Interview: Yeardley Smith Talks Broadway, Lisa Simpson, & SMALL TOWN DICKS

She also shares her favorite experiences with Simpsons guest stars.

By: Jan. 22, 2021
Interview: Yeardley Smith Talks Broadway, Lisa Simpson, & SMALL TOWN DICKS

Did you know Lisa Simpson got her start in the original Broadway cast of The Real Thing?

BroadwayWorld had the absolute pleasure of speaking to Yeardley Smith, the actress who has voiced Lisa for over thirty years. Yeardley also hosts the true crime podcast "Small Town Dicks."

In addition to "The Real Thing," her stage credits include "More," her one-woman show, and the 2009 off-Broadway production of "Love, Loss, and What I Wore."

Yeardley speaks about her love of theater, the things she loves most about Lisa Simpson, her favorite Simpsons guest stars, and the big questions that led her to the world of true crime podcasting.

Read the whole interview below!

I know you started on Broadway. Could you tell me a little about your experience on stage?

It's really my first love. I really started out on stage doing school plays - I actually started out on stage when I was like, five or six years old. There was a woman in my neighborhood and she would turn her one-car garage into a little theater. And she got all the kids in the neighborgood - of which there were many - and she would dress us up.

She had this basement full of so many costumes, and she also had eight kids herself. So she would dress us up. And then we would lip sync to music from The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the roof. And she would also do this living portrait series. I was in one called The Girl in the Straw Hat.

And I remember standing in this tiny - I mean, it's funny, it was probably five feet deep and however wide, a one car garage. Not big. And the actual stage did have a curtain, and then the kids would actually sit cross-legged on the floor, which was carpeted, around the garage, in front of the rope. And then the parents would stand behind the kids in the alley all the way back.

And I was The Girl in the Straw Hat. And I remember I literally remember the first time being so nervous that my knees were knocking. And and the curtains parted - this one little tiny little curtain. And I remember when that light hit my face that my knees stopped knocking.

There was just this kind of warmth and I thought, oh, I mean, in retrospect, you know, I like it out there. I feel some sort of connection to this set up to this situation.

And then really early on, right around that time, I thought, I want to be an actor and I never let it go.

So I was just one of those rare, rare weirdos who knew what they wanted to do for as long as I can remember. And then I had the great good fortune to be able to go out and do it.

I remember my first play was - I was 11 years old and we did I Remember Mama. And I played Dagmar, the youngest daughter, and I got a huge laugh. I was very funny when I was a kid. I had friends, but I was a floater. I didn't really belong to any particular social group - I wasn't smart enough to be a nerd, I wasn't athletic enough to be a jock, but I was kind of affable, even though I was shy.

So, theater was a place where I could really let loose. I could really be myself and I was given permission to. I was funny, I was very funny as a kid. That was kind of my armor, but I was shy.

So theater was wonderful. I loved it. I loved the camaraderie of it. I loved the nervousness of it. I mean, it wasn't that I felt like that was the place where I could thrive and where I belonged - I had terrible stage fright. So I had to learn to give myself these pep talks where I would just say, you can do this. You're so prepared. There's no backing out now. It wasn't any sort of extraordinary pep talk, just like - pull up your socks and get on with it! And it was a great adrenaline rush. It was great to connect with the audience. I really loved that.

And as I got older and started working professionally, I did theater at Arena Stage. I actually did a really lovely play by Lewis Black before he was the famous comedian. We did a production of a play called "Hitchin,'" and it was compared quite often to The Philadelphia Story. So there were certain aspects of it that were similar in structure. But I played the youngest daughter in that, and that was great fun. I just I really, really took to that scenario. And then when I was on Broadway, I started out understudying Cynthia Nixon. In The Real Thing.

Oh, wow!

Yeah. In the original The Real Thing with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close and Peter Gallagher and Christine Baranski - everybody was in it. Yeah. And of course, that year debuted on Broadway - in January 1984 - it won all the Tonys that year. Christine and Jeremy and Glenn all won Tony Awards. It was incredible. Cynthia had the original role as Jeremy's daughter, Debbie, and I was hired as the understudy, and then Mike Nichols, who directed that production, took Cynthia out of The Real Thing to put her in his next Broadway production, which was the original production of Hurlyburly.

