Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: In The Simpsons contest “Who Shot Mr. Burns?,” no one guessed the correct answer.
Fan contests have a long history in film and television. Most famously is when fans win “Walk-on” roles (quick minor appearances where they essentially just walk on and then walk off the set), like the two teens who won DC Comics “The Great Superman Movie Contest” and appeared briefly in 1978’s Superman. Just in the last year, the new Star Wars film, the Dumb and Dumber film sequel and TV shows Teen Wolf and The Exes have all either had contests where fans could win a walk-on role or had auctions where people could bid to win a walk-on role (one of the rewards in the Veronica Mars Kickstarter was a walk-on role in the film).
In 1995, The Simpsons offered their own unique fan contest when they offered up a chance for a fan to be drawn with The Simpsons. How would a fan win the chance? Simply correctly answer the question, “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”
How many fans got it right? Read on to find out!
The finale of The Simpsons‘ sixth season and the premiere of their seventh season, “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” (Parts 1 and 2) is the only two-part episode in the history of The Simpsons (it is also one of only two Simpsons‘ season finales to end in a cliffhanger. The twenty-second season finale, “The Ned-Liest Catch,” also ended with a fan contest – fans got to vote on whether Ned Flanders and Edna Krabappel would remain a couple – the premiere of the twenty-third season revealed that the fans voted yes on them staying together). The story was a parody of the famous third season finale of the hit TV series Dallas, “A House Divded,” where Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing is shot at the end of the episode, setting up months of speculation as to the identity of his killer, with the eventual reveal coming in a November episode resulting in what was, at the time, the largest audience for a television show ever, over 80 million viewers. Just like the Dallas episode, The Simpsons episode set up a number of possible culprits with motivation for shooting Mr. Burns (most notably stealing an oil well discovered by Simpsons Elementary and trying to block out the sun so that Springfield would be totally reliant on his Nuclear Power Plant). After his seeming total victory over the town, Burns walks out of sight and we hear “Oh it’s you, what are you so happy about? I see. I think you’d better drop it,” sounds of a struggle and then a gunshot. Burns collapses on a large sundial (pointing to W and S as major clues to the identity of his assailant)
and then, after all the town’s citizens mill around his body, Dr. Hibbert says, “Well I couldn’t possibly solve this mystery… Can you?” and points to the screen.
This was the launch of the “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” summer-long contest. Fox launched a website for fans to give them various clues (www.springfield.com), one of the very first attempts by a television show to do online interaction (it got over 500,000 hits). The contest, though, worked much differently than most fans would have thought. It was sponsored by 1-800-COLLECT, which was a business owned by MCI (it’s still around today, amazingly enough) that was a lot more popular in the days before cell phones (before you placed a collect call on a pay phone, you would dial 1-800-COLLECT, and they would work out a slightly cheaper rate for your collect call than if you relied solely on the phone company of the pay phone you were using). To be eligible for the contest, you had to have used 1-800-COLLECT during the summer, which already narrowed the pool of eligible contestants down dramatically. Former Simpsons producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein explained the rest in a chat with The Simpsons Sourcebook:
“You had to use 1-800-COLLECT and submit your name and the name of the person you were calling, then a pool of eligible people was selected and it was about 200 people and they were called by MCI – plus YOU had to be home during the broadcast and the person you had called during the summer also HAD to be home during the broadcast. And not one of the people who they called had the right answer! So somebody was picked randomly from among those eligible. And it was some lady in Washington DC who didn’t watch the show. She opted for the cash prize instead of being animated. The end.
The randomly selected winner was Ms. Fayla Gibson.
Amusingly enough, someone on The Simpsons newsgroup online guessed the identity of the killer on the very night of the broadcast (SPOILERS FOR A TV SHOW FROM NINETEEN YEARS AGO – IT WAS MAGGIE SIMPSONS, THE W AND THE S WAS MEANT TO BE AN M AND S FROM MR. BURNS’ PERSPECTIVE) but obviously that poster did not enter the contest. The show’s producers tried to track him down after the contest ended but were unable to find him (he was using a college e-mail address that was now defunct).
There’s some debate over whether the winner of the contest was ever even guaranteed a walk-on role (and perhaps would only win a drawing of themselves with The Simpsons) but since it never came about, I can’t say for sure either way. Oakley and Weinstein said “instead of being animated,” so I tend to believe the winner would have had the chance to be animated.
The legend is…
Thanks to Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein and the Simpsons Sourcebook for the information!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.