Little Voice

THE house where Bart Simpson lives is found on the other side of a big, remote-controlled gate, behind a classic white picket fence, beyond the astroturf lawns, past the pool, the tennis-court and the car porch containing three surprisingly unflashy motors, and after you’ve left behind the bountiful ceramic wildlife - the owl, the doe with fawn and the cow - glancing back one more time to check they aren’t real.

Don’t have a cow, man. This isn’t Springfield, home of the Simpsons, but Northridge. It is in this sprawling suburb of Los Angeles, northwards on the notorious, gnarled-up 405 freeway, that Nancy Cartwright lives. She’s the voice of Bart Simpson, who in turn is the voice of a generation. No one knows where Springfield is. It could be anywhere, or anywhere in America. And Northridge could be anywhere, too. Only half an hour from Beverly Hills, where the beautiful people hang out in the heat of this holiday weekend - where actresses-models-whatevers test-run flipflops with heels on the four-stride journey from valeted vehicle to with-a-twist eaterie - and yet no stardust has been sprinkled here. It is thuddingly ordinary, achingly suburban.

Cartwright greets me at the door in a frilly blouse and jeans. Her sandals may have a heel, but this wouldn’t make much difference: she struggles to stand above five foot. Just as her garden ornaments are full-sized fakes, she’s a real person of cartoon dimensions. Her straw-blond hair is worn long, further emphasising her lack of inches, and this seems to be a recent development, possibly inspired by her newly confirmed divorce.

Her home is equally low-slung - bungalow ranch-style - and with the bar, pool table and jukebox first to catch the eye, I’m put in mind of Moe’s, the alehouse in The Simpsons, which Bart phones to wind up the proprietor by requesting that he asks around the pub for "Homer Sexual" or "Seymour Butz". I’m not yet sure whether it is a good or bad thing that Cartwright, in her own domain, reminds me so much of the programme - in the opinion of many, the best in all of television history - because I’m not sure if it’s a good or a bad thing that I’m meeting her at all. Won’t it spoil the illusion?

But Cartwright definitely wants to meet the world. A one-woman stage show called My Life as a Ten-Year-Old Boy is coming to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and there’s already talk of a transfer to London’s West End. Later, when I ask her what she wants to be doing ten years from now, she says this show rather than The Simpsons. This could be an acknowledgement of the fact that not even the world’s most famous dysfunctional, four-fingered, overbiting, yellow family can go on forever. Or maybe it is her declaring, "I’m Nancy Cartwright - who the hell are you?"

"You’ve got it," says the 46-year-old, serving up home-made lemonade. "I’m saying, ‘Hello, I’m not just a voice - there’s more to me than meets the ear.’ I’ve been wanting to do this kind of show since I was 16."

But her reasons for doing it now do not appear exclusively artistic. After freeing herself from an unhappy marriage, this "brand-new single mom" is using live performance to exorcise a few demons, and to challenge herself. "This is a real interesting time for me. I’ve got what I think is the best job in showbusiness, and I’m also a mom bringing up two wonderful kids; 40 is the new 30, and I’m loving this stage in my life. I’m single, blonde and, you know, some guys think I’m a hottie."

She repeats these words like a mantra during the show, and Simpsons aficionados in the audience of around 50 that witnesses the world premire in a small university theatre near her home - hoping for non-stop trivia, gossip and secrets from their favourite programme - were perhaps surprised to hear her describe her marriage in such blunt terms. Her ex-husband’s breath smelled, he farted and she had to remind him who was paying the bills. For years she yearned for the white picket fence but ended up feeling trapped by it. "Friends ask me if I’ve lost weight. Of course - he was 145lbs."

Cartwright makes for an anxious interviewee. Oddly, she gets thrown when the questions turn personal. The show is still being worked through and it’s clear she’s nervous about it. She doesn’t go solo in conversation. Rose Goss, her director and co-writer, sits in on the chat and sometimes Cartwright defers to her, even on inquiries of a personal nature relating to her life, pre-Simpsons, which only she can answer. Other times Goss will speak without prompting, more than once to advise Cartwright not to say anything. And later when I’m shown around the rest of the house, and meet two (real) dogs, Goss informs me twice in the space of seconds that they’re "killers". She’s joking, I hope.