So, I took over the role after only about two and a half months. And I was, of course, like, oh, yes, this is exactly according to plan! My plan for world domination is going perfectly.

And what I didn't know was understudies almost never take over the role, which is good they didn't tell me that, but it doesn't make so much sense to me. I thought, well, if you thought I was good enough for the understudy and then somebody left the show, why don't you think I was good enough to take over? But if you did, I mean, there are people who make their entire careers out of being really solid, fantastic, reliable understudies. Which I didn't know.

But anyway, I had the great good fortune to take over this part and do it with the original cast, which was a huge break for me.

I loved it. I did the show for about six months before I left to do a movie called The Legend of Billie Jean. And then I came back to do The Real Thing for a couple more months. Jeremy was back in the play in that fall of '84 because I believe his wife was there with the Royal Shakespeare Company, because they were doing some fancy production on Broadway. He was like, "I want to be on Broadway, let's bring the whole family over." But I did the changeover when Caroline Lagerfelt took over the role.

But what I learned in that process of doing theater - by working in what I would consider the pinnacle of excellence, which is Broadway, was that no matter how my day had gone, it had absolutely no bearing, no space on stage, for my performance. So, if I had had a fight with my boyfriend, if I had had terrible insomnia, I didn't get any sleep. No matter what, all that noise would need to be set aside in order to perform at the level that I was expected to perform and that I expected of myself.

Because the people sitting in those seats, by and large, had never seen the show before. And they paid whatever they paid at that time, like 60, 80 bucks or something, and they expected excellence. So again, it was pull up your socks and get on with it.

I think it was a lesson in maturity and a lot of pain and discipline that I felt dovetailed really well with my work ethic. I just don't think I had ever had to perform at that level for that amount of time before. And so it was, I remember, taking a lot. It was just a bit new to me.

That's a really beautiful answer. And it just makes me miss theater even more.

Yeah, it really does. Listen, I miss it out here in Los Angeles. There IS good theater out here, but there's a lot of what we call equity waiver, where equity basically blesses you at ninety nine seats in your theater. And I think that it just never happened. It's never gotten the foothold out here and it has on the East Coast and I've missed that a great deal.

In the past couple years of The Simpsons, you did an episode where Lisa brought her graphic novel, "Sad Girl," to Broadway. Lisa has also starred in an Evita parody and worked alongside guest star Stephen Sondheim. What is it like to marry your experience of playing Lisa with your experiences onstage?

It's amazing. In some ways, I feel like I hope it's not the closest I'll ever get to Broadway again. I would love to come back and be in a play on Broadway. And I'm in such a fortunate position where I could actually do that! You know, I'm not a big enough star where I think they would bring me to New York and put me up and do the whole thing. But I don't need them to. I would be so happy to come and play a supporting role. I am lucky enough to be able to, you know, support the infrastructure to be able to do that.

The other funny thing, though, is whatever they seemingly somehow whenever they put Lisa Simpson on stage in I'm way, I'm always singing. I'm like, why?! I'm not a singer, and even less of a singer as Lisa Simpson. I've always said I have a four note range with her, because with Lisa I'm speaking [as Lisa Simpson] up here, squeezing the throat, which is completely the opposite of what you're supposed to do when you're singing.

I have good pitch, but I do not have - you listen to people actually sing on Broadway and it's jaw-droppingly brilliant - as it should be! It is just - I mean, God, I am not in that league. Like, why are they doing that?

And I know I don't think I would ever come back in a musical unless I was playing somebody who doesn't certainly doesn't have the eleven o'clock number.

I did come back recently - I did Love, Loss, and What I Wore. And they would rotate women out of, in and out of that cast. There were four people on stage and that was wonderful. I loved it. It was so great to be back on stage. And an interesting format was basically all you do is break the fourth wall.

