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An Interview with Bob Bergen

Bob Bergen

A few months ago, when I started interviewing famous creative talents as part of a new hobby, one of the first people to agree to an interview was voice actor Bob Bergen. For those who aren’t aware of Bob, he’s the current voice of Porky Pig in the new Looney Tunes cartoons and has lent his voice to many Studio Ghibli dubs. Unfortunately, Bob never had the time to come on to skype for a chat because of his hectic schedule as a voice actor so I sadly couldn’t interview him via audio call. Then, it recently hit me that there was also the choice of the written word. So, I emailed him to send me answers through an alternative method and he suggested MP3 files. So, I urge you to read on as I chat to the man who kept a classic cartoon character alive, Bob Bergen.

Jambareeqi: Let’s start at the beginning, can you tell me about your childhood?

Bob: Pretty typical and fun.  I was a normal Midwest kid, nothing out of the ordinary or unusual. My parents are still married, 52 plus years. I was born in St. Louis, grew up there till I was about 8, my dad then took a job in Cincinnati then he took a job in L.A. when I was 14, so I’ve lived in Los Angeles since I was 14 and so yeah I’ve had a really good childhood.

Jambareeqi: So what was school like for you?

Bob: I was the class clown, I was the kid who when a teacher would ask me a question, I would answer the question like the teacher and I was always doing voices. I can remember being sent to the principal’s office for doing voices in class or imitating a teacher. I had this one principal who asked me who I imitated and when I told him, he said “Do it”. He said if I did it well and made him laugh then he would send back to class but if I did it bad then I would get detention. He was like my first critic.

Jambareeqi: When did you first take an interest in voice acting?

Bob: When I could first put words together, I’ve ALWAYS done voices and I’ve always been a big fan of cartoons. I had a tape recorder by the TV at all times, I would tape and memorize cartoons constantly and it was an obsession. I knew that I wanted to be an actor and I knew I wanted to do voices for cartoons since I could talk. I just never knew there was industry for it.

Jambareeqi: What was your first voice over audition?

Bob: “Spiderman and his amazing friends”, it got me my union card and I had a friend who set up the audition for me. I had just signed with my first agent.

Jambareeqi: Ever since “Tiny Toons”, you’ve provided the voice of Porky Pig. How did you feel when you were awarded with this role?

Bob: Kind of excited. It was a long process and I had about a dozen auditions over a long time. One of my last auditions was for Chuck Jones, I went to shake his hand, I was very nervous and he asked me why I was so nervous, I said “I’m about to do Porky Pig for Chuck Jones, it’s like doing Jesus for God!” Pretty cool how I found out I got the job for Tiny Toons, I was at a job, my mother was house sitting for me in a brand new condo, waiting for a couch to be delivered and she was the one who took the phone call from my agent. So that was pretty cool because she always knew this was a huge goal for me.

Jambareeqi: How did you feel about taking on a character that was previously voiced by Mel Blanc?

Bob: Well there will never be another Mel Blanc, Mel was an original, Mel Blanc was a genius and I don’t think that any of us that do these classic characters come close to his genius. I’m asked the entire time do I work on sounding like Mel Blanc? No, I work on sounding like Porky Pig. I work on the integrity of the character and I bow to the legend that was Mel Blanc. I will never get close to the character because who Porky is, is also who Mel was. Same with Jim Henson and Kermit the frog, there’s a heart there, there’s a soul, more than just a voice and I will never have that because I’m not Mel Blanc.

Jambareeqi: Were there any cartoon characters or voice actors from the golden age that inspired you when growing up?

Bob: Sure, June Foray. I met June Foray when I first moved to LA, when I was 14. I was attending an ASIFA show in Woodland Hills at a mall; they were doing a live reading of “The Bullwinkle Show” with Bill Scott, Hans Conried and June Foray. When I got there, I saw this tiny lady on her hands and knees, searching for something on a stage. I asked her “What are you looking for?” and she said “I lost my favourite gold pin that my late husband gave me” I asked “Would you like some help looking for it?” and she said “Sure”.

