John DiMaggio spends most of his time behind a microphone these days, but there was a time when he actually had the opportunity to show his face on camera, first as a stand-up, then as an actor on Chicago Hope and in the TV movie Pirates Of Silicon Valley. Once DiMaggio got a foothold in the world of voice acting, however, he made the most of it. Although he can be heard in animated series ranging from Afro Samurai to Back At The Barnyard, DiMaggio’s most notable role—not to mention his favorite—remains that of Bender on Futurama, which continues its resurrection with new episodes airing Thursdays at 10 p.m. EST on Comedy Central. The A.V. Club spoke to DiMaggio about his early years in acting, how he made his way to Futurama in the first place, and how a consolation-prize gig gave him the opportunity to reinvent one of DC Comics’ most maligned superheroes.
The A.V. Club: Most people know you for your voice work now, but you used to be willing to show your face on-screen as an actor.
John DiMaggio: Well, I still am, but it’s just that no one wants to see it. [Laughs.] Slowly but surely, the older I get, the fatter I get. It just goes, you know. Unless Roseanne makes a comeback and I get to play the fat cousin or something. For the most part I’d do it, but, yeah, I ditched art. When I first got out to Los Angeles, I was doing Chicago Hope, which was pretty fun. It’s funny how everything changed toward doing a lot more voice work. Listen, I’m happy. As long as I’m working, I’m happy. You see my face—great. You don’t see my face—too bad, I don’t care. I’ll keep going.
AVC: When did you first get the acting bug?
JD: When I was a kid. I was like, 9 or 10. I remember seeing The Sound Of Music at my sister’s high school, and I was, like, “Wow, there are kids in this show, and there are things,” I don’t know. I always liked being a ham and being in front of people doing things. Like, I used to play drums. I was used to being in front of people, and I liked it, so I didn’t shy away from it. My mom said, “Okay, we’ll try some stuff,” and I joined this theater company in Birmingham, New Jersey. It’s like, children’s theater. This lady was teaching theater, and I did that for a couple years, and then did theater in high school, and I did theater in college. I left college, and did some more theater, and then I did a ton of stand-up in New York. Then I was acting in New York, and then I did some voice stuff in New York, and then I moved to Los Angeles in ’96 to do Chicago Hope. I stopped doing stand-up and started doing more voice work, and then it just kind of became a shit-ton of voice work. [Laughs.] A shit-ton.
And it’s great. I love it. It’s funny, my on-camera agent is very happy. They wish they’d be making more money with me I’m sure, but I’m one of their favorite clients because I never call them up, like, “Why haven’t I got any work? What’s wrong with you people? Don’t you know I’m a star? [Makes fart noise.] Excuse me.” [Laughs.] It’s great because I never call my on-camera agents to complain. They love that because actors are assholes—who apparently are always farting—and they’re always asking for something.
AVC: What led you to jump from acting into stand-up?
JD: I had always been heavily influenced by stand-up. I was in a comedy team called Red Johnny And The Round Guy.
AVC: Whether it’s to your amusement or your horror, there are actually some clips of you guys on YouTube.
JD: Oh, yeah, uh… [Gives a low, sad whistle.] Nah, we were good. We did well in New York, and we were together for six years. My old partner—I don’t need to bring him up. He’s a… That guy’s a real… Uh, yeah. [Laughs.]
AVC: His name doesn’t seem to be anywhere online. There are lots of references to you having been Red Johnny, but…
JD: Aw, yeah. Good. I’m not even going to tell you what it is, because I don’t want him to get any taste of what it’s like to still be in show business. Because he is out of show business. He went back to Connecticut to work at his college job. In fact, the last time I saw my comedy partner—by the way, comedy teams never work out. They never work out. [Laughs.] Let me give you an example, because everybody that I know hates the guy. Like, all the other comics are just, like, “Oooooooh….” I left for Los Angeles, and he tried to do the jokes by himself, but it was just bad. He had some problems, and he was just way off. Dave Attell basically said, “Red Johnny is on Chicago Hope, and The Round Guy’s just hoping to get to Chicago.” That was a Dave Attell joke. A Dave Attell jam.
