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The actor: When it comes to small-screen work, Diedrich Bader is probably best known as Oswald on The Drew Carey Show. But in the recording studio, Bader has carved himself a substantial side career as a voice actor, most notably as the Caped Crusader in Batman: The Brave And The Bold. He also has a knack for pulling small parts in films which go on to become cult classics, including Office Space and Napoleon Dynamite. The latter film recently made the jump to television as an animated series, with virtually the entire cast returning to reprise their roles, including Bader.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)—“Rex Kwon Do”
Diedrich Bader: You know, it’s one of the few offers I’ve ever gotten in my life, as far as movies are concerned. They sent me the script, and my wife really made fun of me, because, y’know, I was reading it in my bed and… [Hesitates.] My agent told me not to do it. “They don’t have any money, I don’t know what it’s about, they don’t have anybody in it… ” Everything like that. But I said, “You know what? I don’t get that many offers, so I’m going to read it and see what happens.” And I laughed so hard. To this day, it’s still the funniest script I’ve ever read. Really. It has this cumulative effect. It’s so quirky and strange, but it’s so organic rather than kind of an imposed quirkiness. Initially, I was like, “What is this?” But as it builds, as I went on reading, I could not stop laughing. And it’s one of the few films that really stands up to repeat viewing. In fact, it’s funnier the more you watch it, because you’re looking forward to jokes, and then there they are. When I went to go do it, it was such a small production that I had no idea if it was even going to be released. [Laughs.] I just knew I had to do it, because it was really funny. I think other guys actually passed on the role because they just didn’t know what to make of it, which is lucky for me. I guess they just didn’t get it. I think that’s what the bottom line is. When you’re in Hollywood, you get sort of jaded about what you think the sense of humor of Hollywood is supposed to be, so you can’t think outside the box.
The A.V. Club: How much of Rex was on the page, and how much were you allowed to bring to it? Was there freedom to ad lib?
DB: It’s word-for-word. Totally word-for-word, because the script was so funny that I didn’t feel any need to improvise. Plus, as [writer-director Jared Hess] will attest, I don’t think I got more than three takes. [Laughs.] Basically, what I tend to do in movies—and this is from Office Space to Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back—is that I want to know I nailed it as far as the written word, because that’s what they’re anticipating, and that’s what they want to see. And once we’ve gotten past that and we’ve got some prints of the way it’s written, I like to have a little room and see if I can play with it, because things occur to you while you’re doing it. But I don’t want to stray too much from the script initially, because I just don’t feel like that’s my job. Some actors feel totally differently. Like, they need to add right from the start, and really need to bring their own stamp to it. But I guess because I was classically trained… I mean, you don’t want to improvise in Shakespeare. [Laughs.] I just really feel like you should do it as written.
I didn’t know the movie was going to go anywhere. We shot it in this tiny town in Idaho. I mean, tiny. And we stayed at this crappy hotel. And this is going to sound really lazy, because it is lazy, but I had the offer, like, two months before we filmed, and I didn’t work on the lines at all. I had two months with the script, and I didn’t do anything. I learned the lines the night before in the motel room, with a six-pack of beer. And the next morning… I just did it a couple of times, as Jared can attest. And then I was done. I didn’t know what was going to happen with this thing. And then I couldn’t make it to Sundance because I was in development with a project at CBS, and I had notes on a Friday that had to be done on Monday, so I had to meet with the writer, and… it was a lot that had to be done, so I couldn’t go. And it was probably the only time I’ll ever be in a film at Sundance, so I’m very sad about that. [Laughs.] But I was getting paid, so there was nothing I could do about it.
