You’re in Edinburgh doing a show which is quite specifically nothing to do with The Simpsons – so how terrifying would a heckler have to be to get you to do Montgomery Burns?
Well, if one is responding to hecklers, one’s at the wrong show, I think. It hasn’t happened much, and when it has 99% of the time I’ve been in character, so I couldn’t really break and say something clever back. I just pretend not to hear it and barge on.
Your Edinburgh run starts with two preview shows at half-price – will there be proportionally less comedy?
No, just proportionally less professionalism. In the show I take aim at the east coast of America, while Judith, my wife, is an observer of the Californian version of much the same thing, basically: “what’s nutty about America?”. She’s funny when she’s not singing, and I’m very funny even when I am singing because I can’t sing very well.
Who’s the stupidest man in America?
The easy answer is George W Bush because [does brilliant Bush impersonation] he’s not all that good with words. But his opposition has feasted for six years on poking fun at his stupidity – and meanwhile some very smart men around him have done some very dangerous things.
Are you the only Yank who thinks that maybe his country sucks?
Ha ha! No, I think an awful lot of us have been beguiling ourselves at cocktail parties with stories about how dumb this guy is. Meanwhile, he’s cleverly manoeuvred us into one, two, maybe three wars.
So if it’s not “The Land Of The Free And The Home Of The Brave”…
How about, “The Land Of The Upwardly Mobile And The Home Of Please Don’t Hit My Car”? You know, one of the things you can’t ignore about America is the fact that it ignores the rest of the world. It really does behave for 99% of the time as if it’s the only country that exists!
We love the stat that says 90% of Yanks don’t own a passport…
Oh yeah. Just ask Americans to look at a blank map of the US and put in the States where they belong. About 50% of high school students didn’t know how to find Mississippi. I mean, just look for the water!
Ha ha! So come on – which band was Spinal Tap based on?
It wasn’t one single band – it was sort of a melange. I took a little bit of my character Derek Smalls’ look from Lemmy, and some of my stage behaviour from the bassist in Saxon.
Er, incredibly, we know that that would be the legendary Steve “Dobby” Dawson…
Wow! You know your metal. I went on tour – well, more of a tour-lette – with them before filming, just to study the bass player. I went to Birmingham, Manchester and learned to play open strings whenever you can so that you can have your left fist up in the air as often as is humanly possible.
Did Spinal Tap help you get laid?
When we did tours there were plenty of groupies, but the bad news is it took until then to figure out that you attract girls based upon the songs you write. They take clues and cues from the titles of your songs. Unfortunately, the one we were trapped with was Big Bottom.
So you can honestly say you never shagged a Tap groupie?
Yes, I can say that.
And any regrets about that now?
I’m only regretting it because it would make for a better story with you!
The Spinal Tap film was a cracking parody, but did you ever have real rock star tiffs when you went on tour for real after the movie was released?
I do remember one night when we all trooped off to the tour bus and Michael [McKean – Tap frontman David St Hubbins] and I had a fight about who got to sit where on the bus. We didn’t talk for three days.
It’s now 22 years since the film came out – when a Tap fan comes up to you and spouts some dialogue, are you impressed or do you want to hurt him?
I don’t want to hurt him: I’m more abashed than impressed because of the impending disappointment when he realises I’ve only the faintest clue what he’s talking about. Which also happens with Simpsons fans.
Ever go, “Bugger – was that a Simpsons reference or was it the ’Tap?”
I can pretty much judge by context. It’s like figuring out a foreign language by judging the hand signals.
So come on – do you wish you’d bagged Homer?
Honestly – no. For reasons I really can’t go into right here.
Aha! Here we go: you’re famously outspoken about Fox TV’s billion-dollar, Springfield-based empire…
Yeah – not any more.
Okay. So do you think the best has yet to come, or is it long gone?
Yes – my answer to your question is yes.
Yeah, excellent. That was my goal.
Do you feel free to talk about The Simpsons, or do you feel the weight of the mighty Fox corporation on your shoulder?
A bit of both.
So which of your characters would you most like to see the back of? Burns? Smithers? Ned Flanders?
Probably Otto, because he’s the most vocally demanding. You know, all these voices were invented sort of on a lark, on a whim, never thinking, “Oh Christ, I’m going to have to do this voice for 18 years.” So Otto takes its toll, and if I could do it again I would recalibrate how he sounds to make him easier on the throat.
How’s the pay thing work? Are you paid more per line for Montgomery Burns than a line from, say, McBain?
Well, we’re not actually paid per voice. Everybody who plays a character is paid the same, no matter how many voices they do.
And does it rankle when salaries like $100,000 per show get aired in the press?
Well, you know, one has to put it in context: everybody in showbusiness is obscenely overpaid. Compared to other stars on other hit television shows, I would say we’re not being obscenely overpaid. To put it mildly. You know, just look at Simon Cowell, who is getting $36million a year to do American Idol. And he only does one voice, as far as I’m aware.
That of the twattish British fellow.
Which I think comes naturally to him.
So are your Simpsons characters an albatross around your neck?
No, they’re not albatrosses. I have a certain affection for these guys – they’ve made me some money – and as comic characters, they’ve had a lot more potential than many other comic characters would, so you sort of have a grudging admiration.
Did you enjoy the series of “live” Simpsons shows you and the cast did a few years ago?
Yeah, it was pretty amazing. Fox had not always been delighted with the idea of people knowing there were actors doing the voices, to put it mildly. It was a great coming-out party for us.
A coup for the talent?
Yeah, yeah. The network thought it would be a delightful idea to have the audience think that these were real cartoon characters! Whatever that means.
Has there ever been a Simpsons voice that has “popped out” during sex?
Ha ha! No, no. They’re very good. They only come when bidden.
When was the last time you had a day that was utterly bereft of comedy?
Hmm, interesting question. There’s a lot of days when I don’t hang around with funny people or do anything particularly funny. It’s not as uncommon as it might seem.
Finally, can you tell us something that would shock or scare us about The Simpsons?
I could tell you many things about The Simpsons that would scare you, but I’m not allowed to. Something that would surprise you… well, none of the cast have their own parking spaces. That’s surprising.
Original interview by Mike Peake in the September 2008 issue of FHM UK magazine