Sit Down Series: Phil LaMarr

In part three of my Connecticon series following my interviews with Bill Farmer and Samm Levine, I bring to you my interview with Phil LaMarr, one of the most beloved and talented voice actors of our generation. He’s delivered the goods on Futurama, Family Guy, Samurai Jack, Static Shock, Metal Gear Solid, Jak and Daxter, and much, much more. And of course there’s his memorable live-action appearance in Pulp Fiction, as well as entertaining many for five years on MADtv. I got the chance to chat with him about Connecticon, his time in New Haven, social media, crowdfunding, The Simpsons, Family Guy and more.

Alex Obert: You happen to be no stranger to Connecticut due to the fact that you went to Yale. Where did you go for fun during that time?

Phil LaMarr: Well this was New Haven in the mid-eighties, so you stayed on campus. (laughs) That was pretty much it. But I would head down the street to get my haircut. Sometimes we’d go over to Sally’s and Pepe’s to get some real pizza.

Alex Obert: What did you take out of being in Connecticut? It’s a tad different from somewhere like New York City or Los Angeles.

Phil LaMarr: For me, the most important thing was getting a perspective and seeing history up close. There was a friend of mine who lived in Branford. I went to visit her house and the house she lived in was over three hundred years old. It was older than the country. Growing up in LA, I never saw anything like that. It was a really cool perspective that I didn’t have growing up.

Alex Obert: How has your experience been this weekend in Hartford at Connecticon?

Phil LaMarr: Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten the chance to see much of Hartford. However, the people here at Connecticon are fantastic. And I’m amazed at how big it is. When I was in New Haven, geek culture was obviously not as big as it is now. But there was a comic book shop that I went to, that was my thing, but I didn’t feel like there was anybody else doing it. It’s nice to see that there are other people.

Alex Obert: There is a lot of evidence that it is widely accepted now, especially with the attendance this weekend. So you stated that one of your biggest influences happens to be Mr. Bugs Bunny, how were you introduced to him?

Phil LaMarr: The first cartoons I saw were the ones you’d see after school and also on Saturday mornings. Bugs Bunny had a Saturday morning show when I was a kid.

Alex Obert: What would you say is your favorite Bugs Bunny short?

Phil LaMarr: I would have to say the baseball one where he beats the baseball team, the Gas-House Gorillas, all by himself. Without a doubt.

Alex Obert: I grew up on Nickelodeon and was surprised to see that you did voice work for Hey Arnold. What was that like?

Phil LaMarr: I was the older brother of Gerald. The weird thing was I was grown at that point. The show had come up after my time, so I knew really nothing about it. It was a kid’s show that came about after I was a kid. Craig Bartlett, who ran the show, he was amazing. I was just happy to work with him.

Alex Obert: It stuck out to me that someone said they saw you in a Taco Bell training video. What’s the story behind that?

Phil LaMarr: It was for a sexual harassment training video. And I think it just became the standard food service industry training video. I’ve heard from people at a bunch of different restaurant chains that they’ve seen that video. And it was done in 1991, people should not be watching it! People shouldn’t even be watching videotapes, much less depending on legal interpretations from 1991.

Alex Obert: Shortly after that time came Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino brought an eclectic selection of music into the film. How did you feel about it?

Phil LaMarr: I always thought that was really interesting because the songs he picked were not the stuff that you ever heard. Especially back then. Oldies radio was playing fifties and sixties and the album-oriented rock was playing hard rock seventies stuff. And his was all the stuff in the cracks of the seventies and sixties.

Alex Obert: You are widely respected as a voice actor with countless roles. However, what do you wish that you could have done voice work for that was before your time? What would have really suited you well?

Phil LaMarr: That’s an interesting question. The stuff I grew up on, I can’t really imagine anybody else doing those roles. Mel Blanc, Don Messick, voices like that are just in my head. For me to do my version of them, it would sound wrong. And the more recent stuff, if I’m not doing it, then it’s one of my friends. I don’t want to take a job from them. It’s hard to think about doing something that I am not doing.

Alex Obert: When you joined the voice cast for Futurama, what was going through your head when you realized that it’s from the same guy that gave the world The Simpsons?

Phil LaMarr: It was very intimidating to audition because it’s Matt Groening. This is the guy who created The Simpsons. I think at that point, the show was maybe nine or ten years in. It was an established massive success. It was definitely something you wanted. You wanted that job because Matt is golden.

Alex Obert: How’d you feel about the crossover episode?

Phil LaMarr: That was just fun because I finally got to do a Simpsons episode. I mean come on, what’s better than that?

Alex Obert: Have you gotten a chance to check out the Simpsons/Family Guy special?

Phil LaMarr: I haven’t seen it yet, which is weird. But I’m happy that they finally did it. Initially, when we first started working on Family Guy, there was this weird tension or perhaps perception that Family Guy was stepping on the territory of The Simpsons or trying to be a younger, hipper version. Seth MacFarlane and Matt Groening are just two very different voices. The only thing those shows have in common is that they’re built around a family.

Alex Obert: The Simpsons finally did a movie after twenty years, but Family Guy has never had an official release on the big screen. The closest thing we’ve gotten so far is Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story, but that felt more like a three part episode. What happened there?

