Don’t worry, the man of many Springfield voices isn’t dead but he is leaving The Simpsons – taking the vocal cords that gave us more than 20 of the show’s best-loved characters with him.
It’s hard to overstate Shearer’s importance to The Simpsons. On a basic level, more characters would survive the departure of Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Nancy Cartwright (Bart) or even Dan Castellaneta (Homer and others). Of course, none of Shearer’s characters are central to the family, but they are fan favourites who have anchored hundreds of episodes: Mr Burns and Waylon Smithers (yes, that’s Shearer talking to himself), Ned-erino Flanders, Principal Skinner, Rev Lovejoy, Dr Hibbert, Kent Brockman, the list goes on…
Along with the virtuoso Hank Azaria (who the producers must be duct taping to a chair right now), to all intents and purposes Shearer is Springfield. So what happens now? A plague sweeps Evergreen Terrace? Everyone suddenly gets laryngitis? The family move to Shelbyville?
Replacing voice actors in cartoons is not new: Walt Disney was the original Mickey Mouse, until the cigarettes meant he couldn’t squeak anymore, and artists including Billy West (Fry from Futurama) long since took over Bugs Bunny from the legendary Mel Blanc. More recently, the sweet Meg Griffin of early Family Guy – voiced by Lacey Chabert – was supplanted by the bratty Mila Kunis.
But that isn’t The Simpsons’ style. Troy McLure, Lionel Hutz and Edna Krabappel all disappeared following the deaths of Phil Hartman and Marcia Wallace. Shearer isn’t dead, he just wants to do other work, but The Simpsons knows how attached fans are to the voices they know so well (and that’s true everywhere: in Mexico, a strike by the actors who dub The Simpsons led to a local outcry). The millions who still watch worldwide are going to notice a change.
Most likely the scripts will wink at it and move on, and the news is hardly unexpected. We always suspected Shearer would be the first to go. He had the most conspicuous side-projects – including many in Britain – and was most prone to criticising the scripts. The lengthy and public pay disputes between cast and producers only increased the sense of the inevitable. In many ways, it is amazing the Spinal Tap bassist stayed as long as he did.
Nevertheless, this is a sad day, even for those who no longer watch the show week to week. Harry Shearer was vital to making The Simpsons into a cultural phenomenon – a true talent who embiggened even the smallest role.