“The Simpsons” fans might notice at least one long-running character sounds a little different in Sunday’s Season 32 premiere.
In the episode, Carl Carlson — Homer Simpson’s nuclear plant co-worker, and best friend to Lenny Leonard — is now voiced by actor Alex Désert (“Better Things”). Désert replaces Hank Azaria in the role, at least for that episode.
The switch comes as “The Simpsons” producers confirmed earlier this summer that it would no longer have white actors voice non-white characters. Azaria had voiced Carl, who is Black, since the beginning of the show (except for Carl’s first appearance, in the Season 1 episode “Homer’s Night Out,” where he was voiced by Harry Shearer).
It’s unclear whether Désert is Carl’s permanent voice, and if he’ll be voicing other characters as well. Among other recurring characters the edict might impact include Dr. Julius Hibbert, who is seen in the episode, but doesn’t speak.
Désert also voices Swarm on Disney XD’s “Spider-Man: Maximum Venom” and Mr. Bojenkins on Adult Swim’s “Mr. Pickles” and its spinoff, “Momma Named Me Sheriff.” His TV credits also include “The Flash” (both the 1990 and current versions), “Becker” (where he was a regular) and “Better Call Saul.” In film, he appeared in “Freaky Friday,” “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” “High Fidelity” and “Swingers,” among others. He’s also known as a lead singer in the ska band Hepcat.
In the season premiere, “Undercover Burns,” Mr. Burns goes undercover as “Fred” (voiced by David Harbour) at the nuclear power plant, in order to see what Homer and his co-workers — including Carl — really think of him. But when they befriend “Fred,” Burns enjoys the attention and starts improving the plant’s amenities, to the chagrin of Smithers.
“The Simpsons” decision to make sure characters of color are voiced by performers of color came after a long-simmering conversation about white washing in animation. At the center of that controversy was “The Simpsons” character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who had also been voiced by Azaria.
As addressed by the documentary “The Problem with Apu,” the character, and its stereotype of a South Asian man, has long had a negative impact on that community. “I know Apu is one of the smartest characters on ‘The Simpsons’ — granted the bar isn’t very high — but it’s not why people liked him. They just liked his accent,” filmmaker Hari Kondabolu said in the documentary.
“The Simpsons” had already started to make an effort in recent years to cast more actors of the same ethnicity as their characters. Kevin Michael Richardson (“The Cleveland Show”), is now a regular, and often voices Black male characters on the show.
Azaria, meanwhile, revealed in January that he would no longer voice Apu.
Other shows have also been criticized for casting white actors to play characters of color, including Mike Henry, who created and voices Cleveland Brown, an African-American character on Fox’s “Family Guy” (and the four-season spinoff “The Cleveland Show”); Alison Brie as Diane Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American writer, on Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman”; and Kristen Bell as Molly on Apple TV Plus’ “Central Park.”
In June, as the conversation about representation on TV extended to animation, Henry said he would no longer voice Cleveland, while Bell also stepped down from the character on “Central Park” and Jenny Slate said she wouldn’t continue to play Missy on Netflix’s “Big Mouth.” (“BoJack Horseman” has already ended its run.) Emily Raver-Lampman will now play Molly in Season 2 of “Central Park,” while Ayo Edebiri has been tapped to voice Missy moving forward on “Big Mouth.”