Yesterday, Harry Shearer, the iconic voice behind characters such as Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, Reverand Lovejoy, Kent Brockman, and many more on The Simpsons, announced he will be leaving the show. In an email sent to CNN Money, showrunner Al Jean said, "As The Simpsons continues its 27th and 28th seasons, Harry Shearer will not be within the show."
This situation is bad, like Sideshow Bob stepping on an endless procession of rakes. But, for now, the last rake has still yet to be struck. Reportedly, Shearer is leaving the show over a contract dispute—CNN Money states that he was offered $14 million over two years, with the option to pursue other projects. The exact terms of the deal offered to Shearer are not public. Though Jean's email carries with it a note of finality, this isn't the first time a contract dispute has threatened to trip up The Simpsons. In 1998, the showrunners went so far as to enlist casting directors to secure an entirely new Simpsons cast before a deal was reached with the show's principles.
Regardless of whether Shearer stays or goes, his work on The Simpsons is but a small drop in the considerable bucket that is Shearer's career. He was a member of Saturday Night Live's cast in its fifth season, appearing alongside other comedy greats such as Bill Murray, Jane Curtin, and Gilda Radner. Meanwhile, as a boy Shearer appeared in the pilot for Leave it to Beaver, then called House in Order, giving him the rare distinction of being part of three generations of iconic TV. Plus, he was the principal on Dawson's Creek, which is nothing to sneeze at.
In the film world, he played small roles in a dizzying array of classic movies, from Star Wars: A New Hope to The Right Stuff, to The Fisher King. He also turned up in both The Truman Show and EDtv, which is sort of baffling considering the fact that they were basically the same movie. And while the late-90s Godzilla remake transcended the plane of suck and dove into the depths of cinematic catastrophe, it did yield this sort of amazing short featuring Shearer (who also appeared in the film) hosting a news magazine-style segment in Japan about Godzilla's origins.
Shearer also delivers what might be the funniest joke from Wayne's World 2. In one scene, Wayne and Garth are listening to a radio host named Handsome Dan. "I bet he's totally studly and buffed," Wayne says. "With a voice like that," Garth says, "he's gotta be a babe magnet." When the pair go to meet Handsome Dan to appear on his show, he turns out to be, well, Harry Shearer at his most nebbish.
Shearer was also a non- Wayne's World force on radio, hosting the long-running public radio show Le Show, as well as appearing on the BBC program Not Today, Thank You, playing a man convinced he's too ugly to be seen in public. He also has written three books and directed the documentary The Big Uneasy, a critical look at the US government's handling of Hurricane Katrina (watch the full film on YouTube here).
My favorite iteration of Shearer, however, has been his status in Christopher Guest's loose repertory of improvisers in films like This Is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration. As Spinal Tap's Derek Smalls, Shearer served as the (vaguely) dry foil for the completely out-there Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins. He helped set the standard for caricatures of clueless rock dudes by getting flagged at airport security for stuffing a cucumber wrapped in tinfoil into his pants, getting stuck in the pod during "Rock N' Roll Creation," pointing out that "water is a drug," and interrupting a screaming match to raise the practical question of whether the band was going to do "Stonehenge" tomorrow.
In another scene, Shearer as Smalls reflected upon the untimely demise of Stumpy Joe, but one in an endless parade of deceased Spinal Tap drummers. "It's not a very pleasant story," he sputters, "but, uh, he died. He choked—the official explanation was he choked on vomit… he passed away. They can't prove whose vomit it was… they don't have the ability." Then Nigel cuts him off, and Smalls twiddles his thumbs, as if he'd been interrupted in a conversation about the weather.
In A Mighty Wind, Shearer plays Mark Shubb, something of Derek Smalls's long-lost spiritual cousin. Shubb's the bassist for the Folksmen, a Kingston Trio-esque group who, after a protracted period of minor fame, fell off the folk circuit. Their sole hit was "Old Joe's Place," an ode to a nonexistent road house whose punchline is Shearer singing in a basso profundo, "Ea… Ah… Oe's!" He delivers the insanely corny line at the Folksmen's reunion show with the earnestness of an old-time comic who knows his joke's going to land before he even finishes it. At the end of the film, Shearer's character discovers that he is a woman.
The point of all of this is when Shearer tweets that he values "the freedom to do other work," he's not just talking out his ass. If Shearer is indeed gone from The Simpsons, it's not like he's going to disappear. Besides, The Simpsons has sucked for years anyways, as VICE's own Joe Bish wrote yesterday. I'd rather have Harry Shearer out there, contributing more laughs to the world, than languishing on a show that might keep him from being great.
Drew Millard is on Twitter.