With Hollywood going through something of a cultural revolution in terms of racial biases, several animated TV series joined the conversation by having white actors stepping down from voicing non-white characters. It mostly started with Jenny Slate's decision to cease voicing the biracial Big Mouth character Missy, with other shows and actors following suit. Perhaps the most surprising addition to that bunch was The Simpsons, and it turns out veteran voice actor Harry Shearer isn't completely on board with the thought process behind that game-changing decision.
Ever since its start back in 1989, The Simpsons has maintained its now-iconic core cast of six voice actors, with three white males and three white females. Beyond times where celebrities of color joined the show to play themselves or other one-off characters of note, The Simpsons has always used its main cast to voice oft-seen characters such as Carl Carlson, Dr. Hibbert, Apu and others. And to star Harry Shearer, taking on those roles is just part of the gig, and isn't necessarily meant to be taken into consideration beyond that perspective. Here's how he put it during an interview with The Times Radio:
I have a very simple belief about acting. The job of the actor is to play someone who they're not. That's the gig, that's the job description. I think there's a conflation between representation, which is important – people from all backgrounds should be represented in the writing and producing ends of the business, so they decide what stories to tell, and with what knowledge. And performance, as I say, the job is playing someone you're not. I'm not a rich nuclear plant owner, I'm not a Bible-believing Christian who lives next door to Homer. I'm not any of those people.
Now, in very specific respects, what Harry Shearer is saying has merit. He doesn't need to be a billionaire in order to voice Mr. Burns, and he doesn't need to be a God-fearing man of faith in order to voice Flanders or Reverend Lovejoy, and Nancy Cartwright doesn't need to be a ten-year-old boy in order to voice Bart. If voice actors were only meant to take roles that spoke to their lives and personal experiences, we'd never have gotten the likes of Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, among many other classic roles.
All that said, Harry Shearer is clearly not reading the room very well by speaking out in mild opposition to the idea that white actors shouldn't play PoC in animated series. Diversity has obviously become more of an imperative across Hollywood as of late, with modern-day blackface comedy having only recently been taken to task, so even though the world of animation isn't the most obvious source of cultural misappropriation, there have clearly been lots of questionable situations on that front throughout the medium's history. Even if The Simpsons wouldn't have been able to afford more principal cast members beyond its core group back in the earliest seasons, the show did have Black actors Ron Taylor and Daryl Coley voicing and singing for Bleeding Gums Murphy for his Season 1 appearance and beyond.
To be sure, when Harry Shearer was directly asked if he took issue with The Simpsons no longer allowing him to voice Black characters like Dr. Hibbert, the actor didn't go much further.
I'm not opining publicly on that matter. Frankly, we don't get paid by the voice.
Harry Shearer's comment there is in reference to the fact that even if he isn't voicing some of his most recognizable roles, it won't affect his paycheck, since he isn't tied to a pay-per-voice contractual agreement. So even if it isn't the most ideal outcome for him, it doesn't hurt his own bottom line.
The Simpsons made its character voice announcement in the same time window where Kristen Bell stepped down from one of her characters on Apple TV+'s Central Park, and where Family Guy's Mike Henry said he'd no longer be playing the show's Cleveland Brown. It wasn't so long ago when Hank Azaria's arguably controversial performance as Apu was grabbing headlines surrounding the release of the documentary The Problem with Apu, which ended in Azaria no longer voicing the Springfield regular. That situation no doubt played heavily in the producers' minds after Jenny Slate went public with her Big Mouth decision.
While also dealing with a legal fight against fired composer Alf Clausen, The Simpsons is still planning on bringing Season 32 to fans this fall starting on Sunday, September 27, at 8:00 p.m. ET. While waiting for that to get here, check out our Fall 2020 TV premiere schedule to see what other shows are debuting soon.