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Life As Lisa Simpson

For decades, Yeardley Smith has given voice to the precocious, impassioned second-grader of ‘The Simpsons.’ But heading into the show’s 34th season, she’s only recently fully embraced her animated counterpart.

Fox/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Simpsons-themed guest bedroom in Yeardley Smith’s house is, like the little girl she’s voiced since 1987, small and profound. The walls are lined with framed animation cels from some of her character’s most memorable episodes. There’s Lisa jamming on her saxophone in “Lisa’s Pony,” Lisa playing goalie in “Lisa on Ice,” Lisa grappling with her favorite doll’s sexist ideals in “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy,” and Lisa petting a lamb in “Lisa the Vegetarian.”

“I don’t think that you can play a part this long and not meld with that alter ego,” Smith says from a comfy couch in her living room. “I always say, thank God she’s such a beautiful, brilliant, funny, compassionate, thoughtful, curious person. If I had to meld with Mr. Burns for the last 30-plus years, I think I would be a different person, you know?”

The spiky-haired second-grader is the kind, inquisitive, sometimes lonely, and very often underappreciated conscience of The Simpsons. Over the course of several decades, Lisa has become a symbol of progressivism, a feminist role model, an example for kids who believe they don’t fit in, and a hero to anyone who can’t help but be angry at an unjust world. Much of that is thanks to the woman who’s brought Lisa to life. “Some people say, ‘Oh, that’s just your voice, you just talk like that,’ which is not true at all,” says Simpsons executive producer Matt Selman. “Is it similar? Yes. But Yeardley can find her inner Lisa with such emotional clarity, and realism, and humor, which she shifts from when she inhabits the character. Having this sensitive, smart little kid who feels the wounds of the world—it’s really one of the reasons the show has been able to go on for as long as it has.”

By now, the 58-year-old Smith knows that she and Lisa Simpson are inseparable from each other. And she takes that very seriously. “It is more than, ‘Yes, I get to talk like this,’” she says, briefly getting into character. “There’s so much gravity to what people take away from this creation.”

With the 34th season of The Simpsons set to premiere on Sunday, Smith’s legacy is secure. “I am the voice of Lisa Simpson,” she says. “Everything that that implies, everything that that statement encapsulates.” But no actor goes to Hollywood dreaming of playing the same character for 35 years, let alone an animated one. Even after landing what became her signature role, Smith didn’t see herself as a success. Only gradually did she come to fully embrace her inner Lisa, an identity that’s made her a beloved icon.

“I had such a specific path for how I was going to rule the world—for what my success as an actor was going to look like,” Smith says. “Voice-over was so never a part of that. For years and years and years, it just didn’t count. It wasn’t that, ‘Oh, I hate being Lisa Simpson. Oh, I don’t like this job.’ It just felt like not enough. … That’s on me. I was really attached to an outcome, and missed so much of the journey.”

After more than 700 episodes into The Simpsons, a series first sold into syndication in 1993 and now available to stream on Disney+, it’s safe to say that Yeardley Smith’s voice is one of the most recognizable on earth. As a kid, though, she was teased “relentlessly” about that voice. “I never thought it could be an asset,” Smith says. (Vocal specialists have told her that her eternally childlike voice is the product of “a lot of resonance in [my] nasal cavity.”)

If Lisa Simpson existed in real life, she might have parents like Smith’s. Her late father, Harvard graduate J.Y. Smith, was a journalist known for shepherding a world-class obituaries page at The Washington Post. Her mother, Martha, attended Radcliffe College and was a curator and conservator at museums such as the Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery. “They’re massively intellectual, and studious,” says Smith, who grew up in Foxhall Village, a D.C. neighborhood bordering Georgetown. “So yes, they would have produced a child like Lisa Simpson, not a child like me. Who was not studious.”

Her first time on stage was in the sixth grade, when she played Dagmar in I Remember Mama. “I remember the first line out of my mouth—I can’t remember what the line was—getting a huge laugh,” she says, and, “realizing, ‘Oh, that’s a thing.’”

As a teenager, Smith performed in dinner theater shows to tiny crowds. But she liked to act. Three days after graduating from high school in 1982, she landed a role in a comedy revue at the local New Playwrights’ Theatre. Critics didn’t like the musical, but to Smith’s surprise, they singled her out. “I got these extraordinary reviews,” she says. “Like your mother would write.”

This led to work at Arena Stage, a Washington, D.C., regional theater with a long list of famous alumni. Smith says that her performance in comedian Lewis Black’s play Hitchin’ at a theater festival at Kenyon College helped her get an agent, which motivated her to move to New York. One of her first Broadway auditions was for director Mike Nichols’s production of The Real Thing, a Tom Stoppard play that happened to star Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons.