Cartwright and Goss are friends. They’re also Scientologists. Have you met one before? You will have if, like me, you were a teenager in 1970s Edinburgh and were ever walking alone, and seemingly friendless, past the doorway on South Bridge where you would be invited inside for a "free personality test". To answer the 300-odd posers on the questionnaire without then being persuaded to sign up for the religion was an essential rite-of-passage for any spotty adolescent struggling to find their own voice. You knew next to nothing about Scientology, before or after the test, but left feeling smug, as if you’d struck a blow for freedom.

In Britain, most of us still don’t know much about Scientology, beyond the fact that Hollywood A-listers Tom Cruise and John Travolta subscribe to it, and if we were asked to sum it up in two words, "weird" and "cult" might be proffered. I suggest to Cartwright that it maybe needs better PR, and she takes personal offence.

It has worked for her. "I just looked at the people who were successful, who I admired, and they were pretty much all Scientologists," she says. And she made a direct connection? "Oh, absolutely." When Cartwright speaks, her little round face crinkles up, and she shuts her eyes and her head ratchets down into her shoulders. She’s like a child wishing for something, or asking how many sleeps until Christmas. And she has the palest, saddest blue eyes you’ve ever seen.

We talk about Scientology some more, me from the standpoint of ignorant-curious and her from a position of faith-dissed avenger, but it doesn’t really get us anywhere. Maybe The Simpsons should do an episode about it, I say. The show handles religion brilliantly and has been variously damned as anti-Christian and hailed as the most moral programme on the box - no mean feat. But my suggestion fails to lighten the mood. Oh, for the wit and wisdom of The Simpsons right now. Cartwright can’t come up with a funny get-out quip worthy of the show, neither can Goss... and, well, don’t look at me. So where is Bart when we need him?

Nancy Cartwright was born in Dayton, Ohio, one of six children, four of them girls, and with her pixie hair was often mistaken for a boy. At school, she discovered her talent for funny voices. She reprises some of them on stage - cement-mixers, water-sprinklers, a man trapped in a barrel - and they’re freakily spot-on. She joined the speech team, winning prizes for humorous interpretation. Contests with other schools required 4am alarm-calls on freezing mornings. She won best-in-state awards and with them a scholarship to Ohio University. She competed in countrywide events demanding what sounds like the same ponytail-twisting intensity as the national spelling bee that was the subject of the documentary film Spellbound.

Across the field from her home was the headquarters of Wing Radio (so named because the Wright Brothers came from Dayton), and Cartwright quit a job selling ice-cream to work on The Poolside Show with Ken Warren, simulating the sounds of lido malarkey. Many of the speech judges had urged her to try her luck in cartoons, and she was soon sneaking into the studios at night to make up demo tapes.

In the autobiography on which My Life as a Ten-Year-Old Boy is based, Cartwright presents her story like a fairytale. On stage, she admits that it must seem like one, then sits on the steps to describe how her mother didn’t want her daughter to see her when she was dying of cancer, in case this dissuaded her from following her dream.

Notwithstanding the poignancy of her flight from Dayton, Cartwright’s yarn is a familiar one, simply told in a gee-whizz manner with most events being described as "cool" or "neat", with the role of the bad guy unfilled, and leaving theorising about the phenomenal success of The Simpsons to others. Inevitably, it suffers in comparison with the dazzling post-modern humour and sheer subversiveness of The Simpsons. "Well, I think there’s a compliment in there," says Cartwright, slightly miffed. There is - nothing on TV, maybe anywhere, is funnier than a Simpsons script that supplies Ned Flanders with this bedtime-story pay-off: "And Harry Potter and all his wizard friends… went straight to hell for practising witchcraft"; or provokes Brazil to threaten to sue over this jibe: "Rio is a city where all men are bisexual, fearsome monkeys roam the streets and tourists are kidnapped by taxi-drivers"; or labels the French "cheese-eating surrender monkeys".

The legend of the script-room - in fact there are two, with a total of 20 writers working at all times - tells of the cleverest dicks from Harvard sending out for pizza and not leaving their low-ceilinged, windowless dens until they can better this exchange involving the protagonists in America’s greatest love affair - Marge: "Homer, is this the way you pictured married life?" Homer: "Pretty much. Except we drove around in a van solving mysteries."

Cartwright admits that she’s in "absolute awe" of the writers. "Dan Castellaneta [the voice of Homer] is the only one of the cast who has written a couple of scripts, but I would never attempt to go there. Those guys are geniuses."

More than once, an anxious Cartwright tells me, "I don’t know what you’re going to write about." She admits, "I had the most boringly ordinary life, growing up in Dayton - I was never Bart, leading the revolution. And when I came out to California and UCLA, I didn’t leave the campus for a whole year."

