Arif Zahir, Alex Désert Arif Zahir, Alex Désert

The showrunners of two major primetime series, both owned by Disney and aired on Fox, have announced new cast members amid a push for racial equality in voice acting. Arif Zahir will be the new voice of Cleveland Brown in Family Guy, while Alex Désert will take over the role of Carl Carlson in The Simpsons in the show’s Season 32 premiere.

Arif Zahir
Arif Zahir © Ben Krantz.

Zahir is the actor behind the popular Youtube channel Azerrz, where he does commentary and comedy skits (including impressions of Cleveland). He will voice Cleveland from Season 19, which has just begun production. Season 18, which debuts on Sunday, will still feature the voice of Mike Henry, who had voiced the character since Season 1. Henry, who is white, stepped away from the Black character in June, writing: “I love this character, but persons of color should play characters of color.”

Henry will continue to voice other characters on the show. “I welcome Arif to the Family Guy team,” he said in a statement. “Arif’s vocal talent is obvious, but his understanding of Cleveland and his respect for the character give me confidence that he is in the right hands. I look forward to getting to know Arif and working with him to make sure Cleveland stays every bit as awesome as he has always been.”

Zahir said, “Firstly, I’m eternally grateful to have received this once in a lifetime opportunity. When I heard that Mike Henry was stepping down from the role of Cleveland Brown — my favorite cartoon character of all time — I was shocked and saddened, assuming we’d never see him again. When I learned I would get to take over the role? Overabundant gratitude. To Mike, you created something truly special and I promise I will do my absolute best to honor your legacy. To [producers] Rich Appel, Alec Sulkin, and Seth MacFarlane, thank you for this incredible gift. And to the millions of fans who love this show, I promise not to let you down.”

Alex Désert.
Alex Désert.

Désert is an actor and voice artist whose credits include Swingers, Better Things, and the voice of Nick Fury in the animated series The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. He will voice Carl in the Simpsons season premiere (which airs on Sunday), replacing Hank Azaria, who is considered to be white in the United States. It isn’t clear whether Désert will stay with the character — a statement from the show simply reads, “We are very pleased to welcome Alex Désert, playing Carl in the Simpsons season premiere.”

The announcement follows a commitment by the showrunners in June to “no longer have white actors voice non-white characters.” The fates of other characters of color — including Dr. Hibbert and police officer Lou, both of whom have been voiced by white actors until now — remain uncertain.

In the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the renewed movement for racial justice reached the voice acting industry, and white actors started decoupling themselves from characters of color. Other affected characters include Missy in Netflix’s Big Mouth and Molly in Apple’s Central Park. Jenny Slate was replaced by Ayo Edebiri as Missy’s voice, and Kristen Bell by Emmy Raver-Lampman as Molly’s.

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