Mike Scully and his wife Julie were the first ones who made me realize how big it was getting. They called me up and asked, “Do you have any ‘Vote For Pedro’ T-shirts?” And I was, like, “What the fuck? Really…?” Julie’s like, “Yeah, my kids love it!” And I thought, “Wow, this is kind of odd…” And then I went into a voiceover session maybe three days after that, and this kid is there, and he starts quoting lines from the movie. It’s only been out for three weeks, and he knows my whole speech. He’s, like, 10 years old! I’m like, “How many times have you seen this movie?” “Oh, 10. We’ve all seen it!” And that’s when I knew.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1989)—“Tactical Crewman”
DB: Oh my God! That’s going back. Yeah, y’know, that was kind of a fun show to do, ’cause I grew up watching Star Trek when I was a kid, and I really wanted to do the show, so I was excited. Also, frankly, I hadn’t eaten in awhile, and it was great to be on a set, because they had a great craft-services table. [Laughs.] Literally, I think it actually had been maybe two days that I had not eaten. I was, seriously and literally, a starving actor. So to go onto a set with food was amazing. And I got to be on the bridge, on the Enterprise deck, and be attacked by Klingons. So yeah, it was cool. Got to wear the little outfit and everything. But one thing people don’t know is that the zippers, they just don’t go down far enough. So when actually had to pee, you kind of had to take off the whole thing. You’re standing at the urinal, and you’re letting it all hang out. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you have any lines?
DB: Yeah, I did. I think I had several lines, actually. I took over for Worf at the security station when he took over as captain, so he had to ask me for status updates. But it wasn’t like I was ever going to come back or anything. Frankly, I was hoping to be killed. That would’ve been awesome. But no such luck. I also wanted to be able to go through the bridge doors, but that didn’t happen, either. But we did get attacked by Klingons, so I got to hurl myself across the deck. That was pretty cool.
The Beverly Hillbillies (1993)—“Jethro Bodine”
AVC: You mentioned being classically trained, which may surprise some people, but Jim Varney was classically trained as well.
DB: Yes, he was. Absolutely. And in stark contrast to me, he actually still remembered all of his lines from Shakespeare, which was incredible to me. [Laughs.] What a great guy to hang out with, too. A great on-set personality, and a great joker. Just great to be around. A really warm, lovely, nice guy. That was an interesting role, too. It got kind of got me on the big screen for the first time, and working with all those real vets was a real lesson for me, especially from Cloris [Leachman]. I learned a lot.
AVC: Were you a fan of the original series?
DB: Yeah, I was, actually. I really liked it. You know, it’s sweet. I’m from Virginia, so the Southern thing… Some Southerners didn’t like it, but I did. It had a sweet sense of humor. One of the great things about doing the movie was that I probably watched a hundred episodes of the show before we started rolling, and it was really funny. It’s really underestimated. It’s the perfect sitcom, in that the situation is the star. You’re putting these people into the situation, and it’s a very clean setup. What you’ll notice now on a lot of sitcoms is that they’ll have jokes that literally could’ve been anywhere, in any situation. But they really wrote to the situation on the show, and it was a beautiful thing. It’s very pure that way.
AVC: Did you ever meet the original Jethro, Max Baer, Jr.?
DB: I did. One of the things people said was that I wasn’t big enough to play Jethro. I’m 6’2”, 210 pounds… I’m a big guy, and nobody ever told me I was too small to play anything. So I’m like, “Come on!” And then I met Max. That guy is huge. Oh, my God, he’s huge. You have to remember that his father was the heavyweight champion of the world, but his hand is, like, the size of a ham. It’s enormous. You don’t want to get hit with that. It’s massive.
AVC: Did he like your performance?
DB: We didn’t discuss it, because we met before the movie came out. They were shooting some sort of Hillbillies reunion show for CBS, and I came down to the set. So I actually got to see him do Jethro, which was kind of cool. Unfortunately, it was after we’d finished shooting, so it didn’t really help my performance. If only we’d done a sequel. My God, what I could’ve brought to the table. [Laughs.]
The Drew Carey Show (1995–2004)—“Oswald Lee Harvey”
AVC: The IMDB has your character listed variously as Oswald Harvey, Oswald Lee Harvey, Oswald Harvey Lee, and, yes, Lee Harvey Oswald.
