The voice on the other end of the phone cackles. It might be the most famous laugh in all of television — if not pop culture — history. Young. Mischievous. Utterly Bart.
"This is awesome," he says. "We kick butt. The Simpsons rock. Go Springfield!"
This is how Bart Simpson might review the great TV show's leap to the big screen, debuting this weekend after years of speculation and mystery.
But the voice behind Bart, vocal artist extraordinaire and Ohio native Nancy Cartwright, lets me in on a little secret: Neither she nor Bart has even seen the film yet.
But Cartwright at least has read the script, unlike Bart, who not surprisingly would rather watch a Krusty re-run than complete his assigned reading. And after months of recording and re-recording, Cartwright promises The Simpsons movie will not disappoint. The reason, she says in a recent phone interview, is because the creative masterminds behind the series are all behind it and, as longtime fans can attest, they are nothing if not slaves to detail.
"Recording the film from the get-go was more demanding than the TV show," Cartwright says. "There had been lots of rewrites all along. And it got to be less and less as time went on. At the end there, I was going in to do two lines. Or go in to correct one word. They were that specific."
It's that level of scrutiny that on another film set might be cause for concern or pessimistic industry speculation. But for The Simpsons, that's par for the course. They're going to write and record until they get it right, until the humor is nailed to perfection. Cartwright says it's been like that from day one. And who can argue with the results?
The Simpsons is the longest-running sitcom in television history. After 18 seasons, it's still watched by more than 10 million viewers each week. It has been credited with almost single-handedly launching the Fox network. To be hired on the writing staff is the equivalent of being inducted in the comedy-writing hall of fame. Its guest star list reads like a Who's Who in entertainment, politics and sports.
Oh, and Time magazine named The Simpsons the 20th century's best television series.
For that unheard of longevity and consistency, Cartwright says full credit must be given to the show's leadership.
"Early on, (executive producer) Jim Brooks and (creator) Matt Groening set a standard that I believe they have maintained all these years," she says. "And I think that's crucial, when you have that kind of leadership at the top who realize what they have here is something not only unusual but has the potential to create an effect, if you will, planetary wide."
And while Homer — as the dumb, American everyman/dad — might have slowly taken over as the face of the program in recent seasons, it was undoubtedly Bart and Cartwright's performance that first hooked masses, so many years ago. The T-shirts. The catchphrases. The Bart-mania.
For Cartwright, it's been nothing short of a dream come true. Raised in Kettering, Ohio, she was awarded a scholarship for her work on the speech team at Fairmount High School to get to Ohio University. And she used her hard work there to springboard her to the West Coast, where a friendship with voice-artist legend Daws Butler encouraged her to stick with the unorthodox performance career.
And so, after stints on Richie Rich and My Little Pony cartoons, she landed an audition for a recurring animated short on the Tracey Ullman Show called The Simpsons. It was probably all for the best when the role of Lisa that she originally auditioned for was cast and she got to read for Bart instead.
More than 20 years and an Emmy award later, Cartwright admits she might have the greatest job in show business.
"The Simpsons have provided me so much freedom," she says. "And that dovetails into all the other things I get to do because I get paid such an extraordinary amount of money to be able to be on this record-breaking, Guinness Book of World Records, all-time icon. And very few people recognize me, so I have a lot of freedom to do other things. I cherish that. That is so valuable."
Those other things include voice work for various other animated programs, like The Rugrats and Kim Possible, as well as untold hours of charitable work for causes near and dear to her heart. Everyone, she says, has a certain amount of influence. Whether you're going to take that and utilize it to do good things is the question. Isn't it deliciously ironic that that woman who gives voice to one of fiction's greatest troublemakers is in fact a consummate do-gooder?
"I really have immersed myself in my community, holding fund-raising events for at-risk youth near my neighborhood," Cartwright says. "I find such joy in getting to go in and help that way, and use my celebrity status to do that."
While the world will always have Bart — through syndication of the show, video games and now film — one wonders how long Cartwright will have him to give voice to. Simpsons fan sites are abuzz with speculation that this jump to the big screen is a harbinger for the show's demise. But Cartwright thinks the opposite is true.
She says that while the process of recording the film while still recording the show had its challenges, ultimately the cast and crew showed they could make it work. And for her part, she doesn't think it's time to say goodbye to Bart at all.
"Nobody wants it to end," she says. "If you look at it, George O'Hanlon, who was the voice of George Jetson, he went into his eighties still doing George Jetson for crying out loud! Daws Butler, Mel Blanc were into their seventies doing Huckleberry Hound and Bugs Bunny and Elroy Jetson. You know what? I am so not close to 70 years old. I still got at least 25 years left." ©