Patrick Warburton on Rules Of Engagement, Seinfeld, and why Family Guy upsets his parents
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: An imposing physical figure with a voice to match, Patrick Warburton made his way through the TV-guest-star ranks before landing the recurring character with whom most people still identify him: Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ deadpan, face-painting, on-again/off-again Seinfeld boyfriend, David Puddy. That is, unless those people watch a lot of cartoons, in which case they’re more likely to know Warburton as the man with the pipes that bring The Venture Bros.’ Brock Samson and Family Guy’s Joe Swanson to life. In addition to those voiceover gigs, Warburton has also served as one of the leads of the CBS sitcom Rules Of Engagement, which returns for its seventh season on February 4.
Rules Of Engagement (2007-present)—“Jeff Bingham”
Patrick Warburton: Tom Hertz, who created the show, I guess he’d written this character with me in mind. And at first I recall not wanting to take a meeting in regard to it because it just didn’t seem appealing to me, playing a guy who’s married and kind of gripes. It just seemed like something too close to home. I signed on to do another show before that, which I did for a few years—which I won’t mention, but it just wasn’t right. I wanted to do something clever and different, like The Tick. I had to realize opportunities like that just don’t fall in your lap every year, where you get to play some wonderfully creative, insane character outside of who you are. To me, it just didn’t seem appealing at all to play somebody like myself. Where’s the fun in that? But then I sat down and spoke with them and then decided I’d make a commitment.
The A.V. Club: As the show has gone on, have you found that there’s been opportunities to take Jeff further from who you are in your everyday life?
PW: Well, he is different from who I am—but I’m certainly not quite as grumpy as he is and I don’t pull the same shit he does, because my wife is way too smart and I wouldn’t get away with it. But there are times when art and life and life and art seem to be very similar.
AVC: There’s only been one season of Rules Of Engagement that’s longer than 15 episodes. Do you find that those shorter seasons make it easier to pursue film roles or voice work in between?
PW: They can. At the same time, I know that we as a cast have wished for more of a commitment each season, as opposed to being midseason every year and being a utility player. We’d have rather done more episodes. But whether you’re doing 13 or 22, you’re getting restricted each year in regard to what you can do outside of that, so you would just as soon do more episodes than less.
The Tick (2001-2002)—“The Tick”
AVC: Were you familiar with the comic book or the animated version before you came to the role?
PW: I was, yeah. And it’s funny, because before I even knew what The Tick was, I remember being back East at a charity golf event and some woman approaching me from off the ropes on the side of the course saying, “If they ever do a live-action version of The Tick, you’ve got to be The Tick.” At that point, I didn’t know what The Tick was, so I just thought it was some batty chick who had lost her mind, and then a year later Barry Sonnenfeld approached me about playing The Tick, which was exciting. You know that’s going to be something different and interesting, and then I got more familiar with the cartoon and that was just about the most fun I’ve ever had at the same time. I probably would have gone insane if I had to wear that Tick suit for five or six years, but we had a lot of fun doing those nine episodes, although we were still doing much in discovering and figuring out what worked and what didn’t with it, but it turned into something fun and special, I guess, those nine episodes. It had quite a cult following.
AVC: With that costume, was there someone on the sidelines operating the antennae?
PW: There was. I believe his name is Mark Setrakian, and I couldn’t in a million years tell you how to spell his last name, but I know he worked with George Lucas at Industrial Light & Magic. This guy knew what he was doing. It was a great team. I look back and think about the success of The Tick on DVD and how it’s lived on even though we only did nine episodes. When you look at the team: Barry Sonnenfeld, Larry Charles was our showrunner—and then you have this, the ingenious and wonderful creation of The Tick by Ben Edlund, who was involved with the show as well. I just feel like, of course it was gong to be fun and watchable. This is a great team.
Big Trouble (2002)—“Police Officer Walter Kramitz”
Men In Black II (2002)—“Agent T”
AVC: You ended up working with Sonnenfeld on two more projects after The Tick—Big Trouble and Men And Black II. Working on that show, did you get the feeling he was someone you could work with again and again?
PW: I did, I hope so. It’s been a while, Barry: Hello. I love Barry. Everybody who’s ever worked with Barry has a lot of fun and a great experience and obviously feels blessed to get to work with such a creative individual as he is.
