Regardless of what you think of the latter seasons of the show, The Simpsons remains the most influential and defining cultural mine-stone of our generation of television, with its influence stretching far and wide. To be a guest star on the show, even today, is still a badge of honour, and the list of well-known faces who have lent their voices to the show is a veritable variety show of talent. While authors don’t tend to have the same reputation as recognisable public faces in the way actors and musicians do, many have still been granted the privilege of a yellow makeover. Here are just a few that we could remember.
Neil Gaiman: Even The Simpsons jumped on the YA bandwagon with a strong episode from the later years, The Book Job, in which Homer and company team up to write an instant bestseller for teens and hopefully make bank. Joining them is Neil Gaiman, voiced by himself, whose delightfully manic tones exhibit some surprisingly good comic timing as he becomes the goof of the group, beaten down by even Moe Syzlak. Don’t worry, he gets his comeuppance in the end.
Thomas Pynchon: This show is so popular that even the most reclusive author of the 20th century, a man so secretive that few pictures of him post-1960s exist and many believed him to be a pseudonym for J.D. Salinger, signed up for a cameo. In Diatribe of a Mad Housewife, Marge writes a thinly veiled self-insert romance novel that portrays Homer in a less than favourable light, and the publisher asks for quotes from both Tom Clancy (voicing himself in another author cameo) and Pynchon, who declares that he loves the book “almost as much as he loves cameras”. In the only licenced image of the author allowed in many decades (he agreed to do the voice because his son is a big fan of the show), Pynchon appears with a paper bag over his head.
Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Wolfe and Gore Vidal: After Moe accidentally becomes a critically adored poet in the episode Moe’N’a Lisa, thanks to some hastily written notes and Lisa’s meddling, the cream of the literary crop gather to kiss his butt. Wolfe, dressed in his trademark white suit, is having the time of his life with his cameo, while real life friends Franzen and Chabon exchange puns and get into a fight. One of the great benefits of a Simpsons cameo is that it allows the guest to poke fun at themselves in a way authors so seldom get to do with their public images. Franzen, for instance, comes across as a man with a sense of humour, which continues to shock me.
J.K. Rowling: When the Simpsons headed to London in The Regina Monologues, the episode became a catwalk of famous Brits, from Sir Ian McKellen to then Prime Minister Tony Blair (a lot of people were really unhappy that he took the time to voice the cameo, because a lot of people don’t really have any priorities when it comes to politics). The highlight for many a fan of the show, like myself, was the all too brief interaction between Lisa and J.K. Rowling, who dismissively tells Lisa what she wants to hear when asked about the ending of Harry Potter (“He grows up and he marries you”).
Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman and Daniel Clowes: Sometimes, the geek cred of the show’s writing team really shines through, and the episode Husbands and Knives is a perfect example of that. When a rival comic book store opens up in Springfield, the new owner shows his hipster card proudly by bringing in three of the most famous writers in the field to do signings. The devil is in the details, from Spiegelman’s Maus mask to Moore’s take on Radioactive Man. The three men are later revealed to be buff flying purveyors of justice in the man of impoverished comic book artists everywhere. The jokes probably went over the heads of many a casual viewer.
Stan Lee: You can always count of the grand duke of comics to play up his public image for a few laughs. He’s appeared on the episode a couple of times, although nothing quite tops him holing up in the comic book store and refusing to leave, resulting in even the Comic Book Guy getting annoyed with him.
Harlan Ellison: The grumpiest man in sci-fi, when he’s not groping Connie Willis, joined Stan Lee in episode Married to the Blob, where Comic Book Guy is looking for love. In a nod to his copyright suit with the makers of The Terminator, chastises Milhouse for stealing his ideas. While it doesn’t quite overshadow the manic joy of Lee in full Lee Mode in the episode, it’s a sweet geeky touch, although if it were truly in character, we doubt Ellison would have been quite so gentle or profane-free with Milhouse.
Robert Caro: There are weird cameos and then there are outright random and bizarre ones, Caro, writer of the gargantuan collection of Lyndon B. Johnson biographies, guest starred in the episode Love Is a Many Splintered Thing (although many will remember this episode more for the presence of a certain Benedict Cumberbatch). His voice appears in a ridiculous but hilarious scene where Homer, Bart and some fellow kicked-out-of-the-house friends decide to get down and party with the only CD in their possession – Caro’s audiobook of LBJ’s rise to power. Rock and roll!