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Nancy Cartwright reflects on 'Simpsons' audition and Bart's catchphrases

Tuesday marks the 30th anniversary of the series premiere of "The Simpsons."
The Simpsons
The SimpsonsAlamy
/ Source: TODAY

Has there been a more successful underachiever on television than Bart Simpson?

His list of career achievements is long — let’s not forget the time he owned a factory — but the key statistic is this: Bart has starred in more than 650 episodes of “The Simpsons” since its debut on Dec. 17, 1989.

Not bad for a 10-year-old boy who once proclaimed he’s an underachiever and “proud of it, man!”

Nancy Cartwright has voiced Bart since he was first introduced in a series of shorts on “The Tracey Ullman Show” in 1987.

Nancy Cartwright at unveiling of Bart Simpson's "Bartman" character sculpture
Cartwright had worked on both live-action shows and cartoons before she began voicing Bart Simpson.Alison Buck / FilmMagic

“After 30 years, it’s still so much fun to be in the studio and to be surrounded by the talent that I’m surrounded by,” she told TODAY. “And we all just kill it in the studio, crack each other up. That’s what a lot of people would hope for.”

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the “Simpsons” series premiere, Cartwright shared what drew her to the “bad guy” role of Bart and reflected on his most memorable catchphrases.

Becoming Bart Simpson

Cartwright had worked on live-action shows including “Cheers” and animated programs such as “My Little Pony” before she landed the role that would define her career. However, the initial plan was for her to audition for a different character.

“I originally went in to do the voice of Lisa,” she recalled. “And when I arrived there, the auditions for Bart and Lisa were on the table. And Bart got my interest. He was 10 years old, a school-hating underachiever and proud of it.”

Cartwright saw the potential in playing Bart — the “bad guy of the family” — rather than his more well-behaved sister.

“For me, it just seemed like Lisa was an 8-year-old middle child,” she explained. “(The Lisa audition) was just a sweet monologue of an 8-year-old girl. For Bart, it was more fun and it fit my voice more than it fit Lisa.”

Yeardley Smith was ultimately cast as Lisa.

‘Underachiever and proud of it’

Bart’s “underachiever” status may have made him a hero to his young fans, but it also made him a menace to some adults who believed he was a bad influence. His popular “Underachiever and proud of it” T-shirts were banned in several schools nationwide in 1990.

″To be proud of being an incompetent is a contradiction of what we stand for,″ an Ohio elementary school principal said at the time. ″We strive for excellence and to instill good values in kids.″

Looking back on the controversy now, Cartwright doesn’t see what all the fuss was about.

“My viewpoint was, hey, you know what, that’s your job, mom and dad, to teach morals. This is entertainment,” she said.

Cartwright, the mother of two adult children, added, “My kids were raised as I was growing up with ‘The Simpsons,’ if you will. I just felt like, you guys, you can’t take it too seriously. It’s a cartoon. It’s an animated show. It’s tongue-in-cheek. It was never written for children.”

"The Simpsons"
Bart with the rest of the Simpson family: Homer, Marge, Lisa and Maggie.Alamy

‘Eat my shorts’

Cartwright is responsible for one of Bart’s most quoted catchphrases, “Eat my shorts.”

“That was an ad-lib at one of the table readings. It came to me when I was in high school,” Cartwright, an Ohio native, said. “I was in the marching band and the drummers would be playing ‘dun, dun, dun, dun, “Fairmont West!” dun, dun, dun, dun,’ and it was a whole drum cadence we marched to. We would march to it.

“My senior year, the cadence was the same but somehow the drummers changed the chant,” she continued. “It went ‘dun, dun, dun, dun, “Eat my shorts!”’ Nobody along the parade route knew what we were saying because there were 200 of us calling it out.”

Bart Simpson "Eat my shorts" shirt
Bart's catchphrases have been plastered on shirts.Amazon

‘Don’t have a cow’

Cartwright noted that another phrase often associated with Bart, “Don’t have a cow,” actually predates “The Simpsons.” She can’t take credit for working it into his repertoire.

“One of the writers came up with, ‘Don’t have a cow,’” she said. “But I do remember when I was a teenager that was an expression — this was in the 1970s. ‘Don’t have a cow’ was being bandied about.”

‘The Simpsons’ still going strong after 3 decades

It’s safe to say Cartwright will be voicing Bart for the foreseeable future. “The Simpsons” is currently in its 31st season, and Fox has already renewed the show for a 32nd season, which will include the 700th episode.

Now that’s something Bart can be proud of, man!

“The Simpsons” airs Sunday nights on Fox at 8 p.m. ET.

Aside from her work as an actress, Nancy Cartwright is a painter, sculptress and philanthropist. She is a founding member of the Know More About Drugs alliance, which she said raises awareness of FDA medication guides and provides “enlightenment for parents so they can make an informed decision in order to help their kids.”