Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: Waylon Smithers was originally going to be black with a wife and kids.
After a lot of back and forth, Harry Sheare ultimately decided to return to “The Simpsons” for two more seasons. I figured it would be nice to spotlight a legend about one of the many, many Simpsons characters that Shearer does the voice for on the show, namely Waylon Smithers, Montgomery Burns’ sycophantic second-in-command at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Smithers has been a constant presence on the series since early in the show’s first season.
However, did the show nearly go in two very different directions with the characters? Smithers first appeared as an African-American in an early episode of the series. Was that originally the plan for Smithers? And did he almost have a wife and kids? Read on to find out!
One thing that is abundently clear about the early days of “The Simpsons” is that Matt Groening and company were still very much thinking things out as the fleshed out the Simpsons universe beyond just the core family of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie. Nearly everything was on the table. I noted in a TV Legend some time ago that early on, Homer was even going to secretly be Krusty the Clown! So it wouldn’t be all that shocking if the writers originally conceived Smithers as an African-American character and changed him after his first appearance in the third episode of Season 1, “Homer’s Odyssey,” where he appeared as African-American.
However, Matt Groening says that that was never the intent. He told TMZ a while back:
He was always yellow, and they painted him wrong once. At the time we didn’t have enough to do retakes, so when there were glitches and mistakes it stayed that way. He was never “black”, it was an accident.
Early Simpsons animator David Silverman has confirmed as much, as well, stating that it was just a mistake of the color stylist for the episode, Gyorgi Peluci. The show briefly considered going with the mistake, but they felt that they didn’t like the idea of having an African-American character being so subservient to a rich white guy. So Smithers went back to his originally intended yellow for the fourth episode the series, “There’s No Disgrace Like Home.”
The wife and kids part, though, is true. You see, early on, the Simpsons writers tended to view Smithers’ romantic feelings for his boss, Mr. Burns, as a sort of mystery. In other words, was Smithers gay or was he attracted to just Mr. Burns and not men in general? Simpsons writer and producer Al Jean famously coined the phrase “Burns-sexual” to describe Smithers, noting that he believed that Smithers would be attracted to Mr. Burns if Burns were a woman. “Is he gay or not?” was a gag that the show worked for years, including a key reference in “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular,” where host Troy McClure answers viewer questions and one question was “What is the real deal with Mr. Burns’ assistant Smithers? You know what I’m talking about.” After a series of clips showing Smithers’ infatuation with Burns, McClure sums it up, “as you can see, the real deal with Waylon Smithers is that he’s Mr. Burns’ assistant. He’s in his early forties, is unmarried, and currently resides in Springfield. Thanks for writing!” Eventually the show established that Smithers was, indeed, gay.
However, early in the series’ run, Smithers had a wife and kids, and they disappeared for the same reason that Eric Cartman on “South Park” lost his father and sister (as established in this old TV Legends Revealed), namely that a line was cut due to time. In the season finale to season 2 of “The Simpsons,” Mr. Burns needs a blood transufsion and as it turns out, only Bart Simpson has a matching blood type. When Smithers first hears that Burns needs a blood transfusion (before he learns of Burns’ rare blood type), he tells the doctors to take it from him, “Just leave me enough to get home.” Originally, the line was “Just leave me enough to get home to my wife and kids,” but the last part was cut for time. By this point in time, Smithers was already clearly infatuated with Burns, but it would have still been interesting to see where they were planning to go with that line of writing, but since it was cut for time, Smithers remained a confirmed bachelor.
So this is a rare example where the answer regarding the legend is split, and thus it is…
STATUS: False on the African-American half of the legend and True on the wife and kids half of the legend.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.