What is it with The Simpsons and Internet stupidity? It never ends. In February, Twitter assigned Bart Simpson a birthday. The show has been scolded for not teaching enough about climate change (because all TV comedies are supposed to do that, right?). Some have said that it’s “too adult.” (The show has never been for kids). Twitter users by the hundreds retweet a @BestFilmQuotes line from Comic Book Guy (that, of course, they have wrong).
The latest in the long list of gear-grinding silliness has to do with TMZ’s chat on Saturday, June 25 with Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa Simpson) outside a restaurant. She tweeted about the encounter, so I wondered if something was coming, perhaps some buzz about her shoe line. Actually, something quite different popped up on TMZ Monday morning. Because Saturday was the two-year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, the interviewer asked, “Was that really his voice when he did the Lisa?” She explained something most fans of The Simpsons have known for years — that Michael Jackson was in the episode but didn't actually sing happy birthday to Lisa (they were talking, of course, about the Season Three episode of The Simpsons, "Stark Raving Dad") and that it was a soundalike. TMZ put it on their site with the words "bombshell" and "exclusive."
This Michael Jackson “bombshell” blew up on Twitter, which is where I saw it. Mostly, it was in the form of retweets of Brian Moreno’s tweet, but after a while, as is the possibility with all "news" on Twitter, some Twitterers misunderstood and tweeted that Michael Jackson hadn't been on the show at all. (Some even lamented that childhoods were ruined in light of the news.) Numerous sites, such as Clash Music and Buzzfeed have shown they are unfamiliar with Google and posted this news, broken by TMZ. A tip of my hat goes to the Hollywood Reporter, which covered the TMZ interview with Smith, but changed the angle to focus on Kipp Lennon and the uniquely stressful experience it must have been to sing in front of Michael Jackson.
Jackson was an early fan of The Simpsons, and his relationship with the show began when Jackson personally called one night to say that he loved Bart and wanted to give him a number one single. Enter "Do the Bartman," which appeared on the 1990 album The Simpsons Sing The Blues. And MJ came through on his word; although the song did not hit number one in the U.S., it did in several other countries.
For "Stark Raving Dad," Michael Jackson wanted to be credited under a pseudonym (John Jay Smith). He told the staff that he wanted to do the speaking but not the singing parts "to trick his brothers," although in reality, he was probably not contractually permitted to sing, as Smith told TMZ on Saturday night. Jackson did not take credit for "Do the Bartman" because of his label contract, which may have included singing restrictions. Jackson did record "Happy Birthday, Lisa" (which he either wrote or co-wrote) at The Simpsons’ studio. The recording is safely snug in the archives. The song in the episode is sung by Kipp Lennon of the band Venice, who has sung numerous times for The Simpsons, including "Flaming Moe's" and more recently, the track "Waverly Hills" (from the season 20 episode "Waverly Hills 9-0-2-1 D'oh").
There have also been rumors that Jackson switched the recordings so that his version of "Happy Birthday, Lisa" actually made it into the episode, but that is not true; Kipp Lennon sings on the show.
Although Jackson's name wasn't on the episode, fans knew it was him, further fueled by the creators’ lack of strong denial in the season three press conference. Chris Ledesma, the music editor of The Simpsons, said yesterday via Twitter, "I was amused back then when some reported that MJ did his singing but an impersonator spoke his lines (the reverse is true)."
After Dustin Hoffman (credited as Sam Etic in season two's "Lisa's Substitute") and Michael Jackson, The Simpsons' creators decided no one else would be allowed to use a pseudonym; if they wanted to be on the show they'd have to own it.
So, what is the deal with TMZ? Maybe Wikipedia is blocked from their work computers. Or did it simply not occur to anyone there that something that happened in 1991 might not be a "bombshell"?
To Brian Moreno's credit, when I @ replied him on Twitter, telling him not to encourage TMZ, (it seems he works there, d’oh!), he did not tell me to cram it with walnuts, but rather said that he'd wished his school had offered a Simpsons course. Sit in anytime, Brian!
Denise Du Vernay is the co-author of The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield, available for Kindle and in refreshing lemon-lime flavor. For Tweets about The Simpsons, follow @Simpsonology. For Tweets about her cat, shin splints, and what she bought at the farmer's market, follow @duve.