'Simpsons' Crew Underworked, Underpaid

All right, so I'm assuming that not too many of you earn $20,000 an hour--and if you did, you probably wouldn't take a walk while demanding, oh, $55,000 an hour. This, however, is the situation at "T

All right, so I'm assuming that not too many of you earn $20,000 an hour--and if you did, you probably wouldn't take a walk while demanding, oh, $55,000 an hour.

This, however, is the situation at "The Simpsons," where principal voices Dan Castellaneta, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Julie Kavner, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer are said to be holding out for a raise from $125,000 an episode to a reported $360,000-per in order to voice the show's (gasp!) 16th season next fall.

Considering the length of their work week (6-7 hours on average), the cushy conditions they work under and the fact they can show up in their pajamas if they so desire, these folks already earn a king's ransom. What they do is the equivalent of a sitcom table read.

Moreover, their contracts are nonexclusive. Once they put in their hours, they are free to pursue whatever other labor they please--a luxury that's unheard of in the live-action world.

For the past four seasons, the "Simpsons" voice sextet has each earned nearly $3 million annually for what is collectively less than a single month's work. And now they're seeking a bump that's almost three times that to roughly $8 million in yearly salary.

This, for a show whose best days are certainly behind it. I mean, it's already the longest-running comedy in television history. If we can't exactly pinpoint a jump-the-shark moment, there's wide agreement that "The Simpsons" has about had it. It's understandable. Nothing is forever. Not even dysfunctional yellow cartoon families.

It's also well understood that this is perhaps the ultimate writers show. It's the 20-odd writer-producers--not the voice talent--who drive this "Simpsons" engine. They're the ones who work 24/7/365, who labor over every word and phrase and setup and punch line in scripts whose versions are countless. By comparison, the actors make cameo appearances, toss down their lines and then head on their merry way.

All of this means that the voices are unreasonable to demand such a hefty raise, right? Well, yes and no.

While this group may not work as hard as the casts of conventional sitcoms, none of the usual animation rules apply when it comes to "The Simpsons." The fact that they collectively "earn less than one "Friend," as Castellaneta pointed out last year, is a bit apples and oranges yet significant nonetheless.

There have been few more profitable properties in TV over the past 15 years than this show. Its syndie ratings and revenue remain huge. It's an international phenomenon without peer in the medium's annals.

As an actor, you only get one "Simpsons" per lifetime. And only if you're tremendously lucky. Castellaneta, Cartwright, Kavner, Smith, Azaria and Shearer not only can't be blamed for squeezing out every last penny they can. As the stars of such an American treasure, they've been essentially underpaid by most any megahit measure--outrageous though that may sound.

We're not gauging compensation here by the standards of the common working stiff. It's an absurdly inflated equation to begin with. You've got to toss out the "look at how much they earn an hour" whining and declarations of how grateful they should be to have glommed onto the voiceover Holy Grail.

This is business, ladies and gentlemen. Or have we all forgotten? All that matters is how valuable these voices have been, and continue to be, to the "Simpsons" franchise. They remain virtually irreplaceable as the show trudges forth into television immortality. That's a fact.

Ray Richmond is a TV columnist with Billboard sister publication The Hollywood Reporter.