DB: It’s Oswald Lee Harvey. [Laughs.] Yeah, he was a great character. A sweet boy. I always played him as a 12-year-old. That was kind of my bead on him. He was innocent and wide-eyed. What a lovely experience that was. To work with Ryan Stiles was a great opportunity. The guy is a genius of comedy. Drew was a great lead, a really nice, wonderful guy, and a great boss. He really knew what direction he wanted to take the show. It was very interesting to watch how he navigated everything, anticipations from the network, and how he was able to kind of orchestrate the show in a way that made it very different. He had a very clear idea of what he wanted, and at the same time, he was able to evolve based on what he found that was more interesting. So yeah, a great opportunity for me. And nine years was a great long run.
AVC: The April Fool’s episodes were a signature of the show. Do you have a favorite?
DB: You know, I don’t. The April Fool’s episodes were my least favorite episodes. They took forever to shoot, because we had to keep setting up and doing it again, and… ugh. They were such a pain in the ass. [Laughs.] I mean, I got the bit, and lots of people really loved them, so when I went back and watched them, I liked them. But they were tough to shoot.
What were also tough to shoot—but which were more fun—were the dance numbers. Because, you know, that was, like, 12 to 14 hours. That’s a long shoot for a sitcom. We got spoiled doing multi-camera, especially once you’ve run for a while. I mean, you can get the whole thing done in an hour and a half. You can just bang it right out. But then we you do a show like Outsourced, every day is 12 to 14 hours. That’s just how long it takes to shoot a single-camera show.
The live episodes were really fun to do, too, because we got to improvise. They’d ring a bell, and we’d have to improvise a new line. That was always a lot of fun.
AVC: Were you surprised to see Craig Ferguson find new life as a talk-show host?
DB: Not at all. He was always very quick-witted, warm, and engaging, and he loved to talk to people. I loved to walk into his trailer, because it was basically like doing a talk show. He’d ask questions, he’d be witty… it was great.
I remember when his kid Milo, who’s slightly older than my son, my son and I went with Craig and Milo to Travel Town here in Los Angeles, because it has these old trains that my son used to love to crawl all over, and Milo did, too. And I hadn’t seen Craig in a while at the time, but he told me he was going to do an episode of The Late, Late Show—because, you know, they tried out a bunch of different hosts before they got to him—and I remember telling him, “That’s the perfect job for you.” And, you know, he’s always been great about having me on the show. It’s a nice thing to have an old friend with a talk show, because when you go on, your repartee is immediate. You don’t have to feel out what the guy’s like, which is always a crapshoot.
We really liked each other, you know? And that’s pretty rare on a show. Usually the actors feel competitive against each other, and it’s sort of a fractious relationship. But not on The Drew Carey Show. You know, Drew enforced something that was originally kind of a pain in the ass, but he made us hang out a lot together, and it totally defined the show, because it looked like we liked each other… and because Drew imposed that, we actually did like each other. [Laughs.] We knew each other very well, we found each other very funny, and so we had a respect for each other. And I think that really translated to the show.
AVC: There are definitely few moments where it’s obvious that the laughter is real rather than pretend.
DB: Definitely. Bruce [Helford] would also keep in takes where we were obviously laughing at each other, and when I initially watched it, I thought, “Why is he doing that?” But then I realized… one thing people always said about the show was that we looked like we enjoyed ourselves making it, which we did, but it was also a conscious decision on the executive producer’s part—and I think it was ultimately a very brilliant move—to let people know how much fun we were having doing the show. Because a lot of times, they’ll cut around that, or cut out those takes. But we were really laughing. We would totally break character, especially when Ryan would throw something in that you just did not see coming. [Laughs.] It was funny, and as a human being, you just had to laugh. And Bruce kept that stuff in. I always thought that was a fascinating concept.
Batman: The Brave And The Bold (2008–2011)—“Batman”
DB: Oh, yeah. I was very sad when that went away. That was a great job. Probably my favorite job. I really enjoyed doing the show. I loved the guest stars, I loved the show-runner, James [Tucker], who was fantastic, and Andrea Romano was a great dialogue director. I loved the direction of the show, and… I just thought it was a very well-run show. It was something I could watch with my kids. My son [Sebastian] was actually on the show. He got to play Robin. So for me, it was just an all-around great experience.
AVC: One of the great things about the series was that it regularly plumbed the depths of the DC Universe, bringing in some unlikely, obscure characters.
