Homeric Rhetoric

July 30 – Homer Simpson is a real person. I know this from personal experience. With the movie out now, it’s a good time to tell this story.

In 2002, my friend Peter invited me to be his guest at the taping of Bravo’s Inside The Actors Studio on the campus of New York University in the Village. James Lipton presided as always, and it was not the first time I had been to a taping.

But this evening is aurally seared into my memory. That night, a first for the show, Lipton interviewed not one person, but an entire cast of six, the leading voice actors of The Simpsons.

It as the night I heard the disembodied voice of Homer Simpson, in all its quavering, simpering, whining, howling hollowness.

The cast was introduced one by one, taking their places in two rows of three, on risers set up to replace the interviewee’s single chair. Among them were Julie Kavner (Marge), Nancy Cartwright (Bart), Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Hank Azaria (Chief Wiggum), Harry Shearer (Ned Flanders), and Dan Castellaneta (Homer).

As the evening progressed, it grew more bizzare. (Remember, on television, this is a one-hour show, less commercials. But to get about 45 minutes of good material, it can take 4 to 6 hours of straight interviewing.)

Lipton began by asking them about their backgrounds, education, early careers, and eventually hiring on the show. Boilerplate Inside format.

Next, as he does with single subjects, he delved into the creation of their characters. He eventually asked some of them to “do the voices.” (He once did the same with Kevin Spacey, to hilarious effect.)

This is where the evening turned surreal. Dan Castellaneta began speaking as Homer, answering questions and saying the word, “D’oh!” in various circumstances (a dropped donut, a winning lottery ticket, the discovery of no beer in the fridge, etc.). Dan’s Homer voice is so distinct and recognizable, but out of context, and in its rich fullness as live – not a taped – voice production, it completely filled the hall, resonating, and sending chills down my spine. I couldn’t get my mind around the sound coming out of Dan’s body, and don’t think I ever really associated the voice with him. It was just there, in the room with us, answering questions.

Things really got out of hand when the characters (not the actors) began ignoring Lipton and answering each other’s questions and asking more of their own. It was weird because the characters were talking about the show. Interrupting each other, talking over each other, laughing, arguing, and discussing. So, vocally they were in character, but they had stepped out of the contained universe of Springfield and into the production studio. We all entered a bizarre dream-like zone where everything made sense, but in completely ridiculous ways, like those snippets of conversations you remember from dreams the moment you wake up, but which are lost upon waking because there’s nowhere for them to reside in real life.

The evening progressed, and everyone was interesting, especially Shearer and Azaria in their own intensely funny little duets, and Julie doing Marge from behind a stick-mask so as not to shatter the illusion she had worked so hard to create. But Dan was the man that night.

We couldn’t stay for the full evening, so we quietly extracted our bodies from the cavern of cartoon voices and ate Mexican food close by, talking ourselves down from the drug trip known as an evening out in New York City.

If you ever have a chance to see Dan Castellaneta in person, do what you have to to get tickets or passes to wherever he’s appearing. It is worth it on the chance he does Homer in the flesh. The sound will stick to your own flesh forever.

– p.k.