Though notorious as the cursed “Scottish play,” Macbeth has been lucky for Rick Miller. The Canadian actor/comedian’s popular one-man show MacHomer casts the Shakespearean tragedy with about 50 voices from “The Simpsons.” Miller brings MacHomer to Georgia Shakespeare Wed.-Sun., Aug. 26-30. He discusses the show’s cocktail of high and low culture and why casting Barney Gumble as Macduff is more than just a pun on Duff Beer.
Where did the idea come from?
In 1994, I was playing the lowly role of Murderer No. 2 in a theatrical version of Macbeth. I’d done it all summer long, and at the cast party I decided to show off with a 10-minute version called "MacHomer," imitating the other actors in the show who reminded me of “Simpsons” characters. This was when the show was really starting to take off, and I decided to take it one step further and make it a larger show. Since then, it’s gone through several phases — I think we’re up to MacHomer 5.0 now — since I’ve tinkered with it to make it bigger and better.
Is there a difference when you play MacHomer to a Shakespeare audience versus a general comedy audience?
Generally, they’re just more familiar with half of the source material. They don’t have to worry about the language, and appreciate the collision of the two cultures a little better. The regular audience watches "The Simpsons." They bring the kids to the show, and for them, half the work is getting past the dialogue that’s 400 years old.
There are versions of Macbeth performed with ninja action figures and pro-wrestler puppets. Why does the play support being messed with?
Macbeth happened to be the play I was doing when I thought of the idea. I didn’t go through all of Shakespeare’s plays to come up with the best one. Since then, I’ve decided not to do a sequel. Hamlet’s too complex, but Macbeth is short, it’s bloody and it’s accessible. It’s very familiar to audiences and lines like “Out, damned spot!” have a place in pop culture.
Have you added or dropped characters who’ve been added or dropped from “The Simpsons” over its 20-year history?
One of my favorites is actor Troy McClure, who left the show when Phil Hartman died, but he’s such a good character that I’ve kept him. Most people watch the show in syndication, so they’re indiscriminate about which “Simpsons” characters I use. I’m playing not so much for the “Simpsons” fanatic but for people, like me, who are fans but don’t watch it religiously. I’m not a scholar of “The Simpsons” or a Shakespeare scholar, but I’m trying to do justice to both. When people see that I’ve relegated Bart and Lisa to small roles, they might complain, but I make decisions based on what voices I can do well and what’s funny. Macbeth is basically a 12-character play, but I make room for 50 “Simpsons” voices.
What voices are hardest to do? Do you have a favorite?
The kids’ voices are hard to do, because they’re usually performed by women. They’re hard to mimic for a long time. My favorite is the Barney Gumble, and I think he’s the best at showing what makes “The Simpsons” work and what makes MacHomer work, because Barney’s this barfly who also has this frustrated artistic sensibility. On one "Simpsons" episode, Barney makes an art film, which includes the line "Don’t cry for me, I’m already dead.” That’s a tragic, almost Shakespearean line. That level of emotion makes the show more than just a vocal trick — people are feeling things in the audience. There’s an audible “Awww” when Barney-as-Macduff’s children die. You can’t do that with “Family Guy” or “South Park,” because the characters just don’t have those dimensions. “The Simpsons” has stuck it out for 20 years because there’s a morality to the show. They hold the mirror up to society better than any show since.
Has your show influenced “The Simpsons”?
Seven years ago, I met them all at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where I was doing MacHomer for a month. “The Simpsons” creators, cast and writers all did a one-night performance on my night off, so I got to see all of them and meet them. That could have been the beginning of the end if they didn’t like me, but many of them had heard of me, and some had seen the show and liked it. One of the writers told me that they’d considered doing a “Simpsons”-do-Shakespeare episode, but after they heard about MacHomer decided “Well, we can’t do that now!” I don’t know if that’s true. Occasionally, a Macbeth reference will appear on the show, so I have a feeling that MacHomer has infiltrated, whether consciously or subconsciously.
Do people recognize you from the viral clip of your “Bohemian Rhapsody" as performed by 25 of the most annoying voices in the music industry?
That clip is 8 years old, and I only recently realized that it had circulated the Internet about a million times. When I go to high schools, a lot of kids know me from that, because YouTube is their generation. I do “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the end of MacHomer. It’s a nice way to end with gratuitous silliness.
Will you stop doing the show when “The Simpsons” goes off the air?
When will that be? Luckily, the creators and I are on good terms. It’s a small part of my career. I do MacHomer two to three months of the year. It’s my big, silly, entertaining spectacle. It’s still fun to go back now and then. I’ve played to half a million people in 140 cities over 14 years now — dragged myself to the ends of the Earth. But when I hosted the TV show “Just for Laughs,” I would reach 7 million people in five minutes. No wonder the money’s in TV.