Big Trouble was interesting. There’s a story. It was one of those big, expensive studio movies that had a great cast and was really funny. One problem: It’s a comedy about a bomb on an airplane and it was slated to come out September 20, 2001, literally a week after 9/11. It had been promoted for months and months and months, and they had to immediately pull it. Then, of course, years later it’s just a funny little movie. Just a little Hollywood casualty of 9/11.
Big Trouble was mostly night shoots. The whole story took place at night and that can make you a little bit crazy. You work all night and then you go back to your hotel at 7 o’clock or 8 o’clock in the morning and close the shades and sleep all day, then work all night. It does wonders to the psyche.
AVC: Probably keeps you off the golf course, too.
PW: It did, yes. I snuck out there a little bit and played a little bit on weekends and whatnot, but Mondays off.
Seinfeld (1995-98)—“David Puddy”
AVC: In the time leading up to your first appearance on Seinfeld, you had done a lot of guest and recurring work on other network sitcoms. Had you read for Seinfeld before you were cast as Puddy?
PW: No, I just went in and read. My agent called up and said we got a guest spot on Seinfeld—which was very exciting to me. That’s my favorite show. My wife and I sat down every Thursday night and watched that, and so that was just a great opportunity. I went in, I auditioned, and just had some fun with that. The first episode I did I was just Jerry’s mechanic, and, obviously, guys talk about things, and then David’s dating Jerry’s old girlfriend Elaine and using the sex move—I guess, “The Move,” as it was known—on Elaine and it’s now gotten back to Jerry, so it’s just one of those complicated, ridiculous Seinfeld stories. They fortunately liked the Puddy character and brought him back.
AVC: Given the way romantic interests were shed on a weekly basis on Seinfeld, did you have any expectation of doing further episodes?
PW: I didn’t. It wasn’t long after that that they brought me back for the face-painting episode, where we go to the hockey game and I paint my face and I’m a New Jersey Devils fan, and so that was a lot of fun. And at that point I knew I had a great opportunity there, but I had already signed on to do a show for CBS called Dave’s World—and I was on Dave’s World for the next two years. And for the next two years I wasn’t available, and I did get a few phone calls about doing more Seinfeld, but I just couldn’t do it. That was frustrating. But then they canceled Dave’s World, and that’s when Jerry approached me about doing a final season of Seinfeld.
He’d actually asked if I’d help him out on an American Express spot, where I would be the voice of Superman. And it was on that set that he just threw it out there. He says, “Do you want to come back on the show this next season?” To which I replied, “Let me check my schedule.” Yeah, it was great that the door opened once again because, like I said, it was very frustrating not being able to come back and work with Jerry and the gang on the No. 1 show on TV because I was tied to another contract.
NewsRadio (1998-99)—“Johnny Johnson”
AVC: And then that final season sort of overlapped with your time on NewsRadio as well?
PW: Yeah, it might have been the same time. NewsRadio was a really fun character. I really enjoyed everybody there, but it was tricky being there because there was a reason why Jon Lovitz and I were there. They had a gap to fill that was impossible to fill. You can’t. This show still had a future, yet they were suffering from a devastating loss. It wasn’t just that Phil Hartman had passed—it was, perhaps, the worst circumstances of any loss of a great Hollywood talent in history. Two children are left without both of their parents, and their parents couldn’t have gone in a more horrific way. It’s just such a sad, tragic story—and then there Jon and I are. You could just sense it was difficult for the rest of this cast and everybody to pull up their bootstraps and get on with life, and move forward because the whole situation was just devastating.
The Venture Bros. (2003-present)—“Brock Samson”
PW: Chris McCulloch, who’s the creator of the show, was a writer on The Tick, and he was, like, Ben Edlund’s right-hand man. They’re longtime buddies, and so Chris approached me about The Venture Bros.
AVC: Does any other voiceover gig on your résumé require more grunting than Brock Samson?
PW: [Laughs.] No, I don’t think so. Brock’s fun. I’ve got three boys and it’s great when they get to The Venture Bros. age and can start watching it. My little guy Shane, he’s 14 years old—he just started checking out The Venture Bros. this last year and that’s part of what makes it so rewarding. Moments like that when you’ve worked and your own son looks at you and just says, “Oh my God. Brock Samson’s the coolest character ever.” “Well, I’m glad you dig it. I’m glad you dig it, boy. It’s what I do.” So, yeah, that’s been fun.
AVC: Can you say how much Brock will be a part of the show’s upcoming fifth season—if at all?