“What they didn’t tell me was, I was actually auditioning for the understudy,” she says. “Because Cynthia Nixon already had the part. Which was smart. Because when they did tell me, I was like, ‘Fuck you, I’m not doing that.’ They were like, ‘Oh, yes you are. What is wrong with you? Who do you think you are?’” She also didn’t realize that understudies are typically fill-ins, not successors. “Maybe it’s more common now, but back then, never, never, never,” she says. But sure enough, when Nixon left to be in Nichols’s Hurlyburly, Smith took over for her. “Again,” she makes sure to add, “another massive break.”

Soon, movie and television casting directors started calling. Smith appeared in her first film in 1985, the Catholic-school-set period piece Heaven Help Us—with Donald Sutherland, John Heard, Andrew McCarthy, Patrick Dempsey, and Mary Stuart Masterson. “Everyone was in it,” Smith says, “and me.” That year, she also played one of the title character’s friends in The Legend of Billie Jean, a now cult classic about a teenager who accidentally becomes a folk hero. “Which I still get recognized for,” she says, “all the fucking time.”

Smith also recalls being summoned to a giant office in Manhattan in the mid-’80s to read for producer Dino De Laurentiis and Stephen King, who were teaming up to make the horror author’s directorial debut: Maximum Overdrive. Smith played Connie, a newlywed with a nonspecific Southern accent. (“They weren’t going to spend money on a dialect coach,” she says.) Filming the horror-comedy—about a comet turning machines into sentient killers—in Wilmington, North Carolina, in late summer, was miserable. “It was,” she says, “so fucking hot.”

King spent the infamously messy shoot, in his words, “coked out of [his] mind.” For one scene, Smith remembers being asked to stand dangerously close to where a Cadillac was supposed to crash into a wall. “They say, ‘It’s not going to be fast. It’s going to look fast on film, but it’s not that fast. But don’t move until we say, because we [have] one shot,’” Smith says. Her fears, it turned out, were warranted. “That fucking car comes so fast through that wall, oh my God,” she says. “I’m a recovering people pleaser. I am so dedicated. I don’t move until they say move. But it was terrifying.”

Needless to say, Maximum Overdrive bombed when it hit theaters in the summer of 1986. By then, Smith had moved to L.A. But to her disappointment, no one in Hollywood was offering her anything resembling a dream role. When she auditioned to play a character in cartoonist Matt Groening’s animated shorts on Fox’s Tracey Ullman Show, she thought it was just another gig.

“Speaking as an actor, the probability of anything you do going on to have any success whatsoever is so small,” Smith says. “I didn’t have a voice-over agent. I just had a theatrical agent. I was like, ‘Voice-over? I don’t give a shit about voice-over.’ I had a plan, and this was not part of it.”

Unbeknownst to Smith, Simpsons casting director Bonita Pietila knew her from her performance in Livin’ on Salvation Street at L.A.’s Fountain Theatre. “I played a girl from the South, who sang Elvis Presley songs, and wanted to join the Army,” Smith says. “Nothing like Lisa Simpson.” Still, Pietila liked what she saw—and heard.

“Seventeen people saw that play,” Smith says. “One of them—because I got really good reviews—was Bonnie Pietila, who a year later said, ‘I know who should play Lisa Simpson.’”

At first, Smith read for Bart and Nancy Cartwright read for Lisa. Then they switched—and both got cast in the roles that they’re still playing today. “Our voices don’t change,” Smith reminds me. “How many Barts would we have been through, if we had an actual 10-year-old boy? I mean, fuck that.”

The Simpsons shorts debuted during the April 19, 1987, episode of The Tracey Ullman Show. At the outset, Groening’s creation didn’t seem destined for immortality. “We were in a makeshift sound booth, behind the audience bleachers of The Tracey Ullman Show, which wasn’t really soundproof at all,” Smith says. “Matt Groening was writing all the scripts, and running in late every time.”

The interstitials may have been crudely animated, but viewers loved their blend of irreverence and heart. It didn’t take long for the cartoon family to overshadow the other sketches on Tracey Ullman. The overwhelming audience response to The Simpsons led Fox to give Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon the green light to develop it as a sitcom, a bold move considering that the last smash-hit prime-time animated show before that had been The Flintstones. The series premiered on December 17, 1989, with the Christmas special “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.”

Moving to a half-hour format allowed the writers to flesh out the characters. Lisa, who in the shorts mainly served as Bart’s foil, was blessed with her erudite personality. While making the first season, Brooks—a dramatic comedy guru—suggested an idea for an episode about Lisa being sad. “Matt Groening apparently said, ‘You can’t do that. It’s a cartoon. This is a comedy,’” Smith says. “Jim Brooks was like, ‘We’re doing it.’” Unlike most cartoon characters, the Simpsons were unmistakably human. From the start, that’s what separated the show from other sitcoms—animated and live action.

