It comes as a bit of a shock to hear that the voice of Ned Flanders, Montgomery Burns and Principal Skinner are poised to either leave or booted from The Simpsons. There were several reports last week that Harry Shearer, the voice behind those three characters and others, was at the exit door. The show was going to continue, with new voices behind the characters.
When a show has as long a run as The Simpsons, at some point there is going to have to be a change in the human factor. They had the same challenge in providing an actor to play James Bond, after all, and survived the loss of such smirking master shooters, such as Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. In the Bond series, of course, the whole plot of the movie is so ridiculous that a change in the central character doesn’t need much justification.
This wouldn’t be the first time that the voice of a non-human character has changed either. After Muppet creator, Jim Henson, died, the voices of Kermit the Frog, Ernie, the Swedish, Chef, Rowlf, and other characters were passed on to other puppeteers. Those who were listening could hear the difference, but the Muppet characters survived the change in their human voices.
All the same, it seems a stretch to think that any other voice could master the antiquarian venom behind the perennial exchange,
Burns: “Smithers, who is that blithering idiot?”
Smithers: “Homer Simpson, sir”
Burns: “Simpson, eh?”
So familiar is my household with the voice of Harry Shearer, no family get together would be complete without a Burns, Flanders or Skinner takeoff, we feel a little cheated that the voice could be changed without our approval. I’m sure Shearer himself knows this, to his advantage. I feel a bit sorry for any well paid voice-actor that attempts to step into his shoes. Maybe, as I am not the first to say, it might be better for all if the show closed its run. After all, the risk is that, with a new voice, Mr Burns will become a caricature of himself, which is a quite something, considering he was a cartoon character to begin with.
This dilemma got me to thinking about the importance voice has to our impressions of a person’s character. There is much psychology to consult. An article in the Wall Street Journal, for example, reported on a study that concluded the sound of a speaker’s voice is the most important factor determining how he or she is perceived by listeners; more than twice as influential as the content of the presentation.
Psychology Today reports on a study that altered, deliberately, recorded speeches to be only partially intelligible. The result was no difference in the listener’s perception of the speaker, because other factors determined the listener’s reaction; factors that had nothing to do with the articulation of every word.
That then takes us to the question of whether a person can alter his or her voice and thereby enhance the listener’s perception of her. Enter, as Exhibit A, one Margaret Thatcher. The former British prime minister, at the start of her leadership career, had a voice described, uncharitably, as school marmish, bossy and hectoring or as registering high notes that were dangerous to passing sparrows. Thatcher took deliberate steps to lower the pitch of her voice. They say it worked.
Could our political leaders benefit from voice enhancement? Well, Rich Little used to do wonderful impressions of John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson; Preston Manning used to evoke impersonations of his falsetto skip up the pronunciation of “the Re-form Party of Canada.” As for Stephen Harper, couldn’t you just tell, listening to him, when he has that ‘I don’t know why I have to bother explaining it to you people when I’ve got better things to do’ tone to his voice? Surely, that was open to improvement, with vocal training. I am not sure I wish Harper any success in that pursuit. I have resolved that from now on I’m going to pretend I’m listening to Bugs Bunny’s voice come out of Harper’s mouth. Both seem rather too pleased with themselves.
Having brought in Harper, I should include Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau. In Question Period, Mulcair mauls Harper like a bear, but he needs to show a friendly side as well. Can you picture Mulcair as Baloo, from The Jungle Book? Every time I hear him from now on, I’m going to listen to the goofy voice that sang, “Look for the bare necessities.”
Trudeau is trying to shake the perception that he is a softie. Popeye the Sailor Man is the best cartoon character to imagine Trudeau speaking through. Neither is afraid of talking tough or of showing off his torso.
All this political stuff takes us some distance from Harry Shearer’s imminent arrival on the unemployment line. Let’s just end by saying that we’re all rooting for the standoff to be resolved. Okely, dokely?
Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.
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