I came up with all those guys, like Attell, [Dave] Chappelle, Jay Mohr, Jim Breuer, Sarah Silverman. I mean, I remember when Sarah Silverman couldn’t get a laugh. I remember all kinds of people. Everybody. Marc Maron. Who else? I remember seeing Ray Romano. We were all doing our stuff, and [Ray Romano voice] Ray would, uh, do that key-jingling bit that he always did, where he, uh, jingled the keys. So, yeah, I came up in that. It was funny because my comedy partner—and this is what we’re getting back to—we went to theater school at Rutgers together, and he was on academic or artistic probation or some shit like that, so he was out in L.A. for, like, six months, and he got the idea that we should put together a comedy act. So we did. And it lasted for about six years, and then I was, like, “I can’t do this anymore, I’m gonna fucking strangle you.” So, I ended the act, I booked a job, and, uh, it was obvious who was carrying the act after I broke it up. [Laughs.]
But the last time I actually saw him—and this is the best part—was on a CNN clip about workers that have naptime at work. Like, nap-break rooms. That was the last time I saw him. My mother told me he was on CNN, and I looked it up, and I saw him on CNN talking about taking naps at work and how much he needed one. And it was just, like, “Wow, that fucking guy is an asshole.” [Laughs.] That was the last time I saw him, and I’m glad. He’s back doing the job that he was doing in college. Except I think he’s moved up the ladder. Some.
AVC: Based on the clip of you guys on The Jon Stewart Show, not to mention when you turned up on Curt Smith’s web show, you must have spent a lot of your youth just waiting for the chance to replace The Human Beatbox in the Fat Boys.
JD: Totally. I used to get down, I mean, I still do every once in a while. It’s funny, I’ve been beatboxing a lot these last two years here and there because it’s become a little bit more mainstream, believe it or not. And I beatboxed on Futurama too.
AVC: You and Billy [West] did the theme together, right?
JD: Yeah, me and Billy did the song one time, and then, what’s the character—MC Incredibly F.A.T. or something? [MC Noticeably F.A.T. —ed.] Yeah, that was really funny. It’s fun, I didn’t have enough money as a kid to buy a drum set, so I had to do something. I would mimic the sounds. That was it. And it worked. It worked for years. I did it at The Apollo Comedy Hour and didn’t get booed off the stage. People were like, “Oh, snap! This white boy can beatbox!” It was awesome. I actually met KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions. He was in the third balcony at The Apollo that night. I pointed up to him and was like, “Yo,” and he was like, “All right.” I saw him two weeks later outside of Penn Station, and he was like, “Yo man! You got a card?” and I was like, “No!” Never saw him again. So if KRS-One is reading The A.V. Club, I would appreciate a phone call. You can contact me through Vox, the agency, and I’ll talk to you then, bro.
AVC: You were on Chicago Hope with a lot of big-shot actor-types. Did you feel like you held your own pretty well, or did you feel out of your element?
JD: Naw, I felt all right. It’s funny, because there’s always that moment of, “Oh. Oh, shit. Am I actually here? There’s all these people. Who are they all staring at? Oh, shit, they’re staring at me.” There were those moments where you go, “Oh, I shouldn’t be here,” and then these moments where you go, “Of course I should be here, I totally earned this!” Matter of fact, the best thing is when you show up on a set that you’re not familiar with, you don’t know anybody on, and it turns out that you do know people who are working on set that you worked with previously before. When that happens, in this town, you know you’re in the right place. You’re, like, “Oh, okay, I’m not actually fooling myself. This is okay. I’m not the best, but I’m not the worst.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you have a particular instance where that happened?
JD: There was this one time on Chicago Hope where a director… James Frawley, I’ll say his name, I don’t give a shit. I don’t care, I really don’t care, because he was an asshole, a total fucking jerk. The guy directed The Muppet Movie, but it was, like, “Okay, take it easy, I don’t care, why are you giving me shit?” He was a holier-than-thou type, always looking down on you. I was trying to help out during a table read, and they were casting Louie Anderson in this part, and I was endearing myself to the cast and the crew. I mean, they liked me. They fucking kept me there for 11 episodes because they liked me. I was only supposed to do two of them. So I’m at this table read, helping them out reading this part, and I’m reading it like Louie Anderson and people are laughing a little bit, and it’s funny, and he stopped me and said, “Could you just… Can you just stop doing that? Just read it.” He really embarrassed me in front of the whole cast and crew and, like, executives. It was just wrong.
I know I immediately got red, and was like, [muttering] “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought I was helping. I didn’t realize…” and, to his credit, Adam Arkin steps up at the end of the table read, walks over to James Frawley and whispers in his ear, points to me, looks back at him, back at me, looks back at him, and then gets up and walks over to me and goes, “Don’t worry about it, man, it’s fine. Don’t sweat it,” and I was, like, “Okay, Adam. Thanks.” Basically, he was just, like, “Listen, man, give the fucking new guy a break. He’s green, he’s a nice guy, he’s busting his ass, he’s trying real hard to people-please everybody, and here you are, some fucking asshole, going, like, ‘Good luck getting a gig after this.’” So Adam Arkin is the man, by the way. That’s coming from me, straightaway. You meet cool people in this business, and it’s fun, but what are you gonna do?