I got down on my hands and knees to help her look for it. I said “My name is Bob”, she said “I’m June Foray” and I thought oh my God, I’m ass to ass with Rocky the flying squirrel. We became very good friends over the years and I would keep in touch with June. One of my day jobs was a tour guide at universal, she would always come and take my tour and bring friends in from out-of-town. The first time I got to work with June was for “Tiny Toons”, I was doing Tweety and she was doing Granny, it was such a thrill because I had known her since I was 14.

Jambareeqi: You were responsible for the voice of the character Lupin the third in the early streamline dubs of the Lupin films and series. What’s interesting is that you’ve played the role in both “The Secret of Mamo” and “The Castle of Cagliostro”. Both depictions of Lupin III are VERY different between those movies. In “The Secret of Mamo”, Lupin is more sleazy and zany while “The Castle of Cagliostro” has a cleaner and heroic depiction of Lupin. Did this affect the way you voiced him?

Bob: Well sure because it’s all about the writing, when you’re actor, it’s your job to bring the script to life and it’s not a deep answer to your question but I was just doing what the script asked. I was given the script and played the character as written.

Jambareeqi: Now, you provided vocals for the some of the Gremlins in Joe Dante’s “Gremlins”. Can you tell me how that came about?

Bob: Well, Gremlins was one of my first auditions in the business and kind of a funny story. My first audition was November I was told call backs were going to be in December and they were going to start recording in January. I had my first audition in November, I remember going to this sound editor’s office and they asked all kinds of strange vocal requests. I remember one of them was “Can you do the sound of a Gremlin exploding in a microwave?” and my first question was “What’s a Gremlin?” because there were no pictures, no storyboard, I didn’t know the story; I knew nothing about the film.

He said “Imagine a creature sort of like the little bunny dude with Jabba the Hutt but more evil. Somebody puts him in a microwave and turns it on, full power, what would it sound like when the Gremlin cooks and explodes?” and so I just kind of went (Bob makes the noise of the Gremlin being cooked in a microwave, it’s awesome and I am stunned). Then they wanted me to say things like “Kaka”, “Gizmo Kaka” and “Gusto” was one of the words I remember from the audition. So anyway, I had a lot of fun, December passes, January passes and so I figured I didn’t get the job. In February, I got a phone call that I booked the film, which kind of surprised me, I thought they’d already done recording and had already completed it. I worked on the film for several days, with loads of other voice actors and we got a picture, so I got a chance to see the Gremlin exploding in the microwave. I think there’s a scene where one of the gremlins jumps in a swimming pool and we were all told to gurgle the sound of gremlins multiplying in the pool, we used currant apricot nectar to do that. It was fun, it was a really cool first job, I got to work with Joe Dante and then I got to work with him again in “Looney Tunes: Back in Action”, which was a lot of fun.

Jambareeqi: Which do you prefer between pre-recording a voice and dubbing over existing footage?

Bob: Pre-Recording, always pre-recording. Dubbing, you’re limited to sync and when you pre-record you’ve got the freedom to make the character and make the lines your own. There’s lot more skill that goes into dubbing, for anybody who thinks it’s easy, it’s not easy and I’ve got nothing but admiration for the actors that excel at that. I’m actually pretty good at dubbing but the simple truth is that it doesn’t pay that well. So even if it’s a union job, there are no residuals in a dubbed cartoon, actors live on residuals and we don’t make our money from session fees. It’s all about subsequent sales or rentings or airings of your product, so creatively I prefer pre-recording but I will also say that the fans in the world of anime are the best, most loyal, nicest and just amazing people.

Jambareeqi: What inspired your voice for No Face in the US dub of Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away”?

Bob: For the film itself, I did quite a bit of what the original actor had done but the people dubbing these films are a lot of people who I work with at Pixar and as I’m coming up with ideas for the voices, it’s collaborative, I’d try something and they’d say “That’s great, try this”. It was a combination of watching the film, seeing what was going on, reading the translation and working with the directors and producers to come up with a character voice that worked for everybody.

Jambareeqi: What do you think of the studio Ghibli films? Seeing as you were involved with many American dubs of Ghibli films.

