The Simpsons kicked off its historic 32nd season this past weekend – basically every new season is an historic one at this point – and the big premiere episode featured a guest star that has become one of Hollywood's most fan-friendly actors: Stranger Things star David Harbour. Titled "Undercover Burns," the installment utilized Harbour's vocal talents in quite a unique way, where he played Mr. Burns attempting to adapt a new personality around the power plant. And as it turns out, he landed the role thanks to one Simpsons writer's longtime fandom.
CinemaBlend recently spoke with The Simpsons scribe and F Is for Family creator Michael Price, and he told me how he basically spearheaded the oft-mustachioed David Harbour for his big Simpsons debut, from the initial ask to the recording itself. Here's how he explained getting in contact with Harbour in the first place, which involves a pretty amazing anecdote about Ian McShane.
"I always was a big fan of his work, even before Stranger Things. I have a weird obsession with actors and even going back when I was a kid, I'd watch TV shows and I'd learn the names of all the actors on all of them, even on shows like The Munsters or whatever. [Laughs.] And everyone looked at me like I was a weirdo. But anyway, I knew about David Harper, and then suddenly, he was on Stranger Things, and he was huge. So I was at a Netflix party, an Emmys party, like a year or two ago, and he was there. I talked to my wife and said, 'That's that guy. David Harbour. I'm crazy about him.' So I walked up and said, 'Hi, how are you? Blah blah.' He's like, 'Oh, you know.' And I mentioned F Is for Family, but I said, "I'm a writer on The Simpsons,' and he was like, 'Oh, I love The Simpsons.' He told me a story about how he was, at the time, making the Hellboy movie with Ian McShane, and he said, 'Ian McShane loves The Simpsons. He goes around quoting Ralph Wiggum all the time.' And I said, 'Wow, that's amazing.' So anyway, so I said, 'We'd love to get you on the show sometime.' So he's like, 'Oh, that would be great.'"
Granted, not everyone on the planet is able to produce a platinum-studded conversation started like "I write for The Simpsons," but Michael Price's story is a good example of how fan encounters can produce some amazing and unexpected results. David Harbour also seems like the kind of benevolent celeb who might lend his voice to a random high school kid's stop-motion LEGO video if he didn't already have something to do that day, because he's awesome in that way. (Probably don't send him any of those requests, though.)
Seriously, though, how amazing would it be to just hear Ian McShane on the Hellboy set quoting Ralph Wiggum all day long? "I'm learnding my Trevor Bruttenholm lines right now!" Classic Ian McShane behavior that I only just found out about.
Michael Price continued his story about bringing David Harbour onto The Simpsons below.
"So then, we had the script that turned out to be our season premiere, and I had a hand in sort of a rewrite of that script. It was written by a freelance writer, but they let me kind of be one of the people running the rewrite. And it's a story about Mr. Burns, who wants to go undercover to find out what the workers are up to. So he goes very high-tech, and so they make kind of a Mission: Impossible kind of disguise for him, to the point where he's unrecognizable, and they add a voice chip to change his voice. So I believe I suggested what if we got David Harbour to do the voice of this guy who's called Fred. So they were like, 'Yeah, okay.' So they asked him, and he said yes. He was in London filming something, so I got to direct him via satellite from London; this was back in November of last year. And he was delightful! He was so funny. He's hilarious. He did this really funny version, because he's just kind of got a regular guy voice, but he's Mr. Burns. So he's saying Mr. Burns-y type things with this "regular guy from the docks" kind of voice. He sings a song. He did everything. He was really, really funny and really, really great."
That had to be a treat for Michael Price to be the one directing David Harbour's vocal performance for the episode. Assuming, of course, that he didn't make warlord-esque threats against his fellow Simpsons colleagues in order to make it so. I'm sure he's far too nice for that kind of behavior, but then I'm also sure working with the hilariously hot-headed Bill Burr on F Is for Family for four seasons (so far) has to rub off in some way.
True to Price's word, David Harbour's performance on The Simpsons was pretty great, and it was enjoyably weird to hear some of Mr. Burns' signature dialogue skills coming from a very different voice and face. It was, as one might say, ehhhxcellent. [Taps fingertips together.]
As it has done for many years in the past, The Simpsons airs Sunday nights on Fox at 8:00 p.m. ET. And don't forget to (eventually) check out David Harbour making his Marvel debut opposite Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow, which has been delayed until Spring 2021, as well as the return of Harbour's Hopper in Stranger Things' Season 4, which the actor has compared to the Indiana Jones franchise.