PW: It’s always a little bit of a blur. Most of the team is back East, so Chris will make a trip or two out to California each year, and we’ll end up at Titmouse Studios and record three or four or five Brock episodes all together at once. So, he’s definitely a part of it, yeah.
PW: Well, it’s a little different. I know I’ve been much busier working on Family Guy over the years than The Venture Bros. I’ll do the whole season in two sessions with Chris, like an hour or two a session and get them all in. Family Guy, you’re over there every week or couple of weeks, and you’re just in and out usually 15, 20 minutes. Seth [MacFarlane] works really fast. Of course, Seth hasn’t been directing the episodes now for a couple of seasons. [Jokingly.] He’s been busy doing other things, like becoming a huge star, stuff like that.
AVC: Though you got to share in that, thanks to your part in Ted.
PW: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. Dammit. Whatever he’s doing, he’s going to get a call from me. I love working with Seth and getting to be a part of anything he does. He’s got a great mind and a great comic sensibility and a very unique one, and so it’s cool to see what’s happening with him and for him and how he has just blown up. Because I remember Seth back when starting Family Guy. I think he must have only been 25 years old when he started doing that show, and it went for a couple of years and then it went away. It became the biggest-selling TV DVD of all time, and that’s what made Fox reconsider bringing the show back. And I think that the Family Guy DVD became the model generally for television shows on DVD.
AVC: Is there a line the Family Guy writers can’t cross with their storylines for Joe? He’s been the way for them to talk about some typically taboo topics—disabilities, incontinence, impotence.
PW: I don’t know. I grew up in a very conservative, Catholic household and I find myself at times just feeling sort of caught between worlds, like, “What the fuck?” [Laughs.] I have two parents—honest to God— that couldn’t be more disappointed that I’m on this show. And it does have an effect on you, even when you, as an individual, can recognize satirical humor for what it is and to know that this is a cartoon—this isn’t real life—and the nature of it is to be off-putting and offensive and that’s what makes people laugh. In this genre, that’s what makes people laugh and it is not for everybody, but I do get there are those factions out there, those groups—and my mother’s one of them—that’s literally tried to get that show off of TV. They sign petitions and go to the FCC. That’s my family. Yeah, it’s absurd. I don’t want to hurt anybody, especially my family, but at the same time you have to be honest and true with yourself, and I just see it for what it is, which is just comedy, plain and simple.
AVC: Sometimes funny is funny, regardless of morality.
PW: Absolutely, yes. Well, look at… In any 30-second segment of Family Guy, they’re doing things that in the real world would either make you dead or put you in prison for the rest of your life. It’s a cartoon. The essence of it is total absurdity. So let’s take away anything. You have to take away anything in regard to decency and morality or whatever. It’s total absurdity. It’s an adult animated cartoon that you don’t play by the same rules as life. It is entertainment. You’ve got to be able to step outside and see it for what it is. It’s not the fucking downfall of society. At times it can make you—I think it even might help you—look in the mirror and wonder what you really think about certain things and ponder them, societal issues and mores and whatnot.
The Emperor’s New Groove (2001) / The Emperor’s New Groove 2: Kronk’s New Groove (2005) / The Emperor’s New School (2006-08)—“Kronk”
AVC: Did you feel like this was the role that broke things open for you, in terms of voiceover work?
PW: Oh, absolutely. I had expressed an interest to my agents about doing some voiceover work. I had done a guest spot or two, maybe even on a Disney cartoon—a guest-spot on Hercules might have been the first voiceover I ever did. So when I had the opportunity to go in and read a really fun character for a Disney feature, I knew this was a great opportunity. I grew up on Disney, as did many.
I didn’t know what a “Kronk” was. Disney is very secretive. I just got four pages of material that had a “Kronk” and an “Yzma” on it. Well, what the hell is a Kronk? I wasn’t really sure if this Kronk was a robot, an ogre, a monster. The best determination I could make from reading the material is that he was something of a henchman. And I thought to myself, “What might a Kronk sound like?” So I made him sound a certain way. I went in and they all responded to it, and the next thing I know I’m working on a Disney feature. That’s still one of my greatest voiceover experiences ever.
AVC: Your Rules Of Engagement co-star, David Spade, played the lead in Emperor’s New Groove—did your paths cross at all during the recording process?
PW: Not at all. I think I met him at the première, and that was it. Let’s see, I think it was the première. I think he had a girl on each arm and a martini. He tried to give a nod or look down at me, which is quite an accomplishment—I kid. I jest. I think it was at the première and it was just briefly. You know, everybody records individually. Eartha Kitt was in it. I spent four months working with Eartha Kitt when I was 22 in South Africa. So it was interesting seeing her there, and I got to remind her of these two horrible movies we had made back in 1986.
