“Tim” went to a table read last week for a new episode of the Simpsons, on the Fox Studios lot in Los Angeles. The series is in its historic 30th season, and the episode would not air for a year. He got tickets because a visiting friend knew someone who took a class with the Juice Runner for the show’s Assistant Producer—or something like that, Tim said. He did not want to talk much about his connection, for the same reason he did not want me to use his real name: he hoped to be invited back. It was the sort of thing many of us might put on a bucket list, if we knew about it.
Tim has been a Simpsons superfan since they were undeveloped characters in animated shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show. Still, some things surprised him on his visit, starting with what he felt was a gloom over the studio lot, because Disney had bought 21st Century Fox in March. Disney now owns not only The Simpsons, but the Marvel and Star Wars Universes, Pixar, FX Networks, National Geographic Partners, and a controlling share of Hulu.
“There’s always been this talk about Disney being this family-friendly thing,” Tim said, “but their dark secret is they’re horrible overlords.” An employee told him that Disney’s rhetoric in the acquisition had been that Fox would continue as it had, or there would at least be discussions before changes, but “two days after the merger they started firing people off the Fox lot.” He told Tim another employee never answered his call, and he is left wondering if that person was fired. “Because that’s what it’s like here now,” the man said.
Tim said the lot was nearly empty. Only one production seemed to be filming, but the Simpsons were everywhere, from 40-foot-high murals on soundstages, to labeled parking spots, to a giant Homer fist holding up a donut.
The reading was held in a large conference room. A long, oval table with seats for 20 was for voice actors and biggies; James L. Brooks, Executive Producer and co-creator, was there. (Brooks has been in show business so long he co-created The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) Twenty-five spectator seats lined the walls, and a copy of the script was on each one, labeled with the spectator’s name.
The stars came in after everyone else was seated, as if not to get hassled. Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart, “seemed quite friendly and smiled at us,” Tim said. “But the other actors seemed unwilling to engage and even slightly unhappy. Dan Castellaneta [the voice of Homer] walked in at the last second. I also noticed that Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria, and Julie Kavner [Marge] were not there.”
An announcer read the stage directions, reminded everyone to turn off cell phones, and acknowledged the episode’s writer, who was present. The missing actors were all on conference speakers. The actors who were there “looked really unhappy, almost exceptionally so,” Tim said. “And the fact that three people were conferencing-in was a little odd.”
There has been contention between the Simpsons actors and the show’s production company over time. Despite the show’s early success, it took 10 years for the actors to make real money, which stepped up through the 2000s. They each got $400,000 per episode in 2008 but were asked to take a pay cut to $300,000 in 2011, despite the show being Fox’s anchor program. Tim said he learned Harry Shearer, who refused to renew his contract at one point, has not had to come in for years and works from his house. He wondered if others had that deal too.
In any case, Tim said, “It was in.cred.i.ble. The writing was amazing.” He said the actors, who have been doing these characters for three decades, were “spot-on, first time, every time.” They hit the jokes and added intonation to make the script come to life. “To watch Dan Castellaneta do Homer, and then he’s doing Groundskeeper Willie—just to see people do that at this level of skill is bizarre. Did you know Milhouse was a woman? She’s this tall blond woman [Pamela Hayden], and suddenly whiny Milhouse is coming out of her mouth.”
There was a new major character revealed, an evil being, voiced by either Azaria or Shearer. Because the two men were on speakers and are so good at multiple voices, Tim could not tell who was speaking it. “That part was astonishing,” he said. “It was just laugh after laugh after laugh.”
Through it all, Dan Castellaneta “never cracked a smile, not once through the entire thing, even when his character was [meant to be] smiling in the episode. At one point Nancy Cartwright turned to him, like you would if you were acting, to smile at him, and he didn’t even look up. He walked out immediately when it ended.”
In fact, all the actors left quickly, and probably had to. “Poor Nancy”—Tim was calling them by their first names now—“was a little slow in leaving, and she got caught. It was clear that fans were in the audience and stopped her in the waiting room. Every time she got done with one of them, three more had lined up to talk. People were having her sign their scripts with their highlighters. She finally said she had to go and left a line of four people there. Otherwise she just never would have gotten free.”
Spectators got to keep their scripts. Tim acknowledged that this was not a Game of Thrones situation, where viewers would go crazy to know what would happen, but he still felt it was “a little shocking,” since Hollywood fiercely guards its intellectual property. Mostly he was energized.
The experience “was all over surprisingly fast, less than an hour,” Tim said. “Which is a shame. It was magical and then it was gone.”