It's a monologue and a few little scenes where you would interact with your fellow actors. But yeah, it was amazing, again, to connect with the audience - and also, I was reminded once again of the discipline of theater because there would be performances where you didn't connect with the audience or the audience didn't give you the reaction that you're hoping for. And I would have to remind myself, "So f-king what?" It's great when you're all on the same page and you could feel them take the ride with you. But it's okay if they're being quieter than you expected.

And so I really appreciated and respected that level of discipline. Once again, it's just I would say theater separates the wheat from the chaff for everyone, not like in television and certainly not in film. I think anybody would agree that you can craft performances on film to a certain extent because the filmmaker has final say, and they show you what they want you to see at any given time. You can't do that with theater. Everybody's looking at the entire picture the entire time. Yeah. So there's nowhere to hide. And if you don't have that kind of stamina, you don't have the skill. If you don't have the concentration, all of the things that it takes to stay in the moment on that stage while you're in front of everybody. Maybe the audience is not looking at the person who's talking at this moment. Maybe they're looking at YOU, and can see what you're doing, or the other people on stage who aren't talking. I love it for that. You get on the train and you can't get off until it reaches the next station. And there's so much to love about it.

I'm happy you brought up singing as Lisa because, as many wonderful ways as that character has of expressing herself, I love every time you hear her sing. It tells you so much about who she is and who she wants to be. Every time she sings, I feel proud of her for expressing herself like that.

Oh, I love that. Yeah.

Do you have moments where you've been most proud of Lisa and have you ever maybe disagreed with the way that she has dealt with a situation?

Yes, actually. I have so many times where I'm proud of her. The first thing that comes to mind is the times where she and Bart - well, most of the time are fighting like siblings fight. But I love it when there's just the two of them. And if one of them is kind of absorbing the punches that the world is delivering, the other one will come to their aid, almost without fail, and express something tender and thoughtful and compassionate.

And I love it when Bart does it for Lisa in his own way. And I love it when Lisa does it for Bart, because she, of course, is so expressive in her compassion and her desire to say, I see you and I hear you. And he always gets kind of wriggly and uncomfortable, which I love. And she accepts that. And it can be a brief moment, but I think - I love two things about her. She is genuinely kind as a human, as a person, and she is incredibly resilient.

One of the jokes on the show is that at the beginning of an episode, they'll give Lisa something. And twenty two minutes later, they've taken it away.

And whether it was a thing, like a pony or an award, or a friend or an achievement, that kid has gone through so f-king much! And yet she comes out the other side.

Even if she has - she's certainly gotten her comeuppance in the almost seven hundred episodes that we've done. I love those moments, too. I love the moments where they take her out of her comfort zone and she has to figure out how to deal with that.

Because by and large, she's really good at everything. So it's great and funny and charming and real to take her out of it, put her in a situation where, for once, she doesn't really she doesn't nail it out of the gate. But that also speaks to her resilience and speaks to her optimism.

And then every once in a great while - I wouldn't say it happens a lot. It's not so much that they have Lisa do things that Lisa wouldn't do - but I will always say my piece if another character is really, really mean to Lisa and she doesn't have any recourse for that. If they don't give her an opportunity at some point to stand up for herself, then I get really upset. Like, that's my girl! You can't do that! I get very Mama Bear about it.

And I can remember years and years and years ago, we had an episode - I think it was Lisa's Pony, which I think season two or three, and she had a crush on a stable boy. And I was like, she's eight! I think that this expression of this admiration she has for this boy is too old, and too sexual. While she might and move rather seamlessly between being really precocious and having a much wiser-than-her-years take on the world, I draw the line at something like that.

I knew that you had started your career as an understudy on Broadway, but I didn't realize how fully stacked that original cast was and how you got to be the highlight of this already incredibly starry situation. And I feel like that dynamic is replicated a lot on The Simpsons, with the cast, and there's been so many amazing guest stars over the past 30+ years. Do you have a favorite memory of working with one of them?