Dragonard (1987) / Master Of Dragonard Hill (1987)—“Richard Abdee”
PW: They’re just terrible. But it was an amazing experience. I was working in South Africa with Oliver Reed—the great Oliver Reed. He was the villain, and I was the good guy. We had sword fights. Day one, I got off an airplane after traveling for two days—because of the apartheid-based travel sanctions. Johannesburg couldn’t be farther from Los Angeles, and you still had to go an even longer route because of the sanctions. You had to fly to Europe first. Once you got to Frankfurt, or London, then it would be another 14 hours—if you were fortunate to fly non-stop. Two and a half days later, they put a sword in my hands and I got into a sword-fighting scene with Oliver Reed. [Laughs.]
Buzz Lightyear Of Star Command—“Buzz Lightyear” (2000-01)
AVC: Like The Tick, this was a role that was originated by another actor. What’s it like approaching that scenario?
PW: Well, you go in and you realize that this might just absolutely sound ridiculous. [Laughs.] It’s got to be able to sound different. I’m not going to go in and try to do Tim Allen’s voice. I’m not an impersonator. I’m going to go in and do my own take on it. If you think about it—this is going to seem silly—but Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story movies is a toy. Buzz Lightyear in Buzz Lightyear Of Star Command is Buzz Lightyear. So it’s okay for him to sound differently. I know immediately when I go into that I am the now poor man’s Buzz. I’m doing Buzz on TV because the movie-guy Buzz isn’t going to do the TV-show Buzz. When you first pop on the air, you know that there’s going to be millions of kids all across America going [Adopts a kid-like voice.] “That’s not the real Buzz. That’s a different Buzz.” I remember back when I would watch Saturday morning cartoons when I was a kid, there would be somebody different doing the voice on the TV show, and it was always a disappointment at first. [Laughs.]
AVC: So, technically, Tim Allen is doing an impression of your Buzz.
PW: That’s right, if I really wanted to turn it around, that’s what I could do. [Laughs.]
Joe Somebody (2001)—“Mark McKinney”
AVC: So did you and Tim talk about this at all on the sets of Joe Somebody or Big Trouble?
PW: Oh, yeah. We’ve had some good-natured fun in regard to our Buzz Lightyears. In Joe Somebody, I just play the biggest dick in the world, and I literally smack him in front of his 10-year-old daughter. Over a parking place. It’s horrible. Just the biggest S.O.B. in the world. And I looked at Tim on the set and I go, “I must be your worst nightmare. I voice your character. Now I’m following you from set to set.” Because we had just done Big Trouble not long before that. “I’m following you from set to set, I’m smacking the crap out of you in front of your child. We’re supposed to be friends. It wasn’t supposed to work out like this.” When he came back to Los Angeles, he produced a show and a pilot and immediately hired me to do the lead in that. So I think we get along good.
Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010-12)—“Sheriff Stone”
PW: You know, the agency gets inquisitions, offers, and you decide whether or not you’ll do it. I mean, if it’s a Scooby Doo situation, you know you’ll run in and do 60 episodes. The voiceover work isn’t much of a time commitment. Though the traveling for me, because I still live outside the Los Angeles area, can be a drag at times. I usually schedule things so I have a number of things on a day. So I can commit to a show like Scooby and know it’s very workable into my schedule.
AVC: Are there days when you’re playing, theoretically, Sheriff Stone, Joe Swanson, and Kronk all in the space of a few hours?
PW: Yeah. That could be. And if you have to go on location for a month and a half on something, then you jump into a voice studio wherever you are, if need be. Otherwise, you can give them a heads-up and say, “Look, two months from now, I’m going to be gone for a month and a half. If you want to get ahead of the game, get in any extra.” Then they’ll do that. Even with TV shows, the shortest period between recording [an animated] show to getting on the air is at least a year—and that’s in TV. With features, it can be three to four years. Sometimes they’ll act like they have their backs against the wall, and they really need to get you recorded ASAP, but seldom is that really the case.
