Were it not for the great big Emmy that he garnered last year for his “Outstanding Voice-Over Performance” in Futurama, you would probably describe voice actor Maurice LaMarche as “unsung” or something similar among the list of the show’s talent. Lamarche, who not only plays major characters like squishy, put-upon space Kif, or imperious robot actor Calculon, is a host of the smaller side characters, the one-line space freaks and New York weirdos that populate Futurama.
LaMarche, like many of his fellow cast members, is a voice acting veteran, with a practically absurd list of credits under his belt. His range has had him playing everyone from Yosemite Sam (The Looney Tunes Show) to Mr. Freeze in last year’s Batman: Arkham City.
With the show returning tonight for its seventh season tonight (Comedy Central, 10:00 PM ET), we spoke to Lamarche about his work on the series, the secret origins of news monster Morbo, and his secret wish to be Mom.
MTV Geek: How’d you get your start in animation? I understand you grew up in Canada—were there any shows up north that got you thinking about voice acting as a career?
Maurice LaMarche: Voice acting itself wasn’t something I saw as a goal as a kid. I had a sense that there were real people behind these [roles], but I got into cartoons way younger than when an analysis of the craft would kick in. It was magic to me at four or five years old.
The first cartoons that I loved to watch were the Bugs Bunny cartoons, Popeye cartoons, and my favorite of all was this obscure cartoon from Translux called The Mighty Hercules. It was a rather short-lived show—it was on in 1962—but that was the show that kind of grabbed me. It was about this strong good guy who’s drawn very much like Superman—he had a spit curl—and that was the show that I glommed onto. Early on, I was kind of bullied and so here was this hero character who, in my imagination, would protect me in the schoolyard.
Thus began my connection to cartoons, and I kind of went on from there. I thought if I could make my friends laugh, they’d stop beating me up. So I started doing these voices as a means of getting to people. What I didn’t realize was that I was getting beaten up because I was acting like a weirdo, talking in these cartoon voices!
But it started me off with a fascination with animation and making voices, and carried on from there doing impressions—I could do impressions in junior high.
I never thought to myself “Gee, I want to be the guy, the voice in the cartoon.” It landed in my lap in two ways, two animated specials made in Canada. I know I always say my start was Inspector Gadget, but prior to that, there were two specials from Nelvana films out of Toronto: Easter Fever and Take Me Out to the Ballgame. And the first time I heard my voice come out a drawing that was moving, that was amazing.
Geek: You and Billy West seem to share very similar stories in terms of using voices and impressions as ways of dealing with some rough stuff when you were kids. Have you two ever talked about that?
LaMarche: Billy and I will often go off and talk about what voice acting means to us and what weird abilities our voices seem to have to create and take on new characters and where it all comes from.
I have probably have a greater connection with Billy than anyone else in terms of the psychological underpinnings of why we do this. And we grab dinner now and again and talk about it. And I’ve known Billy longer than anyone else in the cast—we met in 1987 when things were still warming up for us in our animation careers. I had a little bit of a head start on him, but he zoomed past me as soon as we moved to Los Angeles. He’s had an amazing career.
Yeah, we’re good pals, and we’ve talked about the depths of our inner souls vis a vis the world of animation.
Geek: In previous interviews, you’ve described yourself and some of the Futurama voice cast as “lifers” in animation. Could you talk about that a little bit? Is this simply a thing you couldn’t not do at this point in your life?
LaMarche: I don’t know what I’d do—the idea that I’d stop doing it. If I was to somehow or another have a TV show land in my lap that was on camera… although every time I look at a picture of myself I think, “I’m castable.”
But let’s say I landed this show and there just wasn’t time to do voice over, especially in animation, I’d be devastated. I love doing it, I love the craft. I love the “red theater” dynamic of being able to play multiple characters in a single performance. I’ve been to two plays in my life, and in one night an actor can be Falstaff and the next night, the father in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and in animation you get to do that. I love that kind of mercurial switching back and forth amongst characters.
Billy does it and I get to do it too on Futurama where I’ll have a couple of lines of dialog that’s 80% me talking amongst my selves.
So, I can’t imagine us leaving it.
Geek: We almost take for granted that the featured character roles are the plum ones, but you seem to be describing a lot of freedom in playing one of these inventory characters and giving them life, these smaller characters that have a line or two and really kill it in a scene.
LaMarche: Yeah, there are no small parts. You can have a killer line—and I’m not going to finish with a cliche—you can have a killer line in an episode that everyone remembers. And so I’ll never walk in and go “Oh, I only got four lines today.” [In that case] my dollar-for-word ratio went up.
It’s kind of like a consolation prize. “Kittens give Morbo gas”—people use that as their footer in notes. In that episode, I have a lot to do but I love that line.
Geek: Do you have a favorite character that you’ve voiced?
LaMarche: I’ve gotten to fall in love with so many of them. My first love, of course, is Kif. Kif is the kind of put-upon person that we all get to be at some time, whether we land in a job where we know we’ve got it more on the ball than the boss does, and that sigh comes from that. Or whether we’ve been in that relationship where we’re being ridden by the other person and lose all of our power in the relationship.
Kif speaks to people who feel powerless and that’s why I love him.
He says the most outrageous things. My favorite line is when someone knocks at the door and he says “I’m programmed to be very, very busy. So if you could just…” I love that, “I’m programmed to be very, very busy.” Anyone in this town who has a mid-level job in the entertainment field could use that line and that’s really what’s going on. They’re not really very very busy, they just think they’re very very busy.
And then Lrrr has gotten to be a very rich character as we’ve gone along, and we’ve just explored the idea of the mid-life crisis with him. We’ve got another episode coming up where we’ll look at his relationship with his teenage son. But as I’ve said in other interviews, how do you not love a character that won you an Emmy?
Geek: Who was a character you had trouble getting a handle on or finding the voice for?
LaMarche: You know, we had trouble finding Morbo, initially. Morbo was initially done by Billy West and he did his John McLaughlin impression from The McLaughlin Group. And they just felt it wasn’t fitting the mouth of the character.
So they brought me in and said “Do a monster-y kind of voice.” The humor of him comes from a monster reading the news. So do a monster reading the news and we’ll pitch shift it down, something in the range of what you do for Horrible Gelatinous Blob. And so they pitch shifted it down and made it even deeper.
And then, when it came time to do more of the Morbo voice, I just pitch shifted it, I didn’t do it electronically. I wasn’t aware that I wasn’t supposed to do that, but they were surprised that I could do something that wasn’t supposed to be possible.
Geek: And one last one for you, really quick: if you could steal one of your fellow voice actors’ roles for a day, which character would it be?
LaMarche: [laughs] I’d love to play Mom, Tress MacNeille’s character. She’s so acerbic and she has such great lines. And she misuses 20th century swearing so well. It’s just so much fun to hear Tress MacNeille read those lines. “Jam a bastard in it, you crap.” I mean, it still makes me giggle ten years later, and that was one of the first season episodes.
So, I’d love to get to play Mom for a day and be anger personified. The duality of the character is interesting, too.
Futurama returns tonight on Comedy Central at 10 ET.