The news broke this week that after 26 seasons Harry Shearer is leaving “The Simpsons,” for which he created many of the series' signature voices -- including Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, both Mr. Burns and his executive lackey Smithers, Reverend Lovejoy, Lenny, Otto, Kang, Kent Brockman, and on and on. And on and on.
On the face of it, it feels like a massacre, as if a couple of dozen actors had walked off a show at once. Certainly, it presents a challenge to the producers, who will reportedly look for more than a single player to replace Shearer, because, you know, they would have to; the single freak who could acceptably replicate that range of sounds won't likely be found.
Cartoon characters can have long lives, often outliving the people who created them. Though “The Simpsons” will sometimes venture a glimpse into the future, the Simpsons themselves are as young, or as old, and as yellow as they day they were drawn. Were the series to be renewed for another 100 years, instead of just the two now contracted for, they might look and behave much as they do now. But, barring Dan Castelleneta's head being preserved in a jar, "Futurama"-style, someone else will be making Homer talk.
Such accommodations are often made. That Mel Blanc has been dead since 1989 has not kept Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck off the screen; “Space Jam” went right ahead without him. Micky Mouse has survived Walt Disney, Donald Duck outlasted Clarence Nash. Goofy gets along without Pinto Colvig to voice him. To take it into the third dimension, consider the Muppets: Jim Henson, who created Kermit, has been gone since 1990 – Steve Whitmire is the only Kermit many have ever known. Frank Oz quit performing Miss Piggy in 2001.
This is natural enough. The benefits of having a Bugs, Daffy, Mickey or Donald available for new work outweigh -- certainly for the copyright holders but also for some portion of the audience -- the necessity that the same people voice them all the time. Five different actors, beginning with Casey Kasem, have played the cartoon Shaggy Rogers in various editions of “Scooby-Doo.” Did you know? Did you care?
It’s true that “The Simpsons” retired the character of Edna Krabappel after the death of Marcia Wallace, who played her, calling Wallace “irreplaceable”; but Shearer’s characters are numerous and more central to the life of Springfield – they make him, as it were, non-irreplaceable. For the producers to write them out, or just write them off, makes no practical sense.
FOR THE RECORD:
8:17 a.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled the last name of "Simpsons" character Edna Krabappel as Crabapple.
We can stand a little cognitive dissonance. On film, we get different Batmen, different Bonds; and we get Bonds playing stories that Ian Fleming never wrote. Two Darrens on “Bewitched” – no problem. Somehow we adapt. But were Daniel Craig asked to play James Bond as if he were Sean Connery, that would be a very different kettle of 007. And that's a little like what's happening here, except the faces stay the same.
Whatever the nuts and bolts of Shearer's beef with Fox, and “The Simpsons'” beef with Shearer's beef, upon which I won't speculate or comment, this business seems to have progressed beyond the point of repair. So the question you have to ask yourself, as season 27 rolls out, is how authentic do you need your “Simpsons” to be?
For many it won't matter. Some may never even know – not every “Simpsons” fan keeps up with the backstage news or reads credits. There are surely people who watch “The Simpsons” who have no idea who Harry Shearer is, or that one person is responsible for so many different characters. Possibly there are some who think the voices are produced by the cartoons themselves. Undoubtedly there are those who will not notice a difference when other voices take over, and those who will hear a difference but won’t mind it.
For those with keener ears, or a more demanding disposition, it may too jarring to stand, like a piano with a few keys slightly, but fatally, out of tune. Post-Henson Kermit, like post-Blanc Bugs, never sounded right to me. (But I can hang.) There may be something too soft about the new version, or too intense, or too exaggerated -- an exaggeration of an exaggeration.
But however excellent, imitations remain imitations; good forgeries are still forgeries. Some might think, if they are not thinking too hard, that the forger is the equal of the artist whose work he apes because he is technically, even undetectably, able to ape the master's hand. And yet they are not the same at all. The artist works from the inside out, the imitator from the outside in – he may understand the original but have nothing of his own to say.
It's true that actors do not, as a rule, invent the characters they play; with “The Simpsons” and other cartoons, designers and animators are also also part of the process that makes a Bob Belcher or a Bullwinkle, a Space Ghost or a Steven Universe. But how they're played makes them who they are: actors bring them to life, and in doing so influence what the writers write and the animators animate. It's a collaboration, at the very least; you can't really tease it apart.
So here's to Harry Shearer, in all his many Simpsonian manifestations. And while we're at it, here's to Daws Butler, Jean Vander Pyl, June Foray, Tara Strong, Tom Kenny and John DiMaggio, among many others, whom you might better know (to pick just a character apiece) as Yogi Bear, Wilma Flintstone, Rocket J. Squirrel, Bubbles, SpongeBob and Jake the Dog. The names may not ring bells, but the voices are familiar.
Robert Lloyd tweets as himself @LATimesTVLloyd