overthinking the idiot box

May 31, 2005

Animation on television, child-safe and otherwise.

Traditional Voice Actors and the Guest Star Invasion

by Adam Lipkin

I'm a huge fan of The Simpsons and the '90s Paul Dini/Bruce Timm Batman: The Animated Series. Both are groundbreakers, and will go down among the best animated series of all time. I worry, however, that both have had a huge impact not only on the current state of voice casting, but also on the expectations that the viewers have. I'm worried that the networks and the viewers will view cartoons with the same star-studded expectations they have for sitcoms, and lose sight of the skills that make for a truly top-notch voice actor.

William Conrad, man of at least one voice.

A little background: Before The Simpsons, celebrity voice work on cartoons was very uncommon. William Conrad, most famously, was the Narrator for Rocky and His Friends/The Bullwinkle Show, but he was a rare exception, and one who didn't try to voice any other characters (in fact, a famous, and possibly apocryphal, anecdote claims that Conrad once convinced director Jay Ward that he could voice another character, and that it took ten takes for him to achieve a voice that didn't sound like the Narrator). For the most part, we had people like Mel Blanc, June Foray, and Daws Butler bringing life to their characters, and somehow doing such an impressive job that no two of their characters sounded alike.

When The Simpsons debuted, the core cast, excluding Harry Shearer, consisted primarily of traditional voice actors (Hank Azaria wouldn't break through for his work in front of a camera for a few years -- like Casey Kasem before him, he's a voice actor who became famous for other work later in his career). But early on, the producers took a page from live action TV and started hyping celebrity cameos, having people like Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor show up in Springfield to interact with the family. When playing themselves, any of these people were fine, but they soon started having celebrities playing different roles. Although some handled themselves admirably (Meryl Streep's performance as Reverend Lovejoy's daughter was superb), others were dreadful (Lisa Kudrow played a ten-year-old who, amazingly enough, talked just like Lisa Kudrow). There's no reason in the world that a Tara Strong or Lauren Tom couldn't have done a much, much better job with some of these characters, but since only hardcore animation fans would care about such vocal guest stars, the show continued to milk poor performances from more recognizable names (a trend that continued this year, with the over-hyped 200th episode featuring a mediocre performance by Ray Romano).

A striking resemblance.
In the meantime, Batman: TAS took a similar approach. Although the core cast (excluding Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) were far from household names, the recurring guest stars tended to be celebrities. Mark Hamill practically reinvented his career as The Joker (and, to be fair, was an absolutely inspired casting choice), but later casting decisions were often the geek/fanboy equivalent of the Big Guest Stars on The Simpsons. Jeffrey Combs as The Scarecrow, John Glover as The Riddler, and Julie Brown as Zatanna all come immediately to mind as talented people whose vocal talents weren't up to the parts they were given. The trend continued in the Superman animated series, with Tim Daly playing a much less impressive Man of Steel to Kevin Conroy's Dark Knight. The less said about later casting choices on the Superman show (notably the trifecta of crap featuring Melissa Joan Hart, Chad Lowe, and Jason Priestly as the Legion of Super Heroes), the better. This casting trend carries on with the current JLU cartoon, and much as I enjoy many of the celebrities included (notably Firefly's Morena Baccarin as Black Canary), they're not the reason I watch the show, nor should they be the focus.

Of course, The Simpsons and Batman: TAS (and its spin-offs) aren't the only culprits. Disney's resurgence at the box office in the '90s coincided with a renewed focus on celebrity casting, a trend that has continued in animated film in general (and just imagine how much better the nifty Toy Story movies could have been if someone talented had taken the place of Tim Allen). But they were the two shows that most dominated the '90s cartoon scene, and it's hard to ignore their influence.

It's the aural equivalent of watching an actor like Tom Cruise in the early '90s, when for every part, he was just content to play Tom Cruise and coast.
If you want to see the difference between celebrity casting and true voice acting in action, watch an episode of Comedy Central's Drawn Together. A mix of second-tier celebrities and top-notch voice talent, most of the characters sound like you'd expect them to. Vets like Tara Strong (best known as Raven on Teen Titans, Timmy on The Fairly Oddparents, and Bubbles on The Powerpuff Girls) and Jess "Wakko Warner" Harnell create, as always, multidimensional characters. Then we have Adam Corrola as Spanky Ham. There's nothing wrong with the character's lines, which are funny enough. The problem is that the character sounds exactly like Adam Corrola's voice on any other show. So you've got six characters who are original (or, perhaps more accurately, are unique takes on classic archetypes), and one whose celebrity roots shine through. It's the aural equivalent of watching an actor like Tom Cruise in the early '90s, when for every part, he was just content to play Tom Cruise and coast.

The good news is that there's no sign of traditional voice actors being cast aside. New shows, from the adult-oriented American Dad (featuring Dee Bradley Baker) to Cartoon Network's The Life and Times of Juniper Lee (with Lara Jill Miller), have cast industry vets and avoided too much celebrity stunt casting, and with the sheer volume of shows on the air, there's simply no way that even all the c-list celebrities around (let alone top-notch ones) could possibly fill all the gaps. The bad news is that the stunt casting and cameos are continuing unabated, and big screen cartoons have all but forgotten the traditional voice talent. As things stand right now, networks and studios are watching to see how people react to the current casting choices, and if fans keep begging for more moments with "stars" like Ray Romano and the like, folks watching old cartoons fifty years from now* will wonder how such a great period of animation could nosedive so horribly.

*Don't doubt that this will happen -- the WB and Fleischer 'toons from the '40s and '50s are still available on DVD today

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