Why Smithers Was Originally Black On The Simpsons

It’s no secret that TV series are sometimes forced to make changes to their characters to appease audiences, casts and network execs. WTF Bewitched’s Darrin and that Family Matters missing middle child? One of the weirdest switcheroos in that TV fanatics will be well aware of is the skin color of one Waylon Smithers from The Simpsons, which took exactly one episode to go from dark to the same yellow as the majority of the characters. Rather than being anything racially motivated, though, Smithers’ black guy-ness was merely the result of an error in the animation process. Cue the foil hats.

Simpsons creator Matt Groening was a bit perturbed but still game to divulge this bit of info to TMZ as he was trying to exit an airport. Here’s how Groening put it.

He was always yellow, and then they painted him wrong once. That’s all…At the time, we didn’t have enough money to do retakes, so when there were glitches and mistakes, they stayed that way.”

Following the Christmas special first episode, which also featured some characters spouting unrecognizable voices, Smithers switched to his normal yellow color. While that may be the actual answer, I’m sure no one was overtly interested in trying to bring an animated gay manservant who was also black onto a 1989 audience that soon got uproarious over Bart Simpson saying “butt” and “crap.” The main black characters at the time were Dr. Hibbert, who was a Bill Cosby parody, and Bleeding Gums Murphy, who represented blues and couldn’t responsibly be white. (Plus he was Hibbert’s brother.) Groening and his staff were being revolutionary in certain ways, but subverting racial stereotypes wasn’t one. Mild child abuse and alcoholism were totally fair game, though. Good ol’ Fox.

Groening is also prodded into answering why the Simpsons characters are yellow, which also has very little to do with human being pigments. Groening’s train of thought was that the bright colors would catch potential viewers’ eyes as they were channel surfing. (A series would now have to make a channel guide’s programming grid block attractive to draw the same kind of attention.) This was 25 years ago, of course, at a time when an animated series during the primetime hours hadn’t been a major success since the Flintstones era. You can find just about anything on TV these days, however, though still not too many gay, black manservants.

Considering how many throwback ideas The Simpsons is employing as of late, from crossover episodes to bringing back their original Tracey Ullman Show incarnations, I wouldn’t be surprised if “black Smithers” came back to the series in some form before it’s finished with.

Head to the next page to check out the awkward interview in its entirety.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.