DB: Yeah, you know, that was something totally unique to the show. ’Cause everybody does the Rogues Gallery, so that’s been done to death. Not that we didn’t have Joker and Penguin, but we went in different directions in heroes and in villains that nobody anticipated and nobody plumbed, ever, basically. Unless you look at the comics. Especially The Brave And The Bold, of course. The thing is, James Tucker doesn’t just talk the talk. He really is a genuine fanboy, so it’s really coming from the heart. He not only took these characters and dusted them off, but really used them in a way that was real to the character. That was something fans really appreciated.
One of the things people originally balked at was that this wasn’t The Dark Knight. I mean, this is still Batman, but it’s definitely not dark. [Laughs.] It’s light-hearted and fun and… well, it’s a superhero show! My son’s a total comic-book geek, and he just loves the show. When he was about 4, he was such a fan that I got him the DC Encyclopedia and the Marvel Encyclopedia, and he would go through there and memorize the names of guys and what they did. And then we’d bring certain guys on the show, and—snap!—my son would know who they were. So that was cool. But it wasn’t just for little kids. Longtime fanboys who’d grown up would still tune in and watch the show and go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they brought back that guy!”
AVC: If pressed, could you pick a favorite episode?
DB: You know, I’m barely in it, but I love “Mayhem Of The Music Meister.” It’s very audacious, but I think it really paid off, and it’s really, really cool. And I love any episode that’s got Bat-Mite in it, but especially the first one. It’s a portrayal that was very exclusive to our show, and we could take it in directions that were… not necessarily groundbreaking, but certainly novel. And, I thought, very cool. So yeah, I have a lot of favorite episodes. I have a lot of favorite characters, too. I loved Aquaman.
AVC: Voiced by John Di Maggio.
DB: Voiced by John Di Maggio, who’s hilarious in it. And the way they took Aquaman was so different than any other Aquaman, where he’s normally kind of a boring character. Yeah, I really loved doing that show. I was very sad when it went away. But that’s one of the things with Warner Brothers. They turn things over quickly, because they don’t want anything to get stale. Which I respect. And it definitely ended on a high note.
Danger Theatre (1993)—“The Searcher”
DB: Oh, man. That was so long ago. What a dear thing that was.
AVC: It featured both Robert Vaughn and Adam West.
DB: Yeah, that was a long time ago, and it only ran seven episodes. It’s funny, because the original concept was to make it like an anthology, a bunch of different spoofs of shows, but then Fox… they wanted to transition the series from being an anthology into being strictly about my character, but the executive producers dug in their heels and didn’t want to change the concept and make it about The Searcher. And honestly, I think that’s what did us in.
AVC: Pray tell: Who was… The Searcher?
DB: [Laughs.] The Searcher was like… what’s that guy’s name? M.A.N.T.I.S. Or maybe Lorenzo Lamas’ show. Renegade. That kind of guy. Nobody really knows who he is. He was basically just a vessel for jokes. But he took himself very, very seriously. It was a fun spoof of all of the macho characters you see on television.
AVC: So a little practice for Batman, then?
DB: A little. It was, actually. Except that The Searcher tweaked more satirical than Batman. Batman, I played fairly straight, but would tweak a little bit for jokes. But Batman was one of the rare times I actually got to play the straight man. Because if Batman is kind of wild, then his show would fall apart. Like, you couldn’t have Aquaman and a crazy Batman in the same show, because otherwise it’s like, “Well, where’s the story?” But, yeah, The Searcher, that was kind of fun.
