In the summer of 1995, one question consumed an entire nation of TV viewers: Who shot Mr. Burns? The two-part cliffhanger finale of The Simpsons’ sixth season was originally conceived as a parody of similar publicity stunt finales— specifically the “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger on Dallas—but it soon took on a life of its own, as fans toiled over theories about various Springfield residents. In the end, the shooter was revealed to be Maggie Simpson, with an assist from Burns himself as he attempted to steal the innocent baby’s candy. But, as veteran Simpsons writer Josh Weinstein revealed on Twitter today, the original ending to “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” was going to be quite different.
“This is very rough. The story has to basically be about Mr. Burns making six mortal enemies.” Thus begins the episode pitch summary from a writers’ conference in June 1994 where Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein pitched their original idea for the two-part episode. Initially, the vile scheme Burns’ concocts that inspires hatred from Springfield’s citizenry was going to be a much simpler land deal in which he would “buy this block of downtown area and demolish it,” effecting the lives of various characters. This later turned into the more super-villain-esque idea of blotting out the sun with a giant dish. Regardless of who he angers or how, the finale ends with Burns being shot.
When it came to deciding who pulled the trigger, Oakley and Weinstein toyed with the idea of making it a complete stranger that hadn’t previously appeared on the show. “We want to do a parody of all these horrible things like “it’s a dream…” A Twin Peaks-type thing, someone you’ve never seen before. A drifter who recently arrived into town.” Eventually, they realized it would be much more satisfying if it were a character that the audience already knew and cared about. But, since attempted murder is a crime that usually accompanies a prison sentence, they needed to find a character they were “willing to sacrifice.”
The pitch outline ends with the suggestion of Barney (driven mad by the destruction of Moe’s bar) or possibly Selma (who finds out Burns is cheating on her with her sister), but remains open-ended as to who the culprit should actually be. According to a follow-up tweet from Weinstein, it was at that point that other writers were invited to pitch ideas and build off the initial concept. “There are 5 more pages of people’s suggestions,” he says, “including Maggie.”
One common element that’s present in the above snippet as well as the original pitch is the idea of leaving clues for the audience. These consciously placed breadcrumbs are part of what make the “Who Shot Mr. Burns” episodes so great. In the end, it didn’t really matter who held the gun. It was the mystery that made it so fun to watch.