As reported around the world yesterday the talented actress Marcia Wallace has unfortunately passed from this world. We have truly lost not only a bright light and special person from “The Simpsons” universe but a great and unique human being as well. Marcia was the Emmy award winning actress who voiced Edna Krabappel and seeing as Al Jean announced that the producers would “retire her irreplaceable character” I thought it fitting to make this article a tribute to both the woman and the character we loved.
Marcia Wallace began her career with a semi-regular stint on the “Merv Griffin Show,” and first gained widespread acclaim as the spirited, if somewhat daffy receptionist on “The Bob Newhart Show”. The perfect foil to Newhart’s straight man, the role was reportedly written specifically for her at the insistence of CBS founder Bill Paley. She stayed with the show for 6 seasons and 139 episodes. After she went on to do acclaimed guest spots on everything from “Alf” and “Murphey Brown” to “Full House”. She also regularly appeared on game shows like “The $25,000 Pyramid,” “Hollywood Squares,” “Win, Lose or Draw,” and “Match Game.” a testament to her real life personality being just as fun to watch as her characters.
In 1985 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and fought a long, hard battle against the disease. She would become an outspoken advocate for treatment and awareness and a key member of several charitable groups. She was awarded the Gilda Radner Courage Award in 2007, a fitting tribute for both her work in cancer education and as another immensely funny woman who never let her disease dampen her spirits. Her friend and collaborator Cathryn Michon commented of her passing: “Ironically it was during breast cancer awareness month during which she was always a funny ray of hope for so many.”
I would also like to note that she wrote a book entitled Don’t Look Back, We’re Not Going That Way. The subtitle for the book was “How I overcame a rocky childhood, a nervous breakdown, breast cancer, widowhood, fat, fire and menopausal motherhood and still manage to count my lucky chickens.” I’ll admit I haven’t read it but now intend to. It was praised by readers for its ability to address dark issues with a sense of humor and optimism.
She passed away Friday night at 9:00 PM from complications due to breast cancer, she was 70 years old.
Of course as fans of “The Simpsons” we all know her at the very least from her second career as a voice-over actress, creating and embodying the character of Edna Krabappel. The role earned her an Emmy Award for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance in 1992. Though she was technically a guest star and not a member of the regular cast, she was an indelible part of the fabric of the show. She also provided other minor voice work including the characters of Ms. Mellon in “Bart the Genius,” Enchantra in “Marge Gamer,” and Mrs. Krabapatra in “Simpsons Bible Stories.”
With Al Jean’s announcement that Marcia’s tragic death would be handled in the same way as Phil Hartman’s, with the retiring of her character much in the same way Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz were; (NOTE: The way the show is produced we will still see her for much of the current season, I’m referring to after that point) I also wanted to write an obituary of sorts for Edna Krabappel. Much in the way the Simpson children have been frozen in time, with Bart spending 24 years in her 4th grade class, she has been all of our teacher for that period. She has grown and developed as much as if not more so than most characters on the show and she too will be sorely missed. I mean no disrespect to the real woman who died and do not mean to put the retirement of a cartoon character in the same category as the death of a human being. I merely intend to offer my reverence for the character Marcia Wallace created and the joy she brought us.
Edna Krabappel was an integral part of the show from its very beginning in 1990. Her first appearance was in the show’s second episode “Bart the Genius”. Our early impressions of Edna were those that would become through-lines for her character, the frustration with her students, the heavy drinking and smoking and her love lorn search for the right man. She at first appeared to be a caricature to critique the American public school system with her seeming apathy; and highlight an all too stereotypical version of the working single woman who wants more than anything to find a man. That first impression could not have been more wrong.
Of course many of these traits would continue to be played up over the years for laughs but Edna quickly grew more profound as we got deeper into her life and relationships. In “Lisa’s Substitute” we see an early and perfect example of this; she shamelessly tries to pick up the charming Mr. Bergstrom (the joke is only punctuated by the fact that Dennis Hoffman voiced him)
“Are you trying to seduce me Mrs. Krabappel?”
