When The Show Becomes Unprofitable

Speaking of Fox shows and rumours that surface every few years, the voice actors on The Simpsons are entering into another tough round of negotiations with the network. Fox wants to cut the budget, the actors want to get a piece of the syndication and merchandising, and there for the moment the matter rests. It remains to be seen if threats of ending the show are real, or just a rumour the network puts out to improve its negotiating position (“back off or we shut down” is not the newest of negotiation tactics). If the actors succeed in getting a share of the profits – in exchange for a cut in their salaries – it’ll be another big step forward in the value of voice actors to an animated franchise.

I think that’s an under-appreciated innovation of “The Simpsons,” that it made voice actors more essential to a work of animation than they’d ever been before. As you probably know, when sound cartoons started, voice acting wasn’t really a profession; it was done by moonlighting actors or animators (or Walt Disney himself in the case of Mickey Mouse) who didn’t get onscreen credit, let alone much money. Mel Blanc helped increase awareness of voice acting as a profession by negotiating a clause in his contract that said he’d get screen credit (other actors didn’t, not because of Blanc’s contract but because nobody else got credit anywhere for short cartoons) instead of a raise. As time went on, there was more celebrity voice casting, and in television, which is a less visual medium than film, voice actors became more essential than ever before. But they were still considered sort of interchangeable – “The Flintstones,” the first prime-time cartoon, replaced the voice of Betty Rubble midway through the run when Bea Benaderet got too busy with her own series, and nobody much seemed to notice.

“The Simpsons” changed and enlarged the role of the voice actor in several ways. Because James L. Brooks was approaching it the way he approached a film or live-action series, the actors weren’t just there to come into the studio and read the lines; they were playing their characters, and doing table reads just like live action characters. (The table read is a big part of the post-Simpsons prime time cartoon; the material hasn’t really been tested until it’s heard in the actors’ voices. Earlier cartoons, I think, put more of an emphasis on the storyboard stage.) That means that although a voice actor is theoretically only playing half of the character – the animators play the characters visually – in practice, the voice actors are their characters. They test the material, their voices inspire the visuals. When the Simpsons actors demanded more money in the late ’90s, Fox reportedly considered replacing them, but it would have been not only wrong but a bad idea: there’s no Homer Simpson without Dan Castellaneta, because his voice influences all stages of production. No voice actors had ever been so irreplaceable before, not even Robin Williams as the Aladdin genie (who was replaced by Castellaneta in the animated series).

This makes me wonder if “The Simpsons” might be an exception to the old rule that cartoon characters are deathless; Fred Flintstone could be revived after Alan Reed’s death, and Donald Duck can come back with different actors doing his voice, but if someone were to try reviving “The Simpsons” 50 years from now – assuming television and/or the world still exists then – I’m not certain the characters would be recognized as themselves in the English-speaking world. Internationally, I suppose, it would be different, since they have different voices around the world.

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