Office Space (1999)—“Lawrence”
DB: Oh, yeah. What a great character that was. Another cult film, and a film where I… well, like I was saying earlier, I shot it as it was written, and then we did a lot of things that were different. Some of them I pitched Mike [Judge] before we actually shot, like, “You should see my cousin. He doesn’t do shit.” I pitched that to Mike before we started shooting, and he actually liked it, so he put that in. It was a very open, loose, fun environment. I loved the script, but I still didn’t really know what to expect until I got to the set and saw Peter’s apartment. It was so bland and just such an awful, crappy apartment that I thought, “Oh, this is going to be a good movie. [Laughs.] Because so many sets you go on are art-directed within an inch of their life. They have an idea of what a bachelor’s pad looks like. I didn’t know anyone whose apartment looked like anything I saw in movies. Old pizza boxes all around, brick walls… you know, that funky kind of thing where it’s way too much thought for a guy to have gone into. It just doesn’t work. I’ve never been into a guy’s apartment where he thought about it for two seconds. So when I saw Peter’s apartment, that really looked like a bachelor pad. He just put whatever poster he had up, and there just wasn’t much to it. And I loved that neutral quality. It was real.
AVC: Did you have any say in Lawrence’s look?
DB: Yeah, I really wanted to have the hair. That was my pitch. And Mike really wanted that mustache. So it was a group effort, definitely. [Laughs.] But I really wanted a mullet. What I really wanted to look like was somebody who loved the Allman Brothers. That’s where I thought Lawrence lived. I’m from the South, so I really got Lawrence. I don’t feel he was in any way a Southern caricature. He was a real dude, someone who’d work at a construction site.
AVC: Do you remember the moment when you realized you were in a cult hit?
DB: Yeah, I do, actually. With Napoleon, it grew in the theater and became a hit. But Office Space, that was really a bomb. [Laughs.] I remember we were shooting The Drew Carey Show the night of the première, so I couldn’t go and didn’t see it then. But on opening weekend, I went to a matinee, since it was the only time I had, and my wife and I were the only people in the audience. And when you’ve been in Hollywood… I couldn’t like the movie, because I thought, “This is a bomb.” So my eyes were not open to enjoying the film. And then I didn’t see it any of the times that it showed on television or whatever. But people slowly started quoting things to me. Like, one time I was driving downtown with my wife—this was maybe three years after we shot the movie—and two dudes pull up in a pickup truck, all tatted out, and they’re talking to each other, and one of ’em goes, “Hey, what would you do with a million dollars?” And the other goes, “Two chicks at the same time!” We’re in traffic! And everyone’s laughing, but… I didn’t even recognize it. I thought it was from The Drew Carey Show! I’m, like, “Wow, the show’s really taking off!” [Laughs.] It was such a strange build. But then we did the 10th-anniversary screening in Austin, and the crowd that came knew every line. It was like The Rocky Horror Picture Show times 10. It was just great. And very satisfying to finally see it with a crowd. It’s been an interesting journey.
Outsourced (2010–2011)—“Charlie Davies”
DB: Oh, I was very sad when that got cancelled. I feel like they didn’t really give us an adequate run. You know, when they moved us to 10:30, they really just did us in, so… I was sad about that, because the cast really got along together, and I thought we were going in an interesting direction. Some people didn’t like the show, but I did. Honestly. I mean, it’s cancelled now, so I can say what I want about it. [Laughs.] But I genuinely did like the show.
The more you watched it, the funnier it got, because you knew the characters. The executive producer [Ken Kwapis] was just a great guy, and it was just a really well-run show with a great cast. They’re all actors. There was no diva, nobody difficult to work with. Ben [Rappaport] was right out of Julliard. It was his first gig! He’d done, like, a commercial before that. Nothing else. So he learned a lot, and was open to learning, which is rare. So often, you get a newbie in, and they feel like they know, and you try to coach them, but they just don’t want to hear it. Maybe different actors come from different places, but really, I just want everybody to be good. Because it ultimately makes me look better. [Laughs.] But also, I’ve been at it a long time, so I want to help. And Ben was very open to that, and he was really a wonderful, hard-working guy who knew what this chance was for him. A good guy. And the entire South Asian cast was really lovely to work with, and very, very nice. Parvesh [Cheena] is now a friend of mine. It was a nice environment. But then we got cancelled. [Shrugs.]
AVC: Your character in particular was picked out as the “ugly American” of the show. Did that bother you?
