The Simpsons has been a lousy, vaguely depressing hood ornament for FOX for far longer, by now, than it ever was a good TV show, but when it was a good TV show, it was among the greatest television comedies ever made. Harry Shearer, the brilliant comedic and voice actor who announced his departure from the show overnight on Twitter, is as responsible as anyone for the heights it reached at its best. In a sane world, his co-stars would leave with him rather than continue in his absence, and also all of them would have done this 15 years ago.
Shearer didn’t voice any members of the Simpsons family, but he performed no fewer than 23 recurring characters, including many of the show’s funniest and most important non-Simpsons. This makes his departure a kind of death for the show, but, like, a different kind from the spiritual death the internet’s white dudes have been mourning for more than a decade with all the grace of Sicilians.
In any case, and whatever Al Jean says about replacing him, Shearer takes a fucking lot of the show’s most important voices (if not its lifeblood, but actually that, too, so they might as well just fucking end it already) with him as he goes. Here’s a ranked list of some of the voices Shearer did.
1. C. Montgomery Burns
When The Simpsons was a smart and big-hearted show with actual things to say—other than “Look at what you pigs will sit through just through sheer inertia!”—evil energy tycoon Monty Burns was the vessel for some of its sharpest satire, and most surprising and disarming humanity. Shearer’s voice acting made him both repulsive and pitiable, a petty, clueless, feral toddler trapped in the rotting husk of a revolting, ancient man and given enough wealth and power to render that combination wildly malignant.
It was a neat trick for a cartoon villain: Burns was infuriating but also pathetically human, and the times you found yourself relating to him made him even more infuriating. Much of that has to do with writing and animation, of course, but Shearer’s voice work (he inherited Burns duties from Christopher Collins, of Cobra Commander and Starscream fame, after the character’s first appearance) is indelible and irreplaceable. So they might as well not try.
2. Reverend Lovejoy
For my money, Reverend Lovejoy was one of The Simpsons’ most brilliant inventions: a burnout who lacked the energy even for feigning personal investment in his job, but who functioned as a fraud simply because the faithful people of Springfield (most notably the Flanders family, and occasionally a soul-sick Simpson in crisis) refused to see his spiritual desolation or hear that all he wanted was for them to get out of his face. He was the instrument by which they conned, or sometimes accidentally counseled, themselves, and this made Lovejoy a pretty fucking great vehicle for skewering America’s relationship to leadership figures.
And, again, although smart writing and a pair of permanently drooped eyelids of course are a huge part of what made him work, Lovejoy’s exhaustion and surrender were communicated mostly by Shearer’s brilliant line readings. In a neat, incidental bit of on- and off-screen harmony, whenever pious Ned Flanders came to Lovejoy for spiritual counsel, the same voice was conducting both halves of the conversation. Which is to say that Flanders was talking to himself. I just love that.
Anyway, with Shearer’s departure, Reverend Lovejoy can never again be more than a depressing shell of himself, which is what The Simpsons has been for many years even with Harry Shearer around.
3. Ned Flanders
The earthly embodiment of everything Homer Simpson is not—honest, forthright, selfless, brave, hardworking, industrious, attentive, physically fit, shielded from harmful ultraviolet radiation by a full head of hair, and so forth—Flanders, like Burns, was a foil you liked rooting against and also a vulnerable human being you sometimes felt terrible for rooting against. So much of that is wrapped up in Shearer’s ability to voice Flanders as a truly guileless dweeb whose smarm originated beneath the level of his consciousness, where he couldn’t be blamed for it.
Also like Burns, and like so many other things which have the good sense not to resist the natural course of time, Ned Flanders is dead. Dead dead dead.
4. Waylon Smithers
Burns’s lovelorn, long-suffering, ineptly closeted right-hand man was a grimly hilarious creation: a man whose professional life required him to stifle just about every part of himself except his fanatical loyalty to a deranged tyrant who would neither value nor return even a scrap of that loyalty, ever. The fun Shearer and the gang had with Smithers, and their evident affection for him, allowed the show to build storylines around the essential darkness of the character’s life without any of them registering as depressing or cruel.
On a related note: I don’t wring my hands over the infamous Frank Grimes episode like hardcore Simpsons dorks (because it’s a TV show, and who gives a fuck), but it’s worth noting that Smithers had been expressing that episode’s themes more elegantly and with more satirical oomph for years before the writers ever dreamed up the funny but hamfisted Grimes idea. In a way, the Grimes episode itself is another instance of Smithers being passed over for someone inferior but more attention-grabbing; that’s perversely perfect, and I’m not sure they intended it at all.
More to the point, though, Smithers is a thing from the past now, like Cornelius Vanderbilt and the time when The Simpsons was more than cold, unfunny scaffolding for advertisements.
5. Otto Mann
Otto, the world’s most hazardous bus driver, is an artifact of a time when The Simpsons challenged itself to find humor and absurdity in mundane American life, rather than challenging itself to find new ways to gloat over its continued survival. He was a relatively minor character in the sprawl of Springfield, and his Jim-Ignatowski-for-the-’90s concept wasn’t the most original thing, but Shearer gave him a doofus charm and turned his non-specificity into a funny joke about Springfield’s anonymity and cultural blandness: Even the seedy, irresponsible stoner daily risking the lives of the city’s children was a well-meaning, tragically generic goofball.
What I am saying here is that Shearer is a genius, and Otto, like your youth, is but a memory.
6. Kent Brockman
Springfield’s bored, dead-eyed, cynical news anchor, Brockman mostly operated in the same satirical space as Reverend Lovejoy: He hated his job, and held Springfield in open contempt, not least because nobody in Springfield ever seemed to notice that he hated his job and held Springfield in open contempt. The difference between the two, and the success of Brockman as a source of comedy, came down to Shearer and the writers finding tonal differences between curdled faith (Lovejoy) and curdled ambition (Brockman). Or maybe it just seemed that way.
In any event, “I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords” is a line that will live in American culture forever, unlike Kent Brockman, who was never alive, and now is even more not-alive than before.
7. Jebediah Springfield
The founder of Springfield, without whom Springfield would not exist. And without whose voice actor Springfield’s TV show probably should not exist!
8. Remaining on the air an entire childhood beyond your natural expiration date
9. Dr. Marvin Monroe
Springfield’s annoying, ineffectual psychotherapist was killed off by the show’s creators long ago, when he’d outlasted the comic inspiration that brought him to life in the first place and remained as nothing but an annoying noise Harry Shearer disliked making. That seems like a wise precedent.
Take the hint, guys.
Anyway, happy trails to Harry Shearer, who has lots left to give the world of comedy, unlike The Simpsons, which has been bad for a long time and should be canceled.
“This show is not good anymore and should be canceled.”
- Me, watching The Simpsons in the 21st century