In a new BBC interview, the iconic show’s creator shares his support for the decision to replace Harry Shearer in the role of Dr. Hibbert, agreeing that change is needed, not just with actors, but the entire industry.
A day after the announcement that longtime The Simpsons actor Harry Shearer would no longer voice the role of Black character Dr. Julius Hibbert, show creator Matt Groening spoke to the BBC about the decision, in a far-ranging interview that touched on minority casting, monorails, and memes.
Last June, in an announcement by the creators of both Big Mouth and Central Park that they would be recasting biracial characters with Black or biracial actors, The Simpsons’ producers agreed to follow suit. Yesterday, they announced that Kevin Michael Richardson will take over the role of Dr. Hibbert beginning with the February 28 episode.
"Times change," Groening told the BBC, "but I actually didn't have a problem with the way we were doing it. All of our actors play dozens of characters each, it was never designed to exclude anyone."
Shearer had voiced Dr. Hibbert for over 30 years; he will continue to voice his other characters on the show, including Mr. Burns and Ned Flanders. Richardson, a veteran voice actor, has voiced numerous characters on The Simpsons going back to 2009, as well as various roles on shows like Bless the Harts, Family Guy, and Teen Titans Go!
The Simpsons' producers had resisted criticism for many years regarding actor Hank Azaria’s portrayal of Apu, the Indian owner of Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart. Controversy came to a head with the 2017 documentary, The Problem with Apu, produced by comedian Hari Kondabolu. The film features multiple interviews with people of Indian or South Asian descent who say they were bullied or mocked by others who cited the thick-accented convenience store owner. For many years, Apu was one of, if not the only, character of Indian ethnicity seen on American television.
In a move many considered a slap at concerns about the producers’ perceived lack of sensitivity surrounding issues of casting diversity, the show directly addressed the Apu issue in their April 8, 2018 episode, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished.” In the episode, as Marge reads her favorite childhood book, “The Princess in the Garden” to Lisa, she realizes its quite more culturally offensive then she remembered. Reflecting on society’s increasing political correctness, Lisa looks at the camera and says, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” She then looks over at a framed picture of Apu, which has the line “Don’t have a cow!” written on it.
Azaria, who won four Emmy Awards voicing the characters, offered to step away from the role during a 2018 appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, before officially saying goodbye to Apu in January 2020.
When asked if there were any regrets over how the show has handled the issue of Azaria and Apu, Groening replied, “At a certain point it doesn't matter what you say. You're going to be attacked by whoever, you know? We're not going out of our way to comfort bigots. On the other hand, if you do any kind of gesture and people perceive a weakness, you'll be criticized."
Groening went on to note that change was needed, not just on his show, but across the industry. "I absolutely agree with that. And we're trying to make it better. Bigotry and racism are still an incredible problem and it's good to finally go for more equality and representation."
Head over to the BBC to find the entire interview, with Groening riffing on his “Life in Hell” comics, cringe-worth Simpsons memes, and the 14,000-member Monorail Society.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.