A Blanc Slate
Last week I took a class called Getting Paid to Talk: Making Money with Your Voice. I had never seen this class in our local Parks and Recreation catalogue—usually dedicated to Acting for Youngstars! or Wine Glass Fun. As the title bordered on George Carlin’s superfluous redundancy, I wanted to attend, but could not commit until that day, as children have a habit of ruining the best-laid plans.
I was a child when voices first captured my attention. Yes, I get we all were children when first fascinated by speech, but my concern was delivery. Daffy’s lisp, Porky’s stutter, the Kentucky drawl of Foghorn and da Brooklyn cant of Bugs. I grew up with Looney Tunes the way American education used to teach rhetoric, before it gave up. We watched Disney movies at the Rec Center—a different Rec Center, not the Wine Glass Center—back when video stores were not yet born now long dead, and cable included the cord connecting your TV to thirty-seven possible channels. The only thing on demand was our need to be specific places to watch specific things when other people did the same. The images caught our attention, but the voices kept it. Every one was distinct, and many times they had to be to help differentiate the characters. These products began in an age of radio, when actors used their talents aurally, because they could not offer an audience (Audio, Audire, Audivi, Auditus—to hear) any talents visually.
Less was more. Less to express provoked more range of character, and less to experience provoked more common interest. Less fractions, more whole numbers. Not that I would trade the internet for life around a fire, but both have their place. And many of us remain the generation swinging reckless across that spectrum. As such we look tenderly at the past, while grasping for the future.
I never liked Hanna Barbera. Not that I didn’t watch everything they animated, including the horrible Laff-A-Lympics. Mimics of Paul Lynde, Phil Silvers, and Curly Howard were often my first encounter with comedic archetypes, and comedy found a roost in animation that drama never desired to perch. Comedy played to childhood more than drama ever tried, still does for the most part. Then came The Simpsons.
The first six years of The Simpsons coincide with the last six years of my public education. Matt Groening unleashed an honestly dysfunctional family in a pretentiously dysfunctional world, and before we were asked to care who shot Mr. Burns, the show threw nothing but heat and break-neck change-ups, to chance a baseball analogy. Fast and unrelenting. Like the tire fire in the opening credits, the comedy was timeless, eternal. Great writing made every line a quote, but every quote could be ruined when repeated by we mere mortals when the cast delivered them perfectly. I was talked out of writing my college essay on Hank Azaria because applications were serious business, and no one had the internet to cross-reference the importance of trivialities.
I thought of that aborted essay when I discovered the voice class. I also thought about the money. More than once the cast of The Simpsons has used collective bargaining to cut a bigger piece of Fox’s pie. In 2004 that number was $360,000 per episode. Long past the point of innovative satire, they let successors like South Park, Family Guy, and Futurama (il)legitimize an artform previously meant for children during primetime hours. And everyone made money. Kevin Pollak, no stranger to vocal impressions, once described Hank Azaria’s New York bachelor pad as “The House that Apu Built” on his Chat Show. On the 25 January 2010 episode (#51), Pollak interviewed Billy West and John DiMaggio, who aired their grievance about celebrities lending voice to major motion animated pictures for ridiculous amounts of money:
West: I don’t like it because it sort of invalidates what I spent my life doing. I mean I’d love to be able to waltz in anywhere and just go, ‘Okay, just, I’m just gonna be me. You know, he’s a fish, okay, I know how to be a fish. He’s a Christmas tree that talks, I know how to be a Christmas tree that talks. Just let me read the words.’ But I don’t have that luxury, I mean, I have to keep expanding my bag of tricks or they’ll just find somebody…
Pollak: It’s all about creating something brand new, that doesn’t exist, until you decide it does.
West: Well, you’re tailoring something. That’s the craft. It’s alchemy…When you watch the cartoon there’s an alchemy that just turns from lead into gold. You know, you start here, and then there’s this whole other thing. But with celebrities there’s no magic. That portion of the equation is deleted. You know—what’s her name—Shrek—
Pollak/DiMaggio: Cameron Diaz
West: She made twenty million dollars. You know, for sitting there, ‘And this is my fairy princess voice.’…We know June Foray. Have you worked with June?
