Back on Track

Earlier contract dispute behind voice cast

By Jerry Roberts

© Variety, April 23, 1998.

Most of the noise that was made in the media in the contract dispute between “The Simpsons” voice cast and Twentieth Century Fox Television piped down when the ink dried on new contracts early this month, and it’s back to yammering and “D’oh”-ing as usual at Homer and Marge’s place.

Dan Castellaneta (Homer), Nancy Cartwright (Bart), Julie Kavner (Marge), Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Harry Shearer (Burns, Smithers and others), Hank Azaria (Moe and others) and Phil Hartman (Troy McClure and others) have watched the mantle of TV history settle onto the enduring and honored series through its 200 episodes.

But the aftertaste still lingers for one member of TV animation’s most illustrious larynges.

“I won’t be going to any parties on April 24,” says Shearer, writer, actor and all-around mirth maven who provides the vocals for more than a dozen “Simpsons” support toons, a list the actor rattles off like a well-practiced ACME auctioneer: “Burns, Smithers, Ned Flanders, Scratchy … God, the Devil and Hitler, among others.”

“I find it ironic that a cast deemed instantly replaceable weeks ago is now indispensable,” Shearer says. “A large number of working voiceover actors declined Fox’s invitation to replace us. They are the ones who acted responsibly. We’ve been caught in an unpleasant fandango.

“But like all people in the business know, digging coal still is worse. I do not denigrate the show. I’ve been proud to be associated with it.”

That last feeling is unanimous among the other voice cast members.

“It’s an interesting phenomenon to be part of television history,” Smith says. “When you’re in the thick of it, acting, you don’t think about it. Then people meet you and you’re reminded of that. That identity brings in other issues. I was trying out for the role of a secretary in a sitcom, and the director said, ‘Can you sound a little less like Lisa Simpson?’

“But I can’t complain at all about the show. The writing is so good that the actors don’t have to elevate the material. And I play a character that I completely adore. I can’t get enough of the sibling rivalry between Bart and Lisa — those are some of the truest episodes that we’ve done.”

Castellaneta — the man who solidified Homer’s “D’oh” as the signature grunt in the lunkhead lexicon — is happy to be part of a “terrific and fun amalgam.”

“I wish people really knew the extra time and care on every level — actors, writers, animators — that goes into this show,” Castellaneta says. “The writers are constantly rewriting and the people who direct the animation add incredible amounts of depth and humor.

“That quality has paid off. We’ve solidified into a great team. And I always get a kick out of the character. Homer’s actually a big kid and kind of a dumb guy. But he’s a lovable dope — very, very boorish and rude, but still somehow likable. The D’oh came from character actor James Finlayson’s ‘Do-o-o-o’ in Laurel & Hardy pictures. You can tell it was intended as a euphemism for ‘Damn.’ I just speeded it up.”

Kavner, who plays Marge and is the veteran of half a dozen Woody Allen films, collectively calls the voice team “one of the greatest jobs in America as far as acting goes.”

“This is not just voice work,” Kavner maintains. “There are 60 different characters done by seven people, who bring this world to life. You read Burns or Smithers on the page, but Harry Shearer fills them out totally. I don’t have any control over my body language when I’m doing Marge. We act. Animators will come down to watch a recording session.

“Dan Castellaneta and I move around quite a bit,” she continues. “I love doing Marge’s two sisters quite a bit. Matt Groening gave me one stage direction with regard to them and it was the best. He said, ‘They suck the life out of everything.’ ”

Cartwright would seem to have the toughest job of the seven, gender-crossing to leaven the mischievous Bart’s little boy palaver. She doesn’t think about it much.

“I don’t do any girls on the show,” Cartwright says. “I do the boys. I never got mentally twisted on it. And I’m a mom with two kids. It’s worth communicating that my kids never used the excuse that ‘Bart Simpson uses bad words. So can I.’ We have gotten letters to that effect.

“For me the show and its profile has enabled me to realize that you have to utilize power when you have it. My company, Happy House Prods., is going to shoot a movie this summer in Minnesota called ‘Gathering the Jonses’ and I hope to film ‘In Search of Fellini,’ my one-woman play.”

While the “The Simpsons” has endured out of its beginnings as brief animated bits generated for “The Tracey Ullman Show” 11 years ago, it has stood as one of a kind.

“Sadly, it fits as an anomaly in comedy history,” Shearer says. “It set one trend in motion — it taught the networks and studios how much money there was to be made in animation. But I don’t see any evidence that people followed the trail it blazed in smart, funny comedy. Thinking people like to draw their own conclusions and there’s a big audience for smart, funny comedy. But the business took animation another way. It stands as a lonely beacon.”

Kavner calls “The Simpsons” “still an amazingly, incredibly original show.”

“I don’t see any other show doing political satire or taking on subjects like artificial insemination and filling in the background with smart quick bits — the signs, for instance. For the show on artificial insemination, the sign on the sperm bank wall read ‘Leave your sperm in our hands.’ A sign at a hair-cutting place read, ‘Turn your head and quaff.’ The writing on this show has been exceptional throughout the series run,” Kavner says.

The cast, which routinely runs through a table reading Thursdays and records Mondays, does its work prior to the animators, then loops in changes or inflections after the drawing is completed. They say that this seeming reverse order of creation is one of the enduring great unknowns that surprises a general public not attuned to tooning.

“People still say, ‘It’s not a kids’ show, is it?’ ” Smith says. “It was never intended as a kids’ show. It’s not for children. It terms of the jokes and structure, it was always written as a sitcom geared toward young adults. I think ‘The Simpsons’ hits the nail on the head. I have one brother and we’re a year apart and I did my fair share of kicking and screaming. ‘The Simpsons’ really gets into childhood in original, funny and wise ways.”

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