By Harry Shearer
There comes a point where they’ve pushed you so far that it no longer has an effect. I’ve reached that point.
I still remember the day I met Matt Groening better than I remember just about anything. It was cold and looked like it was just about to rain all day, but never did. I’d gone to the bank to cash my ex-wife’s alimony check when I noticed a large, slovenly man behind me watching what I was doing a little closer than I’d have liked. When I got out to the parking lot I saw him standing by my car. Normally in this sort of situation I’d have gone back inside and informed a bank employee to phone the police, but I knew there was something different about this man. The way he barely seemed to care about his appearance. How he was always looking down at his shuffling feet. This was clearly not a man who was here with a goal of intimidation. This was the look of a man that was broken. In retrospect, that’s all the more reason I should have phoned the police. Instead, I asked him about himself.
He said that his name was Matt and that he was a cartoonist. He told me that he heard my voice in the bank line and wanted me to audition for his show. I was hesitant. First of all, I’ve never trusted anyone who pretends they haven’t seen Spinal Tap and secondly, I didn’t much care for cartoons. The wacky oddball antics of a Transformers or a Jetsons had no footing in the real world. I told him that I wanted to make real things about real people. I wanted to hold a mirror up to society and say, “Hey, society… I…I bet you didn’t expect to see that!” I wanted to use art to inspire and help push the human race forward. Matt told me he wanted the same thing and that we would also make a lot of money doing it. He had my attention.
The great thing about a cartoon, he told me, was that most people wouldn’t even know who I was. I could go to the store or run naked through a neighboring college gymnasia without getting my face plastered all over the local news. The only people who would know who I was were the people that mattered. The people that could get me more work. I was sold.
When I joined the Simpsons voice cast it seemed like it was going to be a lot of fun and, in the beginning, it was. After all, this was one of the most successful shows on television written by some of the best writers I’d ever had the pleasure of knowing, but the deeper you got into working on the Simpsons the more it became the focus of your life. I was no longer America’s sweetheart Harry Shearer. Now I was Ned Flanders, I was Mr. Burns, Principal Skinner. Hell, I even did Bumble Bee Man once when Hank was too hung over. It was great. They really made me feel like I was a pivotal part of this hip new animated series that was taking the world by storm. When I got deeper, though, I started to see the cracks. We all did, I think, though the rest of them were too afraid to do anything about it. Sometimes I don’t think they were wrong to keep quiet. They had their families to think about, after all, and some battles you’re just destined to lose, but even so; I intended to fight.
It started with a modest-sized family living a lower-middle-class lifestyle. We told stories about report cards and dogs running away, stuff everybody could relate to. The phrase “fun for the whole family” got thrown around a lot back in those days and what it usually meant was something dumb and inoffensive enough for your kids to understand and nothing for anyone else. The Simpsons was more than that. The Simpsons was a show that was dumb enough for your fart-loving uncle and that older sister you always secretly hated for being smarter than you could laugh at together. There were stupid jokes and there were smart jokes and there was everything in between. Didn’t get something? Wait six seconds, Homer’s about to hit his head on something. Thought that joke was too low-brow? Here comes a joke about Princeton that even they wouldn’t understand.
Those first years were the best years of my life. Then it got weird.
Before I knew it, Homer was going to space, Bart was rubbing elbows with Jay Leno and what they did to Principal Skinner… it still keeps me up at night. When I got into this, it seemed like it all made sense. Then, over a decade later, there I am, looking at a script telling me that his real name was “Armin Tamzarian” and that he was some identity-stealing ruffian who had been living a lie for the last eleven years. What the hell was I supposed to think of that? It was too late for me to turn back, I’d thought at the time. I’d been with the Simpsons through everything from casually owning a horse to traveling in time, but changing Principal Skinner’s name to Armin Tanzarian? I just didn’t know.
I brought my concerns up with James [L. Brooks] and he told me that I was being crazy. “This is and always was a cartoon,” he told me, “it’s been this absurd from the start. Remember in the first season, with the Babysitter Bandit? How about when George Bush lived next door? You can’t say that wasn’t absurd or wacky.” Well, sure, Jim, but it wasn’t this. It wasn’t a constant smorgasbord of celebrity pop-ins and crossovers. It wasn’t this level of self-referential humor. It was a simple story about a simple family trying to get by. Now it was about a town full of people trying to out-crazy each other that had lost complete touch with reality. It wasn’t the same show that I had believed in all those years ago. Behind the scenes it was even worse.
