Harry Shearer And The Simpsons: Recasting A Voiceover Legend
By Doug Zanger
Twitter is all aflutter today over the news that Harry Shearer, the voice of Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Waylon Smithers and Principal Skinner (among many other) has decided to part ways with The Simpsons after what can only be called one of the more glorious runs of voiceover and voice acting in history (with the possible exception of his The Simpsons contemporaries).
This has not been the prettiest of breakups. The show’s executive producer, James L. Brooks, has noted that these characters will not be killed off or eliminated in any way. This is a pretty high-profile kerfuffle and there is rampant speculation that the person (or people) who will take over these roles will not be quite as good.
Having been deep in this kind of work, on both sides of the mic, for about 20 years myself, I can tell you that it’s both true and not true at the same time.
It’s true because Shearer is masterful. He is a technician who not only delivers the lines, but gets the right amount of gravitas and nuance to breathe substantial life and purity into the characters he has helped create over the years. It’s also true in that it’s hard to replace such beloved characters and having a level of “imitation” can sound, well, a little off — that’s also to do with the nuance thing.
It’s not true because there are plenty of very talented voice actors who could likely mimic what’s been done with these characters. To wit, I worked with a guy in radio who could pretty much nail about 10 of The Simpsons characters — and it showed in what I thought was a fairly awkward segment one morning when Nancy Cartwright, mainly the voice of Bart Simpson, visited the station. It turned into some kind of weird audition time that was cute after the first impression but quickly got into that awkward stage.
The key thing here for the producers and decision-makers is going to be time. They need to take their time, though they may not have that luxury. However, a guy like Billy West, a highly respected voice actor, could likely jump into something like this pretty quickly. As one commenter pointed out in a Hollywood Reporter article, “(he) could listen to one episode and nail all those characters. He’s one of the best in the business.” This is a very true point and a nice thing to have in the producer’s pocket, but there could be others who could do it well — and maybe a tiny bit cheaper.
For voice actors like us, this is a dream opportunity. The downside is that every talent’s agent is likely inundating The Simpsons and hitting up anyone they know at Fox for this gig. The other downside is that there could be 100+ people in the mix of this thing and it’s often akin to trying to hit a Powerball lottery.
Some years ago, I was invited to audition for the recasting of Winnie the Pooh. It was exciting and I did the very best I could. I also knew that I was in the mix with some pretty huge voice actors and was likely a tad too young-sounding and not quite “gravely” enough to pull it off. That’s one of the realities of this kind of work — the shine of the opportunity can sometimes cloud the reality — that whole Powerball thing.
It’s also not easy for the producers. Sifting through this much voiceover is exhausting. I’ve been there on commercial projects as a producer and it can really suck when it all starts to sound the same. I could be wrong about the scope they are working from. They may already have a short list in mind to make the process easier on themselves. If that’s the case, I feel sorry for the poor people who have to field calls from every agent and talent in LA.
Regardless, this whole thing will be interesting to watch. It’s not great that it was made so public and that both sides resorted to a little sniping back and forth. Once the decisions are made, though, there will likely be some blowback (“he’s not as good as Harry Shearer!”) but that will change over time as people get used to someone new. Hell, the lay person may not even notice and it’s really a concentrated group of fans who prefer to keep the purity of this thing alive.
All I know is that there is some lucky talent out there who is about to hit the jackpot and get one of the gigs of a lifetime.
And Harry Shearer will be just fine, folks. He earned the right to do whatever he wants years ago.
“Harry Shearer at RT4” by Derek Bridges from New Orleans — RT4_Keynote_Harry Shearer. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The post originally appeared at The Advertising Week Social Club on Thursday, May 14, 2015.