By: Paul Freeman [1994 Interview]

Yeardley Smith has been featured in two successful TV series simultaneously. Yet she is not a household name. Her face is well known, but her voice is even more so.

You may have seen her play the ingratiating Louise on the sitcom "Herman's Head." You've probably heard her on "The Simpsons." Smith provides the voice of Lisa, Bart's saxophone-playing sister.

The disarming Smith says that her participation in those series has boosted her career status, but not to the loftiest heights. "I've always been able to make a living," she says, "a pretty decent one. The progress has always been steady, if not spectacular. Now when I audition, I go up against people like Juliette Lewis and Joan Cusack, and, quite frankly, if the producers can get them, they're not going to take me. I'm still pretty much a medium potato."

"It's sort of frustrating. I've been at this for 12 years, and you'd think all the work means something. Well, not necessarily."

"Herman's Head" was a strong showcase for Smith's talents. Her role as Louise, Herman's sometimes vulnerable, sometimes acerbic coworker, drew empathetic response from viewers. Many in the audience liked that Louise, for many of the episodes, proudly clung to her virginity.

"I got a number of letters from people saying how refreshing it was to see someone on television who wasn't sleeping out of wedlock."

"The Simpsons" originated as brief segments on Tracey Ullman's Fox network series. "It was really an entirely different kind of family then," Smith says. "We were much meaner, much sharper, much uglier. As we went into our half-hour show and became more mainstream, we became a heck of a lot cuter."
Photo credit: FOX

It's Lisa Simpson's inner beauty that attracts Smith. "She's a good soul. I love that she is so compassionate. She is wise beyond her years. She has remarkable optimism, despite the fact that she's disappointed so often."

Smith recalls how she snared the role. "The woman who cast the show had seen me in a play, and she brought me in to read for Bart. I sounded way too much like a girl, so that was a bust. She said, 'Well, how about Lisa?' So I did Lisa, and she said, 'Yep, that's good.' It was the easiest job I've ever gotten."

The animated series has attracted -- and maintained -- an amazingly large and diverse audience. "Perhaps its voice is very timely. Despite what George Bush says," she says with a giggle, "the show, without being cloying, demonstrates a great appreciation for the family unit. Things don't always work out, but the family always hangs together. Also, the Simpsons deal with real problems: money, jobs, relatives.

"It grabs people on so many levels. Kids like it because it's visually funny and the colors are bright. Also, the kids identify with Bart. Grown-ups like it because it's so peppered with political and literary references. It's so current."

An episode takes eight months to animate. But the mouths of the characters can be changed up to two weeks before the show airs. That means topical quips can be inserted.

"The show is so incredibly layered," Smith explains. "Unless you read every book and newspaper under the sun and see every movie and television show, you won't get all the references."

Smith does worry about the show retaining its edge. "Over the years, the sensibility of the show has changed somewhat. We've become a little bit more cartoony. Doing things that real people can't do is, of course, an advantage of a cartoon. But I think that makes it less interesting.

"The great thing about the Simpsons is that they were more like real people than most of the people on television. Everything about the story line and the humor were character-driven. Now we often have a joke for the sake of a joke. I take exception to that, whether it's live-action or animation. But the show, I think, is still one of the best on TV."

[Smith has been featured in such films as “As Good As It Gets” and starred in the one-woman show “More.” Meanwhile, “The Simpsons” rolls on as pop culture juggernaut, having recently been renewed for its 23rd season.]