Friday, July 30, 2010

The Strange Case of Lunchlady Doris

Anyone who has watched The Simpsons with any interest has likely noticed that Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz no longer appear, not as speaking characters or even silent background extras. The show’s higher-ups retired both characters after their voice actor, Phil Hartman, was murdered by his wife in 1998. McClure and Hutz aren’t the only Simpsons characters to have their associated actor pass away, however. In 1995, longtime script supervisor and occasional voice actress Doris Grau died of respiratory failure, effectively ending the run of two cartoon characters to which she lent her trademark emphysemic voice, Doris the Hairdresser on The Critic and Lunchlady Doris on The Simpsons. Granted, it’s not as tragic an ending for Grau, whose death came as a result of the cigarettes that gave her the voice that made her famous, but it is nonetheless strange to me that The Simpsons initially retired and then ultimately brought back Lunchlady Doris despite the death of the person most strongly associated with the character.

Grau’s voice is heard for the last time in the 1997 Simpsons episode “Lisa’s Sax.” Then her on-screen counterpart appears as an unvoiced background character until 2006, when Lunchlady Doris speaks again in the episode “The Mook, the Chef, the Wife and Her Homer” but voiced by Tress MacNeille, the cartoon superstar who also voices Agnes Skinner, Cookie Kwan, Lindsay Naegle, Brandine Spuckler, the Crazy Cat Lady, Mom on Futurama, Gadget from Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers, Dot Warner on Animaniacs, Babs on Tiny Toons and ten-thousand other lady cartoon roles from your childhood. Amazing though MacNeille may be, it seems strange and comparatively insulting to Grau’s memory to have revived Lunchlady Doris — a character who is arguably more closely associated with the original voice actor’s real-life persona than McClure or Hutz are with Phil Hartman — and allow her to be voiced by someone else. But The Simpsons did it nonetheless. And when I watch the reruns, every appearance by Lunchlady Doris (whose full name appears to be Doris Freedman) or a Lunchlady Doris-sounding character only reminds me that the real, original Doris died long ago. Which is awkward. And not so funny.

So maybe retire the Lunchlady Doris character, Simpsons showrunners? Or at least stop making Tress MacNeille voice Lunchlady Doris and Lunchlady Doris-like characters?

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