DiMaggio: Nah, I met her once…
West: June Foray is still alive. June Foray is the voice actress of the world. She did Natasha Nogoodnik, on Rocky and Bullwinkle. She did Rocky J. Squirrel. She was all the hags in those Bugs Bunny cartoons. And she did tons of voices on Rocky and Bullwinkle, as fairy princesses and matron—matriarchical queens, and stuff. What’s June to make of, like, some startlet coming in and making twenty million dollars from rolling down from Mount Olympus to a recording studio and then out again. She must be hitting herself in the head with a hammer. ‘This is what I spent my life? And I never got the big payday.’ I understand why it has to be like that, with stunt casting, because people respond to names. But what I want to ask, is if it becomes the trend for 3-D animation, and there’s no more live-action, where are the new cartoon stars of tomorrow going to come from? It’s going to be the same list of people that do them anyway…[quiet] You can’t lose our star system. It’s very precious, you understand.
Pollak: Yeah, because it’s so fleeting. That’s why—
West: Yeah, there’s about only eighty million people that can piss circles around half the people that are famous. And you’ve never heard of them. How bitter does that sound?
Jay Mohr interviewed his old friend John DiMaggio a few years after Futurama came back on the air, impressed with all of his success voice acting:
Mohr: You are, arguably, one of the most successful voiceover guys, certainly, of the generation certainly…And if you’re—twenty years from now just getting paid paid, doing voiceovers, like Tom Kenny money, are you happy…
DiMaggio: I’m doing that now. Like, it’s alright. Like, I’m just working, man. Everything is—everything is alright. I’m just keeping busy. As long as I can keep busy, I’m alright, ya know. I’m kinda in a sweet spot right now…Workwise.
(Episode 137, 3/1/2013)
Kenny: Fortunately for me, guys like Steve Hillenburg that created SpongeBob, you know, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross—people who have employed me over the years—I guess they need a guy like me on their show. So that’s good. You need a third baseman on your team. So, you know, luckily I’m an okay third baseman.
Maron: But—but you’re not! In the sense that with SpongeBob you’re the star, whether you like it or not.
Kenny: Yeah. Nominally.
Maron: What do you mean, nominally? You’re SpongeBob.
Kenny: Well, yeah, I’m the voice of this character, yeah. I chann—I feel like part of the gig that I do now is—
Maron: He’s the star of the show.
Kenny: Yeah! He’s the titular—can I say that?
Kenny: He’s the titular character. Part of the job that I do now, and it’s a lesson that I really learned from all those years of stand-up, that stands me in good stead with the VO thing, is inhabiting that character. You know you work on, I worked on, my IMDB is crazy when you look at it.
Maron: You’ve done every voice.
Kenny: It’s—it’s pretty nuts.
Maron: Somewhere right now you’re talking for an animated character.
Maron: Right now, you’re talking on a television.
Kenny: Yes, usually on basic cable, unfortunately, so I gotta keep out there hustling.
Maron: But every hour though. Every hour there’s somewhere in this world—
Kenny: I’m not making those Simpsons network bucks.
(Episode 324, 10/15/2012)
Returning to those network bucks, Maron interviewed Hank Azaria just last month:
Azaria: …I’ve been really lucky. I hit kinda the show business lottery.
Maron: Yeah, you won life.
Azaria: Yes, with The Simpsons. And when you make that much money, and you start enjoying that much money, I mean, you don’t have to like go the whole root of like you know how some young rock stars or some sports guys, young athletes will go blowing it all. But you then create a lifestyle for yourself that you—traps you.
Maron: Right, that you have to feed. It’s like a money—uh—it’s like shoveling money into an oven to just run this machine that is your life.
Azaria: That’s a lot why I downsized a few years ago. I’m like, What am I doing? This is crazy.
(Episode 382, 4/29/2013)
So the moral of voice acting? The lucky ones work hard at their craft and make money for their talent. The very lucky ones pull back towards the modesty and anonymity their versatile talents inherently generate. And proper voice acting is the antithesis of celebrity.
But not the antithesis of recognition. Everyone wants something for their efforts, and recently John DiMaggio decided to identify some of Billy West’s eighty million. I Know That Voice is expected to come out some time this year.
If that’s not enough, how about this? Mark Hamill with an open shirt!
Anyways, I made it to the class that night, and learned for $4600 I could learn how to refine and advertise my inherent abilities for narrative. According to the experts I’m more David McCullough than Mel Blanc. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to spend time with my kids on Memorial Day. Maybe we’ll watch Star Wars.