Talking points

The voice cast of 'The Simpsons' knows a good thing when they speak it

For the six primary voices who bring the characters on Fox's "The Simpsons" to life each week, the show is a gift that keeps on giving. And giving. And giving. As the series wraps its 18th season this month and Fox's long-anticipated feature film arrives in theaters in July, Hank Azaria, Nancy Cartwright, Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Harry Shearer and Yeardley Smith have now held the same job for 20 years (the first "Simpsons" short aired on Fox's "The Tracey Ullman Show" on April 19, 1987).

That sort of run for an intact primetime series cast is utterly without precedent. And while each will say that their jobs are duck soup compared to the perpetually workaholic writing staff, they have surely set a collective standard for excellence and consistency in their character-voice craft that isn't likely to be equaled.

"It really is the best job in the world," confirms Smith, the voice of Lisa. "To be around this long has been truly mind-blowing. And the reason it's been so wonderful is that it's afforded all of us freedom of choice in terms of other work. It's like I fell into the honey pot."

Smith gets no argument from Kavner, the voice of Marge. "This job is a gift from God," she says. "I just got so lucky -- not only to have such a long-running job but to also work with this quality group of people. I'm also so proud to be a part of this show, which besides being so funny has dealt honestly with real family issues in a genuine way."

Of course, part of the fun for the cast has been the rich "Simpsons" legacy of inviting guest celebrities on the show. The cast has worked with hundreds of them, including Drew Barrymore, Johnny Carson, Mel Gibson, Susan Sarandon, the Rolling Stones and John Waters.

And to be sure, "Simpsons" has remained, throughout, one very cushy gig for the performing staff. They work the equivalent of one day a week for 22 weeks each year, earning a very healthy six-figure weekly salary. They don't have to go through makeup or wardrobe and don't even necessarily need to be present at the recording session, as they're permitted to deliver their lines while on location for other projects.

"That's why it's such a blessing and there's no reason to leave," notes Azaria, the voice of bartender Moe, Apu, Chief Wiggum and numerous others. "I've recorded my stuff from New York, from Canada, from all over, depending on the job. So, it's a total piece of cake for us. We get the credit while the writers and animators get pushed to the limit. But they know how much we all owe them and how appreciated they are."

Shearer, who voices Mr. Burns, Smithers and numerous other characters, always chuckles when he's asked, "So, could you have anticipated this kind of run for the show?"

"It's such a lunatic question," he replies. "When we started out, the Fox network was still on UHF channels around the country. We were Channel 56 or 47. This show has been a succession of major flukes coming to confluence."

One of those flukes is being the star of a TV series for nearly two decades and being able to travel the country without being recognized, which Cartwright (the voice of Bart) sees as yet another job perk. "It's just ideal in that way," she says. "We have all of the advantages of artistic success -- job freedom, a great work environment -- with none of the downside."

While the show's vocal talents long ago came to terms with the fact that "Simpsons" is destined to define their legacies and will certainly be in the first sentence of their obituaries, that's just fine with Castellaneta (who voices Homer and Grandpa, among others).

"I'm sure the headline over my obit will probably be something like, 'Homer Simpson Is Dead -- D'oh!'" Castellaneta says. "But you know, how lucky for me that I'll be known for something that's so loved around the world. And I'll tell you what: It's still a huge amount of fun to do.
I hope we go 25 years because I'll never get sick of this."