Fans of MTV in the '90s may remember a skit show called Red Johnny and the Round Guy, one of several attempts at launching more comedy on the music network, along with such shows as The State and You Wrote It, You Watch It. While not necessarily huge hits at the time, those shows helped launch the careers of the likes of Jon Stewart, Thomas Lennon, Ben Garant...and Red Johnny himself, a.k.a. John DiMaggio, whom you all know better nowadays as Bender from Futurama.
Didn't know that was him? Well, that's part of the point behind DiMaggio's new documentary, I Know That Voice. Lifting the metaphorical curtain of secrecy surrounding the recording booth, DiMaggio (who executive-produced and is heavily featured) and director Lawrence Shapiro introduce the audience to many of the faces behind their favorite cartoon voices. We couldn't not mention Bender in talking to DiMaggio, but our discussion touches on many voice-over topics...as well as what the future may hold for our favorite alcoholic android.
Luke Y. Thompson: On behalf of a site named Topless Robot, it's an honor to talk to the top robot on TV.
John DiMaggio: (laughs) Thank you very much.
LYT: I was just looking up your bio. It's been ages since I've thought about Red Johnny and the Round Guy.
JDM: Oh my god. You actually remember Red Johnny and the Round Guy?
LYT: I do. I remember one skit where you were like, "You can go to church, or you can go to hell."
JDM: That's it! That was one of our big bits. That's funny. You remembered the big bits. Very good!
LYT: So how did you segue from that into voice acting?
JDM: It's interesting that you mention that. It's really where I started to do a lot of character voices on stage. And that's - when I wanted to start doing voiceover, I talked to my manager at the time and said I was interested in doing voiceover, and she hooked me up with a voiceover agent. She said, "I've got a guy, John DiMaggio, and he's ready." He said, "John DiMaggio? Who's that?" She said, "Red Johnny from Red Johnny and the Round Guy." He said, "Oh my god! Red Johnny!" And that's how I got a voiceover agent.
That's how I started, and I booked the first audition that I got. It was a radio commercial for Toyota in New York. [changes voice to New York accent] I played one of these guys. Yeah, oh! [/voice] It was really funny. That's how it all really started, and then when I got out here, to Los Angeles, there wasn't a lot of television and radio stuff to do. It was more animation. And so getting to play different characters with that was really great, and then when I got Futurama, it all changed.
LYT: The movie kind of touches on it peripherally, but a couple of years ago, Chris Rock had a famous routine at the Oscars where he said voice acting wasn't work. Is that part of the impetus to make this movie?
JDM: Um, you know, It was a little bit. It was more to be the Wizard of Oz and show what's going on behind the curtain. That was more what we wanted to do. The movie was born from an idea, we were - Larry and I - Larry Shapiro, the director; Lawrence to his mother and father - but Larry and I were in Amsterdam for Jam in the Dam. He was shooting footage and I was emceeing it. He brought me on to emcee, just to keep the crowd going between shots and stuff like that. I whipped out the Bender voice onstage, and these four German tourists freaked out - they were like, "You do the robot voice?"
It was weird. We went to the bar after, in between sets - actually, while the band was playing - and they came over to us, and they freaked out. Larry was like, "Dude, we have to document this. We have to figure out a way. This is incredible. This is a wild story." And that's how I Know That Voice was born. It started in 2009, and we got Tommy Reid on board, our producer. We got 160 hours' worth of material, over 150 interviews, just incredible. And now it's coming out in January - January 7th. Full circle.
LYT: Nice! A lot of regular, non-voice actors took offense to the Chris Rock bit on behalf of voiceover actors. Did it offend a lot of people in the voice-acting community, or did they just take it as a joke?
JDM: I mean, it kind of offended us. It kind of offended us. It was like, "Really, dude?" All he does is his own voice. That's it. He isn't doing anything else. It's a different thing. You're not working. You're not doing anything. All you're doing is reading it off the paper. So it's like, whatever - people came to our defense, and we came to our own defense, and it's all good. People can think what they want. You can't - it's an opinion, whatever. He took a slap on the wrist for it, so that's it. People are going to say what they're going to say.
LYT: From the outside, it sort of seems like it would be a more lonely profession, to go into a booth and record versus being on a set and interacting with actors. I know some animations put everyone in the same room together...
LYT:...but it really feels like it's more of a community from this movie, which is the opposite of what you'd think. You'd think of it as a very lonely thing. How does that all come together? Is it like a community?
JDM: Oh, absolutely! I think that one of the things I wanted this movie to do was to let these people that I work with, my peers, hear the applause. You know what I mean?
JDM: It's like, they need to get a pat on the back and hear the applause and the room roar, because we don't really get to do that. We love what we do, and we don't have to be famous or anything like that. We get it - it's OK. We're already good. This wasn't to make anybody famous, it was just to shine the light a little bit, and I think the movie does that. It's really something. My peers are a bunch of talented, talented folks, and I just wanted to show everybody - that's all.
LYT: Is it still accurate to think you do a lot of it in isolation, or do directors more and more put people together?
JDM: No, we do a lot more ensemble recordings than you think. That's when - I was just saying, that's when the magic happens. That's when there's the show behind the show, when the actors are in the room together and there's camaraderie between us, and we're all tossing jokes around and seeing what sticks. That's really - there's always something goofy going on in an ensemble recording, if you have the right people in the room, and normally you do. So yeah, it definitely happens a lot more than you think.
LYT: I found it very interesting in the movie where you show people acting different races than they are. You could never get away with that in live-action.
JDM: Yeah, totally. It's totally great, because you get to play. You really get to perform, and do something that you normally wouldn't get to do if you were on camera. You can't do blackface - that's offensive. But if I'm playing a character, and he's from a certain place, a certain time period, hey, you know, that's all that is right there. You really get to play, and you really get to explore. You really get to stretch your range, and show what you can do, and use the environment that you came up in, and be able to have that as something that's in your side pocket that you can whip out.
LYT: You don't really deal in this film a whole lot with the new sort of motion-capture animation. Is that something that's easier for a live actor to do, or for a voiceover artist to do? What do you think?
JDM: It depends on the kind of shape that the voice actor is in. I just did some MoCap, my first time, and it was pretty cool! It's kind of a mixture of both. You really have to have a wonderful imagination to be in a MoCap suit and performing and shooting scenes for a video game, or whatever it is. I sometimes say voice acting is like acting with your hands and feet tied behind your back. I think MoCap is voice acting, but as a marionette. [chuckles] It's pretty cool. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed doing MoCap. That was a lot of fun, and a lot of the actors that were in the room were VO people, which is interesting.
LYT: And then there is the sort of half-way between, like Rango, where they film the actors performing in a studio, and then base the animation on it without motion capture.
JDM: Yeah, that was innovative. That was really cool. That was really cool stuff. Rango. They should do something else with that.
LYT: So I understand that there is going to be a Futurama/Simpsons crossover episode coming up. Have you recorded that yet?
JDM: There is. Yes, we have recorded it. We recorded it a couple of months ago, and it's really, really funny, and it'll be airing in May. I think the middle of May. So whatever Sundays are in the middle of May, check those dates! [chuckles] I don't want to give a bad date, but check your local listings. Yes, Bender plus Homer equals comedy. It's really, really funny, and we had a really fun time recording it. That table read was a trip!
LYT: Now I'm sure you probably can't tell me much about it, but does it address the fact that Futurama had a closed loop ending, or does it open that loop up again?
JDM: I'm not saying nothin'!! [laughter] You're going to have to find out for yourself. That's funny. I've got to leave you hanging on that!
LYT: I've got to try.
JDM: Yeah, right.