Phil LaMarr: Movies are hugely expensive. Movies cost a ton of money and they cost almost as much money to market. Kevin Smith has been going around for the last few years saying that he can’t do studio movies and there’s no reason for him to do so. He said, “I have a movie that will make twenty million dollars. If you spend forty million dollars marketing it, you’re guaranteed to lose money.” And I’m sure that the guys at 20th Century Fox Studios said, “Well, we know we have an audience for Family Guy. But we don’t know that there is an audience in the theaters for it, so why bother? Why waste that money?”

Alex Obert: How do you feel about crowdfunding?

Phil LaMarr: If it gets people in the millennial generation behind the idea of paying for entertainment, that’s great. There’s a whole generation now who doesn’t realize that the stuff that they enjoy costs money to make. It’s like “Oh yeah, I’m gonna download some free songs.” But it wasn’t free to make. It wasn’t free for that person to buy a guitar or take candle lessons. Art costs. I think it’s good, I think it’s good that people understand. It’s like you want to be a patron, patronize. Cough it up. I do find it a little weird that people are being asked to pay for stuff before, but this is a new time. The relative cost of creating things is much less. Before, you could never have crowdfunding, it was impossible. Film costs so much money. To try to get an audience to pay for a movie before they would go see it in the theaters, it was ridiculous. Now you can shoot stuff so cheaply that if you get enough people together, it can work.

Alex Obert: We are in the age of social media where marketing and promoting is far more convenient and accessible. It’s taking over television, radio, billboards, newspapers, all of it.

Phil LaMarr: The funny thing is, I think it’s the dirty secret of advertising in general, nobody knows if it works. People spend literally billions of dollars on a commercial and they have no idea if it’s actually gonna translate into greater sales or profits. I suppose internet advertising is step forward in the sense that you can actually track it. Does this person have a cookie from the site where we put up our ad and do they come to our site to buy it? Maybe now for the first time since its creation, advertising is almost honest.

Alex Obert: How do you feel about Twitter?

Phil LaMarr: I find Twitter fun because I just write jokes. It is of very little practical use because if you have a question about “Oh, how do something work?” and you try to get an actual response on Twitter, forget it. It’s like “Ahh, snarky snarky joke joke.” Like, really? So I get a feed full of nonsense. Even if somebody does respond and gives me an actual answer, I’ll never find it.

Alex Obert: What are the most common tweets that you get from those who follow you? Perhaps those wondering about Futurama or referencing a popular line you’ve delivered.

Phil LaMarr: People rarely ask questions. I’ll just post something that I think is funny. I rarely get a lot of interaction.

Alex Obert: So then it’s just like what you’re up to and your projects. Being here this weekend, I’d imagine you’d tweet about the appearance.

Phil LaMarr: Yeah. If there’s an event like this going on, then I’ll get interaction. Where are you? Can’t wait to see you. That’s great.

Alex Obert: And then they send you photos on Twitter afterwards from meeting you. It’s a great perspective for fans to share their experience from their point of view, same goes for concerts. Speaking of that, what’s on your iPod?

Phil LaMarr: Little Shop of Horrors and Bruno Mars. Oh, and Adele maybe. (laughs)

Alex Obert: How about songs from any of the projects you’ve been involved with?

Phil LaMarr: I think pretty much the only thing that I worked on that I have is the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. I still love it. That’s a great album.

Alex Obert: Along with voice acting and film, you got to appear on Broadway. What was the first performance you ever saw as an attendee of that nature?

Phil LaMarr: It probably wouldn’t have been until college. I think I remember seeing a revival of Chicago with Bebe Neuwirth. There’s nothing that compares to watching a live performance.

Alex Obert: So what’s going through your head that first night that you’re on Broadway?

Phil LaMarr: Honestly, the thing that goes through my head is “This is Broadway? It feels sort of the same. What’s Broadway about it?” We had done the show in LA on a stage roughly the same size and I was doing the exact same thing. This doesn’t feel that different. That was until after opening night. And then it’s like oh, we’re all going to a restaurant, oh, and there’s a carpet, oh, there’s Chita Rivera and Rosie O’Donnell and Martha Plimpton. “Oh…this is Broadway. Now it feels like Broadway.”

Alex Obert: On that note, I saw that a new Pee-wee Herman movies in the works.

Phil LaMarr: Yeah, he’s doing a movie that Judd Apatow is producing. And I think it’s gonna premiere on Netflix. Maybe Netflix and theaters, I’m not sure.

Alex Obert: It’s amazing what Netflix has done for reviving shows and films, as well as having exclusive series.

Phil LaMarr: There’s so many more avenues now.

Alex Obert: Before we wrap up, what projects do you have on the way that readers can look forward to?

Phil LaMarr: There’s a stage show called The Black Version that’s based in LA. Information for that is up at TheBlackVersion.com. And the same folks that I do that with, we got a pilot called The Weekly Show at TV One. Hopefully it’ll be a series by 2016. We’re finishing up a second season of Turbo FAST for Netflix. Also doing a lot of stuff with the new Marvel animated universe: Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H., Avengers Assemble and Ultimate Spider-Man.

Alex Obert: Great stuff! I’d love to thank you for your time.

Phil LaMarr: Oh, thank you Alex.

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