Yesterday’s new episode, written by Loni Steele Sosthand, broke ground with two show firsts.
This past Sunday’s new episode of The Simpsons featured two historic firsts: Not only did it depict American Sign Language for the first time on the show, but it also showcased the talents of its first-ever deaf voice actors.
Entitled “The Sound of Bleeding Gums,” the episode, written by Loni Steele Sosthand, puts Lisa Simpson front and center, exploring her discovery that her late musical mentor, saxophonist Bleeding Gums Murphy, fathered a son who was born deaf. Lisa decides to help Murphy’s son - who goes by the mononym Monk - in his efforts to get a cochlear implant.
Speaking with Variety, Sosthand said that the episode is inspired by her own upbringing - listening to an endless stream of jazz in the heart of the suburbs as a mixed race kid - and by her unique family dynamic.
“My father’s Black and jazz was a way for my dad to bring that aspect of our culture in[to] the suburbs,” she explained. “But when I think about music, I also think about my brother, who was born deaf. When we were talking about this Bleeding Gums character in our initial brainstorms, we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if Lisa discovers this whole other side of his life?’ That led to him having a son, and then we based that character at least somewhat on my brother. And the story grew from there.”
Enter John Autry II.
Autry had previously acted in a pilot developed by Sosthand and her hearing-impaired brother, Eli Steele, and Sosthand could think of no one better to play Monk than the deaf actor who starred in Glee. When she pitched executive producers James L. Brooks and Al Jean on his fitness for the character, Sosthand says “[they] very much got on board and saw what a gem he was.”
Autry considers his hiring a watershed moment in animation -- symbolic of “life-changing equality and participation” for hard of hearing actors and the characters they can portray when given the go-ahead by creative decision-makers. Several other deaf actors voice characters in the episode as well, including Steele, comedian Kathy Buckley, and child performers Kaylee Arellano, Ian Mayorga, and Hazel Lopez.
“This can impact change for all of us,” Autry says. “It’s a part of history.”
That the Best Picture Oscar-winning CODA was just widely celebrated for its depiction of the deaf experience only strengthens the cultural resonance of “The Sound of Bleeding Gums.” Sosthand counts herself among the fans of the Sian Heder-helmed comedy-of-age comedy, and says that some of its themes “are echoed here, coming out of a sibling relationship.”
Some aspects of the episode, though, are less personal for Sosthand and much more quintessentially Simpsons. Case in point: all of its scenes that show American Sign Language do so through characters with just four fingers.
“That was a little tricky, especially because the one thing we’re translating is Shakespeare,” Sosthand says. “But I think we pulled it off.”