In “Moaning Lisa,” jazzman Bleeding Gums Murphy encourages her to express her pain by playing her sax. Longtime executive producer Al Jean, who wrote the script with Mike Reiss, recalls watching Smith at the episode’s read-through. “I just thought, ‘Oh my God, this actress is not good, but great, fantastic,’” he says. “Just taking every emotion and really bringing it home [and it’s] funny.’ So that was probably the first time I became truly aware of the power of her performance.”

Early Lisa-centric Simpsons installments tended to be emotional and bittersweet, none more so than Season 2’s “Lisa’s Substitute,” in which Dustin Hoffman (credited aptly as Sam Etic) guest starred as Mr. Bergstrom, a substitute teacher who understands Lisa better than her father. As he’s leaving Springfield, Mr. Bergstrom gives his crestfallen mentee a note reminding her that while she may sometimes feel lonely and unseen, she’s special. It reads, “You are Lisa Simpson.”

“Those tears that you hear in that episode when he leaves? I was bawling,” says Smith, who recorded her lines with the Academy Award–winning actor in New York. “I was bawling.” The episode proved to Smith—and the audience—that Lisa had “become this fleshed-out little person.”

Smith was proud to be Lisa. But even as The Simpsons took off, even after she received an Emmy Award for her performance in 1992, she was still convinced that voice acting just didn’t count. Piling up TV and movie credits—regular spots on sitcoms like Herman’s Head and Dharma & Greg and small parts in City Slickers and As Good As It Gets—did nothing to change her mind. By the time she was nursing an eye infection on the set of the 1996 holiday Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Jingle All the Way, Smith felt like her career was tanking. “My character’s name was Fur Coat Lady,” she tells me drolly.

Live-action acting opportunities had dwindled. Smith stopped getting TV pilot offers. “Things were not going well,” she says. “Thank god for The Simpsons.”

Smith began to confront her feelings of inadequacy publicly. In her 2004 autobiographical play, More, Smith addressed her bulimia, her distant relationship with her parents, her rocky romantic life, and the perilous amount of fame that can come with voicing a beloved character. During the one-woman show, which Smith staged in New York and L.A., she performed alongside a cardboard cutout of Lisa. It was her way of proudly acknowledging that the two were indeed inseparable. Lisa wouldn’t be the same without Yeardley, and vice versa.

Around that time, Smith also started to fully grasp how dedicated and supportive Simpsons obsessives really were. “People actually cared who was behind The Simpsons at that point,” she says. “The fan base was so devoted. … It’s not just, ‘Lisa Simpson sounds like this.’ It is whatever those unnamable qualities that each actor brings to their character.”

When Smith meets fans, she does her best to match their enthusiasm, even if they mistake her for the voice of Bart Simpson. “I feel like part of my job is to make sure that you have as close to the experience you have been rehearsing in your head for the last five minutes as we can get,” she says. “That, for me, is to draw you out, and to find out: What is it that you need to tell me? You can get there in any number of ways. ‘What’s your favorite episode? How long have you been watching The Simpsons?’”

Occasionally, strangers get so excited to meet Lisa Simpson that they forget that Smith is a real person—with real physical boundaries. “Really, 99 percent of my fan encounters are lovely, even if they’re sweetly awkward,” she says. “I do happen to play characters, where people feel. They just hug me, like while I’m picking out lettuce. Which is weird.”

Naturally, Smith is protective of her animated counterpart. In 2018, when Senator Ted Cruz attempted to mock the character by saying, “The Democrats are the party of Lisa Simpson and Republicans are happily the party of Homer, Bart, Maggie, and Marge,” Smith got mad. What the Texas lawmaker didn’t realize was that messing with Lisa meant messing with Smith. “Oh, no, no,” she says as her voice rises and speeds up. “You will not, you cannot, do not mess with my girl. Do not do it.”

In 2022, 34 seasons in, it’s a challenge for the Simpsons creative staff to find places to take the characters where they haven’t been before. When it comes to writing for Lisa, who’s carried a heavy burden as the show’s 8-year-old moral center, the writers have tried to let her be a kid again. “She likes Itchy & Scratchy, she’s petty, she can be immature,” Selman says. “If it’s me, it’s fun to write Lisa as a flawed character, a flawed kid, like any kid. You can go a lot of different ways. Sometimes she is written like a 34-year-old graduate student and that’s OK.”

