Can (and Should) ‘The Simpsons’ Survive the Departure of Harry Shearer?
The Simpsons isn’t just a television show — it’s a cultural institution. It’s hard to imagine the pop culture landscape without Fox’s venerable animated sitcom, which has stuck around for nearly 30 years despite losing its satiric fangs about 14 years ago.
That number is subjective, by the way. Every fan differs on when the show officially lost its mojo, that lightning-in-a-bottle magic that made it the funniest, meanest, sharpest and, somehow, the sweetest show on television. However, the events of the past day have placed The Simpsons in a more precarious position than ever before. This transcends the question of whether or not the show can survive indefinitely. The question now is whether or not it should.
Veteran cast member Harry Shearer has supposedly left the show over a contract dispute and it is impossible to imagine The Simpsons without him. Like fellow cast members Dan Castellaneta and Hank Azaria, Shearer isn’t just one character on the show — he’s a significant portion of Springfield’s population, having portrayed 183 characters over the course of 26 seasons. He’s the ancient Mr. Burns, the loyal Waylon Smithers, the religious Ned Flanders, the bumbling Principal Skinner, the monotonous Reverend Lovejoy, the ill-informed Kent Brockman, the perpetually stoned Otto, the Schwarzenegger-ian Rainer Wolfcastle, the Cosby-ish Dr. Hibbert and, well, the list goes on and on and on.
The Simpsons stopped being about that title family years ago and started being about the absurd world they inhabit. Shearer is (was?) a key component of that absurd world. As one of the six voice actors who has been with the show since day one, he’s a vital part of that legacy and a genuine comic genius who has helped create some of the most iconic characters in modern comedy.
He’s also notoriously difficult to work with and was supposedly the lone hold-out when the cast negotiated their contracts for Seasons 27 and 28. This is not the first time Shearer has played hardball with the show’s producers: when The Simpsons Ride was built at Universal Studios, Shearer was the singular hold-out, leading to an immersive theme park experience that was missing about one-third of the show’s most famous characters. Shearer has never been shy about biting the hand that feeds him, frequently attacking the series and its writers for their subpar work (though many fans would agree with him).
So while it’s shocking to see Shearer supposedly leaving the show, it’s not necessarily surprising. This was a long time coming. If anyone was going to depart the show first, it was always going to be Shearer. This is an actor (and let’s be real here, a brilliant one) who has built his entire career out of simply not giving a f––k about what anyone thinks about him. Shearer claims that he’s leaving the show because he wants “the freedom to do other work.” Other rumors suggest he wanted a bigger slice of the merchandising pie. But this is proof that Fox and the bigwigs at The Simpsons have decided that the Simpsons brand is more powerful than a wildly talented but infamously difficult actor. This feels like a corporate decision. This feels like Shearer thought the show valued his talents enough to cough up more cash, and his plan backfired.
Don’t expect Season 27 to open with the surprise deaths of many noteworthy Springfieldians. The Simpsons producer and shorunner Al Jean has already confirmed that Shearer’s corner of the ensemble will be recast with new voice actors:
Harry Shearer was offered the same deal the rest of the cast accepted, and passed. The show will go on and we wish him well. Maggie took it hard. We do not plan to kill off characters like Burns and Flanders but will recast with the finest voiceover talent available.
This is actually a huge diversion from the show’s usual tactic of dealing with offscreen incidents. When Phil Hartman was tragically murdered in 1998, the characters of Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure were instantly retired from the show. When Marcia Wallace passed away in 2013, Edna Krabappel was quietly phased away (and given a lovely tribute). When Maggie Roswell demanded a pay raise, the show’s writers responded by killing off Maude Flanders (although Roswell did return to the show to voice other characters a few years later).
None of Shearer’s characters will be killed off or retired. They will live on with new voice actors, who will probably do spot-on impersonations and won’t be noticeable to the non-fanatics. Shearer is 71, and his fellow cast members aren’t exactly spring chickens. The Simpsons won’t wait for them. If a cast member decides to leave the show or retire from acting, the official response to Shearer’s departure sets a new precedent. A lot of people can do a great Homer Simpson impression and few people know what Dan Castellaneta looks like. These transitions will be smooth.
And that’s actually kind of terrifying. This means that The Simpsons could potentially live forever. As other cast members drop out or pass away, the show can simply replace them. This is crystal clear evidence that the Simpsons IP is more important than a consistent cast or even a good show. As long as Simpsons merch is selling and as long as people can recognize Homer and Bart and the rest of the cast, the show will endure. Fans have long-wondered if getting to Season 30 was the grand plan. Now, it looks entirely possible that the show could reach that number and keep on going for decades to come.
If The Simpsons was still a young show, recasting so many characters would be understandable. But The Simpsons is not a young show — it is an old show. More importantly, it is an old show that has never been worse. When episodes are passable, fans rejoice and savor that brief taste of the good old days. When they deliver an episode that marks a low point for the entire series and makes people question what anyone in the writer’s room was thinking (like last year’s “The Man Who Came to Be Dinner”), everyone just scoffs. Typical.
Complaining that The Simpsons isn’t good anymore is a cliche as old as the internet, but let’s get real: it’s truly, officially, finally running on fumes.
The Simpsons hasn’t been really relevant in years, but those first 10 years of episodes were something special. Groundbreaking, hilarious and scathing, The Simpsons climbed to the top by tearing everything else down and laughing at the wreckage. When we see something as genuinely impressive as the highly detailed Springfield world that has sprung up around Universal’s The Simpsons Ride, we remember the early days and things get warm and fuzzy. But that’s also a testament to how far things have fallen. Once upon a time, the anarchic Simpsons would have laughed at the mere thought of being entrenched in a theme park. Now, it’s a wise business decision that keeps a brand strong even as ratings decline.
Shearer’s departure from the show intertwines with all of this. Remove the behind-the-scenes drama. Remove the actor’s reputation. The fact that the show will simply recast and move on is the final nail in the coffin that started being built around season 13 or so. The show’s transition from work of art into corporate merch machine is no longer a joke that the show used to make at its own expense — it is a reality.
To answer the question posed by the headline of this piece: yes, The Simpsons will survive the departure of Harry Shearer. It will find young and hungry voice over artists that are willing to be underpaid and it will truck on. It will outlive its current cast. It will outlive us all. But should it survive the departure of Harry Shearer? Well, the internet has been answering that one ever since the infamous Armin Tamzarian episode. No show should shrug off the loss of one of its most talented players.
Pray for Mojo. And for The Simpsons.