When the average viewer catches a new episode of The Simpsons for the first time in a while, they typically have one immediate complaint: What’s up with the voices? Listening to long-running characters like Otto, Mr. Burns, and Smithers in particular, it’s easy for viewers to wonder whether the show has hired new actors to play them. But no, they’re all still played by the same guy: Harry Shearer.
So what’s the deal? Well, he’s gotten old. Shearer turns 80 this year, and after 35 seasons, his voice is getting tired. Even worse off in the cast has got to be Julie Kavner, the voice of Marge and the other Bouvier women, whose many decades of performing those raspy voices have taken their toll. “Marge sounds like she’s dying,” wrote one viewer on the Simpsons subreddit three years ago, and the complaints have only grown more common over time. Marge, who’s supposed to be in her late thirties, now sounds like an elderly smoker; when she talks, it’s hard not to wonder if Kavner’s in pain. For longtime Simpsons viewers who don’t want the show to end, it’s worth asking if the show should replace Kavner with someone new and, most likely, younger.
But many of those same fans think this idea is blasphemy. To many longtime or lifelong viewers, The Simpsons is not The Simpsons without the original voice actors at the wheel. Like the rest of the cast, Kavner is such an integral part of Marge that replacing her could lose so much of the charm and heart that endeared us to the character in the first place. Kavner’s been a core part of The Simpsons since its days as a recurring segment on The Tracey Ullman Show. After more than 35 years as Marge, surely no one could replace her, let alone mimic her, right? Without Kavner’s distinctive voice and her wonderful acting range, would any other version of Marge work?
One potential reason for the hesitance is that, despite some successes on other franchises, some of the show’s biggest fans have seen for themselves the damage a major casting change can do. One of the show’s most popular international dubs. The Mexican-produced Latin American-Spanish dub of the show, Los Simpson, recast nearly everyone, resulting in nearly two decades of worsened quality.
American viewers tend to consider the first eight seasons as the show’s gold, but Latin American viewers are more likely to extend that period to Season 15. That’s because, when they think of Los Simpson, they think of those first 15 seasons with the original Homero, Humberto Vélez, in charge.
As Homero, Vélez perfectly captures the character’s many moods, from his fits of giddiness to his fits of rage. His performance easily overshadowed both of the other Spanish-language Homer dubs, which were produced in Spain. So definitive was his take on Homero that Vélez’s popularity eventually rivaled that of Homer’s English-language actor, Dan Castellaneta. It was a remarkably high-effort performance, one that managed to overcome the less-prestigious reputation of dubbing in Mexico at the time and garner Vélez widespread acclaim; he eventually earned a level of fame throughout Latin America typically reserved for live-action actors. Even among non-Spanish speakers, Vélez remains well-respected, to the point where some American viewers have argued that the show is funnier in Spanish.
“Screen actors have always looked down on voice acting, because that’s not acting. Acting is appearing in person,” Vélez told Radio Ambulante in 2019, explaining his sudden fame when he started voicing Homero in the ’90s. “I didn’t expect anything to happen. That was the first time I was given the rock star treatment.”
Unfortunately, being a rock star isn’t always enough to hold onto your job, nor does it always mean much to a studio that’s focused purely on the bottom line—leaving one of the best versions of The Simpsons to falter for nearly 20 seasons.
Between the Latin American airing of the Season 15 finale (in January 2005) and Season 16 premiere (July 2005), the show’s producers replaced Vélez, as well as the voices of Marge, Lisa, Bart, and several other Springfield citizens. After a months-long labor dispute and strike, the Latin American dub’s five lead actors—Vélez, Nancy MacKenzie (Marge), Claudia Motta (Bart), Patricia Acevedo (Lisa), and Gabriel Chávez (Mr. Burns)—were no longer on the show.
Vélez was the first to leave, quitting in April after salary negotiations between the voice acting union and the dubbing company stalled. While the cast initially went on strike, in a report from the Los Angeles Times at the time, Vélez explained that it left him with “no time to work on other projects and forced him to borrow money for rent and food.” Not long afterward, Los Simpson had swapped out Vélez and his co-stars with new actors (save for Bart, whose pre-Season 9 voice actor returned instead).
This beloved version of the show suffered for nearly 16 years as a result. Fans argued that the voices weren’t as good, and the quality of the show’s localization dropped. “Even to this day, people will refer to the next cast as ‘the new voices,’” one Latin American commenter wrote in response to a recent video essay on the show’s 15th season, “even if they’ve been probably voicing these characters for longer at this point.”
As the show’s first dubbing director, Paco Reséndez, explained to the Latin American NPR podcast Radio Ambulante in a 2019 episode about the casting change, the writers/translators used to put more effort to “tropicalize” the dialogue. “You have to make it for Latin America, because the dialogue is completely idiosyncratic to the United States, and that won’t work here,” Reséndez said. But after the casting changes? “They don’t adapt anymore. Now they just translate it, and the director has to—if they want to—adapt it.”
