'Simpsons' Live

By Phil Rosenthal

© Chicago Sun-Times, February 15, 2000.

ASPEN, Colo.--Springfield tycoon C. Montgomery Burns is talking to flunky Waylon Smithers. They're listening to a report from newscaster Kent Brockman.

Harry Shearer is talking to himself.

This is one of the joys of finally getting to watch the cast of "The Simpsons," perhaps the best cast on TV, doing their thing live and in person at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in their first-ever public performance.

You can finally fully appreciate the incredible talents of Shearer, Nancy Cartwright, Dan Castellaneta, Hank Azaria and the show's other actors--voices that don't seem to get the credit they deserve.

" `Seem?' " Shearer said after one of the two sold-out script readings at the festival. "You could lose the `seem.' The lack of recognition for vocal actors runs very deep in this business--and we see it displayed every day."

But to see them is to believe.

Every Thursday morning when the show is in production--work begins next month on season 12--several dozen people wedge into a conference room for what is known as a table read, the cast's first performance of an episode's script.

"The table read is unbelievable," said Cartwright, who plays Bart Simpson, Nelson Muntz, Ralphie Wiggum and others with obvious glee. "It's not quite like this, with an audience of 500. But for 60 people crammed together, it's an event."

Voices we've come to associate with yellow cartoon characters with bug eyes and overbites instead come out of the mouths of ordinary people. It's both shocking and exhilarating.

"It's very interesting to see," said Castellaneta, the Second City vet who gives Homer Simpson his "d'oh" and Krusty the clown his cackle. "I've been sitting by Nancy for 10 years and, to me even, seeing Bart's voice come from her is still incongruous."

But, as amazing as they are, they rarely get the recognition the festival accorded them. When, for example, TV Guide named Homer Simpson one of the top 10 TV characters ever, Castellaneta was not even mentioned.

"I have to say I was a little disappointed," said Castellaneta, now Off-Broadway in "The Alchemist." "That's the way things are built. People don't see us. They identify with the cartoon."

Little wonder the fans, who after the shows shouted out requests for the actors to do various characters and catch phrases, were blown away.

"I see them do it all the time, but it was so much fun to sit in the audience and watch them switch characters," series creator Matt Groening said. "What we've just witnessed here is very much like a regular table-reading of the script--except there's less bowing at the end."

The shame is that the festival performances look to be a one-time event. This is a show that should go on tour, something every "Simpsons" fan--and detractor--should be able to witness.

"It was great to see people sort of fit the last piece into the puzzle," Shearer said. "I'd love to do more of these."

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Last updated on August 7, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (