Oh, Dragon Con, how I adore you! Let me count the ways…
1. The fact that even the airline losing my luggage until 3 a.m. on arrival Thursday feels like something I can roll with, since, after all, the minute I walk in I find old friends (and new) to greet me and take my mind off of things – and to commiserate, and hope with me that all of my toiletries and hand-made costume items are not lost forever in the bowels of Reagan National. Thankfully they weren’t.
The parade of Deadpools, which deserves its own number because it was epic. It included everything from Chef Deadpool to Wolverine Deadpool, and delighted my Deadpool-loving soul. And I managed to get a couple of segments on video (there was more, oh, so much more).
Meeting the amazingly talented and nice Randy Rogel, who is clearly a kindred spirit as well as the man responsible for many of my favorite Animaniacs songs, and getting a copy of his original music charts for my sister the musician & teacher of children’s music classes.
Getting to see and hear Randy Rogel and voice actor Rob Paulsen (Yakko, Pinky, Doctor Scratchansniff, and more) perform a slew of great Animaniacs songs live (seriously a huge highlight of my weekend, possibly my overall favorite thing). I’m Mad was a special favorite, and they received twostanding ovations for the panel. They do a show that travels around, and I really hope to see it come to Washington DC someday. If they come your way, don’t miss them!
Watching the Voice Acting with the Pros panel with wise and funny voice actors Bill Farmer, William Salyers, Carey S. Means, Sam Marin, and Rob Paulsen, with excellent moderator Brian Prince. (And seeing a life-sized Dot Warner in the audience.)
Going to the Hannibal Fannibal Panel, in which my roommate Cleolinda and friend Damien participated (and seeing all of the flower crowns).
Catching up with great Walk of Fame guests like Bill Farmer; Rob Paulsen; Bill Corbett; and Clay Croker, and meeting delightful guests like the aforementioned Randy Rogel (and the awesome Pat Brady); Aaron Abrams; Scott Thompson; Aaron Douglas; Vanessa Marshall; Carey S. Means, and William Salyers.
Having a laugh at a Startled Cat picture waiting to stare in an alarmed manner at me when I entered the Hilton elevator (thanks, Dragon Con attendees with meme-friendly senses of humor).
Delicious dinners and fun parties and chilling at the bars and lounges with friends I don’t get to see nearly often enough, and meeting Twitter friends who I’ve only known via computer or cell phone screen until now, or brand-new friends who may one day be old friends.
Playing a completely inappropriate and hilarious game of Cards Against Humanity (the only kind of CAH game possible!) in the lounge late at night with a bottle of wine and good friends.
Robots! Droids! Woohoo! A.k.a. the big interactive talking robot that was outside of the Walk of Fame for some time (my favorite interaction was when it made fun of a Headless Horseman cosplayer walking by), and the tiny Star Wars BB-8 Droid that just went on sale and was being demonstrated at a party by one of the fellas working with Peter Mayhew (it’s so cool).
The Aftermath of Con (not to be confused with the Wrath of Khan), where everyone sits around together staring companionably at nothing and wondering if they’ve actually ever slept before or if that was just an imagined state.
The Even Later Than Aftermath of Con, when most people have left and it’s time to wrap up with dessert and cocktails with your roomie (because otherwise, you just aren’t doing it right).
So many other things I’m probably forgetting because conventions are crazy and no one sleeps much at Dragon Con; but they may be on my Instagram or my roomie Cleolinda’s Twitter or LiveJournal recap.
And finally, arriving home after a really great Dragon Con (with all of my luggage intact!) to the sweetest l’il hamsterlet in the world, Wee Mini Squish. Ahh, home and tiny cute creatures.
So there you have it! It was an amazing Dragon Con, and I hope you enjoyed the recap as much as I enjoyed the trip. Stay tuned for next week, when I will have my Dragon Con interview with Randy Rogel up for everyone to see!
September 27 & 28, we attended Long Beach Comic Con for the first time.It was our first smaller-sized con and we LOVED it!It was so easy and fun.We really were able to enjoy the art, the cosplay, and hear about new comics.We also learned how to draw The Simpsons, got the scoop on Afterlife with Archie, played Star Wars laser tag, and maybe did a bit of fangirl shopping on the floor.
In my apparent continuing quest to interview all the great voice actors living today (because they are the most fun, okay?), I now bring you my interview with the talented and Emmy-winning Maurice LaMarche, a.k.a. The Brain, Squit, Kif Kroker, Morbo, Lrrr, several Futurama robots, Dr. Egon Spengler, Dizzy Devil, Yosemite Sam, Mr. Freeze, Victor von Doom, General Var Suthra, Mortimer Mouse, Chief Quimby, and more.
It was a real pleasure to speak with Maurice, who I’ve been listening to in various guises since I was a wee thing (I was a big Inspector Gadget fan as a child; and then with Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, and Futurama being amongst my other favorite shows through the years, I guess I’ve pretty much been listening to Maurice all my life!). It was also great to see him do many of his excellent voices and impressions both during the interview, and at “An Evening with Pinky and the Brain,” which I attended at the Plaza Theatre while in Atlanta for Dragon Con. That event featured Rob Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche together, and was just a total joy to experience. It also resulted in some fantastic video clips like this reading of Who’s on First by Pinky and the Brain, a couple more of which I’ve linked below.
So without further ado, I bring you my interview with Maurice! Read on for the transcript, and click here for the video, which is really worth watching for all the fun voices.
• • • • •
Let’s start with Futurama, and Kif, who you voice on the show. That voice seems more delicate than some of the voices you’re known for; how did you come up with that one?
We were recording episode three or four, and Matt was very hands-on as we built the show. He knew exactly what he wanted in terms of who the character was; but he wasn’t sure about a sound. His tagline for Kif was, “He’s Mister Spock, if Mister Spock had to deal with William Shatner.”
So we tried a few things. I tried going (as Nimoy) “Sir, it seems the rest of the crew doesn’t share your passion for velour,” very deep and in the Nimoy range, and it sounded too much like The Brain; and we realized that he sounded tired; you know, we had the sighs. So I thought… I played a character in a very short-lived show called The Adventures of Hyperman, where the chief of that was very much, “Truman Capote. He’s Truman Capote.” So I thought that (as Capote) “the whole voice quality of Truman Capote had a sort of sighing sound to it, and so I decided that he would sound like Truman Capote,” and Matt said, “Well, too effeminate. I also want him to have some of the sarcasm and pissiness of Jon Lovitz.” So it went from this (demonstrating Capote) to this (demonstrating Lovitz) and became this (in Kif’s voice) “Sir, the rest of the crew doesn’t share your passion for velour, ugh.” So that’s where Kif came from. We kind of threw Jon Lovitz and Truman Capote in a blender, and out came Kif.
Now that Futurama is… doing whatever it’s doing [coming back again, I hope!], what are you working on right now?
My self-esteem. No, currently, I’m working on a project for Disney called The 7D, which are the seven dwarves about twenty years before they met Snow White. So they all have all their hair, and their hair is its original colors; nobody’s grey. And of course, needing to fixate on a beautiful female figure, they live to serve Queen Delightful, who is the queen of the kingdom.
And they’ve done a very different take with them. We’ve gone away from the Snow White movie, and it looks almost like a 1960s Jay Ward cartoon, kind of Bullwinkle, George of the Jungle. Very simple drawings. And each one’s voice is very distinct. Kevin Michael Richardson is Happy, and he just plays it so happy; and when Kevin is full of joy, the room bursts with it. And Bill Farmer is Doc. Billy West is Bashful, and Billy uses his upper, upper, upper range, and he’s like, so adorable that even though he’s a 62-year-old man, you just want to pinch his cheeks.
And I do Grumpy; and, again, I do a lot of my voices by throwing two things into the hopper and coming up with a unique voice. There’s a little George Costanza in him, and there’s a little bit of one of my best friends, Kenny Lombino, who’s a Brooklyn by way of New Jersey guy, and he’s an investment guy, but (as Kenny Lombino) “he came up through the streets. So Kenny is very much like this guy,” and then (as George Costanza) George Costanza’s like this: “I don’t know, Jerry! People think I’m smart, but I’m not smart!” (In Grumpy’s voice) So then Grumpy is kinda this guy right here: “Alright. Okay, Fine. I’m Grumpy, and I accept it, but I gotta help Queen Delightful anyway!” So he does a lot of, like, “Oh, this guy again.” He gets all the sarcastic lines.
It’s a thrill to be in a show where I am actually getting the good lines. Because I’m usually the setup guy. Even in Pinky and the Brain, Rob Paulsen got all the great lines, while I gave him the, (as The Brain) “Are you pondering what I’m pondering?” And then he got to say the funny thing. So The Brain’s humor had to come from being put-upon, and having to deal with this knucklehead named Pinky – who may have been the genius; and The Brain may have been the one who was insane.
But Brain did get his funny lines in there…
He did. He had great lines like (as The Brain): “If I could reach you, I would hurt you.” Or, “Yes, that is a pain that is going to linger.” Or, “It must be inordinately taxing to be such a boob, Pinky.” Little sarcastic things like that. I love playing the sarcastic note. Because I’m really actually very kind in real life.
Do you have a favorite episode from Pinky and the Brain?
It’s kind of a tie. “Bubba Bo Bob Brain” was the one where I think we found the stride with the characters. We’d done two or three episodes before, but we recorded “Bubba Bo Bob” and two things happened there: the voices changed. Rob got out of the buck-toothed thing that he was doing the first few episodes, and really found that almost lady-like voice that he did; and Brain stopped being a straight Orson Welles impression, and there are little Vincent Price-ish kind of highs in there. And their relationship became…the annoyance became stronger, and I realized “that’s the note I have to play with Pinky. And yet I still have to have affection for Pinky.” So “Bubba Bo Bob;” and the Primetime Emmy-winning Christmas Special. Which was a big folderol, because that special was the first time that a daytime cartoon had come into primetime and beaten The Simpsons. So those are my two favs. I’ve never been able to quite choose between them.
So what about “You Said A Mouseful”?
That was interesting. Rob and I are doing “An Evening with Pinky and the Brain” at the Plaza Theatre; and for our finale we are actually going to do a staged reading of “You Said a Mouseful,” with a cast from the audience. [Note: I got part of it on video! Watch it here!] “You Said a Mouseful” was a fun, and funny, and challenging episode to do; it was the only episode where I ever left the booth, walked into the control room, and slugged the writer in the arm – in the way you’d hit your little brother, a Lucy/Linus kind of slug. I just punched him in the arm for writing something so difficult. Then I went back, sat down, and went, “I feel better now. Rubber baby buggy bumpers, rubber baby buggy bumpers…”
You’re originally from Toronto; how do you find the South?
I have a GPS! …Well, I’ve only been here a day; I got here late last night; and Pinky and the Brain went out for dinner, to Morton’s. There was definitely a flavor of Southern hospitality; but then again, if you’re Captain Kirk and you’re beamed into any Morton’s on Earth, you don’t know what city you’re in because every Morton’s looks the same. (as William Shatner) “I don’t understand where they get all this wood paneling from!” And the steaks were all delicious and fantastic.
But people have been very nice here. This is my first Dragon Con, and my first time in Atlanta. And I’m not even going to complain about the humidity because Toronto, being on Lake Ontario, is just as humid as this in August; so I’m fully used to it. Haven’t lived in it in thirty-three years; but I’m loving Atlanta. I’m having a great time. People are so nice. And the Dragon Con people – I have to say, there’s a real difference between the Comic Con vibe and the Dragon Con vibe. Comic Con is Comic Cannes film festival, it’s there to sell projects – and this is all about fan love. This is completely fan-driven. Comic Con is very studio-driven and publisher-driven. But this is just the fans expressing themselves and truly paying tribute to the genres, and it’s wonderful to see. So, I’m really enjoying my time here.
Have you worked on games?
I’ve only been on a handful of games. Games beat up my throat; and unlike a lot of voice actors who seem to be invulnerable, I seem to get a lot of cases of laryngitis, etcetera by having to do repeated lines over and over again. So I really limit myself, and am very blessed and fortunate that I can afford to. I can turn down a lot of the work because I’ve gotten to be on shows like Futurama or be the voice of Lexus. So I’m very selective. I do things that I think my son will think are cool; like Mr. Freeze in Arkham City.
Or General Var Suthra in the [Star Wars:] Old Republic game, which had literally a phone book of script for every character. It was unbelievable. But I think it’s the world’s largest online game right now. You can join up. So I play this Mon Calamari general named Var Suthra, and the whole thing takes place 3,000 years before the continuity of Star Wars. So I wasn’t locked into (in character), “It’s a trap!” So I decided he sounded (as Gene Hackman) “more like Gene Hackman. Greatest criminal mind of our time.” But that was a lot of days of work on that. Although they break it up. I’ve never done a war game where I have to do a lot of dying, falling, being blown up, being shot, that sort of thing. I guess they don’t think of me for those things, but just as well, because my throat gets beat up very easily. (In a delicate voice) It’s a very sensitive instrument.
I know you probably get asked this a lot, but what really pulled you into voice acting? And what was your first job as a voice actor?
It was a weird sort of gravity that pulled me in, and it really was a pull. I never thought of myself primarily as a voice actor; I was going for the big stand-up comedy enchilada. I started in 1977 at a club called Yuk Yuks in Toronto, which also birthed Howie Mandel, Jim Carrey, and Norm MacDonald. I was chasing after that. I’d done a couple of voiceovers up in Toronto for a company called Nelvana Films. They were annual specials. One was Easter Fever, with Garrett Morris from Saturday Night Live, who’s now on 2 Broke Girls; and I played Steve Martin and Don Rickles as animals. So it was Steed Martin and Don Rattles, and it was a roast of the Easter Bunny. That was the very first time I heard my voice come out of a cartoon character. I was nineteen; and it was magic, to hear that, and to see that, and go, “Wow, that’s me.” It was like, “I’m Fred Flintstone now.” It was astounding. I remember seeing Alan Reed on an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies when I was a kid and going, “He sounds like somebody. Who does he sound like?” And I realized halfway through the episode, that’s the man who plays Fred Flintstone. That’s when I first realized it was a human being behind those moving drawings. So that was my first job.
Then I came down here for stand-up comedy, and a voiceover agent from the William Morris Agency, who I was with for my personal appearance stuff, was in the audience, and it was Nina Nisenholtz, and she said, “With all of these impressions you do, you’d be a natural for voiceovers.” And I said, “Well I was always told that was a closed shop,” and my friend was Frank Welker, and he told me he was going to try to get me started – and Frank really did talk me up around town for about a year before I got my first job; but Nina also started sending me out right about that time.
It took me a year to get my first job, and my first job was Inspector Gadget. I did one episode of The Littles, and one episode of something called Wolf Rock TV, just as a guest star thing to test me and see how I was, and then they ended up putting me on Inspector Gadget, where I was The Chief, and Henchman No. 2, and then right after that, Real Ghostbusters. So that was my entrée into cartoons. And it just kept coming. Voice acting is as close to a meritocracy in show business as you can get; if you’re good, the work will keep coming. Because they love to work with people who can do the skill of coming up with multiple characters – in animation, at least, so they don’t have to hire five actors. They can hire you and have you play five parts in the episode. So if you can deliver those goods, the work comes. So it was a steady thing; and I got sort of pulled into it, rather than taking a bunch of voiceover workshops. I’ve got a lot of friends who did study. Nancy Cartwright studied with Daws Butler – you know, Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear. I just never took a lesson. I don’t know why, I just seem to have a knack for doing this.
I know that you based The Brain in part on Orson Welles; and I’ve heard that you used to recite the “Frozen Peas” outtake as a warm-up exercise. Where did that come from?
We were on the job from hell. We were dubbing a French puppet show – lifesized puppets, people inside costumes – into English, and it was the longest day. It started at nine and ended at nine on New Year’s Eve. I was supposed to do the job for two hours and then make a 1:00 flight that would get me to New York. Howie Mandel was hosting an MTV party and I was supposed to go party with the MTVers, back when that was brand new. And the thing just took for-bloody-ever, and I missed the party. And I was so depressed at the end of the night, that Phil Proctor, from the Firesign Theater, who was making college students laugh when I was still in junior high school, said, “Here, this’ll cheer you up.” And he gave me a cassette with Orson Welles doing this frozen peas commercial.
So my consolation prize was, I didn’t get to party with Sting and Howie Mandel; but I did get to have a career. Because this tape that he gave me had this gold on it. Orson Welles being himself. Being a curmudgeon; and yet the more you listen to it, the more you go, “He’s right! These guys don’t know what they’re talking about.” So I listened to it backwards and forwards, and couldn’t get enough of it. And eventually I began to ape it, because that’s what I do, and it made its way into my bag of tricks. And whenever there was down time, if they were listening to the playbacks, I’d just sit there and try it out on mic, because I’d wear headphones, and (as Orson Welles) “Get me a jury and show me how you can say in July, and I’ll…go down on ya.” It was hysterical. So it amused me to do it and I wanted to see how close to the timing I could do it; because when you get somebody being themselves, that’s the best was to grab them as an impression; and get all facets of them from there on up. So that’s how that happened. [To see Maurice do the Frozen Peas impression live, click here.]
Going back to Futurama; you do many voices. Which ones did you start out with, and which were added later, and…how many do you do? Do you know?
I don’t know. A couple of years ago when we were making the direct-to-DVD movies, there was a website that somebody came out with, where they had actually listed and counted all of our characters. I think I was at seventy-two characters, counting everything – all one-offs, all recurring, all regulars. But Tress MacNeille had me beat; she had seventy-five.
What about Billy?
Billy was in the fifties; but he does the heavy lifting on the show, because he’s Fry, he’s Zoidberg, and the Professor, so he’s three people in the break room at Planet Express; and then you throw in Zapp, who’s in every fifth episode or so; and Smitty… he’s got so many characters. He topped out with fifty-something.
So your characters – you’ve got Kif, and Morbo, and Calculon, and the Mafia robots…
(In the characters) “I got the Donbot. I got Clamps! I have the country Hyper-Chicken lawyer, and oh, Hedonismbot. And Lrrr.
Which one do you enjoy the most? Do you identify with any of them?
Oh, I identify with most of them. Because any actor is only giving you parts of himself. There’s a great line in a movie called My Favorite Year, that my friend Dennis Palumbo wrote. At the end of the film, Peter O’Toole, who plays this Errol Flynn character, tells Benjy Stone, his handler from the King Kaiser Show, which is really the Sid Caesar Show, that he can’t go on. He chickens out. He’s hiding, and he’s drinking, and he goes, “I’m scared, Stone.” And Stone says, “You don’t get to be scared. You are that damn hero; and you couldn’t play that hero if you didn’t have him somewhere inside of you.” And O’Toole goes on to save the day, in the film.
But every actor gives you what’s inside of him. So every character I play is a piece of me. So even though they may draw Lrrr, the Lrrr I voice and the Lrrr I play is my own angst about being in a midlife crisis. Kif is my own shyness and my own sense that (as Kif) “maybe I’ll never quite rise to Zapp Brannigan’s rank, but certainly I hope that I may one day save Amy with a buggalo,” you know, or something like that. Morbo is…very different from Lrrr. Completely different.
Do you really want to eat kittens?
(As Morbo) “They give me gas!” You know; there are foods that give me gas. So I relate to that. Everybody’s a little piece of me. (As Clamps) “I won’t tell you where Clamps comes from!” It’s my parenting skills.
Let’s go back to Animaniacs. You did other characters on there as well, didn’t you?
I was the Ray Liotta-based Squit, in the Goodfeathers. (As Squit) “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Goodfeather. If you were a Goodfeather, you had it all.” Martin Scorsese apparently loved the Goodfeathers. He and Spielberg were friends, and when that was on, Spielberg would just send him tapes of the Goodfeathers episodes as they came out. He dug that we were paying tribute to him.
And you did that West Side Pigeons episode…
I had a lot of singing in that. But they really worked with me; I’m not a natural singer. So Steve and Julie Bernstein and Rich Stone, God rest his soul, really walked me through it, and we rehearsed for a couple of days, and worked with the tapes. The way I practice singing, you’ve got to give me something that has only melody on it. If you give me anything with harmony, I’m lost. Because I start singing up in the harmony, and then back down to the melody; I’m not a natural musician, like my son. So I did that.
One of my favorites was playing Michelangelo in “Hooked on a Ceiling.” It was a nice little twist. It was Michelangelo, but we didn’t go Charlton Heston; we went Kirk Douglas. So it was like, (as Kirk Douglas) “What have you done to my ceiling? My beautiful ceiling!” Or Miles Standish as Richard Burton, (as Richard Burton) “Ohh, my Petey Pajamas, I loved him so.” So all the people that the Warners annoy, I got to play.
Now that Animaniacs is back on TV, do you see a resurgence in interest? The younger generation finding the show?
The Hub has just started running the original Animaniacs again, and they’ve got a big viewership. I’ve got another show on The Hub called Transformers: Rescue Bots, where I play the patriarch of a family of first responders, and the Transformers that come pick our vehicles; so there’s a police car character, and a fire truck character, a tractor character, because one of the sons is a civil engineer, and a helicopter. So The Hub putting these on is giving it a resurgence; but it’s yet to see quite the impact – I’m not quite sure where it is yet.
I think the cartoons are timeless. We did a lot of timely references, and there are maybe a few too many Clinton jokes in there; but with Clinton being back in the news – Obama keeps pulling him back into the spotlight – he’s hip again. Other than that, I think the show has legs. If a 1990s generation loved it, why wouldn’t a twenty-teens generation love it? Especially since the Pinky and the Brain piece of it is so relationship-based; it’s not based on timely humor. It’s based on the dynamic between these two characters, and that plays no matter what – an odd couple that really do love each other even if they are annoyed with each other, That was always the fun.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened between takes; because I’ve heard that that’s when the most fun happens.
We-ell, it’s got a dirty word in it.
It’s a moment that came from Tress MacNeille. At one particular time we were all on a show where the executive producer had become extremely religious, almost overnight; so there was to be no sexual innuendo, and certainly no swearing. So the executive producer was there, we did the table read, we read through, and then he said, “Alright, I guess you guys have got it. I’m going to go back to the studio.” And we all watched as he left, and then we were quiet as the door closed behind him; and then Tress breaks the silence with: “Now we can say fuck!” in that old lady voice that she’s got; that smoker’s voice? And I must have laughed for five minutes.
Just the way she hit the word now. It’s like, the door closed, and then: “Now we can say fuck!” That might be my favorite studio story. Tress MacNeille is unbelievable. I think – and I’ve worked with so many greats, and everybody’s really at the top of their profession – but to me, Tress is the pinnacle. Man or woman, it doesn’t matter, she’s the pinnacle of what a voice actor is. She’s the best. I say to myself, “I gotta get as good as Tress.” That’s the way I feel.
I haven’t ever seen her at a con…
We finally got her out to Comic Con this past year, because Matt Groening asked her especially, because we had the full cast of Futurama, and we showed the first third of the last episode, then we table-read the second act with the full cast – Dave Herman, Phil LaMarr, Lauren Tom, myself, Tress, and Billy, John, and Katie. The first time we’d all been assembled at Comic Con. It was pretty legendary. Tress went specially for Matt; and it was also our goodbye, too.
But you know what; at the end, they gave us a standing ovation. And when 5,000 people get on their feet because you’ve done a good job since 1999, it’s kind of touching, and moving. I think for Tress, it showed her that people really do care about the work, because she kind of keeps to herself, and I think she’s understanding that people do care; people do love the show and our work. And that’s great.
Well I certainly do love your work! And thank you so much for your time!
I hope everyone enjoyed this interview with the amazing Maurice LaMarche; and until next time, Servo Lectio!
At Dragon Con a few weeks ago, I was delighted to catch up with voice actor John DiMaggio (a.k.a. Bender from Futurama) once again. John was at the con for several voice actor and Futurama panels, and also to continue spreading the word about his new voice actor documentary, I Know That Voice, which I interviewed him and the other producers about during San Diego Comic-Con. John was actually selling limited collector’s edition/advance copies of the documentary at the con, so not only did I check in with him on further documentary news, but I also snagged a copy of the film! Read on for our short I Know That Voice follow-up interview, and my review of the documentary!
What has the reception to the I Know That Voice documentary been at Dragon Con, and have you sold some of the advance copies?
It’s been really wonderful. People know about it; people are excited about it. I’ve been able to sell some copies; I wish I could sell more, but there are only a certain amount that we are going to sell that’ll be collectors’ items. But we’re working on a distribution deal right now, with a company called Go Digital, and another company called In Demand. This is all in negotiation; but In Demand wants to release it for a month on cable stations, to expose it, and they’ll plug it. And then we’re going to release it digitally on all the VoD (Video on Demand) platforms, like iTunes, Amazon, Hulu – everything. So that will be in December of this year. We’re getting it out there! People are going to be able to see it!
Will we be seeing any extras on the DVD?
Right now, our special con edition of the film is just that – it’s just the film, with no chapters, and no special anything to it; but yes, there are absolutely going to be extras on the final DVD. It will have all sorts of bonus features. It will have chapters; it will have extra interviews with some of the people that we interviewed – I mean, we had over 150 interviews, so we couldn’t, naturally, fit all of that into the documentary. So we’ve got extra stuff – extra clips from a whole bunch of people that we’ve interviewed. Also, we have our Comic-Con panel at San Diego, where we talked about it – which was great. So we have that on video for everybody. When I get back to Los Angeles after Dragon Con, we’re going to do a commentary reel; so Tommy Reid and Larry Shapiro, the producer and director, and I, are going to do that. There might be some outtakes, I’m not sure. Lots of stuff!
That sounds great! Any other details you’d like to share?
Well – the reason I got these special con editions done was because I personally felt that we were dangling this in front of everybody for so long; and the thing is that we only had a tenth or a twentieth of the movie done when we originally did the trailer, and that was awhile ago. We announced it, and people were like, “Okay! Well where is it?” and we were like, “Well…we’re making it. Sorry!” So now we have it, and I wanted to get it to the people that really want it; the fans. I wanted to do it. I really felt the need to let everybody know that it’s done. And here it is!
And of course we’re still going to honor our pre-order, on our VIP list on the website. I have enough copies for them; but we’re also going to have the final DVD done within the next month and a half; so if they want to wait, they can get the first dibs on that. If they want, I have these con copies, and I can get them to them. If they are on the preorder list, they can let us know. When I get back to L.A., what we’ll probably do is send out a newsletter or set up a PayPal site or something like that, and we’ll post that on the site and on the Facebook page. But we want everybody to know. And it’s funny, because Larry was saying to me, “John, they’re going to want special features! They’re going to want all this stuff.” And yeah, they are going to want it. But what they want is the film, mostly.
Well, and I’m going to buy the final copy, too.
See that’s the thing; people will keep buying it. If they like it, they’re going to buy the final one. And either is okay. I just needed proof that this thing was done, for the fans, and for me, too. But everything is all a go for the final product to come out soon; and it’s really exciting. I’m just hoping that the fans respond; and I think that they have here, and that they will continue to. When people know about it and hear about it, they’re thrilled; and that’s all I can ask.
• • • • •
Review – I Know That Voice
Voice actors are a fascinating contradiction in the entertainment industry. They are simultaneously loved by millions and recognized by few. Whereas passing an on-screen actor on the street is cause enough for most people to snap pictures or call a friend to share who they just spotted, those same people could be standing next to one of their favorite “voices” at a grocery store and never realize it. They could have a whole conversation with voice actor John DiMaggio and not know that they were talking to one of the lead actors of their favorite animated show – unless, of course, DiMaggio suddenly told them to “Bite my shiny metal ass!” in the voice of Bender from Futurama. Then they might fall over in happy shock.
Despite the anonymity of the industry, the men and women who give voice to thousands of animated characters are some of the most talented, versatile, and hard-working members of the entertainment industry. This is what executive producer DiMaggio, producer and director Larry Shapiro, and producer Tommy Reid wanted to showcase in their upcoming documentary, I Know That Voice. DiMaggio says, “I wanted to honor these people. I wanted to show that my peers are…an incredibly talented bunch… I wanted to show them as champions of the industry.”
To do this, the documentary’s producers interviewed over 150 voice actors, casting and voice directors, creators, producers, voice teachers, and other luminaries about their experiences in the animation industry. These interviews are used in the film to explore every aspect of the voice acting profession, including its history; starting out in the business; taking on “legacy voices” first created by other voice actors; developing new characters; and the traits that delineate voice acting from on-screen acting, such as possessing the skills of musicality, physicality, and versatility. The documentary also explores the experience of celebrity for a group of extraordinarily talented people primarily known for voices that may not even sound like their own.
It’s not often that I watch a documentary with a constant smile and a frequent sense of wonder and delight – but that is what happened while watching I Know That Voice, which runs the gamut from serious discussions to whimsical humor. In large part, this is due to the main focus of the film, the actors themselves. As a whole, the titans of this industry come across as uniformly intelligent and clever, well-spoken, hard-working, dedicated, talented, wickedly funny, and warm and humble people. In discussing their work, they show a great respect for the industry and their peers, reverence for inspirations such as Mel Blanc and Daws Butler, and appreciation for the part they get to play in bringing animated characters to life for their fans.
This attitude is mirrored by the creators and directors who are also featured, and who clearly appreciate the talent inherent in successful voice actors. Emmy-winning voice director Ginny McSwain asks in her interview, “Does anybody realize how brilliant these actors are? Because they have to get every cryptic expression that you would do on camera, on a mic. They’re storytellers. That’s their gift.” Another director opines that these people are “the best method actors” in Hollywood; and I wouldn’t disagree.
Amongst those best-of-the-best featured in this film are legends like June Foray, Stan Freberg, and Mel Blanc (via archival footage and an interview with his son, Noel Blanc). Then there are beloved voices that I first encountered during my childhood and adolescence, like Rob Paulsen, Jess Harnell, Maurice LaMarche, Nancy Cartwright, Jim Cummings, and Billy West. And voices I’ve become better acquainted with as an adult, like Grey DeLisle, John DiMaggio, and Nolan North. If those names don’t ring a bell, I could instead say: Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Natasha; Tosh the Goofy Gopher; Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and a ton of other Looney Tunes characters; Yakko Warner, Pinky, and Raphael; Wakko Warner, Roger Rabbit, and Ironhide; The Brain, Calculon, and Kif Kroker; Bart Simpson, Ralph Wiggum, and Chuckie Finster; Darkwing Duck, Monterey Jack, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, too; Ren, Stimpy, Doug Funnie, Philip J. Fry, Professor Farnsworth, and Dr. Zoidberg; Azula, Vicky, and Catwoman; Bender Bending Rodriguez, Marcus Fenix, and Jake the Dog; and Superboy, The Kraang, and Deadpool.
If that seems like a dizzying list of characters, it’s only a tiny fraction of what each of those actors has voiced; and only a small selection of the large and talented group featured in this documentary. And seeing these amazing people break down how to do the difficult voice of Porky Pig, or what elements went into creating the beloved voice of Dr. Zoidberg, is a real treat; as is getting to see the faces behind the voices we know and love. We also get to see glimpses of the industry through the eyes of the working actor in the studio, which is fascinating to witness.
I Know That Voice is highly entertaining, as well as educational. For those who are fans of the industry, the documentary offers the rare opportunity to see all of your favorite voice actors discuss their craft in a comprehensive manner and do some of their most popular voices. For those unfamiliar with this aspect of the entertainment industry, this is an excellent introduction – and if you’re not a fan of these people at the beginning of the documentary, you will be by the end. For they are indeed champions of the industry, and it’s a joy to see a documentary like this celebrating them and exploring their craft.
Hey ComicMixers! It’s time for more news from SDCC. W00t!
While at the San Diego Comic-Con, I was happy to get to see the panel for I Know That Voice, the new documentary about voice actors that is slated to come out this fall (and don’t forget to visit that link and sign up for DVD pre-order news!). The panel was moderated by executive producer John DiMaggio, voice of Bender Bending Rodriguez on Futurama and Jake on Adventure Time (and many other voices as well!). It featured IKTV producer Tommy Reid; co-producer and director Lawrence (Larry) Shapiro; voice actors Rob Paulsen, Dee Bradley Baker, Fred Tatasciore, James Arnold Taylor, and Tom Kenny; casting director Andrea Romano; and Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward. And it was a blast!
I’ve talked about how excited I am for this documentary before, and this panel definitely highlighted the reasons I am looking forward to it. Not only do I find the whole process of voice acting for animation fascinating, but I also think voiceover actors and those who work with them are, from my experiences so far, not only some of the most talented creators out there, but also uniformly very nice, warm, funny people who love what they do and are just as enthused about it as the fans are. And who wouldn’t want to watch a video consisting of awesomely talented and nice people talking enthusiastically about their work in a fascinating industry? I know I can’t wait to see it.
I was also really interested in what led to the making of the documentary, and the process of putting this piece of (I predict now) fried gold together. To that end, after the panel I chatted with John DiMaggio, Tommy Reid, and Larry Shapiro about all of that and what we can expect. Here’s the interview (and you can also watch it on YouTube)!
What was the genesis of the documentary, and how did you start working on it together?
John: Larry and I were in Amsterdam, working on a music festival that we’ve done a bunch of times called Jam in the ‘Dam. I was MCing it, and he was filming it; and we were just talking, and came up with the idea, and we were like, “Well let’s try something.” We worked on it for a little bit, tossed some ideas around, shot some stuff, and then we were like, “Well, you know, it’s not really coming together.” And I’ve worked with Tommy on a bunch of projects – a bunch of documentaries; and I said, “Dude, we need to bring in Tommy.” And Tommy was like, “I’m all over this, this sounds like a great project.” So that’s pretty much how it started.
Awesome. And how did you three know each other?
Larry: We’re all 15 year-old friends.
John: We all lived in the same building in Hollywood; and so that’s how we know each other.
Larry: I will add that I was doing this music festival, and then John got on board to do the MCing of it; and then one night, in Amsterdam, Johnny started doing the voice of Bender and these German tourists heard him – and they don’t even speak English, and they still recognized John’s voice, and fluttered over and couldn’t believe it was him. And I’d never seen someone get star-struck over a voice in a language they didn’t even understand. That kind of gave me a clue as to how important something like this is to cover.
What was the process for making the film, and what did you all find the most interesting or challenging about making it?
Tommy: Our process began with the genesis of the idea; then it taking shape and us saying, ‘Well how do we actually get into the system?” and setting up interviews; and then having an end date where we knew we were going to capture enough interviews of every section of the voiceover industry that we were happy with. To go after the top and the best of that part of it. And then once we compiled all the interviews together it was just literally chiseling, getting it down from three hours to two hours, and then constant notes and notes and notes, where you’re constantly figuring out what’s the best story to tell in 90 minutes or less. And that’s where the final product came about. But it’s a very long process, when you’re making a documentary, and here we are 20 months later [at Comic-Con], and we had a packed room with over 3,000 people in it.
John: It’s pretty exciting. I think the biggest problem was the logistics of the project. Just getting everybody gathered; and having that done.
How many people are featured in this documentary?
Larry: Over 150. I will say that each person was at least an hour-long interview. And we had 150 people. So if you just give one minute to each person; just one great minute, you still have an extremely long movie. So it was pretty much like trying to choose between your children, what to use and what not to use. Because these people are brilliant people, and it was basically like trying to use the best stuff that we could get to make the best movie possible.
There are a lot of people in the industry; so how did you choose your focus of which voice actors to include, and which areas, e.g. TV animation, and movies, and the like?
John: I think basically it was just like, “Alright, well we need to get talent. We need to interview people.” And I just said, “Okay, well who am I working with today?” And I just asked them: “Hey man, I’m doing this documentary about voiceover. Do you want to be involved?” And we would get them on film. And once we got the ball rolling, once we got people interested in it-
Tommy: -the floodgates opened.
John: Yeah, people started talking about it, and then we had agents calling us.
Larry: The community really helped.
John: Yeah, the community definitely helped us out.
Tommy: It was like wildfire.
John: And that’s the thing about the people I work with. They’re just the most giving, the most wonderful people. The camaraderie involved in my industry is bar none…it’s unbelievable how generous of time and talent folks are. That’s one of the reasons why we made the film, too – just to showcase that.
Larry: And that’s an actual part of it. We talk about how we’re used to, in Hollywood, how people will backstab someone for a part or whatnot. And we noticed in this industry, people actually say, “You know what? I could do this, but do you know who would be better? John. You should give the job to John.” Or someone else.
John: Or I’ll be like, “Dee Bradley Baker, he needs to do this; you need to bring him in.”
Larry: They’ll really refer them other people.
John: Yeah, and it’s for real, you know?
That’s great! Now, with the rise of the internet, and fan conventions being more commonplace, do more people know your face? Has the experience of celebrity as a voice actor changed since, say, Mel Blanc’s time, and do you think that’s helped with getting interest for this film?
John: I don’t know, it’s kind of funny, because with voiceover – only down here do you get mobbed. Only at a convention do you get mobbed, where people know specifically what you do. Anywhere else…
Larry: And in Amsterdam.
John: Yeah, in Amsterdam, with German tourists; which freaked me out. But, well, anything will freak you out in Amsterdam, really, so; you know.
Larry: It’s like a living cartoon.
John: But it doesn’t really bother me [when I’m not recognized]. I didn’t get into it to have people go, “Oh my God, it’s him!” I just love to work. This is a perk, having people be a fan of your work. I love it; I mean it’s great, and I’m honored, you know – 3,000 people in a room freaking out, it’s incredible. But all I wanted to do was just showcase everybody; and I think we did that.
Larry: I would say also that we wanted to make the point that you might think it’s gimmicky being a voice of something and all that, but I really think our film kind of shows that these people aren’t so much ‘voice actors’ as much as they’re the best character actors you’ve ever seen in your life. And it just happens to be you’ve only heard them through their voices.
John: (in character) Thanks, Larry.
Larry: No problem, buddy! Promooootion!
So obviously people who are already fans are going to want to watch this; do you think you’re going to draw in a new crowd of people as well?
John: I think word of mouth will get around, I think people will be excited about it, and I think, like I said before: people love cartoons. People love cartoons. And I think that something will happen from that.
Tommy: Well I’m like the perfect example of the audience member. So basically, I liked cartoons, growing up as a kid, and then took a hiatus from them; and then the Simpsons kind of brought me back in there, but not knowing what goes on behind the scenes. Now after actually making this movie, now I know everything that goes on behind the scenes.
So do you think the documentary is also going to be a great resource for people who want to be voice actors?
John: It’s going to be a video bible for them.
Tommy: It’s very educational and very entertaining at the same time. A lot of laughs.
Did you learn something new while making this documentary?
Tommy: Don’t move John’s furniture.
John: Yeah – don’t move my furniture. Larry came into my house and started moving my furniture around during my interview.
Larry: It looked so much better, let me tell you.
John: Don’t move my goddamn furniture! Larry, get off my furniture! Goddammit!
Larry: The scratches are going to come out.
Okay, so now we know, don’t ever touch John DiMaggio’s furniture. He’s tall; he will hurt you…
John: Don’t ever touch my furniture! That shit is there for a reason. Dammit.
Can you say that like Tracy Morgan?
John: (in character) I’m tellin’ you that shit is there for a reason! You came in and moved my sculptures around, shiiiit. I’m tellin’ you right now.
What was the coolest experience each of you had making the documentary?
Tommy: Probably going to Big Bear Lake and going into Mel Blanc’s house, and interviewing his son Noel Blanc about Mel and listening to how Mel came out of a coma talking like Bugs Bunny.
John: Seeing the finished product. That was thrilling. And being here [at SDCC] and seeing everybody here for it.
Larry: Honestly I’d say all the interviews. With so many people I wouldn’t want to single anyone out; but I will say that actually going in to certain Futurama sessions, and getting to see John actually perform with some of the cast members; just getting to see that happen organically for me was probably one of the biggest treats.
That’s awesome; and thank you guys so much for your time.
Well, I hope you all enjoyed reading that as much as I enjoyed the interview! Not only were the guys awesome to talk to, but at the veeeery end, Bender even made an appearance. Shockingly, he wants everyone to read ComicMix.
Way back on August 26, 2010, Futurama gave us a look at the San Diego Comic-Con that will be held one thousand years later. Of course, everything about San Diego grew during the ensuing millennium – except for the San Diego Convention center. Oh, and the number of comics-related guests was reduced… to one.
Fittingly, that one was Sergio Aragones. I have no doubt that somebody will still be uncovering unpublished Aragones art in 3010.
More than a quarter of a million people pay to attend the annual SDCC. Yes, they have a registered trademark on the word “Comic-Con,” but since that term had been in common usage long before they applied for the mark, and is still being used by other shows across America, in my opinion this is theft. As a former promoter of a “Comicon” – the Chicago Comicon, from 1976 through 1985 – I will gladly testify on behalf of anybody who chooses to challenge this mark.
The show is supposed to be about comic books. It is a non-profit show, and it is a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) organization. Its mission statement is: “Comic-Con International: San Diego is a nonprofit educational corporation dedicated to creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular artforms, primarily through the presentation of conventions and events that celebrate the historic and ongoing contribution of comics to art and culture.”
This is a boldfaced lie. SDCC – I refuse to call it Comic-Con – has very, very little to do with comics. “Related popular artforms,” maybe, but that’s so nondescript it could cover flip books and porn. SDCC is about Hollywood. It’s about movies and movie producers. It’s about television and cable television networks. It’s about DVDs and Blu-Rays and phony mass-produced Hollywood collectibles and aging former celebrities desperately and sadly trying to be remembered. It is barely about “the historic and ongoing contribution of comics to art and culture.”
All those people, along with the press, the guests, the celebrities, and the exhibitors, occupy a building built to safely house a fraction their number. How the fire department certifies them is beyond me. Sardines would feel crowded on that convention floor, and if you suffer a heart attack or a stroke while there you had better have filed a will.
It comes as no surprise that I do not go to SDCC any longer. It’s not just because the hotels and the restaurants massively jack up their prices during the show, it’s not because of the crowds, it’s not because of the lack of sufficient plumbing and it’s not even because the San Diego Comic Con has precious little to do with comic books.
It’s because the next time some clown slaps me in the face with his backpack, I am going to take said backpack and shove it up his ass while loudly singing the Super Chicken theme song.
Not that we won’t be well-represented at the convention. ComicMixers in attendance will include Michael Davis (who will hate me for writing this column), Glenn Hauman, Adriane Nash, Marty Pasko, Sara Raasch, and Emily S. Whitten. I’m not certain about Denny O’Neil and Bob Greenberger. The rest of us are staying put… although Martha Thomases will be travelling over 6,000 miles in order to stay put. That’s a neat trick.
So feel free to approach any of these folks – most of us don’t bite, unless you’re wearing a backpack – and tell ‘em what you like about ComicMix and what you don’t like and what you’d like to see. Ask about ComicMix Pro Services, but do your homework: click on that big ol’ button up there at the top of this page.
But there’s another reason I’m staying out east this week. Those of us staying behind in New York City?
Looks like it is just Interview Central around here these days, folks. Because following up on last week’s column, in which I briefly recapped my Awesome Con DC experience and posted my interview with the fantastic Phil LaMarr (go read/listen if you missed it last week! Good stuff!), I now get to share with you my Awesome Con DC interview with the excellent Billy West! Hooray!
Even if you somehow haven’t heard the name Billy West, before, I almost guarantee you’ve heard his voice. Voicing everything from classic cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Woody Woodpecker, and Popeye to four of the main characters on Futurama (Philip J. Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, and Zapp Brannigan), Billy has voiced characters on a myriad of other shows as well, including title characters for Nickelodeon’s Doug and TheRen & Stimpy Show; and is also the current voice of product mascots Red the M&M and Buzz the Honey Nut Cheerios bee. Billy was also one of the voices of The Howard Stern Show from 1989 to 1995, where he did astonishing impressions of everyone from Johnny Carson and Al Michaels to an ailing Lucille Ball. (His Jay Leno is uncanny.) As a voice actor, Billy has an amazing range – going seamlessly from one character and reaction to another; and you can see some fun examples of that here. For a good time, I also recommend the Star Wars Trilogy: The Radio Play video, shot at ECCC last year and featuring Billy and a number of other talented voice actors doing the script of Star Wars in some of their iconic voices (including, for Billy, Stimpy, Fry, Farnsworth, and Zoidberg). My absolute favorite bit is when he does Porky Pig at about 45 minutes in. Seriously. You must watch it.
But quickly! Before I get lost in YouTube again: let’s get to the interview! If you want to listen to the interview (listen to it! He does Richard Nixon’s head in a jar!) you can do so here. Or, you can read the (slightly edited) transcript below!
Hello, this is Emily Whitten for ComicMix, here with Billy West at Awesome Con in DC. Billy, thank you for being here with us – and Billy is busy, so we’re doing this while he eats.
I ain’t that busy; I can talk with a mouth full of vegan sandwich.
That’s fair! So you are such an amazingly storied voice actor, etcetera…
Aww, thank you.
There’s a lot to talk about, but I’m going to try to distill it down a little bit. Let’s start with the earlier things; so – how did you decide to get into voice acting? Because I know you also are and were a musician; so what was the career path there?
Well, I remember I was like a little freak, you know? I was always running around making noises, and doing voices. Every time I wanted to play the piano – we didn’t have one, but if we were at somebody’s house – to me that was a golden opportunity. I just wanted to hear it, touch it, and make it do something; because the sonic world that I had going on in my head would dictate that I would go over there; but the thing was: I couldn’t play. And down comes the lid: “Can you not do that?” I heard that more than any other kid, probably, in the world, “Can you not do that?” And I was always trying stuff; it was peripheral and surreal; abstract stuff, but, you know.
I had a weird childhood. My house was a horror-house, and my dad was just, like, certifiable, and a drunk and a crazy; so I was growing up kind of terrified. And I was very hyper-vigilant. I could tune in to things – like I could tell you what kind of a night I was going to have by the way the car pulled up in the driveway, or the way the key went in the door. I was so in tune with people’s behaviors – you know, out of survival mode. But it also trained me, like a cop. I was becoming an observer; an extreme observer.
So from your experiences, you were able to be observant about people and how they acted and how they behaved, and so that would help you later on?
And I loved radio. Oh, I loved radio so much, because of the voices. And there were still some radio plays going on when I was a kid. There was a radio guy named Stan Frebergthat had a radio show; and he had one of my favorite voice guys on it, whose name was Daws Butler, and he did a lot of the Hanna-Barbera stuff. He was a little ball of fire, this Daws Butler; and I just came to know these people. But there was no way you could know anything about show business in those days; because there was no emphasis on it. That was for “other people.” You know, “Well who?” It was like: nobody in my town. I was such a geek, I had to hunt down the only other kid who had comic books, and he lived on the other side of town. I just set my inner GPS and found him. I just walked and walked until I found him somewhere.
So what kind of comics did you read, when you and this kid were growing up?
Silly stuff; we read the Marvel stuff – I didn’t mean that that was silly – [Marvel and] DC comics were not silly, they were exciting. But, like, Gold Key Comics were silly; there was The Fly, which was Archie Comics, and he was their superhero – and he fell by the wayside because the other machines were a little more happening and powerful. But I had the original issues of some really important comic books. I had secret origins of like, Batman and all of those. They came out around 1960; 1959, maybe 1961.
Do you still have them?
No. No, it went up my nose, heh.
Back in the day?
Well, do you still follow comics these days?
I try to. I like the revamps of stuff they’re doing. Because there’s so much time that has gone by, that these characters have been around, and eventually they’ve got to morph. You know, they’re not going to get older on us, even though they can dance in and out of timeframes, to show old Superman, like where he wound up.
Yeah; they did that, of course.
Yeah! And there are so many comic books that it’s tough to keep track of them.
Do you watch the movies?
I try to go to movies, yeah, when I can. I’m writing a lot, and I stay up late, late into the evening.
Oh, okay, what are you writing right now?
There are a couple of projects that I’ve got going with my partner that I worked with on Ren & Stimpy. His name is Jim Gomez; and we’ve put together five fully developed shows, most of them animated. We’re pitching them around town, and we’ll see what happens. I love doing what I’m doing – you know, I can be an objective fulfillment machine for the rest of my life – but at some point I do want to create or own something, and give myself the objective.
I think all creators feel that way – it just makes sense.
Yeah – I mean, but I will still always go and work for somebody else, probably doing voice-over.
Now you said that you love radio, and you’ve been on the radio – and I know when I was growing up, I heard you on K-Rock; so tell me, what was that experience like? I mean, I used to listen to that in the morning, when I was getting ready for school…
Didn’t you feel like there was subterfuge involved with that? Like you couldn’t just let everybody hear that.
Yeeeaaah; don’t tell my parents, okay? They didn’t like that show; they didn’t like Howard Stern. I had to be subtle about it.
Of course not. Of course not; but the people who listened to it got it. They understood that everything was silly. It was all about being totally silly in the face of the most horrific subjects.
And pushing boundaries.
Yes, pushing boundaries. It was very organic. We didn’t play records. And Howard was a great ringmaster; he knew, okay, when something’s enough. We’d beat it so far, that’s fine, let’s go to commercial and we’ll start something else. He’d always keep things moving.
And how did you end up working there? I know you’d worked in radio before that.
I was in radio in Boston, and I wasn’t a disc jockey. I was very creative, and showcasing the works of others for a living didn’t turn me on; because I would always feel like a curator in a museum. But these disc jockeys were really pompous about playing records, and it’s like, “Dude, you didn’t create the statues; you just dust them.” And I used to get reamed for having that type of attitude. It’s like, “You’re not allowed to unmask these icons,” and it’s like, “Screw you. You don’t do anything.” I was always surly because there was so much phoniness that used to drive me crazy. My heroes were the artists, not people who were famous for some cottage industry reason – like disc jockeys or TV show hosts. They’re not creating anything. So my heroes were never celebrities. It was always artists. And if they happened to be a celebrity that was a byproduct of their great artistic talent.
