Excellent, Smithers: Harry Shearer’s 10 Best ‘Simpsons’ Characters
Last night, actor Harry Shearer tweeted that after 26 seasons, he will no longer be part of The Simpsons. And to clarify: by "part of The Simpsons," we mean "most of The Simpsons." That's because Shearer voiced so many characters in the show's supporting cast – folks with whom the Simpsons family interacted with each week (Mr. Burns! Principal Skinner! Dr. Hibbert!) – that it's like two-thirds of Springfield just up and moved to Capital City. Or worse, Shelbyville!
Sadder still, it appears the SNL alum, Spinal Tap bassist and Richard Nixon enthusiast parted ways acrimoniously with The Simpsons crew. "From [co-creator] James L. Brooks' lawyer: 'Show will go on, Harry will not be part of it, wish him the best,'" Shearer wrote on Twitter. "This because I wanted what we've always had: the freedom to do other work. Of course, I wish him the very best." In another tweet, replying to an alarmed fan, Shearer underscored that, despite his Simpsons split, he would not be retiring.
The producers have said they will replace him, since they've renewed the show for another two seasons, but frankly no other actor will be able to achieve Shearer's level of nuance. (To quote Shearer's Mr. Burns, with regard to replacing him, "Release the hounds!") So, with the hope that the heir to voice-acting icon Mel Blanc's 1,000 Voices throne will be moving on to bigger and maybe even better things, Rolling Stone is saying goodbye to Shearer's 10 most memorable Simpsons characters.
Grandpa Simpson's retirement home companion Jasper often speaks slowly and with a wide-eyed sense of wonderment and resoluteness. He tried to freeze himself at the Kwik-E-Mart ("Whoa, time has ravaged your once youthful looks," he tells Apu, even though he was frozen for just a short period) and once sat in as a substitute for Lisa's class, threatening to discipline even the most minor infraction with a big paddle. Thanks to Shearer giving Jasper an indistinct Midwestern accent and a voice that sounds as though it's been to Hell and back, the character is a Springfield staple. But doing this character without Harry Shearer? Oh, you better believe that's a paddlin'!
The good Reverend of the First Church of Springfield, who made his debut in the first season's "Telltale Head" episode, might sometimes use the Bible to his advantage (see "Whacking Day") and often expresses begrudging disdain for his congregation's most faithful servant, Ned Flanders. But to his credit, he occasionally comes around to being the voice of reason for the Simpson family. Although Lovejoy is blindly confident, like many of Shearer's Springfieldian citizens, the voice actor manages to bring humanness to the role with a tinge of downtrodden befuddlement. Lovejoy is a character torn between his faith and pop culture ("Wait a minute, this sounds like rock and/or roll," he says to "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida"), making him an especially idiosyncratic character whom Shearer developed masterfully.
Dr. Julius Hibbert
The Simpsons' good-natured (perhaps a little too good-natured, from the way he guffaws all the time) family physician has been a fixture on the show ever since Bart attempted ride a skateboard across Springfield Gorge in the second season. That makes for a quarter century's worth of Harry Shearer's sometimes chuckling, sometimes earnest Hibbert lines from looking at Bart on a sonogram ("If I didn't know better, I'd swear he was trying to moon us," he said, sounding surprised) to dry one-liners like telling Homer, "You have an absolutely unique genetic condition known as 'Homer Simpson' syndrome." Shearer's Hibbert portrayal was so matter-of-fact and unwavering that he's been one of the show's most reliable characters, even when the scripts got wackier.
Springfield's hard-nosed but soft-shelled TV news anchor Kent Brockman speaks with the sort of confidence and reassurance the city needs in times of crisis, at least until he himself caves ("I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords"). But it's the matter-of-fact way in which Shearer can deliver an absurd Brockman line like, "I've said it before and I'll say it again, democracy simply doesn't work," or – after the newsman wins the lottery and decides to stay on the air – "I'm a journalist!" that gives The Simpsons a unique dry humor that elevated it above other sitcoms.
