Pro or con, people are paying attention to the show.
By STEPHEN KIEHL
James Dobson has his work cut out for him.
The conservative Christian recently denounced SpongeBob SquarePants -- the harmless cartoon sponge who holds hands with his friends and lives in an underwater pineapple -- for appearing in a "pro-homosexual video." Soon, a regular character on "The Simpsons" will come out and be married in a same-sex wedding.
"Simpsons" producers haven't revealed which character turns out to be gay, but that hasn't stopped fans from speculating or placing bets on who it might be. Patty Bouvier, the chain-smoking, raspy-voiced sister of Marge who has rarely dated men, seems to be the leading contender -- one Web betting site, PaddyPower.com, stopped taking wagers because so much money was being placed on her.
But before spreading more idle gossip, let's deal in facts. Here they are, as determined by literally hours of dogged reporting (we called Fox): A Simpsons character will come out and be married by Homer, who becomes an Internet minister because he thinks he can make money by marrying gay couples. The wedding will be televised Feb. 20.
Now, back to the gossip. From here on, we're trafficking in guesses, rumor, innuendo, hints and allegations. You have been warned.
When Simpsons creator Matt Groening announced in August that a character would come out this season, early speculation focused on Waylon Smithers, the neat, bow-tied, doll-collecting assistant to Mr. Burns, owner of the nuclear power plant. Indeed, the evidence has been increasing over the show's 16 seasons.
Let's go to the tape: In the third season, when the power plant is 90 seconds away from a core meltdown, Smithers says to Mr. Burns, "Sir, there may never be another time to say I love you, sir."
Mr. Burns responds, "Oh, hot dog! Thank you for making my last few moments on earth socially awkward."
In other episodes, Smithers dances with the Village People on top of a submarine, singing "In the Navy," and is shown to have a shirtless Mr. Burns as the screen-saver on his home computer. He's also been spotted Rollerblading in Springfield's gay neighborhood and has been known to wear a pink robe.
But the consensus among fans is that a Smithers outing would be disappointing. As Nate Kushibo, moderator of The Simpsons e-mail listserv, wrote in an e-mail to the Baltimore Sun: "If it turns out to be Smithers, the only bit of newsworthiness would be that there are still people in America who think that a 40-something unmarried man who collects Barbie-like Malibu Stacy dolls, goes on Caribbean trips with male friends, and visits leather bars simply hasn't found the right woman yet."
Simpsons executive producer Al Jean says the show's writers decided early on it would be funny to drop hints that Smithers was gay but never make a big deal about it. Most of the hints have come in the form of Smithers' slavish devotion to Mr. Burns.
"I've always thought of Smithers as a Burns-osexual," Jean says. "Whatever gender Burns is, he loves. So Smithers loves Mr. Burns. So he is a man who loves men."
So that settles that. But it doesn't mean Smithers will come out and get married. In fact, since he loves Mr. Burns so much, it's unlikely he'd marry anyone else. And Smithers coming out wouldn't be much of a surprise, since so many fans have assumed it for so long.
OK. Who's next?
The Internet rumor that Patty, Marge's sister, comes out and marries a female golf pro has been circulating for so long that it's hardened into what passes for "fact" on the Internet. There have been some clues along the way. When her sister Selma was looking for a husband to start a family, Patty showed no interest. When Homer, naked, runs by the sisters in one episode, Patty says, "There goes the last lingering shred of my heterosexuality."
In any case, Jean warns that the show could be changed at the last minute and is not in its final form. The episode has been in the works for about a year, since San Francisco decided to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry (a move later overturned by the California Supreme Court) and several other cities followed suit.
"We thought it would be an interesting thing for Springfield to do," Jean says, adding that the town splits into pro- and anti-gay marriage camps. "Lisa thinks it's good for civil rights. The reverend of the local Protestant church is opposed to it. Other people think tourists will come to town. Mayor Quimby wants the money. We don't take a position as much as explore everybody's positions."
The Simpsons has featured at least one openly gay character in the past: John, a kitsch collector played by Baltimore filmmaker John Waters, appeared in an episode from Season 8 called "Homer's Phobia."