Doh! When it was recently announced that Harry Shearer would be leaving The Simpsons after 26 years, mega-fans were feeling a bit more than what a mere annoyed grunt could express. It’s not just the fact that Shearer is departing – following what amounts to virtually an entire career lifetime with one series, it’s reasonable to expect that the stars will want to retire gracefully and move on when the timing is right. What’s really disturbing about this revelation is the fact that Simpsons producer James L. Brooks countered by insisting that the series would continue on without Shearer. Um, what? They’re planning to continue producing episodes without Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, Mr. Burns, Smithers, Reverend Lovejoy, Otto, Kent Brockman, Lenny, and…. ugh, I can’t go on, if I try to type them all my fingers will fall off. Or, even worse, what if they replace these roles with a far inferior voicing source? It’s a prospect even more horrifying than Mr. Burns’ gigantic sun-blocker. (More on that below).
So, just in case future episodes wind up coming out with wrong-sounding Shearer characters (like when Mr. Burns held auditions for the role of himself in his Springfield Film Festival entry, remember?), I’ve collected memories from some of my favorite classic episodes with a Shearer character at the forefront. This is by no means a definitive list; I expect to see a lot of grumbling about which episodes were left out, and which lines overlooked. The fact is, there are simply far too many Shearer Shiners™ to compile into one all-encompassing list. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find viable clips that can be embedded successfully into a list, too; if you have access to Simpsons World, feel free to watch along by logging in with your – or, more likely, your mom’s – cable account credentials. (Each episode is helpfully linked below).
Here presented, in no particular order of ranking, are some of my favorite Shearer-lead memories from the series that shaped so much of what I, and millions of millennials and Gen-Xers just like me, find funny to our core-diddly-ores.
Original Air Date: December 29, 1996 (season 8)
Synopsis: As Springfield’s resident Charlie Church, it’s hard to imagine Ned Flanders and family ever feeling the wrath of God. But that’s exactly what happens when Hurricane Barbara blows through town, relocating a bowling alley to the sky and completely obliterating Casa de Flanders. All of Springfield tries to pitch in and help rebuild the Flanders home, but, well, what would you expect the outcome to be if you let the likes of Homer Simpson and Clancy Wiggum build you a house from scratch? Ned, the perpetual goody two-shoes, is driven insane with anger and right into the waiting arms of the Springfield mental institution, where we learn that his seemingly endless tolerance for all things irritating is actually the result of an experimental “spankological” therapy, requested by his clueless Beatnik parents after they were unable to stave the young Flanders’ boyhood temper. This revelatory flashback is responsible for one of the most oft-quoted lines of the show: “You gotta help us, Doc. We’ve tried nothing, and we’re all out of ideas!”
Shearer Shiner: Watching Flanders’ nice guy mask slowly crack as he completely loses it and blows up at all the citizens of Springfield is perhaps the most explosive moment of catharsis that the series ever produced. Clip here.
Original Air Date: April 27, 1997 (season 8)
Synopsis: It’s hard out here for a pimp, and nobody knows that better than Reverend Timothy Lovejoy. Serving as Springfield’s sole man of the cloth, Reverend Lovejoy has been pimping the word of God since the late ’70s, but ended up losing his passion for preaching after the repeated and clingy requests for spiritual counsel from Ned Flanders wore him down. A natural listener and sympathizer, Marge steps into his place by becoming the church’s “listen lady,” providing over-the-phone and in-person therapy sessions to the town’s neediest souls. But when she gives some bad advice to Flanders, he winds up surrounded by a rabid gang of murderous baboons, and it’s up to Reverend Lovejoy to ride in on the zoo train and save the day. (Not to mention Flanders’ skin from being eaten).
Shearer Shiner: Reverend Lovejoy’s sermon on literally tackling demons has the entire congregation enraptured. Church rarely gets as exciting as apes flying through the air, like two hairy footballs.
Original Air Date: April 28, 1994 (season 5)
Synopsis: This episode could also be remembered as “the one with the dog in the vent.” With no other interesting prospects, Bart brings the Simpson family dog, Santa’s Little Helper, to school for show-and-tell, and through a series of hijinks costs his arch-nemesis, Principal Skinner, his job. Though no natural ally to Skinner and his army-saturated brand of authoritarian discipline, Bart feels bad about getting his principal fired, and ends up befriending Skinner until the beleaguered educator gets back on his feet. The best part of this episode is learning that the two opposing forces have more in common with each other than first thought: Bart finds himself rather dismayed at the chaos that ensues when Ned Flanders and his laissez-faire attitude toward punishment take over the school, and Skinner is seen impishly pinning a “Teach Me” sign to the back of Bart’s shirt after they hug goodbye.
Shearer Shiner: Skinner lays out his idea for the great American novel to Apu. “Mine is about a futuristic amusement park where dinosaurs are brought to life through advanced cloning techniques. I call it ‘Billy and the Cloneasaurus’.”
