"The Simpsons" is about to lose the voices of Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner and many of its other most memorable supporting characters.

But it's not going to be losing those characters.

Last night, original castmember Harry Shearer posted a trio of tweets suggesting he wouldn't be continuing with the show, which FOX recently renewed for two more seasons.

This morning, longtime "Simpsons" showrunner Al Jean confirmed Shearer's exit to me, saying, "Harry Shearer was offered the same deal the rest of the cast accepted and passed.  We wish him well but the show will go on.  Maggie took it hard."

When asked whether Burns, Flanders, Otto and other Shearer characters would continue, Jean said, "Yes, Burns and Flanders will not die. They are great characters and will continue."

("The Simpsons" has retired characters in the past, but most of them — like Troy McClure, Lionel Hutz and Mrs. Krabappel — got that treatment because the actors who played them died.)

Shearer has long had a contentious relationship with the show, and was a vocal leader of previous contract disputes between the cast and the studio. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Burns' prominence on the show began to fade after one of those early negotiations.) A source close to the show suggests that not only was Shearer offered the same deal as his co-stars for these additional two years, but was told he could do virtually the whole job by phone, "from anywhere in the world," to reduce his physical commitment to the job, and he declined.

Obviously, losing Shearer is a huge blow. Individually, none of his characters are as essential to the series as Homer, Marge, Lisa or Bart, but the totality of them represents a huge swath of what makes Springfield and "The Simpsons" special. The show can find another voice actor (Billy West, maybe?) to handle some or all of those roles, but there will be a noticeable difference, just as there is with, say, Kermit the Frog post-Jim Henson. Voice actors don't get the credit of their flesh-and-blood counterparts, but Shearer, Dan Castellaneta, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Julie Kavner and Hank Azaria brought those characters to life just as much as the writers and animators did.

Sooner or later, one of those core six wasn't going to be available, whether through a voluntary exit like Shearer's, or an unfortunate death like Phil Hartman or Marcia Wallace's. For now, the show will go on without Shearer, but it will feel different.

What does everybody else think?

Boo-urns.

Alan-sepinwall-med
Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "The Revolution Was Televised," about the last 15 years of TV drama, is for sale at Amazon. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com