Right. So being on a show like The Howard Stern Show, where you got to interact and do your own thing, that was what you were looking for.
That was very appealing to me. And you had to be ready for anything.
So did that help you prepare in large part for the voice acting? And were you also doing voice acting some when you were on the show, or did that come later?
Well I’d already been doing voice acting in Boston, on the radio, and then when I went to New York there was just more of an opportunity to open up and to push myself to see what I was capable of. Plus, I had one of the funniest people in the universe lobbing in little lines here and there for me. But people said, “Ah, Jackie wrote everything for you.” Hey, yeah, sure: let me just talk straight, in a character, for seven minutes. A guy can’t write every bit of dialogue that you say for seven minutes. He can put in ideas, and you integrate them into your conversation. I mean, he did it for Howard all the time. But Howard was very generous; I mean, that’s like loaning somebody a nuclear weapon, that he would let Jackie Martling facilitate me.
And now when you were doing all of this, I know you also played guitar and had a band, and you’ve played guitar with Roy Orbison, Brian Wilson…
Oh, I opened up for a lot of famous guys that I knew growing up, like Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry, The Four Seasons, and Jan and Dean… And later on in life I actually got to play with Brian Wilson.
When was that happening, in comparison to the radio and the voice acting?
Radio just started happening as I was phasing out of playing music.
Okay, so that came a little bit before?
Yes, and then after a moratorium, when I did pick up again, in the future, as the years went by, I wound up playing with one of my idols, which was Brian Wilson.
So what was it like playing with Brian Wilson?
It was so strange; because the first time I played with him, we were at a little hall in Santa Monica, by the beach; and it was me and The Cars guitar player – Elliot Easton – and we were playing with Brian, and then a friend of mine was playing bass. We put together a little band; but I mean, I knew every note of the whole catalogue, I knew every harmony, I knew every chord change, because I was so into The Beach Boys. The Beatles and Jeff Beck; the English stuff was good. But The Beach Boys were our band. And it was like a dream, you know, just playing with Brian Wilson.
And then next thing, we’re at Lincoln Center. And then we played David Letterman. And it was crazy, I mean I’m playing these songs with Brian Wilson; and I still can’t get over it. You know, he did all those hot rod songs – girls, and cars, and fun – and we did 409 onstage, and he was singing 409, which is the old hot rod song, and in the chorus, “Nothing can catch her, nothing can touch my 409, 409,” I started going (hot rod revving noises), and he looked over with this happy, astonished smile, like a little child. He’s like: “What’s going on? But I love this, whatever you’re doing over there.”
Oh, that’s fantastic. So now obviously your voice acting is a large part of your career, and Futurama is a huge part of that – and you developed Philip Fry, well Philip J. Fry, if I’m doing the whole name —
— Well that’s because most cartoon characters’ middle initial is J. Rocket J. Squirrel; Homer J. Simpson; Stimpson J. Cat.
Yes. So when you were developing that character; you’ve said that Fry is similar to you at twenty-five; so when they had you in auditioning for Futurama, did they ask you to develop that character; did you come in saying “this is something I have,” or what?
They showed me the pictures when I went in, and there was some dialogue they wanted me to read; and…you know what it’s like – something, you look at it and it just gives you an impression, and depending on your experience, or your talent, or your intuition, you’re hoping that you’ll come up with what they’re looking for. And all of them were pretty much very close to what I gave them. They described Fry, and I said, “You know what? I don’t do this very often, but I’m going to just use my own voice, like when I was twenty-five.” I remember, I was very whinyyy, and complainyyy, and I just know I had a plain vanilla voice. I had no idea I had this wild animal in my throat somewhere; this big clumsy beast that could do anything. You know, I really didn’t know back in those days. Because I was singing and playing. But I would go in and do voices on stage like when we blew up an amp, or a string snapped, or whatever. Out of embarrassment, I would just keep going and entertaining. Might not have been the music or anything, but people loved it. Launching into characters that I would make up, and imitate, or whatever.
Right. And now, on Futurama, you do a lot of the voices. How did that come about?
They would just keep showing me pictures, and I auditioned for everybody, including Bender. I played him as a construction worker, and John DiMaggio came in and mopped the floor with that audition. He played him as kind of a punch-drunk fighter.
Yes, Bender is a great voice.
Oh, it’s beautiful. And it developed into what it is. In the beginning, none of us sounded like who we were. I mean, that’s who we thought we were, at the time, but voices morph. You listen to an episode #10 from The Simpsons, and you listen to the 200th episode, and it’s like, “Huh?” Well, Homer Simpson was like (voice impression), and then later on he developed all of these other facets that make the character so interesting and believable.
Yes. Now in Futurama, or your other roles, what are your favorite characters to play or have played? And what were the most difficult?
I love doing all the characters, and I love them equally; so I can’t pick out a favorite. Because I just try to bring so much imagination to it. I was always trying to do something nobody had done, and that served me well. I didn’t want to mimic people. I could do it – I’ve held up franchises. I did four years of Woody Woodpecker; and Popeye…the works, you know? But you only make your mark for real if you start creating and it catches on. And you have faith that you’re just as good as those impressions that you relied on; that were your little power base.
Right, well because they were starting out once, and they made up those voices, and so why not you? And so what was the most difficult voice to do?
I don’t know; I know that I had become fearless; totally fearless. I’m not afraid of anything, and I’m willing to try anything. I’m willing to fail. I was like that in comedy clubs. Because it didn’t make sense to me – why should I memorize twelve minutes worth of material and then go out and pretend every night that I’d just thought of it? I needed stakes. I needed real things at stake like dying or bombing [on stage]. I really did, and I wasn’t afraid to.
Did you do a lot of stand-up?
Not a lot. A little bit, and then I got into radio, and that was it. Stand-up is very, very hard. There are guys that are just so, so amazing at it and everything. But my forte was not stage performance, doing stand-up. My forte was radio; and that was a bigger playground. You could dodge in and out of characters, and you didn’t even have to have written material; you could ad-lib while you’ve got these crazy voices going back and forth.
In your voice work, how much do they want you to or let you ad-lib?
They want to get what they want to get; ideally, what they had in mind. And then after you do that and they’re happy with it, they ask you if you thought of anything, or you want to add or bring something; and a lot of times I would, and a lot of times it made it in. A lot of it just winds up – they want more rather than less. Because that way they have options; they can play with stuff they didn’t think would work and all of a sudden, oh my God, it works beautifully.
Right. Because sometimes improvisation is the best part of life.
Yeah; but it’s also this constant wonderment of discovery – whether something’s going to work or not. That’s exploration. It’s like, you try to control every aspect of everything as much as you can, but when serendipitous things happen, like, “What was that thing you just did?” “Oh, you mean this?” and they’d say, “Yeah, what if he just goes right into that?”
Like when I did Nixon – I’m old enough to remember when Nixon was running for President, and John F. Kennedy, and they did the debate on TV. And I was astonished at how perfect Kennedy looked – like a game show host, with his perfect teeth, and his buttered-toast hair. He was made for TV. Nixon was made for wanted posters. He looked like a stolen car. And he was (in character) “shifty-eyed, and he was nervous and…ar-rar-rar.” And he was sweating. While the interview was continuing, he was getting worse, and his beard was coming in; you could practically see the bottom half of his face get darker and darker. And I said to my mom, “Mom, he’s going to turn into a werewolf!” Because I loved horror movies, like with Lon Chaneyslowly turning into the werewolf. Nixon was kind of almost there – lycanthropic. So he was just doing his thing, and I said, “That’s awful; he’s almost unwatchable.”
And then years later, I get the chance to do Nixon, as a head in a jar, and I would say something like, (in character) “You filthy hippies, get off the grass outside this White House,” and then all of a sudden I would go: (werewolf noises). Like I was changing. You know, just replacing words with noises and stuff.
Hah, wow. I know it’s hard work, but it just sounds like so much fun.
Well, you gotta keep coming up with new bags of tricks, and keep expanding them and everything. That’s how you keep working.
Now you were saying earlier that you have essentially had conversations with yourself. Some examples of that are Farnsworth introducing Fry to Zoidberg [in Futurama], and then Doug and his arch-nemesis. How do you deal with that; how does that work in your head? Because that seems to be even a double challenge over consistently trying to sound a certain way.