When I’d first started working on the show it just felt like we were a bunch of cool dudes hanging around, doing what cool dudes do. It stayed that way until anyone started asking questions. I wasn’t the first and I certainly wouldn’t be the last but I was the most persistent. I wasn’t in this for the check (though I was quick to cash them), I was here to make sure that America’s favorite family wasn’t cancelled or worse; perverted. That’s exactly what’s happened, though. They haven’t been the Simpsons for years. Maybe they never were. Maybe they just came at the perfect place and the perfect time to make a splash and reshape what does or doesn’t get on television and we forget that? Maybe I’ve been wearing rose-colored glasses for all these years? Sometimes I believe that. Then I go back and watch the old episodes and realize that no, damn it, no. This used to be something. This used to mean something and we don’t have the guts to just let it go because it’s time has passed.
Groening didn’t see it that way. I talked to him privately only twice in the nearly three decades I’ve known him. Once back in ‘88 outside of that bank and once again in 2007, this time in his office. I told him that, as much as it pained me to say it, I just didn’t believe in the show anymore, it was heartless and just not funny anymore. He responded by showing me numbers. From ratings to dvd sales to merchandising figures and he asked me, who knows better? You or the free market? I was disgusted. I turned in my badge and gun right there and started to leave his office when he told me to stop and close the door. I did it. He motioned for me to come behind his desk where he showed me his computer screen. Hundreds of tiny security camera thumbnails, two of them labelled “Shearer, Harry”. One of the front of my house the other of my favorite Taco Bell location. Then he produced a contract from his desk and handed me a pen. I signed on for another two seasons.
For years after I didn’t make a fuss. I came in, I did my job and I went home. I was a model employee. I could put my family and myself on the line but I couldn’t endanger the life of an innocent Taco Bell. 2013 came around and it was time to renegotiate. I stalled things again. I wasn’t even sure why I was doing it. I knew that my heart wasn’t into it, I’d just give in eventually. I guess that if I was too afraid to bite the hand that fed me I’d at least nibble on it a little, like an adorable little puppy that was sick of being emotionally abused. I signed the contract, but then, I guess in an attempt to show me that he wasn’t to be messed with, Groening closed down my local Taco Bell and replaced it with a billboard advertising syndicated episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond. He thought that it would keep me in line but he only managed to take away the one thing I still cared about. He was about to learn that a man with nothing left but millions of dollars is the most dangerous man of all.
When our contracts came up in 2015 I didn’t sign them. I moved my family to a local co-op shelter and holed myself up in a Super 8 just outside of Los Angeles. I can hear Groening’s people outside, pacing up and down the hall, trying to look through the cracks under the door. They know I’m in the hotel but they don’t know where. I’ve been in this bathtub for seven and a half hours. I know they’ll find me. I know they’ll find my family. I know that, if I survive this at all, they’ll find a way to take away everything I care about until there isn’t a Taco Bell left in the world. The thing they won’t do, that they can’t do, is stop me from getting my message out. The thing that everybody knows deep down but not everyone is willing to admit. The thing I’ve been wanting to scream from the rooftops (tops of roofs) for the last 16 years:
Most episodes of the Simpsons suck.
We didn’t want them to suck. We tried our best to keep the ball rolling but when the fire’s burning that hot you just can’t expect the flame to keep going. It isn’t meant to. There will be other fires. They might not burn for as hot or for as long but they’ll come and they’ll go and each time we’ll unknowingly be waiting for the next one because as much as we fear change we also know that we need it. The Simpsons was a great show, one of the best. Which is probably all the more reason that it shouldn’t live forever. It’s impossible to pinpoint what exactly went wrong and when, but at some point I realized I was just helping them keep the embers glowing. It’s far past time to stand back and let someone else start another fire. Maybe at a church this time.
I guess, when it comes right down to it, there just comes a point where you’ve pushed a show so far that it’s no longer funny. The Simpsons reached that point a long, long time ago.