Bob: Incredibly creative, creative to the point of I don’t understand how somebody could think of some of the stuff they do. I remember taking my manager to a screening of “Spirited Away” at a screening at Disney, she turned to me and said “It’s creative but I don’t quite know if I understand it” and I said “You know what? I think one of the interesting things about these films is so much interpretation is left up to the audience”

Jambareeqi: The Looney Tunes franchise was recently rebooted into a sitcom called “The Looney Tunes Show”, which has proved to be a success. Would you say it’s faithful to the original characters?

Bob: Well here’s how that show went down, we did a pilot and then we started doing the series, then they put that version on hold and revamped it so what we ended up with almost like a sitcom. I can remember there were many fans who were going “Why is it a sitcom? Why aren’t they doing Looney Tunes stuff?” Well, if you look at the classic cartoons, they were always sitcoms, sometimes Daffy Duck was Robin Hood and sometimes Porky Pig owned Sylvester – who was mute. There are no consistencies with these characters as far as their situations are concerned.

Did the characters stay faithful? I will say yes because we were putting them in situations they had never been in before. So, if you look at the Looney Tunes from the 40’s, they’re very different from the 30’s, if you look at them in the 50’s then they’re very different to the 40’s and with time and development, these characters were always constantly changing.  Each director, Friz Frelang, Chuck Jones, Bob McKimson, Bob Clampett, they all had their own version and vision of these characters. They were all a bit different, if you look at Chuck Jones’ Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, they’re very different from Friz Frelang’s.

So, I look at this series as these producers putting their spin on these classic characters. The look of the characters were very different in season 1, they went to more of a classic look for season 2, the producers are extremely hands on in the recording sessions and they’re extremely available to my ideas. I’ll deliver the line, I’ll say the words and I’ll ask “Hey can I say it this way? It’s not quite as Porky-ish the way it’s written” Usually we’ll record both ways then it’s up to them in editing to do what they want with it but the bottom line is yeah, it’s faithful to the characters because they’re always evolving.

I’m sure that there were early Looney Tunes that the audience couldn’t conceive “Wow someday we’re going to see Daffy Duck watching television or bugs bunny on a TV show” because back then TV didn’t exist, then suddenly TV existed and they did several shorts where these characters were on TV. Well, we’re doing episodes where the characters have cellphones and they’re put into today’s contemporary situations, so yeah it’s faithful to the original but it’s updated accordingly.

Jambareeqi: What’s your proudest achievement as a voice actor?

Bob: Certainly getting an Emmy nomination for Porky Pig for “The Looney Tunes Show” was cool. You know what? I think my proudest achievement is just being able to continue working and to do what I love. One of my proudest achievements as a person in this business is teaching, I love teaching, I love watching my students progress, I love watching their career move on and not everybody does, it’s not right for everybody but I really do enjoy newbies in the new class and following their dream. You’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to want it more than anyone else, you’ve got to study acting and improv, it’s not about the voice, it’s about the acting. To see someone that dedicated, knowing what they want and going after it, I’m very proud of that.

Jambareeqi: What qualities do you expect from a voice director?

Bob: Well, we’re blessed in this business, many of the voice directors in this business have been doing it longer than I’ve been in the business and they’re all terrific, voice directors like Andrea Romano, Collette Sunderman, Susan Blu, Charlie Adler. Charlie is an actor so he gets it, Ginny McSwain was an actress so she gets it and Andrea was everything from an agent to casting director to a voice director. What do I want from them? I want them ideally to be able to translate without a line read but if they have to give a line read then hey, you check your ego at the door. I want clarity, I want them to respect that I’m bringing something to the table and let me try things, which they all do. I want them to keep hiring me *Laughs*, there isn’t a bad apple in the bunch and they’re all terrific.

I will say to anybody looking to get into this business, you’ve got to be fast, you’ve you got to pay attention, time is money, it’s a four hour session for episodic television and they’ve got to get you in and out of there, so you’ve got to really be on the ball. The cream floats to the top so these directors demand you to not just be creative but also pay attention and be prepared. Read your scripts, read the whole scripts before if you get them but yeah, the voice acting industry is blessed to have the directors that we have.

