During the summer of 1995, the nation was glued to their television screens, wondering how the Simpson case would play out. There was the O.J. thing too, but the American public was obsessed with The Simpsons’ season-six finale, as they tried to figure out just who shot Mr. Burns.
The Simpsons had done events before. When Michael Jackson was set to appear in the season-three premiere, the ads began airing months in advance. The 100th episode dominated the Thursday night it aired with an hour-long Simpsons block. But “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” was unlike any episode before or since: It would be a two-parter, with a cliffhanger ending that would keep its fans in suspense all summer long, until the show returned with a resolution in its season-seven premiere.
The Pitch: A Murder Mystery
From the outset, the story was designed as an event. Bill Oakley, one of the episodes’ writers, tells Vulture, “Matt [Groening] walked into our office at some point before the story conference and he literally said, ‘Why don’t we do some kind of stunt, like, who shot Mr. Burns?’ and we were like, ‘Hey! Great idea!’” Bill and his writing partner Josh Weinstein pitched the episode to the show’s staff, and producer and TV legend James L. Brooks describes the moment on the show’s season-six DVD as not just a pitch of a story, “but they also pitched how successful it would be, pitched how much it would help us for the following season.”
The shape of the show went through a few changes in the process (originally Bill and Josh wanted the shooter to be Barney; Brooks suggested that it should be a family member, and showrunner David Mirkin gave the writers — spoiler alert — Maggie as the culprit), but both writers say that the other writers in the room found the concept “irresistible” and began pitching ideas for it. In no time, “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” quickly ballooned into something new for the show.
The Fan Contest Won by the Nonfan
Oakley and Weinstein wrote the two episodes back to back, and at some point in the process it became clear that this cliffhanger was going to be a huge deal. Before long, word of Fox creating some kind of contest in conjunction with the episode reached the staff, though the details were scant. Weinstein remembers that early on they heard it would have something to do with a 1-800 number and that it seemed very complicated. “This is still very early days for the internet,” Weinstein tells Vulture. “800 numbers were kind of like the internet back then: ‘That’s the future!’”
With a huge cliffhanger like this one, obviously Fox’s marketing department wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to monetize the hype. Enter: 1-800-COLLECT. The 800 number was launched by MCI in 1993 with a heavy marketing push that targeted Generation X in an attempt to break the monopoly on collect calling long held by AT&T. The Simpsons had already appeared in one commercial for the service, but this tie-in was much bigger in scope.
Fans who used the service between the season finale in late May and September 10, the week before part two premiered, would have the opportunity to guess who they thought shot Mr. Burns. At the initial meeting regarding the contest, Fox executives asked Groening and David Mirkin what they thought the prize would be, and Mirkin exclaimed, “A million dollars!” Fox did not take this suggestion.
Instead, the winner of the contest would be animated into an upcoming episode of the show. “I remember being in our office, hearing about it,” says Weinstein, “and being like, ‘Huh. Okay. Maybe that will work.’” The contest itself was in place early enough in the process (Weinstein surmises somewhere between four and five months before “Part One” aired in May) that a reference to the contest, or a contest, could be hinted at by Dr. Hibbert in the closing moments of the episode.
Through a series of arcane rules, however, the outcome of the contest wasn’t quite what everyone was hoping for. “The winner didn’t even guess Maggie!” says Oakley. Mirkin describes exactly what went wrong on the commentary track to “Part Two”: “They took all the entries and looked at 1,000 of them and … in those first 1,000 we didn’t have anyone who … guessed Maggie … So I said, ‘We’ve got to do another sample of another 1,000,’ and they said ‘No.’ The way the contest rules are, you must find a winner in the first 1,000.’” The winner of the contest (who picked Smithers) was “an older woman from Washington, D.C” who didn’t watch the show and thus wouldn’t care about the prize, who was instead offered a cash prize of an undisclosed amount. (Though this woman never made it to Springfield, in the following season, which was run by Oakley and Weinstein, a new contest’s winner appeared in the episode “Homerpalooza” who was so beyond irony that they no longer knew if their friend was being sarcastic.)
Keeping It Confidential
Even though the contest didn’t work out as expected, once there was the idea of any kind of prize being connected to an episode of the show, security tightened up around The Simpsons’ headquarters. According to Oakley, when it came time to have the table read for “Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part Two),” “the last ten pages of the script were not on the script. Josh and I had printed out just a couple of copies for the writers from our personal computers, and they were all shredded immediately afterward. They were only in the writers’ room for a few minutes.”
With the hundreds of animators it takes to create an episode of The Simpsons, even more precautions were taken. The aforementioned ten pages of script, in which Mr. Burns reveals to the citizens of Springfield that it was Maggie Simpson who shot him, were recorded by Harry Shearer, directed by Mirkin, and sent to the animators to finish. But then, Shearer and Mirkin improvised an alternate ending in which Burns reveals that it was his longtime assistant, Waylon Smithers, who was the perpetrator, and is then punished by his boss with a 5 percent pay reduction. This too was sent to the animators, ensuring that none of the artists could be certain who the culprit ultimately was. Going a step further, various scenes of other Springfielders actually shooting Burns were animated, including Barney; special guest star Tito Puente; Moe the bartender; Apu; and the Simpson’s dog, Santa’s Little Helper, to prevent the real ending leaking out. (This alternate ending, as well as these alternate assaults, eventually found their way into the following season’s unorthodox clip show, “The 138th Episode Spectacular.”)
Mirkin has claimed that he tried to leak the Smithers ending by calling various industry news outlets, including Entertainment Tonight, but he “couldn’t find any dishonest people in Hollywood.”
An Unwanted America’s Most Wanted Special
“Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part Two)” aired at 8 p.m. on Sunday, September 17, 1995 and revealed the culprit to the American public, but if the usual half-hour wasn’t enough Simpsons for viewers at the time, “Part One” aired at 7 p.m. and was followed by a half-hour special that aired only once, titled Springfield’s Most Wanted.
Like the Fox network’s long-running America’s Most Wanted it parodied, this special was hosted by John Walsh and gave viewers a rundown of the various suspects in Springfield, checked in with Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro for what the Simpsons betting markets were saying, spoke with former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates, and offered celebrity predictions from Dennis Franz, Chris Elliott, Kevin Nealon, and others. Though Oakley worked in promotion for America’s Most Wanted briefly in the early days of his career, he and Weinstein had no recollection of anyone on the staff of The Simpsons contributing to the special. “It was entirely done by Fox,” says Oakley. “We were aware that it was being done, but that was the blessing and the curse of working on The Simpsons in those days: We didn’t have any connection to the outside world.”
The special, which ultimately saw the light of day once again on The Simpsons season-six DVDs, was not well-reviewed at the time, particularly Walsh’s involvement in the comparatively frivolous production, seen by some contemporary reviewers as “tacky” and “gimmicky.”
In the 30-plus seasons of the show, “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” remains the only two-parter in Simpsons history, and the marketing blitz that bridged seasons six and seven may only be second behind that of The Simpsons Movie in 2007. Oakley and Weinstein assumed showrunning duties for The Simpsons’ seventh and eighth seasons before moving on to their own projects, but that didn’t mean they were done hanging out in Springfield, or even that they were done with the mystery of who shot Mr. Burns. Oakley describes an idea that he had pitched to a friend who still worked at The Simpsons in 2015: “Remember that FX, People v. O.J. Simpson thing? I thought for the 20th anniversary of [“Who Shot Mr. Burns”], they should have made a live-action episode, with human actors playing Mr. Burns and Homer. It’s one of my favorite ideas I’ve had in years!”