Original Air Date: October 21, 1993 (season 5)
Synopsis: Life sure is tough for Springfield’s oldest, wealthiest resident. Not only is Mr. Burns universally despised and reviled (by everybody but Smithers, of course), but he’s had to lead a very long and sad existence devoid of his beloved childhood teddy bear, Bobo. In this episodic tribute to Citizen Kane, we learn that even the most powerful among us are susceptible to weakness, as Mr. Burns goes to extreme lengths to reclaim the long lost Bobo from his new owner, Maggie Simpson. Eventually, he’s successful in this endeavor, but not because he cut off the town’s beer and cable supply, unleashing a mob upon the Simpson homestead; rather, it’s the simple, pure generosity from the littlest Simpson herself that results in Bobo’s return to Burns’ rail-thin arms. (Then again, maybe this exchange is what prompted her to shoot him all those years later…)
Shearer Shiner: After the Ramones have finished singing “Happy Birthday” to Mr. Burns: “Smithers, have the Rolling Stones killed!” “But sir…” “Do as I say!” (Kind of ironic now, since all four of the original Ramones are lying cold in their graves, while Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, approximately aged 121 and 138, respectively, continue to rock on).
Original Air Date: September 28, 1997 (season 9)
Synopsis: Undoubtedly one of the most controversial episodes of all time, The Principal and the Pauper is also known as the one where we find out that Principal Skinner is actually a completely different person. And has been, this whole time: throughout the entire series, up until this point. If that’s not enough of a mind-fuck, this imposter is revealed to be Armin Tamzarian – a formerly no-good street punk whose dreams all involved combing his hair. When he was shipped off to Vietnam and witnessed what he believed to be the death of his superior/mentor, Sargent Seymour Skinner, Tamzarian hopped the next plane to Springfield, intending to deliver the bad news to Skinner’s mother in person. Instead, she mistook him for her supposedly dead son, and Tamzarian found himself playing along: the rest being proverbial history. It takes the real Sargent Skinner seemingly rising from the dead for Tamzarian to cop to his true identity – and in the process, forces the citizens of Springfield to decide what qualities they really value in their beloved elementary school principal.
Shearer Shiner: Left to his own devices, Armin Tamzarian takes a job as a sandwich board promoter for a strip club. He performs his duties in deadpan, reading from a script: “Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes. These ladies aren’t even wearing a smile. Nod suggestively.”
Original Air Date: May 21, 1995, and September 17, 1995 (seasons 6 and 7)
Synopsis: Who remembers desperately trying to figure out which murderous Springfield-ian could have pulled the trigger on old man Burns? It was the summer of 1995, and we were all awash with suspects: Moe, Barney, Grampa Simpson, Smithers. And then there was Homer, whose explosive anger over his boss’s inability to remember his name was the stuff that gunshots are made of. But really, it could have been anybody: part one showed Burns in the act of crushing Springfield Elementary, building a gigantic device intended to permanently block out the sun, and even attempting to take candy from a baby. Fitting, then, that he would meet his rampage’s end with searing lead fired by none other than Maggie Simpson. More than a few people were outraged by this eventual outcome, but after letting go of Bobo, maybe Maggie was determined not to acquiesce her lollipop, also, to the greedy and (literally) grasping maniacal billionaire.
Shearer Shiner: He’s gone mad with power! Even the unceasingly loyal Mr. Smithers is cast aside in the process. This line sums it up perfectly: “With Smithers out of the way, I was free to wallow in my own crapulence.”
Original Air Date: February 26, 1996 (season 7)
Synopsis: Leaving Homer Simpson in charge of Smithers’ 900 + tasks as Mr. Burns’ assistant? What could possibly go wrong? Literally everything. When Smithers has a mental breakdown, Mr. Burns insists that he take along-overdue, much needed vacation. Filling in as his replacement is our hero Homer, who Smithers believes he has selected as the perfect incompetent nincompoop, sure to fail Mr. Burns in every conceivable way and thus pose no real threat to Smithers’ beloved occupation. But what Waylon didn’t count on was Homer’s violent temper – the likes of which causes him to sock Burns in his 104-year-old face, rendering the formidable miser so frightened of Homer that he’s forced to take up his own care and responsibilities. The result is an autonomous, self-reliant Burns, who finds he no longer needs Smithers at all. Turns out, Smithers has a little Homer inside him, too (see above photo).
Shearer Shiner: Smithers, on Burns’ mom: “She’s 122; all she can do is dial and yell. Mr. Burns can’t stand talking to his mother – he never forgave her for having that affair with President Taft.”
Original Air Date: April 23, 1992 (season 3)
Synopsis: “I hope the Spinal Taps don’t play too loud!” Don’t worry, Marge – their set barely lasts through two songs. But it’s just enough time for comedy nerds everywhere to rejoice at this delicious crossover: Harry Shearer, reprising his role as Derek Smalls in This is Spinal Tap, joins Christopher Guest and Michael McKean in the greatest yellow-skinned reunion of all time. It’s this aborted concert that makes Bart want to become a heavy metal god; but its the influence of Otto Mann, who moves in temporarily with the Simpsons after losing his school bus driver job, that demonstrates how taking responsibility for a less-than-glamorous gig might not actually be such a bad gig after all. “Wow, I’ve never been called an adult before. I’ve been tried as one, but…” Well said, Mr. Mann.
