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Fan contests have a long history in film and television, with the prize frequently a “walk-on” role, such with the two teens who won DC Comics “The Great Superman Movie Contest” and appeared briefly in 1978’s Superman. Just in the past year, the new Star Wars film, the Dumb and Dumber sequel and the TV series Teen Wolf and The Exes have either held contests in which fans could win a walk-on role or auctions in which people could bid on the coveted prize.
In 1995, The Simpsons held its own fan contest, offering a viewers a chance to be drawn with the characters. 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 its seventh, “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” is the only two-part episode in the history of the animated series. (It’s also one of only two season finales to end in a cliffhanger. The 22nd season finale, “The Ned-Liest Catch,” also ended with a contest, with viewers voting on whether Ned Flanders and Edna Krabappel would remain a couple; the premiere of the 23rd season revealed that fans wanted them to stay together). The story was a parody of the famous Season 3 finale Dallas, “A House Divided,” in which Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing is shot, setting up months of speculation about 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, more than 80 million viewers.
Just as Dallas did, The Simpsons set up a number of characters with possible motives for shooting Mr. Burns (who in the episode had stolen the oil discovered beneath Springfield Elementary and blocked out the sun so the town 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 him say, “Oh, it’s you. What are you so happy about? I see. I think you’d better drop it,” followed by 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 proclaims, “Well, I couldn’t possibly solve this mystery … Can you?” and points to the screen.
That was the beginning of the “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” summer-long contest. Fox launched a website to give fans clues (www.springfield.com), one of the first attempts by a television show to interact with viewers online (it received more than 500,000 hits). The contest, however, worked much differently than most fans would have thought. It was sponsored by 1-800-COLLECT, a business owned by MCI (it’s still around today, amazingly enough) that was a lot more popular in the days before cell phones. 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, D.C., who didn’t watch the show. She opted for the cash prize instead of being animated. The end.
The randomly selected winner was Fayla Gibson.
Amusingly enough, someone on The Simpsons newsgroup online guessed the identity of the shooter on the very night of the broadcast (it was Maggie Simpson; the W and the S were viewed as and M and an S from Mr. Burns’ perspective), but obviously that poster didn’t 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 email address that by that time was 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!
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Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!