As the latest round of Simpsons guest stars are wheeled out, it’s easy to dismiss the whole thing as a lot of old barrel scraping. But guest stars make the Simpsons, and have done since its inception. It’s just that in recent years, the show’s pandering to current trends and faces that become instantly obscure is far more pronounced. The old cliché is that you haven’t really made it until you’ve been featured on the Simpsons, but the tendency for the later seasons to bundle actors in under their real names is frankly indulgent (and indicative of the blight on professional voice acting that Hollywood stars have been since Aladdin). Katy Perry, Halle Berry, Russel Brand, Daniel Radcliffe?
The Simpsons entered the Guinness Book of Records with 337 Guest Stars nearly six years (and seasons) ago. There are now 740 Credited appearances of guest stars, though this figure (unlike the record breaking figure above) includes the multiple appearances of actors like Albert Brooks, Kelsey Grammer, Phil Hartman and Joe Mantegna (you know, talented people who play characters other than themselves). This is quite an achievement when you consider that for at least the first four seasons, a number of A-listers were appearing under pseudonyms, apparently embarrassed about appearing on an animated show. Nowadays, we get to be embarrassed about A-listers in our animated shows. How times change.
Anyway, without further ado the best and the worst in Simpsons guest stars
It would be impossible to compile a list of the best in Simpsons guest stars without mentioning Albert Brooks (Hank Scorpio), Kelsey Grammer (Sideshow Bob), Joe Mantegna (Fat Tony) and Phil Hartman. Err… Again. Regardless of your views on the quality of the ‘later’ seasons of the show, Hartman’s untimely demise changed something fundamental in the show. Perhaps given time, the Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz characters would have become have become stale, but even by their latest appearance, they were consistently funny asides to the increasingly zanier core show.
The show has also thrown up its fair share of memorable one shot guest characters. Johnny Cash’s spirit guide Coyote in ‘El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer’ is a rare character that provides very little in the way of humour, but couldn’t have been more accurately cast. Cash’s soothing, contemplative voice was an excellent counterpoint to an episode that could have otherwise lacked an emotional core. Similarly, there was John Waters’ ultra-camp self insert character ‘John’, from the episode ‘Homer’s Phobia’. It is still perplexing how the Fox Censor originally considered the episode’s topic ‘unacceptable for broadcast’: it was barely preachy or even overly PC. Whilst Waters himself displayed great voice talent, the episode worked so especially well because it required a personality of his magnitude and magnetism.
If you want a great example of how not to build two episodes around you guest stars ‘Tennis the Menace’ and ‘When You Dish Upon A Star’ are great examples. The former season twelve episode is probably the worst of the two: Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras turn up at the end of a long winded show about the family getting a tennis court and entering a tennis tournament. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that the guest star idea came first, the tiresome story much later.
Predictably, the tennis stars weren’t much when it comes to acting, but they had an excuse. Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger couldn’t have been more wooden if they tried (which, obviously, they didn’t). Funny enough, Ron Howard’s appearance in the episode is actually rather amusing, but the basic problem with the episode is that virtually any celebrity couple could have crowbarred in. And they went with a not particularly exciting one.
But no-one in this world is less talented than Simon Cowell, and his appearance in the 15th Season episode ‘Smart and Smarter’ just cemented the fact. Bless Carolyn Omine and the writing team for working out a suitable premise, only to have Cowell stomp all over it with his soulless monotone.
The Criminally Underused
The trend in the later life of the show was to have stars drop in, say all of two lines, pick up their pay checks and go. But unlike the Tennis stars of Tennis the Menace, guest stars like Stephen King, Elton John and James Taylor would have been rather welcome if they’d not had to shoot off somewhere else.
But for me, the ultimate underused characters have to be Glenn Close and Danny Devito. Though they had a few episodes each (and some of the best in the Simpsons’ long run), their characters were worthy of further outings. The decision to discontinue Glenn Close’s Mona Simpson character was one of the worst crimes of the later seasons, and it’s utterly confounding why DeVito’s Herb Powell never returned.
Steph Wood is a long time animated comedy fan writing about mutliple blogable subjects: from Food Delivery Wandsworth to Futurama’s Professor Farnsworth. Which is good news for everybody.