The art of guest voicing in The Simpsons

Feature Mark Harrison 22 May 2014 - 07:00

Mark looks back over 25 years of The Simpsons' guest voices, from the sublime to the er, less sublime...

Without including Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie, there are easily somewhere in the region of 50 instantly recognisable characters who feature in The Simpsons. Over 25 years, the regular cast of Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer and Hank Azaria have lent their dulcet tones to some of the most beloved characters in animation.

Whatever you think of later seasons, it also remains one of the best-acted animated shows on television, having kept that same voice cast all along and developed their characters over the years. More often than not, that rapport extends to the guest vocalists too, and some of the most memorable gags, moments and episodes have come from guest appearances.

On the other hand, they’re not always so elegantly integrated. For instance, the season 23 episode Lisa Goes Gaga has an EPG listing that goes something like “Lady Gaga shows up in Springfield to help Lisa with her self-esteem.” It recently made headlines when a few websites ran with a chart of IMDB average votes on every Simpsons episode, in which the episode ranked as (Comic Book Guy voice) Worst. Episode. Ever.

It’s likely the most egregious example of the series hanging a story on the appearance of a guest star that the show has ever done, or will ever do. It’s no surprise that it rang false even with viewers who aren’t so vocally disappointed that the show wasn’t being written by the geniuses who were responsible for so many hits in its 1990s heyday.

This isn’t to say that we look upon IMDB scores as empirical measures of fan opinion - Homer The Smithers is the highest scoring episode on that chart, and that one certainly doesn’t have enough monorails, ‘No Homers’ clubs or Cape Fear references to match the very best episodes. But it’s tough to imagine even the most ardent Little Monster saying much in defence of the 2012 episode.

Without making further comment on the quality of scripts, now vs. then, the Gaga episode barely resembles the series that used to masterfully integrate guest stars, whether they were playing themselves or original characters. While it’s still a cool experience for whichever celebrity may be involved in lending their voice, it’s almost at the expense of something that the show used to be much better at.

Whether they’re playing beloved recurring characters, mayfly Springfielders who only appear in one episode, or satirical takes on celebrity cameos, you couldn’t get through many episodes of a Simpsons marathon without hitting a great turn by a guest voice artist, and we’re looking back on some of the greatest.

Regular characters

The beauty of certain recurring guest stars on The Simpsons is that they feel as integral to the show as the six principals, even though they’re not in the show as often. Some of those recurring characters have been around since very early on, and it’s surprising how some of them aren’t in as many episodes as you remember.

The one who immediately springs to mind is Phil Hartman. You may recognise his voice from characters such as Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure, who you may recognise from—wow, this joke could just go on forever, if I let it.

There may not have been a lot of range in the voices of Hartman’s characters, but he was terrific as both Hutz, the lawyer was always hilariously out of his depth in the courtroom, and McClure, who smarms up a storm in the pre-IMDB days of “where do I know that guy from?” every time he appears on a screen.

Nobody else could have taken over those characters, so it’s fitting that they were both retired after Hartman’s tragic death in 1998. The same goes for Edna Krabappel, who was wonderfully voiced by the late Marcia Wallace; each of them proved how crucial the voice performances are to the character on this show.

Joe Mantegna’s Fat Tony is another example of a character who has given the writers loads to play with over the years, and since season 3’s Bart The Murderer, the Springfield don has appeared time and time again, either dispensing a quick gag or playing as the main antagonist in episodes like The Twisted World Of Marge Simpson or Mayored To The Mob.

Jon Lovitz has voiced a number of characters on the show too, but has most often recurred as Artie Ziff, Marge’s high-school suitor. They haven’t overused the character, and Half-Decent Proposal and The Ziff Who Came To Dinner both illustrate how much happier Marge is with Homer than she would have been with Artie, in funny and believable fashion.

Some characters have only appeared in a couple of episodes, and yet still made their mark. It’s surprising that we haven’t had more of Danny DeVito as Homer’s sporadically successful half-brother Herb Powell over the years, although a brief cameo in season 24 let us know that he’d gone broke again.

Also related to Homer, Glenn Close made a very affecting debut as Homer’s absent mother in season 7’s Mother Simpson, but the following appearances never quite matched the touching reveal. Close even returned after the character was killed off, in season 23’s Inception parody, How I Wet Your Mother.

Over such a long time, most of the characters on the show have had episodes based around them, (how many Moe-centric episodes have we had now?) and so that has sometimes spread out to the less frequent but memorable guest characters too.

The most obvious example of a recurring guest star being the centre of any episode in which they appear is Kelsey Grammer’s Sideshow Bob. He’s pretty much the regular antagonist of the entire series, comparable to the role of the Joker or the Daleks elsewhere.

They even went so far as to lampshade the Frasier Crane connection by drafting in Grammer’s screen-brother David Hyde Pierce and screen-father John Mahoney to voice Bob’s brother and father in Brother From Another Show and Funeral For A Fiend.

