If you’ve watched any TV over the past … oh say … 32 years, there’s a 99.98% chance that you’ve heard the voice of Yeardley Smith.
The American actress has voiced Lisa Simpson on The Simpsons since 1989. On the short list of “greatest TV shows ever”, the animated classic is America’s longest-running sitcom with ~700 episodes to its name.
While best known for her voice work — including an epic roasting of this author’s alma mater, McGill University — Smith has also had active TV (e.g., Dharma & Greg) and film acting (e.g., City Slickers) careers.
In 2014, Smith launched a production company (Paperclip Ltd.) with her business partner Ben Cornwell. The venture fosters distinctive entertainment from the “earliest stages” with only one rule: No Assholes Allowed.
One such project is Small Town Dicks, a hit true crime podcast launched in 2017 (with the newest season coming out on March 5). In the show, Smith teams up with anonymous identical twin detective brothers (Dan and Dave) to recount real-life cases with the actual detectives involved.
Elsewhere, Smith has launched an Instagram cooking show (Oil & Water), where viewers get to match a face to the famous voice!
The Hustle caught up with Smith to find out more about the projects, the business of TV and her keys to success.
Yeardley, thank you so much for the time. With so much success in TV, how do you measure success for your podcasting career?
Small Town Dicks has already hit 25m downloads, so by podcast standards that’s a pretty good number. We’ve invested in the program, so do plan to make money.
But more broadly, what I’m very proud about the show is that we’ve provided an opportunity for detectives to be their own narrators. With what happened last year with the murder of George Floyd, I do think hearing these voices is a necessary part of the conversation.
For the most part, these detectives have their hearts and minds in the right place. They are out trying to get justice for the victims. We received a lot of fan mail saying how they appreciated hearing from the detectives.
I’m also playing the long game on the podcast. It’s something that I love to do and am interested in. Success is so rarely overnight so — as long as I have those 2 things — I’ll keep doing it.
What piqued your interest in the true crime genre? Was any of it due to seeing the success of the Serial podcast?
I’ve always been a fan of true crime.
If there are people in our society that want to break the rules and say “I’m not going to do that”, I want to hear the story of the people standing up and saying “no, you will do it.”
I actually met my co-hosts (Detectives Dan and Dave) about 7 years ago. I’m engaged to Detective Dan and would visit their small town.
They would talk about their days as I listened slack-jawed. I couldn’t believe the stories they were telling. I kept thinking “this is your Tuesday?”.
I wanted them to tell the story of the crimes they were seeing. They roped in their colleagues and it was a really natural fit.
What is the biggest difference between your TV and podcasting careers?
The biggest difference is independence. With the podcast, I get to march to the beat of my own drum. I have collaborators — like my producers, editors and the detectives — but am ultimately my own master.
After working in TV for so long, I can say that the industry is known for “messy boundaries”. [The Simpsons team] would often have a table read and a suit would come down to give show notes.
And, I’m just thinking: “wait, when you go back up to balance the books and do your accounting work, I don’t get to barge in on you do I?”
When James L. Brooks initially went to the studio to pitch The Simpsons, he said he would only do it if there were “no network notes.”
I think if you created a spreadsheet of the most successful TV shows, the ones with the least external interference were the most successful.
Right, like how much control Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld had over Seinfeld.
Exactly, that show was made how they wanted and look at it now, a classic.
If you were to go back to the 1990s with what you know about the TV business, what would you tell your younger self?
I’ve been fortunate to work with good agents.
My agent at the time, John, was with me for 22 years. He was a great strategist and taught me tons about business.
Negotiating with 20th Century Fox will learn you up real good and fast to the business.
In Season 9, all of the main voice actor contracts expired at the same time. There were 6 of us and we had the opportunity to negotiate together.
So, the lesson here is that the key cast members should band together?
I’ve always said the success of The Simpsons is three parts: the writing, the acting and the animators.
If you take away any one piece, you lose the lightning in the bottle.
Could you speak more to your Instagram work and how you perceive the world of influencers?
I’m definitely behind on the influencer world.
However, my position is that I’ll do anything that I love, like cooking.
The Oil & Water cooking show is a lot of fun. The premise is I have to pick three random ingredients: one salty, one sweet and one random.
The recipe is not always the best but our motto is “hey, that’s not terrible.”
Maybe 100 people will watch or maybe 100k people will watch. You never know if something will hit but if you love it, you can keep doing it.
I admire you for trying new platforms when you’ve already seen so much success on TV.
One of the keys to success is staying nimble.
Another thing that has also hit home during pitches I’ve made with Paperclip is that people really value social followers. I’m always asked “how many followers do you have on this platform”?
Social following is definitely an important social currency now to get new projects done.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Be on time.
Whether you’re at the top of the pyramid or a personal assistant bringing coffee, you should never keep anyone waiting.
Another one is that whether I have 5 lines or am the star of a show, my job is the same: I’m here to do my part.
What’s your favorite TV show?
I’ve watched a lot of true crime.
More recently, I really enjoyed Ted Lasso. The character is so great. He has a wiliness without malice and the show is just a great example of how it’s better to sway other people with honey rather than vinegar.
As an alumni of McGill University, I have to ask about that time Lisa made fun of the school for comparing itself to Harvard. Do you know who wrote that?
It was probably Tim Long, who is Canadian.
We’ve also had lots of Harvard writers on staff over the years. Many wrote for The Harvard Crimson, so they always like making jokes about the school.
Maybe it was Brian Kelly.
Get the 5-minute roundup you’ll actually read in your inbox
Business and tech news in 5 minutes or less