Springfield may sound a little different when The Simpsons starts its record-breaking 33rd season on Fox this fall. Over the summer, the creative team behind the eternally popular animated show made a major — and, for many, long overdue — change in the show’s cast. “Moving forward, The Simpsons will no longer have white actors voice non-white characters,” the producers announced in a June statement. That announcement came after weeks of sustained protests that followed the death of George Floyd, which in turn led to a renewed spotlight on the lack of diversity in Hollywood. It also capped a long-running debate about one of the show’s most controversial characters: Apu, the Indian-American convenience store owner, voiced by Hank Azaria. In February, the actor stepped down from the role, remarking that “it just didn’t feel right.”
Now, Azaria’s co-star, Harry Shearer, is speaking his mind about the show’s new direction. In an interview on Times Radio in the U.K., the star of such classic comedies as This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind addressed the choice to recast key Springfield citizens. “I have a very simple belief about acting,” said Shearer, whose cast of characters on The Simpsons includes newscaster Kent Brockman, good neighbor Ned Flanders and Dr. Julius Hibbert, who is a Black character. “The job of the actor is to play someone who they’re not. That’s the gig. That’s the job description.”
“I think there’s a conflation between representation, which is important,” Shearer continued. “People from all backgrounds should be represented in the writing and producing ends of the business so they help decide what stories to tell and with what knowledge. The job is playing someone I’m not.”
The Simpsons isn’t the only animated show going through a casting shake-up. After years of voicing Cleveland Brown on Family Guy and The Cleveland Show, Mike Henry stepped away from the role in June, saying, “Persons of color should play characters of color.” (Wendell Pierce has actively campaigned to take over the part.) Similarly, Kristen Bell will no longer voice a mixed race role on the Apple TV+ series, Central Park, and Jenny Slate exited the Netflix series, Big Mouth, where she voiced a Black character.
In an interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Dallas-based filmmaker Jirard described the practice of white actors voicing characters of color as a “type of spoken blackface,” connecting it to the legacy of such overtly racist radio shows as Amos ‘n’ Andy. “It’s performing blackface without actually doing the paint,” Jirard said, adding: “It speaks a lot to the fact that when these creators create a character of a particular race, their first mindset isn’t to try to find someone of that same race to priority the character. That’s part of what’s so frustrating about blackface in general. When there’s no voice in the room that can say, ‘This is offensive,’ then you’ll have these problems.”
Shearer’s Simpsons co-stars seem open to updating the show’s cast to reflect the times. When Yahoo Entertainment spoke with Yeardley Smith in March, the longtime voice of Lisa Simpson endorsed Azaria’s choice to retire Apu. “I know that he has taken the decision really seriously, and he really, really wanted to end up on the right side of the argument and do something that he personally could live with and be proud of. We all really love Apu, and we meant no harm, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t cause any harm.”
The Simpsons will premiere Season 33 on Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. on Fox; past seasons are currently streaming on Disney+.
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