In her autobiography she mentions a sojourn to Italy, when she hoped to be granted an audience with Federico Fellini. She never met the great film director (and former cartoonist), but on the trip "did so many things that I would never do at home".

Such as? A giggle, then a glance at Goss. "Should I say?" Apparently not. Cartwright is very girlie-coy. This could be down to having an alter ego who’s a never-ageing ten-year-old boy. Then again, she’s a prim woman from the Midwest who, as a teenager, devoured books on how to make it in Hollywood. But when eventually she got here, and made it to the tune of a rumoured 350,000 per episode, she chose to live in the anonymity of Northridge because the "farmy feel" reminded her of her home environment.

Her mentor in those plucky-trier days was Daws Butler, who spoke the words of Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear at a time in animation when voiceover artists were heard but never seen. The Simpsons has changed that; so too has the cult of celebrity.

But not all celebrities are interesting. When the reclusive Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, allowed himself to be profiled on BBC2 for the cartoon’s tenth anniversary in 2000, the critics were underwhelmed. One expressed astonishment at how "utterly average" his story was. "Groening doesn’t give many interviews," the reviewer continued, "maybe because he’s shrewd enough to recognise that while the Simpsons phenomenon is fascinating, he isn’t."

Cartwright enjoys a funny kind of fame. Bart’s voice is instantly recognisable the world over - it’s translated into everything from Albanian to Swahili - and yet only her next-door neighbours in Northridge know what she does for a living, and she can jog round the suburb every morning unperturbed by cries of "Eat my shorts!" from passing motorists.

Nevertheless, there’s a desire for more recognition. A recent pay dispute raised the question of how much of their personalities the performers bring to the cartoon, along with their voices, and they claim it’s a considerable amount. Cartwright reveals on stage that in the early days, producers 20th Century Fox banned them from doing interviews or making public appearances. "They were afraid people would hate the programme if they found out the truth." Later, she admits that she understood their anxiety. "If I was them I’d be protective like that. They were like, ‘Omigod, what will people do when they find out Bart’s really a mom?’ But I don’t think I’m ruining the mystique of The Simpsons by doing this show. You heard my audience laugh…"

She tells a funny story about how, on the day she landed the part of Bart, she attended her usual aerobics class at a gym called, I believe, the Sports Erection (this figures; America also has a chain of trainers stores called the Athlete’s Foot). She was supposed to audition for the part of Lisa , but was more intrigued by the pen-portrait that had been painted for Bart. "It read: ‘Devious, underachieving, school-hating, irreverent, clever.’ I thought [and she does the voice, for the only time today], ‘No way, man!’"

In her book, Cartwright says she used to dream of becoming the next Holly Hunter: "I wanted my on-camera work to explode and eclipse my voiceover career."

Does she still yearn for the actress’s life? She says she knows her limitations in Hollywood, the most image-conscious corner of the planet. "Even Holly Hunter isn’t getting the Holly Hunter parts any more. Of course, there were times when I was younger that I wished I was taller, prettier, whatever - I was as bothered about my looks as any teenager, and I was very grateful for those dances where the girls got to ask the boys. But pretty soon I learned to make the best use of what I had."

If you were being unkind - like many Tinseltown casting agents - you might say the performers on The Simpsons have good faces for voiceovers. Although some have worked extensively in front of the cameras, none is handsome or beautiful enough to be chosen to play the heart-throb, nor quirky enough to be the wisecracking best-friend, nor ugly enough to be the gargoyle. They have unremarkable features, among them pudgy noses and too-small mouths - but, oh, what sounds come out of them.

When Cartwright does Bart her head ratchets down a couple more notches and her face contorts with conspiratorial glee. "When I watch The Simpsons and Bart speaks, I don’t think of him as me," she says. I know what she means; it’s uncanny. But do I want to see her do this?

After I get back home, Cartwright and I talk again on the phone, avoiding any mention of Scientology this time, and she apologises for being a bit uptight, explaining that she is much happier with her show since making some alterations following an audience survey. "They didn’t like the tirade against my ex: TMI - too much information." So what’s in its place? "Oh, more anecdotes about celebrity guests, and there’s this game show where I try to find the biggest fan, and they want that to go on longer." In other words, a bit more Simpsons.

But Nancy Cartwright shouldn’t take it to heart that the public seem to want slightly less of her. America’s true first family makes all of us seem thoroughly one-dimensional.

My Life as a Ten-Year-Old Boy, Assembly Rooms, August 6 to 30 The Simpsons can be seen on Sky One