Hoodwinked (2005) / Hoodwinked Too! Hood Vs. Evil (2011)—“Wolf W. Wolf”
PW: I was in the editing room for an independent movie I did called The Civilization Of Maxwell Bright. It’s a real gritty story. It was shot on PAL, God knows why. Not the best format to shoot on. I don’t know if anybody would ever shoot on that again. [Laughs.] But, this fellow who was editing said, “I got somebody who is shooting an independent animated feature and wanted you to read for it.” Back then, “independent animated feature” didn’t sound like a great idea. When he told me the scenario—Little Red Riding Hood, but the wolf is an investigative reporter who thinks he’s Fletch—now I’m on the hook. [Laughs.] I’ve got to read it. It just sounded like a funny concept. So I went and did it. It became the first independently produced animated feature to get a major release.
AVC: And then you got to play the wolf again.
PW: Yeah, but they kind of took the original guys out of it that created Hoodwinked. That’s why Hoodwinked 2 just doesn’t work like Hoodwinked. Hoodwinked was pure and organic and fun and a real creation—Hoodwinked 2 it just wasn’t great because they took the original creative minds out of it.
AVC: Could you tell it was going to be that way when you were recording it?
PW: Um. [Pause.] I’m not sure. I don’t even really remember doing Hoodwinked 2. I don’t even know if I should—I feel like the original guys got screwed. I don’t want to get too much into this because I don’t know the whole story. The first one seemed to have more soul than the second one.
The Woman Chaser (1999)—“Richard Hudson”
AVC: That movie’s an homage to classic film noir—in the lead up to the shoot, did you look to any specific films in that genre as a model for your performance?
PW: I did at the time, but I can’t remember what they were. I remember seeing something in the style it was shot in that I found to be fascinating because it was so stark and the camera angles were very dramatic. And the lighting, it would kind of distort the human angle on film. I remember becoming a bit fascinated by that. And shooting The Woman Chaser was a real experience. Rob Devor, who was actually a first-time director, just did an amazing job and some amazing work. We stole all of our locations. We had no money. But he made a movie that debuted at the New York Film Festival, went to Sundance, and actually ended up garnering a theatrical release. And it’s still not on DVD. Because they put some really good music in that, classic tracks throughout that whole film. And they didn’t retain the rights to any of it. They’d have to drop a few hundred thousand dollars to get all those music rights so they could put it out. I know that they are working on that now, but it’s taking forever.
AVC: The centerpiece of The Woman Chaser is the big movie pitch Richard makes to his father-in-law, which employs this crazy tracking shot that follows you as you pace around a study. How was that shot set up?
PW: All I remember is I was a little dizzy after each take [Laughs.]. It was a lot of work. We were under real time constraints because we had no money.
AVC: As you recovered from that wooziness, did you ever think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to just recite this dialogue in a recording studio for an hour on a Monday afternoon?”
PW: Yeah. [Laughs.] Yeah, voiceover work—that seems a lot easier. I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback about that movie over the years. You look back and sometimes it’s hard to know at the time if something’s special or not.
The Dish (2000)—“Al Burnett”
PW: The Woman Chaser and The Dish are two of the best film experiences, and the result of what happened with them are two of the best experiences I’ve had. I had so much fun working on The Dish in Australia. It was just a delight being down there working with the Working Dog Productions people and Sam Neill. That was such a fun story—an Apollo 11 story that nobody was aware of. I know I wasn’t until I got involved in the picture. All the TV we got of Armstrong stepping on the moon came from a radio satellite in the middle of a sheep paddock in Australia. NASA needed something in the Southern Hemisphere in case we were in a southern rotation when we landed on the moon. And that was it. This giant radio telescope and a couple of Aussie scientists down there that were wackadoos looking for extraterrestrials. [Laughs.] Everything that could go wrong went wrong— the generator running out of gas, the dish stopping literally hours before they were needed by NASA. Not even knowing what the problem was, having to figure it out. But it’s a great, true, fun story.
AVC: You’ve said previously, “It took a team in Australia to offer me a role like that. Here in Los Angeles, they’ll barely read me for roles like that.” Is that still the case?
PW: Not entirely. At the time, it did strike me a bit curious that this director—he said he knew me from Seinfeld. I said, “This character, Al Burnett, he’s probably the least funny in the film, he’s actually just a straight guy, and there’s zero humor—he’s the straightest guy in the film. What compelled you to hire me?” And he’s like, “I reckoned you could do this.” I was so thankful for that, for his insight there, because I know in L.A. there seemed to be a great stigma between those who are on TV and those who do film work. But that’s all changed today. The crossover today, everybody seems to do TV, and everybody seems to do film. There seems to be more of a melt between the worlds today than there was, say, 13 years ago.