Otto Mann, the Bus Driver
Springfield Elementary's bus driver is such a stoner burnout parody that even his last name sounds like it could be one of his character's lines: "Otto, maaan." Speaking in a gruff, hippie-like drawl, Shearer nails endearingly aloof expressions like, "Yo, Bart dude," and – after hearing the items in his in his apartment after getting evicted – "Wow, I had mustard?" And as with all of Shearer's many supporting roles, the actor managed to tap into some otherwise lost human quality in the character, looking alarmed when Homer tells him that Otto backwards is still Otto and begging Homer, "Please let me stay here" ("The Otto Show"), and then seamlessly transitioning back to burnout. "Spell AC/DC!" Otto tells Lisa in "I'm Spelling as Fast as I Can." "A-C-D-C," Lisa replies. "Nuh-uh," rejoins Otto. "You forgot the lightning bolt!" It's Shearer's innocent delivery that makes that funny.
The Simpsons' long-running action-hero Ah-nold parody, Rainier Wolfcastle and his box-office–breaking McBain character allowed Shearer to exercise a "cool, dry wit" and fearless short fuse that his other characters lack. Yet another example of the actor's malleability, Wolfcastle speaks in a heavy Austrian accent, which sometimes becomes exasperated when he has to play his signature action hero in any number of movies (best title: McBain VI: You Have the Right to Remain Dead) and scream a villain's name – like, "Men-doh-zaaaaaa!!" The McBain character is so over-the-top and memorable that one Simpsons superfan stitched together a full McBain movie on YouTube.
Principal Seymour Skinner
Bart's perennially buttoned-up yet socially ill-equipped principal, Seymour Skinner (or "Armin Tamzarian," but who's asking?), has long served as the straight man to the mischievous preteen's antics. From the way he cowers around Superintendent Chalmers and his mother to rare moments of humanity — as when he was courting girlfriends like Mrs. Krabappel and Marge's sister, Patty — Skinner is about as nuanced as a Simpsons character can get. Shearer's portrayal homes in on Skinner's earnest unwitting-ness in a manner that makes you laugh at him and feel bad for him simultaneously; it's hard to imagine any other actor striking that same balance with the character.
As Mr. Burns' sniveling foil, Waylon Smithers – or, most often, referred to as simply "Smithers!!" with some extra disgust and exclamation points thrown in – seems like the diametric opposite to the great and powerful nuclear-plant owner. The executive assistant speaks in a nasal, mostly monotonous voice that only changes in volume and (slightly) in pitch, depending on how annoyed he is (usually with Homer). Since Shearer voices both Smithers and Mr. Burns, it's fun to imagine how often his expression changes when assuming each role when they're in the same scene.
Homer's neighbor and sworn enemy is the nicest guy in Springfield; after all, "everyone who counts loves Ned Flanders!" Except for the odd episode where his house gets destroyed, Flanders speaks with a sort of friendliness, righteousness and generosity of spirit that everyone aspires to but, other than on a fictional TV show, is impossible to attain. From the way Shearer says Flanders' ridiculously corny catchphrases like "Okily-dokily" and "Hidely-ho" to the rare moments where the goody-two-shoes gets angry and unleashes the sort of inoffensive invective that would easily pass TV censors, he captures Ned's pureness of mind. Diddly.
As Homer Simpson's tyrannical multi-billionaire boss, "Mr." C. Montgomery Burns espouses all the characteristics of a supervillain – many of which owe a huge debt to Harry Shearer. From the diabolical way he seems to hum the word "excellent!" whenever he implements an evil plan to the befuddled way he forgets Homer's name like it's Homer's fault, Shearer's ability to get inside the bald head of Mr. Burns (and all his myriad look-alikes) has been a part of what has made The Simpsons great. Most chilling: the disarmingly saccharine manner in which Shearer's Mr. Burns answers the phone, "Ahoy-hoy?"