Hey, I got a funny story for you. I don’t know if you should print this or not because it might get me cut out of the movie. Last Christmas I go to see some Christmas movie—me, my girlfriend and some of her family members—and we see a Transformers trailer, and at the end of it, as it’s dying down, it’s quiet in the theater, and I go, “Thanks Michael Bay, you just ruined fucking Christmas!” And the whole place exploded in laughter. Which is great, right? This was in L.A. at the Cinerama Dome or whatever. Literally three weeks later, I get a call saying, “Yeah, John, Michael Bay needs to see you in Santa Monica.” So it turns out that I totally shit on the movie, and three weeks later I end up in it. [Laughs.] So, y’know, other people who want to come to this town and want to become successful as an actor, if you see a movie trailer that you know is going to need post-production work, shit it on it openly at a movie theater, and you will probably end up getting that post-production work. But back to Futurama. [Laughs.]
AVC: So here we are: more new episodes of Futurama. Even now, it remains a little hard to believe. Are you still giddy about the show’s continued life?
JD: It’s the show that will not stop, and it’s pretty awesome. I really love doing the show. It’s a joy to work with these people. The best writers, the funniest voice actors… I mean, Billy West is a juggernaut. Katey Sagal is wonderful. Maurice LaMarche brings it. Tress MacNeille is the best. Lauren Tom and Phil LaMarr are awesome. And Dave Herman I am a huge fan of. Whatever comes out of Dave Herman’s mouth, I’m a huge fan of. And that’s going to sound really weird, but I don’t care. It’s just really cool. It’s like riding the greatest bicycle of all time. Whenever we get the opportunity to do more shows, it’s the best. The fact that it’s still alive, the fact that it’s still going, is a testament to the quality of the show. We might not be able to do as many seasons as other successful cartoons—a.k.a. The Simpsons—but I don’t care. This is its own beast, and this is its own thing. We’re just chugging along. I’d love to be able to do this for as long as we could, but it’s a joy. It’s always been so much fun. It’s just great to laugh. We get to do these table reads, and it’s just hilarious.
Yesterday we had a big table read, and then we watched the first two episodes at the Fox theater, and it was awesome. On the big screen, on a huge theater screen. And it’s a beautifully drawn show, too. They don’t get enough credit for how beautifully the show is shot. I can’t say enough of it. I just enjoy it that much. I feel bad. I mean, it’s bad form to be, like [adopts deep nerdy voice], “It’s the greatest fucking show ever!” [Laughs.] You can’t do that. But… I don’t know, I don’t want to jinx anything. Well, let it keep dying and coming back to life, that’s fine by me. I could keep working in between and keep doing other gigs, just as long as we get to keep doing it.
AVC: What’s most impressive about the show is that it’s never been afraid to be smart. It goes lowbrow, but it never dumbs it down for the audience.
JD: Never. Never ever. We have the smartest writing staff in television history, actually. The folks on this show do not mess around. They’re Ph.D.s in science and Master’s degrees all around, in mathematics and science, from some of the best universities in the world. It’s ridiculous, the level of education in the writers’ room. I mean, they argue math jokes for hours. For hours! I mean, I’m not arguing math jokes. [Laughs.] You ain’t catching me doing no algorithms. But it’s just a joy, and I get to say the things they write. That’s the best thing ever. Makes me look good.
AVC: Quick minutiae question: in “Bender’s Big Score,” when Bender starts reeling off binary code at a rapid-fire clip, how much was your actual delivery and how much was sped up in the studio?
JD: It was interesting because I did get fast. I remember doing it as fast as I could, and we did a bunch of takes, but then I think they sped it up, like they saw how fast I could go, and they were like, “All right. That’s great, but we might speed it up even more.” And they might have done that, but hold on, okay, [talks quickly] “One zero zero one one zero…” yeah you know. And I had it in front of me, so you know. I think they sped it up a bit at the very end, I love that bit. [Laughs.] I also like in the movies, The Knife Guys, [Adopts hillbilly drawl] “Right now, we’re going to have this bowie knife…” and it’s just, I love those guys.
AVC: Based on your comment about the math jokes, when they throw you the highbrow jokes, do you have to have some of them explained to you?