In addition to replacing the cast and de-emphasizing a thorough localization for Latin American audiences, the studio also decreased the total number of voice actors on the show and increased the workload of the ones they had. In addition to one actress now dubbing both Marge and Bart, most of the remaining cast members were asked to perform additional characters as well, eliminating variation. The studio never publicized the exact reason for this, but the financial incentive for it (fewer actors on staff means a smaller budget) seems clear.
Fans’ reactions to the changes were severe. “When they changed the dubbing, I stopped watching Los Simpson,” one viewer told Radio Ambulante. “I said, ‘OK, well… I’ll try to get used to it,’” another fan told the program. “But, ah, no. Get out of here.” “Some of [the fans] tried to organize online to boycott the show until the original voices came back, but it didn’t work,” explained reporter Victoria Estrada during the show. But as upset as hardcore fans were about the new dub, the ratings didn’t drop enough to force the studio to change course.
The situation makes for a mixed argument against replacing voice actors: It rubbed fans the wrong way, but it didn’t kill the show’s momentum, like some would expect. But the main issue here wasn’t the act of changing the cast itself, but the reason for doing so. Replacing the main actors on Los Simpson had nothing to do with preserving the feel or quality of the show, but everything to do with the studio not wanting to treat its workers fairly.
Vélez reportedly received around 600 pesos per episode (equivalent to $60) at the time of the labor dispute, a number that was only made worth it for him with the benefits provided by ANDA, the Mexican voice acting union. That’s a far cry from what the American Simpsons family’s voice actors make—at least $300,000 an episode; Vélez only made as much as he did because he was the main star. Yet these low wages were unfortunately the norm for voice-acting work in Mexico at the time, and Los Simpsons’ production company had no interest in changing that.
Sixteen years later, fans of Los Simpson got what they wanted back: the voices they knew and loved. Beginning in 2021, with Season 32, Vélez and several other original voice actors finally returned to the show, and are still performing today. After acquiring 21st Century Fox in April 2019, Disney had taken ownership of The Simpsons. Dubbing Season 32, the first to be fully produced under Disney’s leadership, was stalled during the pandemic. Disney used this waiting period to reassess the Latin American dub; in an interview, Vélez explained that the company conducted audience studies to determine if fans still wanted the original cast back. The results concluded that they did.
It was a delightful, if belated, development for the actors and the fans, one that helped to give the show a boost throughout Latin America in relevance in its older years. (A recent Spanish-language Simpsons short featuring Bad Bunny further boosted the dub’s popularity.) It helps that most of the original Latin American cast is younger than their English-language counterparts, most of their voices showing no obvious signs of wear. The one exception was the voice actress for Marge, Nancy MacKenzie, who was 79 at the time of the original cast’s return. Bart’s original actress Claudia Motta, who’d recently turned 50, took over for Marge instead. There was no official reason given, but the most likely explanation is that—as English-language fans have already learned—Marge’s raspy voice gets a lot harder to do as you reach your later years.
The timing was especially good news for Los Simpson fans, as the classic-era voices’ return coincided with what many have seen as a mini-renaissance in recent seasons. But while Los Simpson has enjoyed a return to form, The Simpsons continues to fade further and further away into old age. The improved quality of the writing is consistently undermined by voice actors who can no longer effectively do the job of performing the scripts.
The fact remains that for years, fans watching the show in both languages have wanted the same thing: for their favorite Simpsons characters to sound like themselves again. Whereas Latin American fans got their wish, after 35 seasons of the show, the aging American actors are no longer quite able to deliver.
The same fans who complain about The Simpsons’ worsening quality may have some reason to feel discouraged: Simpsons characters’ voice actors had been replaced in recent years with mixed reactions. But after watching major casting changes in other popular cartoons and series—most recently with the current season of Rick and Morty, where the two biggest characters had to be quickly replaced after reports of damning domestic violence charges and sexual assault allegations against creator/voice actor Justin Roiland—those concerns seem less and less warranted. Some fans speculated that Roiland’s delivery would be impossible to replicate, but the opposite turned out to be true: Not only are Ian Cardoni and Harry Belden fairly spot-on at matching Rick and Morty’s voices, respectively, but they’re also treating the roles with more effort and emotional range than the checked-out Roiland had been offering in recent seasons. Replacing him was an adjustment, sure, but even without all the real-life reasons behind it, the decision was for the best.
If Rick and Morty—a wildly popular show whose characters’ voices are as recognizable as the series itself—can do it, The Simpsons should be able to follow suit, for the sake of its longevity. It wouldn’t even be the first time a franchise this old has done a switch so late in its run; just this year, the voice of Super Mario, Charles Martinet, retired after 25 years on the job. His younger replacement, Kevin Afghani, has already voiced the character in the Nintendo Switch game Super Mario Bros. Wonder, with few complaints from the fans. It’s clearer now more than ever that this sort of thing is doable.
It’s a bitter irony that, while Los Simpson could only return to its classic era’s quality by bringing the original voice actors back, maybe the only way for the American show to do the same is to encourage the original actors to leave. As long as the producers are doing it for the right reasons—creative, not financial—this could put an end to the perception in recent years that The Simpsons has just been lifelessly trudging along. Changing up the voice actors could genuinely save the show. It might not be as rough as it (and Marge) sounds.