It’s a cliche for reporters to ask the creator of a long-running TV show about his favorite episodes, and the cliched response is for the creator to say that he loves them all and can’t possibly single out one or two.

Yet upon meeting “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening on Monday at a party celebrating the show’s 350th episode – which airs May 1 – the temptation to ask the favorites question was too hard to resist. Happily, he didn’t give the usual non-answer, rattling off a list of his top secondary characters – Apu, the Squeaky-Voiced Teen, Ralph Wiggum and Milhouse’s dad, Kirk, among them – and episodes he loves.

“I don’t have a single favorite. There’s a bunch I really like,” Groening says. “I love “Bart Sells His Soul,’ the old episode (from October 1995) where he sold his soul to Milhouse for five bucks. I love the one where we had Frank Grimes (“Homer’s Enemy,’ from May 1997). And I like an episode we have coming up where Bart converts to Catholicism.”

That episode, originally scheduled for earlier this month, was pulled following the death of Pope John Paul II and is now set to air May 15. Groening says the decision was one the network made: “We think it’s offensive whenever you run it.”

It’s remarkable enough that “The Simpsons” has even made it to 350 episodes, more than any other scripted show currently on TV. That it can still create a buzz after that long, despite the now-familiar chorus that the show isn’t what it once was, is pretty much unheard of in this era.

“No matter how hard people try to run it into the ground by putting it on too many times a day, putting it on multiple DVDs and oversaturating the marketplace and all the rest, we still keep going,” Groening says. “In fact, I have to say I’m very proud of this season and the coming season.”

Groening thinks the show has lasted so long because “with animation, there are so many possibilities to surprise the audience. That’s really what we try to do. We try to keep surprising the audience and keep surprising ourselves.”

Groening was quoted Sunday in The New York Times as saying “the show has almost reached its halfway point.” Monday, he said he “was not serious at all” about whether “The Simpsons” can last another 350 episodes, but he quickly added, “I’ll do them if we can.

“That’s a long time, but if we, you know – unless we all get killed,” he says with a shrug. “I think five of the main people could get killed and the show could still go on. But any more than five – that’s why we all ride in separate airplanes.”

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AP-NY-04-27-05 1116EDT

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