Season 27’s “Halloween of Horror,” where Lisa develops a serious fear of the holiday’s scary imagery, and Season 31’s “The Hateful Eight-Year-Olds,” where Lisa befriends a rich girl and ends up getting bullied by the new pal’s clique, are examples of episodes that focus on the second-grader dealing with problems that real kids face. Right now, there’s an episode in production about a (non-pandemic) lockdown that causes Lisa anxiety.

“To me it’s like finding corners of smart, realistic, little sensitive kid-ness that are interesting to explore,” Selman says. “Does the character change? No, hopefully not. The character’s still the character. But people just say, ‘You should do a show where Lisa becomes Greta Thunberg.’ I’m like, ‘Well, yeah, what’s funny about that? She just goes and says sad, true things?’”

Plus, as any Simpsons fan will tell you, Lisa’s already done that. Many times.

These days, Smith’s schedule is, as it’s been for decades, packed with recording sessions—and not just for The Simpsons. She also cohosts the true-crime podcast Small Town Dicks, which is about to enter its 11th season. At first, hearing the voice of Lisa Simpson narrate a series filled with grisly details of murders and assaults is jarring. But after a few minutes you realize it’s Smith, not 8-year-old Lisa Simpson, gently guiding you through the beats of each case. “I wanted it to be like This American Life,” she says of Ira Glass’s famed NPR show, which has amassed more episodes than The Simpsons. “I wanted it to be super clean, highly curated. Not a lot of cross talk.”

Like the majority of Americans, Smith has spent the past few years adjusting to new routines. Because of COVID-19, Simpsons episode read-throughs are now done over video instead of around a table. Internet connection delays, distractions, and mix-ups make a virtual meeting a difficult place to workshop jokes. “Zoom is a fucking comedy killer,” Smith says. “It’s the absolute worst. We’re better at it now, but it’s just got to be absolute agony for the writer whose name is on that script, going, ‘Fuck, is it landing? Is it landing?’”

“If something gets a laugh, it drops out the next two lines,” says Jean. “People actually have made phone calls by mistake during the Zoom reads. We had an actor who had the wrong script and we had to wait for him to find the right one on his computer.”

About seven months after the country locked down in 2020, the cast of The Simpsons began to record in person again. But Smith says that she, Dan Castellaneta (Homer), Julie Kavner (Marge), and Cartwright still aren’t assembling in the studio as a family. “We’ve been doing it so long, and we’re such a well-oiled machine, I can do [Zoom],” Smith says. “But it’s never my preference. Because in the room, when we’re all together, I stand between Nancy and Dan. It’s such a great place to be. It’s such a great seat. But the way Dan says a line, of course, is going to affect every way that Lisa Simpson answers the line. So while I can come up with four variations of how I’m going to say this line for our writers, directors, and animators on my own, I feel like it’s never as good as what you get in the moment.”

Every so often, Smith admits, being Lisa Simpson can be a drag. “I think everybody has days where you wake up and you just don’t want to go to work,” she says. One of those days was back in 2014, when Fox was planning the dedication of a mural in Springfield, Oregon, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the show. Jean was supposed to attend the ceremony in Groening’s home state, but he had to back out to help prepare for the Simpsons musical celebration at the Hollywood Bowl. Fox then asked Smith to go. She initially refused. “There was no reason,” she says. “Sometimes you just don’t want to go. Sometimes you don’t want to get on a plane and go to a small town.”

And sometimes fighting the urge to say no ends up being a good decision. Just as Smith was destined to rise from the obscurity of being Cynthia Nixon’s understudy, just as she was destined to shine in a bit part in animated interstitials on a fledgling network variety show—she was apparently meant to be in Springfield, Oregon, on that day. Smith eventually agreed to go when she was assured there would be security. The plain-clothes officer assigned to protect her that day was local detective Dan Grice. The two quickly hit it off. Soon, they began dating. In 2017, they launched Small Town Dicks. Smith and Grice got engaged in 2018, and this June they were married at their L.A. home. As hokey as it sounds, it’s yet another example of Lisa helping bring good things into Yeardley Smith’s life.

After years of walling off her cartoon alter ego, she’s as connected to Lisa as she’s ever been. They’ll likely always be inseparable, even after The Simpsons finally goes off the air—whenever that is. She sees that not as a burden, but a gift. “My privilege that I have [is] to imbue her with heart,” Smith says, “with some of whatever that is that lives inside of me.”

Smith has been diligent in keeping most of her Simpsons stuff in a guest bedroom. Beyond the collection of animation cels and a Lisa Funko Pop on a desk in her living room, there’s not much in plain sight to give away that she’s one of the stars of the longest-running prime-time scripted show in American TV history. But there is one memento that follows her around. As she walks through her house, Smith holds a keychain featuring a miniature version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream—except the painting’s shrieking figure has been replaced by Lisa Simpson.

After all, wherever Yeardley goes, Lisa goes, too.

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