But we also learn that she and her husband have separated, and later it is revealed that he cheated on her with their marriage counselor. Thus begins a pattern for Edna: good for a chuckle, absolutely, but with a real woman not far under the surface. For my money this idea really starts to blossom in “Bart the Lover”. An increasingly lonely Krabappel places a personal ad in the paper, and in revenge for his perceived slighting in the confiscation of his yo-yo, Bart responds. He creates a fictitious “perfect man” named Woodrow (a picture of Woodrow Wilson being nearby at the inception of this scheme) and letter after letter he draws his teacher closer into the arms of his creation. At the prank’s climax “Woodrow” agrees to finally meet Edna for dinner at The Gilded Truffle and Bart stands outside the restaurant, maniacally eyeing his teacher as she is stood up. That is, however, until he sees what he has really done. Where he thought he was torturing a desperate woman he finds that he has genuinely hurt a romantic in search of romance, a lover without love. He lets her down gently with a simple (and eerily relevant) final letter. This was among the first but far from the last time she manages to bring out the best in Bart, whether intentionally or not, and despite Bart’s best efforts to counter.
Dearest Edna, I must leave you. Why, I cannot say. Where, you cannot know.
How I will get there, I haven’t decided yet. But one thing I can tell you, any time I hear
the wind blow it will whisper the name Edna. And so let us part with a love
that will echo through the ages. -Woodrow
Another major point in the development of Mrs. Krabappel comes in the episode “The PTA Disbands” during which she leads the teachers of Springfield Elementary on a strike against Principal Skinner’s spendthrift way of running the school (highlighted by a failed field trip that ends in the class being chased from a historical recreation at bayonet point, and the unfortunate loss of Üter). Edna often seems at odds with her students and profession: she is alternately enamored of and annoyed with straight-A kiss up Martin Prince and similarly struggles with trying to help Bart realize his potential and wanting him out of her life. Sure she chain smokes and occasionally (or implicitly) drinks her way through the day, but she is still a stark contrast to Ms. Hoover’s affinity for film strips and “magazine time”. At the very least she wants to want to help the kids. The strike she leads isn’t about salaries but rather basic supplies and amenities for the students. He ennui will resurface off and on over the course of the show but usually for comic effect; at this point we know where her heart is.
Speaking of Skinner and Krabappel, another turning point in her life comes in “Grade School Confidential” when her on again off again romantic relationship with Seymour begins. If the relationship seemed doomed from the beginning it’s because it was, despite a lot of effort on both their parts. In the end I think she was just too much woman for him to handle. At the same time we see yet another side of Edna and her quest for love and fulfillment. She knows Skinner is a poor match from the onset but she tries to coax him out of his shell and cut his 40 year-old umbilical cord. Her attempts to change him are arguably misguided at times but we see another element of depth in her character. She is a big fish in a small and defective pond of suitors (her flings with the likes of Moe, Comic Book Guy and Sideshow Bob, among others, serve as proof of this) and I came to see her as a modern woman trying to make the best of a bad situation. She lets go of school-girl dreams of meeting prince charming without quashing the true romantic that beats inside of her. Whereas her earlier forays were random and inappropriate on a variety of levels, with Skinner she at least sees a decent man to try and build something with. They fail but with the best of intentions.
Luckily for Edna she did find love with an even more honorable (if dweebier) man in Ned Flanders. We didn’t have enough time to fully explore their relationship and now sadly never will. Edna finally had a chance to be a (step) mother, a role she was surely dying to play for most of her life. She is survived by her loving husband Ned and (admittedly dweebiest) children Rod and Todd.
Edna Krabappel surely held her own with some of the funniest moments on the show. Another ten articles could be written recounting the hilarious things she said and did. For those we will always remember her. I tried my best here to show that much like the outstanding woman who played her she was just that: not a punch line and not a cartoon character, but a woman who grew and now sadly, must pass, before our eyes.
In a fitting tribute Yeardley Smith, who voices Lisa, said in reference to Marcia’s passing “Heaven is now a much funnier place because of you.” Knowing that her creation Edna died a Flanders means we can be all but assured that she too will be enjoying a first class ticket to the Pearly Gates.
Here’s to the memory of a very funny lady, and her “Special Edna”. A legacy that will forever live on in our hearts and on our TV’s.