DB: No, not at all. Because Charlie was just “that guy.” I don’t necessarily think he was an ugly American. He was a guy that… [Hesitates.] I remember how, when I lived in Paris, there was a McDonald’s, and I’d always see Americans eating there and think, “Why do they come all the way to Paris and eat at McDonald’s?” Charlie’s that guy. It’s not that he’s an ugly American. He’s just kind of locked in his ways. And what was interesting about the arc of Charlie was that when he first meets Todd, he didn’t know any of the Indians. And then he slowly got to know the guys who worked at Todd’s office through Todd. Todd was kind of his bridge. So I thought it was sort of an interesting storyline, that he slowly became a better person.
DB: Oh, now that was really fun. That was a lot of improvisation. A lot. [Laughs.] I’d say easily half of what I said on that show, I made up. That was really different for me. And fun. You get a lot of takes, and there’s no audience, so you can go back and refine a joke. Like, sometimes an idea will occur to you when you’re onstage, and it’s not really a fully formed joke, but the audience is right there, so you’ve got to spit it out. But later, you’re like, “I really wish I could’ve worked that through a bit.” And that’s the great thing about doing improv on something like Hercules, where there’s no audience: You can go back and do it again. You can go, “Okay, that’s kind of funny, but if I can just tweak it a bit, I might actually be able to get a joke out of it.” [Laughs.] And it was a Disney show, and they don’t record with anybody else. You just record by yourself, so you can do your lines over and over again as many times as you want, if you like.
Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)—“Miramax Security Guard Gordon”
DB: Also really fun. I was sorry that that movie didn’t do any better, but what a nice man Kevin Smith was to work for. A really lovely guy.
AVC: Did he just call you up and ask you to be in it?
DB: Yeah. I think those were my two offers, really: Napoleon Dynamite and that. [Laughs.] And we got along really well. Kevin was great. He ran a really great set. Very nice.
Balls Of Fury (2007)—“Gary”
DB: Oh, man, those guys… Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Garant were really nice to work with. Tom is just a really, really funny guy. For example, they were open to the pitch that my character had this thing where he wanted to save the panda. At the end… I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie, but the line is, “I want to save the panda!” And then I was supposed to run in, stop, and say, “The panda’s dead!” But I had a pitch that I just kept running. So I just ran through and yelled, “The panda’s dead,” and just kept running. And they were open to that, because they’re improv guys. Really fun to work with.
Napoleon Dynamite (2012-present)—“Rex Kwon Do”
DB: It was an interesting transition to make from live-action movie to animated series, actually, because the show has a lot more jokes per square inch than the movie did. They really spike it up. And getting a really seasoned joke writer like Mike Scully has kind of changed the tone. It’s a much faster pace, and it’s much funnier. Rex has a lot more joke jokes. The jokes are more solid. So that’s a big change in tone.
I have to say, one of the fun things was when we all got back together and did the table-read. It was kind of an amazing feeling, this recognition that these characters can go on. I mean, when you hear them, they’re… not necessarily iconic. I can’t say that. But you know them and you love them, and you want to see them again. So it was a really interesting table-read, because up until then, I wasn’t sure. Because we didn’t do a table-read for the pilot. It was more a pilot presentation, maybe seven minutes or something like that. But when we all sat down and read the first episode, it really felt like, “Oh yeah, this is good!” Like the movie, it’s still different than anything else, but also still in a way that’s organic to the characters. It’s pretty cool. And, unlike the film, there’s a lot more room to do punch-ups [to the dialogue] if you feel like it.
AVC: Have they fleshed Rex out a bit more for the animated series?
DB: Oh yeah, in a big way. There’s a lot more for Rex to do. Also, the guys gave me a lot of other parts, too, and that was kind of fun, to do a bunch of different roles all through the different episodes. You have to remember that most of these guys on the show don’t do voiceover work regularly, so to have one of the actors be able to do other roles as well… They were like, “Oh my God, this is unheard of!” [Laughs.]
Napoleon Dynamite has been great to me. A lot of people ask about it, people in show business love it, and now it’s come back as an animated show. It’s truly incredible. These two movies, Napoleon Dynamite and Office Space, they’ve kind of broken the mold. It’s just so unique and different that these films have carried on this life that lasts this really long time. It’s fascinating.