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Harry Shearer’s excellent Simpsons adventure

After 26 years, the man behind the voices of Mr Burns and Ned Flanders is leaving the show – and Rob Long knows why
Harry Shearer surrounded by some of the many characters he voices for The Simpsons - including Reverend Lovejoy and Mr Burns (CREDIT: Fox)
Harry Shearer surrounded by some of the many characters he voices for The Simpsons - including Reverend Lovejoy and Mr Burns (CREDIT: Fox)

When my old friend, the multi-talented Harry Shearer, announced last week that he was leaving the cast of the long-running animated series The Simpsons, my phone immediately began buzzing.

“What is he thinking?” asked dozens of text messages from people who know that we’re friends. “Is he insane?”

He is not insane, I told them. Harry Shearer is a fantastically gifted writer-performer-director, and after 26 years of voicing the characters of Mr Burns, his devoted assistant Smithers, school principal Skinner, irritating neighbour Ned Flanders, and many others, Harry simply decided to do something else.

“He’s ill, isn’t he?” asked one person. No, I said. He isn’t ill, either mentally or physically. He just can’t see how he’ll be able to devote the time his future projects require if he’s also committed to several more years of The Simpsons.

The problem, of course, for most of the people who contacted me, is that the actors who give life to the characters on The Simpsons are astonishingly well-paid – the actual amount is hard to pinpoint, but it’s safe to say that it’s a figure that would make most people eye-poppingly happy.

Walking away from such a payday takes a certain combination of confidence and perspective that most people in Hollywood – and maybe most people everywhere – lack.

In the entertainment business, the first blossoms of success are immediately accompanied by lots of cool stuff.

When I got my first job writing television, I was 24 years old and I drove a 15-year-old Subaru Outback around Los Angeles. It was electric blue in the places where it wasn’t spotted by rust, and it emitted an alarming noise every time I made a left turn.

On the other hand, it was cheap.

But driving onto the prosperous, sun-baked Paramount Studios backlot, I was acutely aware that my rusted heap of screeching metal was ill-suited to the dazzling array of luxury cars around it.

People, in fact, gave me nasty looks. My co-workers complained if I parked my car too close to theirs, as if an unfashionable car brand might infect their Bentley with some form of automobile Ebola.

Eventually, I bought a BMW. I blamed it on peer pressure, but we all knew what was up: I was making real money in a status-obsessed business in a prestige-conscious town and I wanted to cruise around in a sleek machine that, I presumed, befitted my station.

Once you make that mental adjustment, though – that expensive things project power and importance – you need to keep buying expensive things.

Cars, houses, seats on an airplane – why do you think men walk around wearing those enormous wristwatches these days? It’s so no one will miss the expenditure.

“Why are you wearing a tennis ball on your wrist? Oh, sorry. Wow. A wristwatch that unwieldy must have cost a fortune! You can’t even button your cuff! Congratulations!”

I’m not sure how it works in any other business, though I suspect it’s the same, but in show business, the rule is that the more money you make, the more you spend. And as everyone knows, the more you spend, the more you have to make, until you discover that you’re working simply to maintain a certain level of spending and that you’re unable to stop.

If someone offers you a job – a role in a rotten movie, if you’re an actor; a chance to write a script for a terrible project, if you’re a writer – you’re unable to decline.

Of course, this sounds nice in theory. The trouble is, we all have financial obligations – kids, mortgages, that sort of thing. There’s no getting around mouths to feed and banks to pay, but the way the entertainment business is moving – as anyone who has a television with a zillion choices or who has watched a movie on a smartphone can tell you – things are changing awfully fast.

And not just the entertainment business, either. The world economy is a rougher, less-secure place. We should all be prepared to pick up and switch jobs, to move across town, to make other choices. We should all be living beneath our means, building up our war chests, shoring up our leverage.

Food, shelter, children – these are budget line items that are hard to cut. Giant watches and fancy cars, though, only make it less likely you’ll be able to say, “No thanks.”

Unless you’re Mr Burns, the diabolical millionaire who dominates Springfield, the hometown of The Simpsons.

Mr Burns accrued his millions in large part by understanding the power of leverage – how to gain it, how to wield it, and how to use it against his hapless underlings.

In episode after episode, the cartoon villain of Mr Burns – played with demonic gusto by Harry Shearer – makes certain that no one in his orbit has the confidence – or bank account – to say “No thanks”. No one, that is, except the man who gave him his voice.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl

Updated: May 29, 2015 04:00 AM

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