Shearer Shiner: C’mon: did you really think we were gonna pick anything but the Spinal Tap in Springfield scene? This episode goes to 11. (Clip here).
Original Air Date: April 9, 1995 (season 6)
Synopsis: This is maybe the best and cutest double-whammy Disney spoof to have ever graced this Earth. With a plethora of adorable puppies, the entire plot pays tribute to 101 Dalmatians, but it’s Mr. Burns trademark “Be Our Guest” rendition that proves best in show. In short: Santa’s Little Helper goes into heat and gets a bit randy, knocks up a fellow rejected racetrack greyhound, and gives the Simpsons 25 furry additions to their family. (Twenty-six if you count Santa’s Little Helper’s “bitch.”) Mr. Burns kidnaps the puppies and schemes to turn them into a greyhound tuxedo, joining his gorilla-chest-vest and gofer loafers in a wardrobe embroidered out of pure evil. Predictably, Shearer absolutely kills with his show-stopping, mid-episode “See My Vest” number, and it’s probably safe to assume that those of us who owned Songs in the Key of Springfield still know every word by heart.
Shearer Shiner: If I didn’t put “See My Vest” here, I’d be morally obligated to strangle myself with a pair of Mr. Burns’ grizzly bear underwear. Ohhhhhh please won’t you see! my! vest!
Original Air Date: February 13, 2000 (season 11)
Synopsis: This was the kind of episode that you’d hoped would somehow resolve itself by the conclusion, but it never did. Maude Flanders really died, tragically. Ned really became a widower. Rod and Todd really lost their mother. Somehow, digging through the pitch black source material, the writers – and naturally Shearer – make this one count, in a big way. In between the unexpected laughs (but still expected, because, ya know, The Simpsons) is a motherlode of heart. Reverend Lovejoy says it best when he eulogizes the much-loved wife and mother: “In many ways, Maude Flanders was a supporting player in our lives. She didn’t grab our attention with memorable catchphrases, or comical accents. But, whether you noticed her or not, Maude was always there; and we always thought she would be.”
Shearer Shiner: Sympathizing with Ned as he starts to pick up the pieces and move on is as touching as it is comically executed. And Shearer hits every note just right in this episode, from start to finish.
Original Air Date: January 12, 1997 (season 8)
Synopsis: As you may have begun to pick up on, season 8 has a lot of outstanding Shearer episodes. Narrowing it down to the three that made this list wasn’t easy. I would have loved to have included the Larry Burns episode, since it’s one of my all-time favorites, but I realized that roughly 95% of my love stemmed from Rodney Dangerfield’s performance alone. “The Springfield Files” makes the cut for two reasons: 1. It’s the X-Files episode, y’all! and; 2. Mr. Burns gets to steal the show by being revealed as the “alien” Moulder and Scully were called in to investigate. We also learn something integral about Burns’ character: he undergoes a process every Friday night designed to cheat death for another week. Guess this means old man Burns won’t be expiring along with Shearer’s contract, eh?
Shearer Shiner: “I bring you loveeeeee. I bring you peeeeaccceeeeee.”
12. The Joy of Sect
Original Air Date: February 8, 1998 (season 9)
Synopsis: Holy hell! All of Springfield has abandoned Christianity (and Hindu and Judaism, if you’re Apu and Krusty) and joined up with the Movementarians, a fanatical religious cult devoted to harvesting lima beans and chanting “na na na na na na na na Leader!” Everyone, that is, but diehard Jesus freaks like Reverend Lovejoy and Ned Flanders. For the second time in less than a year – see “In Marge We Trust,” above – Lovejoy springs into action to help save innocents trapped by barbarism. Last time the key to salvation was monkey-punching. This time it’s……HOVER-BIKES!
Shearer Shiner: Lovejoy and Flanders team up with Marge to de-program the Simpson children. The thing that finally breaks the Leader’s spell? Yup, you got it: Hover-bikes. (Does Shearer have someone on staff paid to follow him around, doing the hover-bike noise? I sure hope so).
Original Air Date: January 10, 1999 (season 10)
Synopsis: “Jeez, Flanders; you’re 60 years old and you’ve never lived a day in your life.” This is the one where we find out that, through a commitment to clean living and daily worship, Flanders has reached his senior citizenship while retaining a youthful appearance. Realizing that he’s maybe been just a bit overly cautious, Flanders employs the help of Homer to cut loose and dirty. The two wind up in Las Vegas, and the sin quickly kicks in…. all the way to the altar, where a night filled with white wine spritzers leads them to marry a couple of showgirl floozies in a drunken stupor. It all ends in one giant chase scene, with Homer and Ned crawling home to their real wives, and the Vegas ladies snuggling up to Siegfried and Roy. Though, not for long, we have to assume.
Shearer Shiner: One could not soon forget the sight of a totally wasted Flanders on the wedding video, slurring “I okily… dokily… smokily do!”