In truth, we’ll probably never see a better Sideshow Bob episode than Cape Feare, which marvellously skewered Martin Scorsese’s over-the-top remake. That episode also saw the accidental creation of one of the show’s most iconic gags, when they had Bob get hit in the face with a rake nine times in a row- they were just trying to fill time.

There are a couple of more recently created regulars who’ve made an impact, particularly Jane Kaczmarek’s Judge Constance Harm and Eric Idle’s Declan Desmond, but amongst a huge roster of stars who’ve had more than one run at The Simpsons, Grammer and Hartman may well be the most iconic. Well, except for maybe one. But we’ll get to him in good time.

One-off characters

Still, you don’t have to stick around for years and years to make a big impression, and there have been some superb mayfly characters over the years. While there are tonnes of examples of celebrities playing themselves on the series, we daresay that guest vocalists perform better when they fit into an already established plot, rather than having the writers contrive a reason for them to cameo.

In some cases, they bring prestige to certain roles, as with Patrick Stewart’s turn as the Stonecutters’ Number One in Homer The Great. It’s really tough to think of anyone else who could have lent a line as ridiculous as “Attach the Stone of Triumph!” all of the gravitas that it deserved. Johnny Cash’s unorthodox turn as an existential coyote in El Viaje Misterioso De Nuestro Jomer, and Kathleen Turner as a jaded doll designer in Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy, would be other prominent examples.

Equally, some characters are livened up by having recognisable comic voices behind them, as with the casting of Rodney Dangerfield as Larry Burns, the estranged son of Mr. Burns, and John Waters as John, the gay man who forces Homer to confront his prejudices in the pun-tastically titled Homer’s Phobia.

Michelle Pfieffer voiced Mindy in The Last Temptation Of Homer, and there’s also a long established tradition of actresses guest-starring as Bart’s love interests, from the early days of Roseanne’s Sara Gilbert voicing Laura Powers, to later characters voiced by Meryl Streep, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon and Zooey Deschanel.

You can kind of see the appeal of playing a character that has been created, rather than playing an exaggerated version of yourself - Ricky Gervais and Seth Rogen both guest-starred as new characters in episodes they wrote (This Is Your Wife and Homer The Whopper, respectively) rather than playing themselves.

The characters that stand out as early highlights, and the kind of one-off characters we really haven’t seen the likes of in the past two decades or so of the show, are Karl and Mr. Bergstrom. Karl, voiced by Harvey Fierstein, is Homer’s assistant and guardian angel in Simpson And Delilah, and may be one of the best characters who never came back, and of course, Mr. Bergstrom makes a huge impact on Lisa in Lisa’s Substitute, and was memorably voiced by one “Sam Etic”. Dustin Hoffman reportedly used this pseudonym because he was unsure about being associated with a cartoon series, but his performance elevates an already strong episode, and still stands as one of the best in the series. It typifies the best of actors playing characters created by the writers, rather than playing themselves, with nothing to wink at the guest star’s prestige but a cheeky, irresistible reference to The Graduate.

It’s not to say that guest stars aren’t acting when they play themselves, given how the Simpsonised versions are usually caricatures, but there’s definitely something to be said for the pleasant surprise that comes when you get to the credits of some episodes and go “Oh, that was him/her playing that character.”

For a point of comparison, it usually seems like writing for Patrick Stewart in the Seth Macfarlane canon is loads of fun, putting things you would like Patrick Stewart to say (e.g. “Look, I’ve got girl-boobs!”) in his mouth, no matter who he’s playing, and just allowing hilarity to ensue. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, as The Simpsons’ huge roster of celebrity cameos should attest.

Celebrities playing themselves

Simply put, there are too many good ones to list, so let’s just rattle through some of them. Ringo Starr in Brush With Greatness. George Harrison in Homer’s Barbershop Quartet. Paul and Linda McCartney in Lisa The Vegetarian. Mickey Rooney in Radioactive Man. Tom Hanks in The Simpsons Movie. Leonard Nimoy in Marge Vs. The Monorail AND The Springfield Files—OK, I’m gonna stop.

Oh, go on then, just a few more. The entire Springfield Nuclear Power Plant’s softball team in Homer At The Bat. Buzz Aldrin and James Taylor in Deep Space Homer. Bette Midler and just about everyone else in Krusty Gets Kancelled. All of the bands in Homerpalooza. You get the picture, right?

At their best, (which is not necessarily to say pre-season 11) the celebrity cameos are arch or satirical versions of the guest star’s persona. At worst, they amount to Lisa pointing at people and calling out their name and the reason they’re famous, as was the entire basis of the embarrassing London-set episode, The Regina Monologues.

When actor and occasional DoG writer James Woods shows up, playing himself in Homer And Apu, they really followed through on how ridiculous his presence was, taking over Apu’s job in the Kwik-E-Mart, in order to research playing a convenience store clerk in his next movie. By the end of the episode, Apu takes a bullet for Woods, who gets him his job back before swanning off to “battle aliens on a faraway planet” (maybe in a movie, but maybe not.)