JD: Yeah, sometimes, if it’s a really intricate math joke. But most of the time you get the context cues and roll with it, so it’s fine.
AVC: You mentioned the table reads. Given everyone’s schedules, is that something consistent, where you’re all able to be together to do those?
JD: They like that. In fact, they need us for that, because that’s how you hear out the jokes. That’s where you get your rewrites from. You gotta find out what works in the room and what doesn’t work. And it’s a real good gauge of what the audience is gonna laugh at. It’s definitely a good thing. I always enjoy the table reads, and I always try to push the jokes for the people who wrote them.
AVC: Along the same lines, how much do you guys get to record together?
JD: We record together and try and do ensemble reads as much as possible. Sometimes schedules won’t allow it, but for the most part, we usually try and have everyone in the studio at the same time, and usually we do. But, you know, everybody’s got stuff to do. When we can, though, we do it scene by scene with all the actors in the room, which is neat.
AVC: What were the origins of you coming to Futurama in the first place? Were there other people up for the role of Bender?
JD: Yeah, there were a ton of people up for it. It was interesting because the same people that cast MADtv cast Futurama. I had auditioned for MADtv and I got it, but on the advice of my agent and manager, I was told I should turn it down, so I turned it down. I don’t know how good of a decision that was, but I think it was all right. [Laughs.] I’m fine, I’m not worried about it. But the same people who cast that cast this show, and they brought me in. I kind of had this voice that I had been [adopts a rough version of the Bender voice], “Yeah, this voice was kind of, it was around. It was sitting around there in my head,” and I did that for it, and they loved it and went for it. They had me reading The Professor, too, like [does a dodgy version of the Professor], “Good news everyone!” And, uh, that didn’t work. [Laughs.] I came home, I got the job as Bender, and I showed my roommate at the time the picture, and he’s from Boston, and he was like, “Dude! Dude! You’re like, a fucking, robot Homer! Robot Homer. Swear ta gawd.” And I was, like, “Yeah, that’s right.“
AVC: How long did it take you to feel comfortable in the voice of Bender? If you go back to the earlier episodes, you can certainly hear it evolving.
JD: It was totally different. You know what, it’s like the more you ride the bike, the better it gets, and the more you know how to ride it. The earlier episodes, there’s not as much funk in it, and then later I would throw in like, “Aw, yeah, baby! All right! Dee da dee da doo. Da Da doodle-dee-de!” There’s a lot more musicality in his voice than I think there was. Those kinds of things change all the time. Ever so slightly, but they do change. If you listen to Homer in those original Simpsons episodes, it’s completely different, and you could say the same about Bender as well. It’s really thick, a much thicker accent. So, yeah, it changes. That’s the nature of the beast.
AVC: Do you have any favorite Bender lines? Presumably “bite my shiny metal ass” is the one most quoted back to you.
JD: Yeah, and it’s also the most misquoted line back to me, like, “Hey! Say the ‘Kiss my shit’ line,” and I’m like, “I’m not saying that. That’s not what it is. You lose. You are not as big a fan as the person next to you.” My favorite line was when he’s walking up the side of a building with Fry, and they’re walking past an apartment or a hotel room, and Bender says, “Aw, get a room, you two!” And the person in the room shouts, “We’re in a room!” And then I yell back at him, “Well, then lose some weight!” That’s one of my all-time favorites. And then, “Shut up, baby! Yeah, I know it!” He’s just a fun character to play. I love it.
AVC: Some voice actors are very adamant about celebrities not doing voice work. Do you feel as strongly about that as, say, someone else on your cast?
JD: Yeah, you mean Billy West? [Laughs.] Yeah, I hate it, too. I hate it, I hate it. There’s a lot of people who do stuff that’s just, like, meh. Like Cameron Diaz getting $10 million for Shrek or whatever. It’s, like, come on, really? And it’s like a bandwagon kind of feeling, like, “Oh, I can make money doing this?” And it’s just, like, “Man, get out of the way.” It’s like, “Yeah, I didn’t ask a production assistant to go get me a breakfast burrito this morning. I got it myself. Just leave me alone. Leave us alone and let us get this work done.”
AVC: So when celebrities turn up on Futurama, do you judge their voice-acting abilities on a case-by-case basis as to whether they’re worthy?
