Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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MacHomer: The Simpsons Do Macbeth (1995)

Rick Miller
Rick Miller with Jelly-Doughnut

Rick Miller

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Like his predecessor Rich Little, Rick Miller has a gift for performing comic impressions; unlike his predecessor, Miller has transformed this mode of stand-up comedy into a rather more ambitious performance: a one-man stage adaptation of Shakespeare's Scottish play, as interpreted by almost the entire cast of The Simpsons.

The result is MacHomer, which opened to fringe festival acclaim in 1996 and has been touring North America, Australia, and the UK ever since. MacHomer is a frenetic, multimedia "de-formation and adaptation" (Fischlin, "Nation and/as Adaptation" 316) of iambic pentameter, sound bites, slapstick, puppet shows, video clips, voice-overs, and non sequiturs, as Miller's Homer takes the lead role and steers it like a drunk driver to its fate at Dunsinane. True to the Fox television program it parodies, MacHomer includes numerous allusions to and quotations from other popular culture artifacts and celebrities, such as Braveheart, Cheers, West Side Story, Sean Connery, The Muppet Show, Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, O. J. Simpson, and The Simpsons' potty-mouth rival South Park.

The supersaturation of this play with such allusions, together with the surprising amount of original (if playfully delivered) Shakespearean dialogue, suggest that, in at least two important respects, there's more (and, simultaneously, perhaps less) going on in MacHomer than what Richard Burt has called "dumbed down Shakespeare" (Unspeakable Shaxxxspeares, 5).

Firstly, to make sense of (and fully appreciate the humour in) Miller's show requires an audience to be sufficiently familiar with both the Scottish play and the extensive cast of The Simpsons. Both sources are sufficiently popular to have made the show a consistently sold-out success. The challenge for audiences of MacHomer is to keep up with Miller's rapid-fire, virtuoso delivery of some sixty-odd impersonations. So while the content remains mostly Shakespearean dialogue (albeit cleverly butchered), the form adheres more closely to the spirit of The Simpsons TV show, with its snappy banter, barbed asides, and the verbose road signs, banners, billboards that litter the mediascape of the show's middle American background (e.g. "Brevity is ... wit!" declares the banner over a Reader's Digest booth at a Springfield book fair []). As Joanne Huffa wrote in an eye magazine review of Soulpepper's September 2001 remount, "in just over an hour, Miller manages to perform the whole play and still find time to recap the story, break-dance and sing" (eye 9 Aug. 2001: 46).

Secondly, Miller's elaborate parody represents "crucial aspects of the cultural politics of Canada" (Fischlin 316) as a nation-state whose mediascape is thoroughly colonized by U.S. cultural products. The show unflinchingly charges into the increasingly scrutinized area of copyright law between performance rights, artistic license, and parody, on the one hand, and corporate control over "brand strategy" on the other--all the while.

Reviews and reports appear to conflict over the status of the relationship between Miller and Fox, which owns The Simpsons. In a 2001 Los Angeles Times review, Phil Davis reported that while Miller met with favourable reviews from the cast of The Simpsons and its creator Matt Groening when he met them at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2000, "Miller is still negotiating with Fox for official permission to do the show" ( ). Conversely, the Washington Olympian reported in 2002 that "Miller contacted Fox ... 'I told them what I was doing and they said 'sure'" ( ).

The line in the sand drawn by the show between parody and plagiarism has irked critics as well as copyright lawyers; the National Post's Robert Cushman derides the show as "a facile two-minute gag ... a curious blend of plagiarism and sycophancy" ("Parody Comedy at Your Peril." National Post 16 Oct. 1999: F11).

Miller himself has acknowledged the silliness, incongruity, and patent piracy of his show; nonetheless, he suggests that the show can also be viewed as a pedagogical tool, akin--however improbably--to the one-woman adaptation industry that is Lois Burdett: "'It does a wonderful thing for kids,' Miller says. 'It makes them care about Shakespeare. Whatever way that happens is positive'" (qtd. in Spevack, Leatrice. "Simpsons do Shakespeare." Toronto Star 9 Oct. 1999: H10). Miller's assumption isn't necessarily that children are The Simpsons' target audience (the writing has always suggested otherwise) but rather that they comprise a significant incidental audience and can at least identify the show's major characters if not the subtleties of its dialogue. But another assumption operating here--one that Miller shares with Burdett and many other adaptors--is "that popular cultural icons are necessary to create an educational and entertaining show" (Fischlin 316).

Mark McCutcheon

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