Ricky Gervais was really, really fun. Lady Gaga was amazing. She actually came in and recorded with us. Nowadays, especially now with everything being digital, we don't need to be in person. If they can come in and record it, then they will. If they're available. If they're in town in Los Angeles, we love it. It's fantastic.

But it's sort of one of the great disappointments when - oh, I didn't get to meet Meryl Streep?! I really wanted to meet Meryl Streep, who came on years and years and years ago.

But also to that point, I was actually flown to New York to record with Dustin Hoffman for Lisa's Substitute. And that will just always be one of the best days of my career. He was just so gracious, and there was so much ad libbing, most of which, of course, didn't make it into the show because we're still only twenty-two minutes long. But it was a phenomenal experience. So immersive.

And James L. Brooks directed us, and I really felt like - this is as good as it gets. I'm really glad I did that with this one. Yeah. It was fantastic.

But when Lady Gaga came on board with us, she actually stood next to me! She was incredibly game and so gracious and funny. And that was a big deal.

Eric Idle - we've had him on several times and he's wonderfully funny and creative and lots of ad libbing.

I recently actually recorded a song with Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords. He was in New Zealand on Zoom, but he'd written music for this musical episode and that was amazing. I was so happy to meet him - I'm a huge fan of Flight of the Conchords.

We've had some we really, as you say, we've had some extraordinary guests.

One of the funny stories from years ago - we had U2 on the show. And they actually came to Los Angeles and they had come to the studio to record their speaking parts. And then we had written parody lyrics to one of their songs.

And I remember -we have a music director named Chris Ledesma who has perfect pitch. And he was directing Bono in singing his song, trying to tell Bono, basically, you're a little pitchy and you just pick it up half a step or something.

And finally, Bono, he's like, f-k it, I've had enough of this. And he turned around. And mooned us.

That'll do it.

Yeah. I mean, but it was great to meet Elizabeth Taylor when she came in years and years and years ago. And I remember she brought her little white dog. I don't know what kind of dog. Itty bitty Pomeranian, you know. And she had one of these huge diamonds that Richard Burton had given her in a ring. It was so big. It just looked like a chunky piece of glass.

And what was amazing because he's obviously so iconic, and fascinating to me. Michael Jackson, he was very shy. I remember he was wearing what he used to wear on stage at the time - he was wearing a fedora, and was very soft spoken and.

An incredible, incredible roster, huh?

Well, I wanted to build some good will before I shared this, but I actually have a tattoo from the Lisa's Substitute episode you mentioned before.

No way. Do you have 'You Are Sarah?'

I actually have a picture of Lisa with her little bow on right before she goes in to ask Mr. Bergstrom to come to dinner.

Oh, my God, I love that.

Interview: Yeardley Smith Talks Broadway, Lisa Simpson, & SMALL TOWN DICKS


Yeah, I mean, I feel like any episode where Lisa really learns something about herself kind of stays with me especially, but culturally, also. I was thinking about this lore of the show, that Paul McCartney agreed to do the episode where he played himself if Lisa agreed to stay a vegetarian until the end of the run of the show.

Yeah, that's right.

Did you get to record with him?

No!!! At the time they got to fly to Surrey, England, where Paul McCartney has - or at least, at the time, had - a farm. And he has a recording studio, of course, where they recorded his parts.

They were like, "Yeah, sorry. We're taking essential personnel to travel," but apparently that did not include me.

Thank you so much for talking to me about The Simpsons. Can I ask what drew you to the world of true crime podcasting recently?

Oh, yes. So have a podcast called "Small Town Dicks" with identical twin detectives. One of the detectives is actually now my fiancé.

And we have been dating for three years before we started this podcast. And it's a really great, funny, lovely story of how we met. And it was quite by accident. It was when he didn't live in California.

Everybody on there really uses their first names. And we change all the names of the victims and witnesses. The detective, Dan, lived in another state and I would go and visit him pretty much every other weekend, while he was still a cop and his brother gave three blocks away. So on the weekend when I would go, they would come over, they sit on the couch and they would just talk about their day or that week.

And it was absolutely extraordinary. When you live like that day to do, there's just so much s-t that could happen, the amount of danger. And I couldn't even wrap my head around it.

