of all 34 Season 5 episodes of the 1958-1966 series that, unlike most other family comedies of the time, focused on the mother -- Reed's Donna Stone -- instead of the father.
"Mannix: The Final Season" (Paramount Home Entertainment)
More classic TV, this one the eighth and final season of the private eye drama -- starring Mike Connors as the titular Joe Mannix -- that was the last TV series produced by Lucille Ball's Desilu Productions. The box set includes all 24 episodes, uncut, from the season, which features guest appearances by pre-"Magnum P.I." Tom Selleck, Rue McClanahan, pre-"CHiPs" Erik Estrada, Bill Bixby, Gerald McRaney, and Dabney Coleman.
"My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic -- Season One" (Shout! Factory)
As if all the Bronies out there didn't already know, the set includes all 26 Season 1 episodes that brought the Ponies back to the tube, along with new cast and crew commentaries, printable coloring sheets, and sing-alongs.
"The Game: The Fifth Season" (Paramount Home Entertainment)
BET announced a surprise sixth season for the show, which will include new cast members. This fifth-season collection features the final season with Tia Mowry-Hardrict starring as Dr. Melanie Barnett-Davis.
"Ken Follett's World Without End" Blu-ray (Sony)
A making-of featurette supplements the eight-hour adaptation of Follett's novel "World Without End," which aired as a miniseries on ReelzChannel in October. The follow-up to Follett's "The Pillars of the Earth," "World" stars Cynthia Nixon, Miranda Richardson, Charlotte Riley, Tom Weston-Jones, and Ben Chaplin in a historical drama about the fictional town of Kingsbridge, whose citizens are facing the outbreak of Black Death just as their king has plunged England into the Hundred Years' War with France.
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