JD: What, are you kidding? We kiss their asses! [Laughs.] No, listen, whoever gets cast for whatever is fine. I just don’t like it when people get credited for their voice work and it’s really shitty. It’s really thin, there’s nothing to it, there’s no meat behind it. It’s, like, “Oh, it’s a celebrity.” There’s other people who could be doing the job better, but they’re not getting the work. Listen, these people who do this stuff have to make their money. The producers have to make their money. They’re not going see these shows without the name in them. They’re not going to see these movies or whatever. It’s a two-way shit-street. I don’t know, I hate it. I don’t like it when celebrities get voice work. But then again, if I was the producer, I wouldn’t want a bunch of no-names doing my show and have to worry about word-of-mouth. I see both sides of the story. But there’s gotta be a common ground.
AVC: When Futurama made the transition to Comedy Central, was there any particular change for you guys behind the scenes?
JD: It’s no pants now. We have to record without pants. [Laughs.] No, but, actually, to be honest, there’s a lot more nudity in the scripts. We have a lot more nudity in the scripts, and the show is allowed to be as funny as it can be. Not that it wasn’t before, but Comedy Central has embraced us. They’re just, like, “Nah, it’s just a funny show. We like you and we want you,” which is great, because Fox never really embraced us. We’ve been lucky that we’ve lived on in cable. Thank you, Adult Swim. Thank you very much, Adult Swim. I always make sure to thank them. Thank you, Adult Swim, dammit. You guys are beautiful. All the way down in Atlanta, you crazy kids. [Laughs.]
AVC: Just a few questions about some of your other voice work. You helped redefine Aquaman as a character.
JD: Thank you! You know what? That was so much fun. I loved doing Batman: The Brave And The Bold, and I wish that it wasn’t not coming back. It really sucks. We always joked about having an Aquaman spin-off, and that would have been awesome, but what are you gonna do? But thank you, I certainly appreciated doing that role. It was a lot of fun, it was so goofy, and so fun, and over the top and outrageous to do. It was so theatrical. It was just a joy to do. I also got to work with one of my favorite voice directors of all time, Andrea Romano, who I can never say enough about. She’s just the best, and she’s got a shit-ton of Emmys. Word of the day: “shit-ton.” [Laughs.] She just said, “You know, go for it.” It was down to Diedrich [Bader] and I for the role of Batman, and he got it, so she was, like, “Consolation prize: You’re Aquaman,” and I was like, “Yay!! I’m going to control some seals! Lum-lum-lum-lum…” You know what I’m doing there, right? Like, the circles coming out of his…aw, you know. I know you do.
AVC: You had that great and relatively poignant episode where he lost his Aqua-mojo.
JD: Yeah, and then I got it back, “Oh, yeah.” That call-to-arms speech really took off on the Internet, and a lot of people were, like, “This is the greatest Aquaman ever!” Like, rock and roll! Awesome! [Adopts an announcer voice] “Black Sabbath, coming to a theater near you! Opener: Aquaman!” I…don’t actually know what that means. [Laughs.] But it was fun. There were musical episodes, and I got to sing a bunch of songs. It was just a fun, fun show to do. James Tucker. James Tucker, really great guy, the writer of that show.
AVC: Another of your shows, The Penguins Of Madagascar, got some Emmy love the other day.
JD: Oh, man, we got mad-crazy Emmy love. The Franchise got an Emmy. My man Danny Jacobs. Me and Kevin [Michael Richardson] call him The Franchise. No, he’s King Julien. It’s awesome, and he also does really great impressions of, really great voice range. Danny’s great, he’s going to be big. He’s just funny. He does this great Tony Bennett, and…have you ever heard of Shooby Taylor, The Human Horn?
AVC: I have not.
JD: Oh, God, he’s great. You gotta look it up. In fact, I wanna behest everyone at The A.V. Club. Shooby Taylor. He is the worst scat singer ever. He is the worst. The worst. He used to go to jazz clubs to open mics in New York City. He was a postal worker in New York, he passed away in the early 2000s, of old age. He was in his early 70s and whatnot. He used to go to these places, and the managers of the joints would be like, “Shooby. I gotta tell you something, man. You can’t come back and try and sing in this place. You are the worst singer we have ever heard in our lives.” I mean, he does this [scatting], “Shree ha-ha shrabahababa hee bibbidly-bloppy,” it’s the worst thing. So what Danny did was he sent me a meme of Tony Bennett singing Shooby Taylor, and it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard, but you guys gotta get hip to Shooby Taylor. Everyone at The A.V. Club: Google “Shooby Taylor The Human Horn. Yeah, that’s right: He calls himself “The Human Horn.” [Imitates Taylor] “I blow myself.” Swear to God.