And they were still matter-of-fact about it! And so when the podcast came there weren't any, at that time, and still. But certainly at that time you really didn't have any podcasts that were telling these stories about investigations from the detective's point of view. And it certainly seemed to make sense.

And then later on, we had our guest detective tell the story. And then we would chat about it. Why not get it from the source? My role became, I'm going to be the audience. If you had the privilege to sit at that table across from these detectives and ask questions, hopefully I ask some questions that you're like, oh, yeah, I'm so glad you asked that.


But I also was really interested in if you are that person who does this extraordinary work, that's very unusual. It's a very specific kind of person to say, I want to go toward the things that the rest of society runs from. My heart, like the rest of us, takes shelter when there's danger and law enforcement is - their charter is we will go toward it, and we will try to take care of it and keep everybody safe. And so I wanted to know if you're that person who sees the worst of humanity every single day, where did that live inside of you? What do you do with that? Because it's not natural, and it can't not change you. And all of our detectives have said it absolutely changes you, and we get really good at compartmentalizing. But not that good. At some point there will be leakage.

And so I was also very interested in the human side of who are you, and why do you do what you do, and how do you do it?

I've always felt like I'm really genuinely fascinated by people's stories. Everybody has a story. Pretty much everybody thinks their story isn't that interesting and everybody is wrong!

Absolutely. It's such a unique approach.

And interestingly, certainly in the last year with the George Floyd murder and the protests we've put out a series - we were on hiatus at that time, and we put out a series called 'Behind the Badge.'

We waded into this conversation about police reform and all of our guests, actually, said - the police will make mistakes, but also, they aren't the right person for every single job. If there is a person who is having a mental health issue, the police really aren't the ones to solve it. They might be first on the scene, but there needs to be better resources for people who are trained in that area to come and then take over.

Basically, if they went to the scene and the person is brandishing a weapon or, you know, running into traffic or whatever, that whatever the incident is, they can kind of secure it. But then somebody else who's really in a bad place, they should come in and do the follow up and take it from there. Yeah, but there are not a lot of resources in place for [mental health deescalation] that are well funded.

So while we don't believe in getting rid of the police completely, we are one hundred percent in favor of taking some of those funds from the police and giving them to other areas that need the money as well and are better served to help take care of these situations. So it was a very interesting conversation and we got mostly positive feedback from our fans who say we really love hearing from the detectives themselves where they stand on the issues. Of course, we got some, you know, people who said, no, all cops are bad. But if your head is and your heart is in the right place and you take the oath to the Constitution and to make your community safer seriously, as architects do, then I think that by and large there can be successful interaction.

We need people who are willing to go into those situations and put the train back on the tracks, because if there are going to be people in society who have no allegiance to the rules that the rest of us follow in order for society to function well, I feel grateful and relieved that there is a whole group of people go like, all right, I'm going to come and try to straighten this out so that we can then all go about our day and not feel like I live in a war zone.

And there are frustrations across every police agency - they all have bad actors in their agencies. There need to be more concrete ways that we can solve those problems. But it's hard. Unions are strong.

And and the other thing that is interesting that I think people don't perhaps don't know - every police agency, while they all make the same vow to uphold the constitution, each agency, even within the same county, is a product of its command staff.

So if your command staff is all about accountability, then your officers will go out into their communities and uphold that integrity. If your command staff isn't about that, then you also create a culture where your patrol officers go after that as well.

Yeah, and I think people feel like it's more like the military. While there are certain similarities of military structure and police structure, the military is much more unified versus one governing body. Yeah, That's why I think there's so much difference in how things are run.

Even regionally, from all across the country there are different kinds of ways things are run. If you listen to any true crime podcast, there's just different ways that different police agencies do things.

I feel like we need to address the abuses of power and law enforcement, but I feel like there's also room to shine a light on the things that are done well and on the people who care deeply about the job that they're doing and doing it the right way.

"The Simpsons" airs Sunday nights at 8 p.m. on Fox. Listen to "Small Town Dicks" here.


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