A healthy sense of humor helps deal with disease

Comedian and actress Marcia Wallace is recognized by longtime television viewers as Carol Kester, the receptionist on “The Bob Newhart Show.”

Younger television viewers are more likely to recognize her voice as that of Mrs. Edna Krabappel, Bart Simpson’s fourth grade teacher on the long-running animated series “The Simpsons.”

What many may not realize is that she is also a 16-year breast cancer survivor.

Wallace was in Tacoma yesterday as part of Franciscan Health System’s ongoing “Create A Healthy New You” series, which brings different speakers to the city to offer presentations on living a healthy lifestyle.

Her appearance, “Living Life With Laughter,” was held last night at the Sheraton Tacoma Hotel and Convention Center.

She sat down for an interview a few hours before the start of her 7 p.m. presentation to talk about her experience with breast cancer, her career and how her ever present sense of humor has helped her cope with life’s many challenges.

Wallace travels all over the country sharing her hilarious and moving story, speaking in front of thousands people at women’s centers, cancer centers, parenting groups and other locations.

“It evolved from a one-to-one level, speaking with a friend or two,” she said of her presentation. “From there, it evolved into an actual speech.”

Wallace’s cancer was detected early and that helped her beat the life-threatening disease.

“My story encourages women to take responsibility for their breast health,” she said, noting that the mortality rate for breast cancer has gone down over the years, especially when detected early. “Women can be proactive.”

Cancer has affected her beyond her own battle with breast cancer.

Wallace’s husband died of pancreatic cancer a few years ago, and now she’s the single mother of a 14-year-old son.

She faced her illness with a sense of humor one would expect from someone who has been part of two successful sitcoms.

“It’s just good for you,” she said of laughter, citing its beneficial effects on the immune system, heart and soul.

It’s also a good coping mechanism that helps people deal with poor health or any of life’s darker moments, Wallace said.

“It’s easy to laugh when things are going well. It’s not so easy when things are going wrong.”

“People deal with health now, not just cancer,” she observed, and a sense of humor is an important part of good health.

The day before, Wallace said she did some voice work for a future episode of “The Simpsons” that will deal with Mrs. Krabappel’s tumultuous and uneven romance with Springfield Elementary Principal Seymour Skinner.

“Seymour asks me to marry him,” she said, but she didn’t know yet if her character said yes or if there would be a wedding ceremony.

“The writers get distracted by the 150 characters,” she said with a chuckle. “The turnover in writers is extraordinary.”

“We do the voices first,” Wallace stated. From March through October, she and the others record their dialogue for the show.

After the voices are provided, the animation is done.

Wallace has found her role as the voice of Krabappel rewarding.

She won an Emmy for the third season episode, “Bart the Lover,” where Bart answers Mrs. Krabappel’s personal ad as Mr. Wonderful and then stands her up.

Mrs. Krabappel never ages, Bart never gets out of the fourth grade and I will always have a job as long as there is a show, Wallace joked.

“It’s part of the culture now,” she said of “The Simpsons,” which has been on the air for 14 years. “It’s their (the Fox network’s) linchpin.”

“The Simpsons” has indeed become part of the popular culture.

“It’s been a great character. I’m an action figure now, which not many people can say.”

Her recognizable voice once caught the attention of a blind man in the nation’s capital.

“I was in Washington, D.C. last year, asking for directions to the White House, and a blind guy recognized my voice,” she recalled.

“He asked, ‘Are you Marcia Wallace?’ and I turned around and said, ‘Yes, I’m Marcia Wallace,’ and he walked off.”

Wallace is no stranger to the White House, at least in the world of the sitcom, as in one of her more recent roles she played Maggie the housekeeper on Comedy Central’s now defunct “That’s My Bush,” the irreverent sitcom by the creators of “South Park” that skewered the George W. Bush presidency.

Wallace said she was the 180th person who was seen for the part of Maggie the housekeeper, and almost missed out on the interview because she got locked in a stall in the bathroom prior to the interview.

She attempted to slide under the stall, but got stuck.

Eventually managing to free herself, a flustered Wallace made her way to the interview, where, despite her bathroom ordeal, she got the part.

“It was a wonderful show, except I hoped it would last,” she said, noting that making fun of the president has gone somewhat out of style since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Born in Creston, Iowa, Wallace played Carol on “The Bob Newhart Show” from 1972 to 1978.

She reprised that role when she guest starred on “Murphy Brown” as the title character’s 66th secretary, for which she received an Emmy nomination.

In October 1998, Wallace was featured in a People Magazine cover story on the American breast cancer epidemic, along with other celebrities who have survived breast cancer.

Wallace’s voice can be heard on several other animated series, films and commercials.

She has also just finished her first book, the soon-to-be-published, “Don’t Look Back, We’re Not Going That Way.”

The title of the book is a quote from her father.

The book is subtitled “How I Overcame a Rocky Childhood, a Nervous Breakdown, Breast Cancer, Widowhood, Fat, Fire & Menopausal Motherhood and Still Managed to Count My Lucky Chickens.”

“My experience has been great and the people have been great,” Wallace said of this most recent visit to the Pacific Northwest. “I couldn’t live here – I need more sun.”