It’s like I had my boot camp training in Boston doing consecutive voices. Because I got a job as a producer; and there’s no producer school you can go to. I had to learn how to splice tape, and I had to learn how to write and create my own characters and bits; and then put it together so it could be air-able; with sound effects, and music, and everything. I didn’t quite know what I was doing, but I just did it.
And it works for you!
Yeah, I mean, I’m very strange in that way; like I still, to this day, can’t tie my shoes properly, I just can’t. And a necktie, I have problems with. I can’t do anything practical; but if you ask me to do something only like, four or five other people in the world can do, I have no problem.
So now as a voice actor, what’s the experience of celebrity? How do you experience that as someone who’s mostly known by different voices, so someone might not actually know, talking to you, that yours was the voice they’ve heard on shows?
Well, celebrities were never my heroes. Never. To this day, I don’t give a dismal damn, really, whether Kim’s having problems with her pregnancy, or whatever. It’s like, “Fuck you.” You know what? Anybody who can fart the national anthem can become a celebrity. Any stupid-looking bald guy can throw on an earring and a goatee and a leather jacket, and now he’s Pawn Stars. And they pose these guys like rappers, like album covers; they’re all big, bad, and bald – and they’re basically lucky imbeciles, because show business ain’t what it was anymore, now it’s supposed to be “reality.” These guys just have to be who and what they are. And then they learn how to act; because they go, “I like this ride very much;” and they know it’s going to be over, and they want to stay in that business. They don’t want to go back to oblivion.
Yes. So how do you interact with fans? And do some people just know your whole oeuvre? What is that experience like?
There’s people that know more about me than I do. Because I can’t remember every little fiddle-faddle, you know? But I’m just grateful; I’m so grateful – I mean, what are the odds that there would be people in this world that would put aside time in their life to know what you do, and to follow it? It’s mind-blowing to me; it’s surreal – and it still is, to this day.
Well that’s a great and very humble attitude.
Well, I mean, I know. I know the drill, I know the deal. You have to somehow connect in one way or another with people who admire you; and hopefully you’ll keep up the same standard of work that turned them on in the first place. So I always try to – whatever new thing comes along, I just try to come in like gangbusters; you know, get some attention. Like, I like to turn tables over, bash chairs. You know, when I first went to New York I was like a Terminator. I got all skinny because I knew I was going to be walking everywhere, and auditioning; and I used to listen to bagpipe music.
Yeah, because I’m half Irish; and when I hear bagpipe music, it makes this Celtic side of me boil, and prepares you to go into battle. I’d be galvanized, like I was marching into a glen with my compatriots, and we’re all going to get stabbed and shot; but it’s okay, because we’re doing it for the right reason. And I used to listen to all these bagpipes, going up 2nd Avenue, 3rd Avenue, to work, and I would get to the audition, and I’d feel like a Terminator.
Like you were ready. That’s fantastic. Speaking of getting ready for new things; what are you working on currently that we should be looking forward to?
I’m doing some kids’ stuff. I never used to get hired by Disney; because I wasn’t their kind of guy, you know what I mean? The stuff I did was very Gothic and dark-ish, like screaming and yelling and very dramatic. But I got this show called The 7D; and I’m playing Bashful, because the 7D are the seven dwarves. (Singing) “We’re The Seven D,” and they get a beautiful, cute song and everything. And I love it; I love it to pieces.
And is that out now, or coming out?
It’s coming out. And I was doing some voice work for Avengers Assemble. There’s a character called Rocket Raccoon. So I’m doing him. (In character) “Yeah, he’s got kind of like a Joe Pesci. And like, Steve Buscemi.” “Blood has been spilled, Jerry. I’m through fuckin’ around wit’ you, Jerry.” But somehow he has that voice. I thought it would be perfect to just tweak it; and it’s not a dead-on impression – I could care less about that. What it is, is: “Is it funny? Is it interesting? Does it fit?” I did a bunch of hours of recording the other day. And then I have my projects going. That keeps me busy because I’m always writing. I stay up all hours and stuff, but it’s a labor of love, so you feel energized somehow.
Yeah! Well I hope that we see some of that from you soon.
I hope you do, too.
And thank you so much for this interview.
• • • • •
Nope, it was totally my pleasure, Billy. You’re delightful.
Big thanks to Billy West for the interview, and big thanks to the ever-helpful Kevin O’Shea, producer for Made of Fail Productions, for cleaning up the audio file for me. (And as ever, check out the Made of Fail podcasts for fun geek-tastic discussions, in which I have actually appeared a couple of times.)
That’s all for now, and until next week, when I’ll be sharing my interview with the talented cartoonist Nick Galifianakis, Servo Lectio!
Last week I had the distinct honor and privilege of dining with my fellow ComicMix columnist Martha Thomases. Whereas I’d love to squawk on and on about the finest fried chicken I’ve ever eaten in Manhattan, it was after I left to go home when things got interesting, weird, surreal… and dangerous.
I got to my commuter train just in time to make the 9:07. I’d be home by 10:15. Not bad. We arrived on time in Harlem at 9:17 and proceeded up to the Bronx… where we came to a dead halt at approximately 178th Street and Park Avenue. After a few minutes we were told we were being delayed by a “police action.” OK; that’s life in the big city. I commenced to read the latest issue of Futurama Comics on my iPad. Then another announcement: oh, geez, they were mistaken. No police activity. The train broke down. It was a brand-new train, built by the Canadian company Bombardier. They set about to fix it.
Then the power went out. The emergency lighting was fine and my iPad had its own luminosity, but there was no air circulation and the temperature started to rise – quickly. People began to look at those emergency windows; you know, the ones that you can pop out in case the train is derailed and Bruce Campbell is walking around with a machete.
Some time later they said they power pads that draw the juice from the third rail had been ripped off, probably due to debris on the track. They’re working on it. Yeah, right. I started wondering if a texted last will and testament would hold up in court. Then they announced the train was, in fact, broken, and they were awaiting a diesel engine to tow us back to Harlem where, “hopefully,” there would soon be a train to which we could transfer.
The crowd started getting testy. Perhaps hypoglycemic shock is communicable.
Later still we were rammed by a coupling engine and it was announced all they had to do was hook up the air brakes and we’d be Harlem bound. A half hour later, they admitted they couldn’t get the brakes to work. Plan B: they’d find another train, bring it alongside mine, shut down the third rail and we’d bridge over to the new train. A few people who had been around that block said that would take at least an hour because they only open two doors for the bridge and everybody would have to walk through all the cars to get to the transfer point, then walk through the new train to find a seat. A few people started to freak.
Two ladies who evidently flunked out of their Connecticut finishing school started swearing profusely. Aside: why is it women are not very creative in their choice of curse words? “Fucking liars” is simply notsufficient. The situation called for something like “Jesus fuck a shit soufflé, these in-bread assholes couldn’t stack a pile of Ritz Crackers without a goddamned schematic.” Note to self: look into conducting training sessions for the malediction impaired.
Before long one of my comrades-in-boredom started screaming. Another started wailing. The lady sitting next to me kept on tossing her used Kleenex on the floor, along with her half-eaten food. I looked around to see if anybody had grown a Joker smile.
Eventually a train pulled alongside and maybe 15 minutes later the train bridge was in place and the third-rail was powered down. We made the long march to our new magic carpet ride. Of course, the new train was two cars shorter. The third rail was powered up and the air brake checks started.
And… they didn’t work.
And people went nuts. Remember the “preparing for crash landing” scene in Airplane?
I reconsidered my attitude towards zombies. Finally, after a platoon of train people manually pumped the air brakes into action (and yes, that looks as obscene as it sounds), we slowly moved forward. They apologized and said the next stop was Stamford. I said to myself “yeah, but will we be able to stop?” Then some guy made that very same statement out loud. Nobody laughed.
As we picked up speed, I noticed that one of my fellow travelers was Green Arrow.
No shit. Look carefully at the photo atop this column. This was not Photoshopped.
I got home just before 1 AM. One of our cats was waiting in the window, tapping his watch. Yes, he’s got a Mickey Mouse watch. You need a sense of humor to make it through the day in my house.
Of course, this was a fart in a blizzard next to the horrors of those riding that Carnival cruise ship, but my respect for my fellow Connecticuttians hit a new low, as my enthusiasm for the creators of Futurama Comics grew proportionately.