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Actors who voice ‘The Simpsons’ stay loyal to show
Copyright © 2003 Nando Media

By NEAL JUSTIN, The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune

(February 15, 10:15 a.m. PST) – You probably wouldn’t recognize Dan Castellaneta if he walked into a bar, but you should. In fact, you’d best slide off your bar stool, go shake his hand and buy him all the Duff’s beer he wants, because Castellaneta is one of TV’s all-time great comics.

He’s the voice of Homer Simpson, Krusty the Clown, Mayor Quimby and nearly a dozen other residents of Springfield on “The Simpsons,” which airs its 300th episode Sunday.

For 14 years, Castellaneta and the show’s other behind-the-mike talents have stuck together, from death-defying skateboard stunts to assassination attempts by disgruntled sidekicks, playing an essential role in creating an institution.

The show’s success – it will surpass “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” as America’s longest-running sitcom next year – is largely due to its writers’ ability to crank out one fresh episode after another.

But consider the contributions of the actors, too: the way Nelson Muntz (Nancy Cartwright) sings “Ha, ha!” after applying a wedgie, the way Montgomery Burns (Harry Shearer) whispers “Excellent” when he figures out a way to make 19 extra cents, the way Bart (Cartwright) has made “Ay Carumba!” the world’s sweetest swear phrase.

It’s the greatest cartoon voiceover work since Mel Blanc recorded alone.

“We were so lucky to get these voices,” said creator and executive producer Matt Groening. “We try to write the funniest scripts we can and then the actors take it to another level.”

It started as a throwaway bit on Fox’s ambitious sketch-comedy series “The Tracey Ullman Show,” which ran from 1987 to 1990.

To break up the playlets, executive producer James L. Brooks recruited Groening – a cartoonist who’d achieved underground fame for his weekly strip “Life in Hell” – to create some “bumpers.” Castellaneta and Julie Kavner, who were part of the “Ullman” cast, agreed to provide the voices of Homer and Marge Simpson.

“It was all very innocent,” said Brooks, the Oscar-winning director who continues to serve as an executive producer for “The Simpsons.” “It was very loose. And then the tail started to wag the dog.”

The two actors set the bar high. Kavner had won an Emmy for her work on “Rhoda” and Castellaneta was a veteran of the esteemed Second City Workshop in Chicago. They soon were joined by such people as “Saturday Night Live” veteran and Spinal Tap bassist Shearer, as well as Hank Azaria, who would later win an Emmy for his dramatic work in “Tuesdays With Morrie.”

Unlike other cartoon shows, where dialogue is recorded separately and then assembled later, the “Simpsons” family rehearses and records together, establishing an atmosphere that’s more akin to old-time radio shows than Saturday-morning kiddie programs.

Even the creation of an expletive is rooted in a deep appreciation for historical comedy.

An early script called for Homer to make an annoyed grunt. Castellaneta remembered an actor named James Finlayson who often played Laurel & Hardy’s foil. Whenever he got exasperated he’d let out a slow, “D’ooooohhhhhhh!”

Castellaneta gave it a shot. “Matt said, ‘Well, this is animation, you’ve got to go faster,” he said. “So I sped it up and it’s ‘D’oh!’ When I think about it, it’s probably a euphemism for ‘damn,’ which he couldn’t say until Clark Gable came along.”

Creating universally loved catchphrases doesn’t necessarily guarantee Montgomery Burns-type salaries. It’s estimated that the major players each get about $100,000 an episode.

“I’d say, altogether, we still don’t make as much as one ‘Friend,’ ” Castellaneta said, referring to the $1 million that each cast member of NBC’s hit sitcom makes every episode. “We’ll never get there.”

And yet no one from the cast has bolted in 14 years. A big part of the reason, they admit, is that the gig isn’t that tough.

“Part of the reason we’re able to stay together is that we only work two days a week together,” said Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson. It’s unlike a regular sitcom, she said, “where you see more of those people than anyone else in life; you can get sick of them.”

It also helps that the characters are so finely drawn and smart, Smith said.

“There’s no danger of anyone losing interest,” she said. “I would never leave Lisa’s side. She’s just a great little girl.”

It’s even more enticing when you have an arsenal of characters. Shearer does the voices for nearly 20 regulars, including Principal Skinner, Ned Flanders and Dr. Julius Hibbert.

“If I was doing just one character, I would get enormously bored,” Shearer said. “What keeps it fresh is I never know who I’m going to be. It’s kept it fun.”

The longer the show goes on, the more attention the actors get. None are instantly recognizable stars, with the possible exception of Azaria, who has appeared in such movies as “The Birdcage” and even headlined a short-lived sitcom. But after 14 years, a lot of viewers have figured it out – for better or worse.

Many of the cast members will appease fans by slipping into a favorite character’s voice, but they do have ground rules.

Shearer refuses to do answering machines.

Cartwright is careful around little kids who might be freaked out to hear Bart’s voice coming from a 43-year-old woman’s mouth.

Smith said she has a thing about bad manners.

“I’ve had people come up to me in a supermarket and say, ‘Just talk!!'” she said. “I try to get them to ask me nicely. I don’t think that’s unfair.”

But there’s no nice way to ask some questions.

“The strangest one I ever got was, ‘Do you sound like Lisa Simpson when you’re having sex?'” Smith said. “The answer is no.”