The Changing Role of Guest Stars on The Simpsons

The Simpsons has been around for ages, and its characters have become deeply engrained in popular culture. Even secondary characters such as Groundskeeper Willie and Milhouse Van Houten are better known than the main characters in most other sitcoms. However, there are many, many characters, some recurring and some seen only once, voiced by people who aren’t in the show’s supremely talented cast: guest stars.

Guest stars have played a large role in The Simpsons since nearly the beginning of the show, but how the show has used them has changed drastically over the years. Looking at the use of guest stars over so long gives a good glimpse into how the show itself has changed. So let’s do just that.

The first guest star appeared in the second episode of the first season, “Bart the Genius,” although at this point it stretches the definition of guest star; Marcia Wallace voiced Edna Krabappel then and still does today. It’s not surprising that the character has become a major part of the show, as early on, the show was still trying to establish itself. It wasn’t looking to make a big splash with a flashy guest star, and odds are they couldn’t have gotten anybody notable anyway. The only other two recurring characters voiced by guest stars also first appeared in season one: Ron Taylor’s first appearance as Bleeding Gums Murphy and, more notably, Kelsey Grammer as Sideshow Bob.

Obviously, Bob has become a big part of the show, having appeared in and been the main focus of 11 episodes in total. Grammer was also probably the biggest name guest star of the first season, depending on your opinion of Penny Marshall. It’s also worth noting is that Albert Brooks voiced two separate characters in season one. He’s played several different, and excellent characters, in his time, ranging from Jacques the bowler to the thoroughly awesome Hank Scorpio.

Season two features both the first episode of the show that had multiple guest stars and the first person appearing as themself. Both came in the episode “Dancin’ Homer,” which featured Tom Poston as the Capital City Goofball and Tony Bennett as himself. This season also saw the first two big stars to ever appear on the show. Ringo Starr played himself in one episode, and Dustin Hoffman (credited as Sam Etic) played Mr. Bergstrom in another. Neither of these were a quick gimmicky cameo, particularly Hoffman’s performance, which was integral to the episode (even if it did involve a The Graduate parody). Additionally, the thoroughly excellent Phil Hartman made his first appearance on the show, introducing us to both Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure, and Jon Lovitz showed up as well.

Clearly, in the early days of the show, guest stars weren’t about the voice actors themselves, but the characters. Most of the guests were not big names, and many of them would become regular contributors to the show, often with recurring characters. There was nothing gimmicky or attention grabbing going on yet, even with an appearance from Ringo.

However, the opener of season three marked a sea change in the course of The Simpsons, as Michael Jackson lent his voice to the show. Sure, he did it under a pseudonym and with somebody else doing his singing, but Jackson was still a huge star at the time, and his appearance was monumental. The show had arrived, and if you could get Michael Jackson in his heyday to appear on the show, you could get nearly anybody. Furthermore, with a highly rated show, you’re sure to attract many people wanting to appear, even if they aren’t necessarily fans of the show. The Simpsons had clout.

Fortunately, in those early days the show managed to avoid the possible temptation of trotting out huge guest stars week after week. Oh, they had big stars on the show, and occasional episodes were teeming with guest stars. Season three saw numerous major league baseball players feature heavily in an episode. Season four ended with an episode involving legends like Johnny Carson, Liz Taylor, and Luke Perry. With more guest stars appearing, the occasional guest spot seems a bit shoehorned in, but was usually dealt with humorously and without feeling like a gimmick. The show didn’t need guest stars to get viewers, and it allowed the show the chance to be judicious.

As season five rolled in, guest stars started appear more frequently, and people playing themselves in a self-effacing, occasionally parodying manner became more common, such as the appearances of James Woods and Robert Goulet. The world of The Simpsons and the world we live in were coming closer together as more famous people just so happened to stop by. Up to this point, guest voices had been used well by the folks in charge of the show, but season six produced perhaps the first sign of decline in how guest stars would be used. In the episode “A Star is Burns,” Jon Lovitz voices his character Jay Sherman from The Critic. I really like The Critic, but this episode was basically used as an ad for the show, something which disappointed Matt Groening so much that he took his name off the episode. Lovitz’s character was a big part of the plot, and it was far from stunt casting, but it was still gimmicky.

However, it would take a few more seasons, until about season 10, for guest star appearances to start being an issue for the show. Guest stars started showing up all the time, in increasingly ancillary, one joke situations. Oftentimes, multiple guest stars would be crammed into an episode and most of them wouldn’t service the plot. Furthermore, with ratings slipping, the show started trotting out guest stars in for stunt casting cameos. Take, for example, Britney Spears’ appearance on the show. Once upon a time, Michael Jackson may have appeared on the show, but he played a major part in the plot. Spears was around for a couple of jokes and was completely gratuitous.

The episode that was billed as the 300th in the show’s history went down a similar route as the Spears appearance, featuring Tony Hawk and Blink 182 in guest appearances as themselves. Both the fact that this was presented as a milestone episode and as an episode with guest appearances from these folks is an example of the show trying to reach out to a wider audience. In particular, Hawk and Blink 182 were folks that would appeal to a younger audience that may not have been watching the show at the point, not having grown up with it at the height of its popularity. Of course, the 200th episode had U2 and Steve Martin, so the show wasn’t above making these episodes events even in the earlier days.

Season 12 has, I feel, the worst guest appearance of anybody in the history of the show when N’Sync showed up for the “Bart is in a boy band” episode, a concept that in and of itself makes me groan. This episode seemed destined to feel dated and gimmicky even as it was airing. I know there has been conversation about just how important timelessness to comedy is, but this was just a poorly executed cameo by any measure. The band just sort of showed up, did a couple of bad jokes, and that was that. Perhaps my biggest issue was just that it simply wasn’t funny, and knowing what we now know about Justin Timberlake’s comedic ability, he was certainly wasted.

Things haven’t really changed much since seasons 11 and 12. The Simpsons has a ton of guest stars, often multiple in an episode. Sometimes they play actual characters, but more often than not they play themselves, and usually in a small cameo. In other words, stunt casting. If the writers have a good joke for it, that’s fine, but far too often these guest appearances feel gratuitous. Through 18 episodes this season, there have been 44 guest stars. Most of them are playing themselves, such as Mark Zuckerberg and Katy Perry.

There are still a few guest stars that probably deserve mentioning. The show did have then Prime Minister Tony Blair, after all, which is a huge, and odd, get. Ricky Gervais and Seth Rogen both wrote episodes that they then guest starred in, which is a testament to the affection people still have for the show. Gervais and Rogen, two big stars, love the show so much that they treat the chance to write for the show as a dream come true. All the gratuitous Richard Dean Anderson appearances in the world won’t change that.

But nowadays, I’m surprised when I see an episode without a guest star providing a voice. Last season had only five episodes out of 23 that didn’t have a guest star, and this season is looking like it’ll finish in the same range. While the occasional brief cameo is fine, with such a large cast of characters in Springfield, the show doesn’t need guest stars. The reliance on them more and more over time just shows how difficult it’s become to set an episode in that original, grounded world of Springfield. When you run out ideas for normal stories, it’s just easier to use a never-ending supply of celebrities as pop culture touchstones. In the end, you can’t blame the writers for it — after all, can you come up with some realistic situations for the Simpsons to get into that they haven’t gotten into before? But that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

Chris Morgan has written for Cracked, Examiner, McSweeney’s, and Overthinking It, amongst others. You can follow his adventures in writing and international espionage (but mostly writing) on his Twitter.

The Changing Role of Guest Stars on The Simpsons