To refer to Seth Macfarlane once again, you can argue that whatever else Family Guy may owe to The Simpsons, their take on Woods as a petty and vindictive recurring character is better than what the degradation that has befallen the elder show’s celebrity cameos.

If there’s an identifiable tipping point in the show’s portrayal of celebrities, it’s probably season 10’s When You Dish Upon A Star, an episode that’s entirely centred around Homer befriending Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger and Ron Howard. It’s far from the worst episode of its kind, but it’s the first example of a story being hung entirely on the celebrity cameos.

Not long after that, U2 pops up in the 200th episode, Trash Of The Titans, a long while after Aerosmith, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the cast of Homerpalooza made it look cool. Like so much of the series from this point onwards, it’s certainly not an irrevocable decline from there on out, but the producers have also swung back to the other extreme by bringing in considerably less zeitgeist-y personalities for token roles.

Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman both had decent turns in scattershot episodes, but there are some really ripe guest appearances that seem to play more to the critics and the internet fanboys than the audience. I’ve watched The Simpsons with my dad since I was a kid, and his main takeaway from indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s guest role in the Sundance episode (itself a less funny retread of A Star Is Burns) was that he probably directed Cheaper By The Dozen, and it’s really not worth explaining how he came to that conclusion.

Perhaps even worse than the aforementioned Gaga debacle was the bally-hooed cameo in the 500th episode, At Long Last Leave - hey kids, it’s Julian Assange! There’s less than a minute of the Simpsonised Assange on-screen, but it’s such a staggeringly uncool moment, it sucks the life out of the whole episode.

As the show wears on, they’re only in danger of making more of these boo-boos. We’ve reached the point where certain guest stars actively leech on the series’ coolness, rather than playing good sports to a more satirical perspective.

To delve back into earlier seasons, Michael Jackson’s turn in Stark Raving Dad is probably the best example of getting the celebrity cameo right. The story isn’t based around him, but around “a big white dude who thinks he’s the little black dude”, and at least part of the episode’s plot is dedicated to puncturing the fannish hysteria around the King of Pop.

Like Dustin Hoffman, Jackson agreed to play himself, at the peak of The Simpsons’ early popularity, on the condition that he wasn’t credited. It’s not like the writers weren’t going to make a big deal out of bagging the biggest star in the world for a voice role, but they were smart and funny about it at the same time. Imagine how false a “Michael Jackson shows up to help Bart write Lisa a birthday song” summary would’ve felt back then.

As If to relieve the tension, they made a joke about it in The Itchy & Scratchy Movie, where Lisa gets home from the titular movie and tells Bart about the big name cameos. “Dustin Hoffman, Michael Jackson… of course they didn’t use their real names, but you knew it was them!” Maybe if the producers were still as excited about that prospect, we could all have avoided some less worthy cameos over the years.

On the plus side, The Regina Monologues’ cringe-worthy turn by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair might have been worth it, for Homer’s almost certainly unapproved reaction- “I can’t believe we met Mr. Bean!”

The greatest guest star of all

With all of this in mind, there’s one actor who really stands out as the greatest ever to guest on The Simpsons. This isn’t a controversial opinion, but after all that’s been discussed, the show has never had a greater guest star than Albert Brooks.

Younger readers may not know him by name, but you’ll know his more recent work outside of Springfield - he voiced the neurotic Marlin in Finding Nemo and gave an Oscar-worthy supporting turn as the psychotic Bernie in Drive. Brooks has played seven different one-off characters in The Simpsons, which is more characters than most recurring guest stars get a chance to play. What sets Brooks apart is that he’s phenomenal in any given one of them.

His roster includes Jacques, the bowler who almost tempted Marge into an affair in Life In The Fast Lane; Brad Goodman, the self-help instructor who dunks Springfield into the cult of Bart’s personality in Bart’s Inner Child; and most recently, Russ Cargill, the villain in The Simpsons Movie.

But he’s best known for playing the charismatic criminal mastermind and all-around good boss Hank Scorpio from You Only Move Twice. Scorpio is probably the single greatest one-off character in the history of the series, and you’d better believe that that’s down to Brooks’ performance as much as the script.

In fact, it’s been reported that the writers barely bothered to write dialogue for the actor once they realised that he would improvise classic line after classic line, including Scorpio’s speech about hammocks. Instead, they apparently wrote in Homer’s reactions during that scene, being taken in by Scorpio without fully keeping up with him, to how normal people interact with Brooks in everyday conversation.

It’s only through massive self-restraint that you get this far in an article about guest voices on The Simpsons without concluding that Albert Brooks is a fucking genius, but his turn as Scorpio epitomises everything I’ve been talking about all by itself, so it’s as good a place as any to wrap things up.

There’s an old story that the characters in The Simpsons were given yellow skin so that viewers who were channel-hopping would be intrigued and keep watching. The animation may have changed aspect ratio and gone high definition over time, but after a quarter of a century, it’s still the sound of Springfield’s finest that keeps us interested.

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