Obviously, when Nancy Cartwright first started giving voice to Bart Simpson, she had little idea that she was helping create one of the longest-running characters in TV history.
“I thought, ‘Great. I got another job,'” Cartwright tells Zap2it of the audition with “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening that landed her a job voicing shorts on “The Tracey Ullman Show” in the late 1980s. “To me it was just another job. It was no big deal. I was already doing tons of Saturday morning [cartoons] — I think I was doing like eight shows at that time. I had no idea.”
Almost a quarter-century and close to 500 episodes later, she’s joining her castmate Dan Castellaneta and “Simpsons” executive producer James L. Brooks as part of the Archive of American Television’s Emmy TV Legends series. Zap2it talked with Cartwright during a break in her interview with the archive about booking the job as Bart, giving voice to numerous characters and one of her favorite “Simpsons” moments. Highlights of our conversation follow.
Cartwright is also hosting a charity poker tournament for her nonprofit organization Happy House on May 28. A $60 buy-in will get you a seat at the tables and a barbecue; non-players can attend for $15, and all proceeds will benefit Happy House’s Good Choices character-education program. (More information is at HappyHouse.org.)
Zap2it: When you got the job as Bart, what were you figuring it would be?
Nancy Cartwright: When I went in to [audition], my agent said it was these tiny little vignettes they were going to be doing, positioning it right before and right after the commercials. There wasn’t anything like that on TV. So I said, “Is it a show then?” “No, not really. It’s called an interstitial.” “So is it a commercial?” “No, it’s an animated transitional piece that takes you out of ‘The Tracey Ullman Show’ and into the commercials, then brings you back into her show.” “So are we part of ‘The Tracey Ullman Show?'” “Kind of, but it’s a separate thing.”
So I understood that, and I went in for the audition [initially she was up for the part of Lisa that went to Yeardley Smith]. Matt ended up hiring me right on the spot. I didn’t want to do Lisa; I definitely wanted to do Bart. The difference between playing an 8-year-old middle child and a 10-year-old, school-hating, underachiever and proud of it? Hello! I said do you mind?, and he said no. So [in Bart’s voice] “Blah blah blah blah blah,” and he hired me on the spot. I thought, “Great. I got another job.” … I had no idea. None of us did [of] how much attention it would garner.
Bart’s voice has stayed pretty consistent over the years, but do you think the character has changed much?
That’s a great question. He’s the same age, but when the show moved from being just the interstitials to a half-hour show, obviously there was more time to develop a fully quote-unquote fleshed-out character. Typically, yes, he’s the school-hating underachiever, and “Bart” is an anagram for “brat.” But he also really loves his sister. You find out in the course of doing the show that there are other qualities to him. He’s not such a bad guy. He’s not a one-note character — I don’t think any of them are. Except maybe Hans Moleman. [Laughs]
When the series started, Bart was sort of the center of things. But as it went on it became …
The Homer show?
Well, yes, but everyone else’s show too.
I think as the show continued to do really, really well publicly, the writers then had a little bit more of a playing field. They could open it up and not be stuck on Bart. … To me it’s a smart decision. Bart’s life is, he’s in school or he’s at home with his friends. He could be at the Kwik-E-Mart or he could be at the comics store. But Homer, as an adult, just has more opportunities to be put in more varied positions and environments. And personally, I think there’s more humor in psychosis than there is in a 10-year-old boy. [Laughs]
How many regular “Simpsons” characters do you voice now?
Seven — Bart, Nelson, Todd Flanders, Kearney, Database, Maggie and Ralph Wiggum.
Is it ever tough keeping everyone’s voice straight?
There was one episode … where I played I think four voices in one scene. And oh my god — the recording was easier than the table read. There’s much more pressure at the table read because you really want to get it right for the writers. The whole idea is it’s not a rehearsal for the actors; it’s really to make sure that the jokes work. I remember I was sitting at the very end of the table, and we’re doing the reading, and I’ve got [the different parts] color-coded — Bart is yellow, Nelson is orange — and I’m talking to myself, doing all these voices. At the end I was so out of breath. … Julie Kavner looked at me and went [Cartwright approximated Kavner’s Marge voice], “That was incredible, Nancy!” I got a nice round of applause.
I was looking through your credits, and you’ve played a lot of boys.
I know! Lucky me.
Is it just that the tone of your voice lends itself to playing a young boy?
I think so. I don’t know — I just started getting cast [as boys]. And I can change the quality of my voice. Before “The Simpsons,” doing other shows, with the exception of maybe Gloria on “Richie Rich” [it was mostly boys], and playing aliens and Snorks [laughs]. Yeah — I just did these boys. I don’t know. I can make my voice kind of croaky, and casting people just said that’s more of a boy voice than a girl voice. And I didn’t care. I just wanted to work, you know?
After so long on “The Simpsons,” is it even possible for you to pick out favorite episodes?
It’s hard to say — and it’s not even a favorite show because there are little moments in “The Simpsons” that are priceless. There’s a show where Nelson teaches Bart how to shoot a gun [“Bart, the Mother” from Season 10], and the sight is a little bit off. Bart doesn’t konw that and ends up shooting the mother bird and kills her. So Bart ends up feeling so bad, he nurses the babies and takes care of them. That was just a really sweet episode. But there are too many moments that are really great.
“The Simpsons” airs at 8 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX.