May 14, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Harry Shearer Leaving "The Simpsons"

It is something that has shocked fans for most of the past 24 hours: Harry Shearer is leaving The Simpsons over contract disputes. He wishes to go about his life and do other projects, whether it be his radio show Le Show or a potential new Christopher Guest movie. Nobody knows for sure, as the details are very vague. However, there's a lot to unpack with the absence of Shearer, as many integral characters are now left voiceless and on the eve of their 26th season finale, scheduled for this upcoming Sunday. Will this be the last time that we hear Seymour Skinner, Mr. Burns, Jasper, Kent Brockman or even Reverend Lovejoy? There's a strong if to be had and a great reason to wonder what's coming next for the series. However, this wasn't entirely inevitable.
It seems like every few years, there's another news story breaking about The Simpsons having contract disputes. There was the famous episode "Alone Again, Natura-diddily," which killed off beloved character Maude Flanders because Maggie Roswell wouldn't sign on for more. Other characters have been lost due to deaths including Edna Krabapple (Marcia Wallace) and Troy McLure (Phil Hartman). For a cast that continues to be expansive and all encompassing, it is amazing that there's still a core group of performers that have remained consistent for 26 years with knowledge that contract disputes have been consistent with the most recent being in season 23 and the most notorious being done in the 90's before The Simpsons surpassed M*A*S*H* as a behemoth show. 
While I choose not to go into the financial side of things, this is a shocker that should have been more expected, especially if you're an actual fan. The awareness that the show's staff wants better wages for a show that has spawned limitless reruns, theme park rides, cheesy merchandise, Webster dictionary definitions, Futurama and much much more, who wouldn't want to be making the most that they could? Even in the circle of The Simpsons staff, Shearer is on the outer circle, coming in to the series after it had gained success on The Tracy Ullman Show to play various figures. Even then, he competes against Hank Azaria as voicing the most iconic non-family characters of the series. They are the b-team to the show that have come to be so important that their involvement is only noticed at times like these.
The one thing that also needs to be understood is Shearer himself. While he is known largely for his work, his interest in the show has long waned. In 2004, he went on record with claiming that the show's quality has been declining and that the previous three seasons have been the worst. It was a controversial moment and his vocal backlash against the show has been odd considering that he's still around. It even reached the point that when The Simpsons Ride opened in 2008, he refused to be involved - an act that meant that most of his characters are not audibly involved. With all this considered, it is a wonder that he has still been involved and doing noticeably consistent work.
But how exactly could a show predicated on iconic voices possibly move on? While it is likely that at best he will be reduced to a Phil Hartman-style guest star who pops up randomly, it seems like the show is going to need to get clever. As they joked in "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show" episode (oddly enough with a Shearer character), voice actors can be replaced and nobody will notice the difference. The joke was that it was very obvious. While it would be easy to replace him with somebody else, it would have to be quite the esophagus. From the picture above, one can presume how many roles he has taken on over time. However, unlike Maude Flanders or Troy McLure, these characters are central to the plot in major ways, with Ned Flanders being Homer Simpson's neighbor and Mr. Burns being his boss. Without either, the show lacks grounding.
With the show contracted to run until season 28 in two years, there's plenty of speculation as to how you approach this subject. The characters have only grown larger with time. Still, of a central cast, Shearer is the only one to break loose, and in such a coy way on Twitter. There's no word on if he might appear occasionally like Marcia Wallace did. But now that raises a question of who will likely be excised for convenience sake: a motive that feels odd considering that season 26 opened with a largely hyped death episode. Even if they do replace the voices, will we be able to tell the difference as the joke goes? The show could collapse under this, but it remains to be seen. 
The one optimistic side is that because the character quantity is so large, it would be easy to work around this situation by highlighting different characters, specifically in the Azaria cannon. While these are all painful losses, the absence of Roswell, Hartman and Wallace have been handled adeptly and have been coaxed over time. One can only wonder what that means for the show, which presumably is on its last leg. While the show received a boost in popularity after FXX's Every Simpsons Ever marathon, it remains that show who is considered well past its prime, even by Shearer. Of course, Fox is wise to hold onto it, as few shows have withstood the reputation or at very least have come and gone. Shows like Married with Children and King of the Hill have a comparative short life and while the channel has Family Guy and Bob's Burgers, it seems like those are too weak to carry an entire network.
This is a reality more than a prospect. The show has to collapse under itself at some point. The general consensus has been that the show would finish when one of the main voice actors die. While Shearer isn't dead, it is the first domino to fall that indicates the end. It is only time before the rest starts happening, possibly when the season 28 season finale approaches. Nobody knows for sure. However, if the show ended because of financial disputes, that may be the biggest tragedy of all - especially since the show is likely worth several millions at this point. I wish Shearer the best in whatever he does next, but I am also confident that the show could both work around it and potentially plan for the end with some grace. Since season 26 has been pretty much a celebratory event with crossovers and public concerts, it would have made sense to end here. Still, here's hoping that there's a surprise in store that can help to reinvent the show's edgier problems.

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