John DiMaggio might be the greatest voice actor of our generation. He's Bender on Futurama, Jake on Adventure Time, Aquaman on Batman: Brave and the Bold, and many others. We were lucky enough to have an exclusive interview with him today, and he told us that if you don't like cartoons, "there's something wrong with you."
DiMaggio's resume would basically take the length of several articles to list — but suffice to say, if you've heard a weird or hilarious voice in a cartoon lately, it's quite likely to be him. Coming up next, he's got more episodes of Adventure Time, plus the final season of Futurama starts June 19. He's playing Master Nigel in Kaijudo: Clash of the Duel Masters, coming back June 21. And he's Niblet in Pound Puppies, which returns this Saturday. Also, DiMaggio is in post-production on a documentary he produced about voice actors, called I Know That Voice.
We asked DiMaggio if we're living in the golden age of cartoons right now, what with all the amazing stuff on television, and he says there might be something to that. "There's a lot of interest in animation right now, and I think that's great for the business, and great for the voice-actors that perform in it, and great for the animators. Yeah, I think we're in a really good time for animation."
Part of it is that people are learning there's "more of a story to tell" with animation, especially with adult cartoons. Another reason is that technology has made it easier to do production on a new cartoon. But also, there's a bigger talent pool — more people are getting training in animation. For example, in L.A., "CalArts is a factory. They're just churning out great young artists, great young storyboarders, great young character layout people, everything. They're doing all sorts of stuff to create so much material. And I think that has to do with it. A lot of people are being encouraged to be artists and [taught] there's a life in it.. There's a career in it."
Also, people are willing to push the humor further in cartoons, especially ones aimed at adults. "I love nothing better than a dirty cartoon," says DiMaggio. "I think that it's really, really funny to see adult themes in a genre that's usually directed towards children."
Adds DiMaggio: "I think cartoons are important. Tell me that you don't like cartoons, and I think there's something wrong with you. I don't understand why people don't like cartoons." In fact, cartoons are "more popular now than ever before." Just the excitement about DiMaggio's documentary I Know That Voice is evidence that people are excited about animation — people keep wanting to talk to DiMaggio about it, and the DVD already has 1,500 pre-orders.
"There's such a fascination with animation and how it's created," says DiMaggio. "People always want to know, 'How can I get into voice acting? And it's pretty shocking. There's conventions all across the world now," and people come from all over to meet voice actors. "It's an industry now."
Confused by Adventure Time
But few shows for kids push the envelope of humor and weirdness further than Adventure Time, which DiMaggio says is "a very particular case," because of its strange, bewildering universe.
When DiMaggio signed on to Adventure Time, he was confused:
I was trying to figure out from the beginning what the big deal was. I was like, 'I'm not sure I understand what's going on here.' Honestly, it's just like, I couldn't figure out [what was going on.] We would get scripts that were numbered, that didn't have stage directions in them, so we had to match the line to the storyboard, which is a big pain in the ass, to be perfectly honest. But it's how some of the big productions do their thing these days. But you really didn't know what was going on. You just had these lines that said whatever, and it was like, 'I don't get it.'
I said to Tom Kenny once, I was like, 'Dude, I don't get this show at all. I have no idea.' And he was like, 'Listen, man. Just trust me. This is this generation's Yellow Submarine. Just leave it at that.' And he was right. The art direction on the show, the whole world is great — the Land of Oo is just weird. The whole world that's been created for it is just insane, it's just wild. It's just a weird thing, you know. I love doing the show. It's fun as hell.
And now, DiMaggio says that he gets into the show more now that he's seen a bunch of it — although he doesn't always like to sit around watching things he's been in. It seems "kind of cheesy" to watch his own work, and it seems better to shrug it off and say "oh, I did it, it was funny," and move on.
But even a more simple, straightforward show like Kaijudo has some complex themes, especially with the debates over whether the children should try to befriend the creatures they summon and control. Says DiMaggio, "Kaijudo is a little different," and sneaks in "some heavy themes." Every show has some kind of a message for its audience, and in the case of Kaijudo, "tolerance is a big deal."
I asked if Master Nigel is supposed to be British, and he said they asked for a "worldly" accent, sort of mid-Atlantic — and of course it's kind of weird that a martial arts master is named Nigel, but DiMaggio points out there were "a lot of Brits in Hong Kong."
This coming season is the end of Futurama, which DiMaggio says has been "one of the greatest experiences of my life," both professionally and personally, over the past 13 or 14 years. "It's been a wonderful, wonderful experience."
We ask how things turn out for Bender, and he responds: "At least I didn't go out like Fry's dog, that's something."
"If in fact it is the last season, which it feels more like it is than ever before, it'll be all right," says DiMaggio. "I'm good. It's been a great ride, and if that's that, then that's that. I wish we could have done a lot more. It's still a great show." And then he makes a joke about "getting the band back together," which leads to pretending that he and Billy West (Fry) are going on a roadtrip playing Zeppelin covers together.
But does Bender get a happy ending, we ask again. "Yeah, yeah, Bender gets an ending. Why does he deserve a happy ending? I'd rather see Fry and Leela get a happy ending." But he won't say if Bender's ending is happy or not.
But does DiMaggio ever slip into the Bender voice — like if he's annoyed at someone at the gas station or the bank? No, he says. "The only time I find myself doing a Bender voice — and it's been a long time for that — is when I was out at the bar, having a couple of pops. You get a couple beers in me and I'm like, [does Bender voice] 'yeah, yeah, yeah, all right.' You give me a couple of cocktails, I'll be talking about the Professor in no time. [Laughs]"
So what's the best improvisation DiMaggio has come up with, that actually got included in the final cartoon? He says actually Bender's scat-singing, which he just sort of made up, became a hallmark of the character, and the Futurama crew would tell him, "Just go ahead and do the Bender stroll," meaning the scat vocals.
Also, when he was playing the Repulsive Juju in Power of Juju, he added some burps, farts and "all kinds of disgusting things" as he was talking, and then the animators animated them, which was awesome.
Finally, we asked who's more manly, Manly Dan from Gravity Falls, or Aquaman. DiMaggio responds:
Surprisingly, Aquaman. Aquaman is much more manly than Manly Dan. I mean, he's a superhero. Manly Dan's a pretty manly dude. You can't mess with Manly Dan. But Aquaman? [Does the voice]: 'Come on in the water, old chum. I dare you.'