Jambareeqi: Do you prefer recording alone in the booth or with other performers to work off of?

Bob: Oh no, I prefer to have the cast be there, acting is reacting and to have as many cast members as possible in the room as you record is ideal but it’s not always the way. I would say for the Looney Tune Show, 99% of  I am recording is done on my own. Jeff Bergman, who does Bugs and Daffy, it’s a lot of stuff for him so they usually have him by himself. This is where you need to have really good producers, directors and editors to remember previous performances so when they edit the whole thing together, it flows and the energies are matching the levels of other energies but I prefer working with a cast.

I did a movie called “The Emperor’s new Groove” many years ago, where I played Bucky the Squirrel, all my scenes were with Patrick Warburton, who played Kronk and we had amazing on screen chemistry. I did the first film, the straight to video sequel and a series for three years. He and I had never been in a booth together working, in fact I only met him once, which was in a parking lot as I was coming to work, he was leaving, I said “Hey just want to introduce myself, I’m Bob Bergen and I play Bucky” and he said “I thought Bucky was a Sound Effect” I said “No it’s a person, in fact I get screen credit so you know, look at the credits” Nah, he was actually very nice but long winded answer,  I prefer being with the other actors or the whole cast.

Jambareeqi: What do you think is the most important thing about a voice over performance?

Bob: The acting, the most important thing is the acting, the script is a skeleton and your job is to give it a body so bring in those words to life. It’s more important than doing funny sounds so yeah; it’s all about the acting.

Jambareeqi: Which cartoon character would you love to provide your voice for? One you’ve never played before.

Bob: I would say the one that hasn’t been invented yet; I would love to book my own Spongebob or my own Bart Simpson-esque or a Futurama or Family Guy character. I Love Family Guy, Seth McFarlane is my God, from acting to writing and everything in between. I got into this business wanting to be Porky Pig ever since I was a kid so it’s nice to have that, it’s not my entire career but I think that there’s one other character, that one job hasn’t come yet and I look forward to it.

Jambareeqi: What advice would you give to someone who wants to go into voice acting?

Bob: Be the best actor you possibly can and study acting before you study voice over. I’ll tell you what my journey was, I studied voice over for over four solid years with anybody who offered a class, I was in classes at least two nights a week and had work out on Saturdays. I did three years of improv and I did 2 years in an acting conservatory. For those who take 1 or 2 six to eight week classes, make a demo and keep their fingers crossed, statistically your odds are against you because your competition is working harder than that. You have to want this more than anything and be willing to do more than anybody else.

There’s a lot more competition today because the internet is providing voice acting opportunities for everyone all over the country. Animation is still primarily in Los Angeles but if this is something that you really want to do then you’ll do it and you’ve got to take risks. Risks come in three different ways; they come geographically, financially and creatively. You have to invest in your career; you have to re-invest in your career when you’re successful. You sometimes have to move to the place where the business that you would like to participate in is, for instance LA has animation, there is some animation in New York and there’s dubbing in Texas but for the most part, animation is here in Los Angeles. The agents that represent actors that do animation are here and they want you here because you’ll get called at 10 to be here at 11, you can’t fly in or make reservations so you have to want this more than anybody else.

Just also keep in mind that they hold auditions every single day because they’re always looking for the next great thing so if that’s you then be passionate, be driven, get there early, stay late and enjoy the journey. Enjoy the ups and the downs but just have fun.

Jambareeqi: What do you want to achieve in the future?

Bob: Everything I’m doing now and more, I want to keep working and I’d love to see more Looney Tunes product out there. I would love to voice direct, that’s definitely a goal, I’ve got ideas that I’ve been pitching and that I’d like to produce.

Bob ended his recording with a rendition of Porky Pig’s signature catchphrase “That’s all Folks!” which gave me a warm smile. I believe that Bob is a talented individual with a passion and understanding when it comes to voice acting. I wish the best for him and look forward to seeing his name pop up in future projects.

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