By day three of Dragon Con, flyers were mercilessly mushed into the wet Downtown sidewalks, people seemed to be personally acquainted with Gandalf, and no one was phased that the six locations and numerous venues that housed con festivities continued to buzz.
When The Signal sat down with Rodger Bumpass Sunday evening, it was no surprise that he agreed to interview in a vacant hallway of the Marriott Marquis, beer in hand. Despite the three days of ongoing activity, Bumpass spoke excitedly with us about his fame, his cartoon legacy and advice to anyone “persuing” voice acting.
The Signal: How has your experience at Dragon Con been thus far?
Rodger Bumpass: I’m not used to a four-day con, so there’s a fatigue factor. And I was telling the people at the panel that I just did that I apologize because I’m a little fatigued, but the reason I’m fatigued is I just spent seven hours interacting, greeting and being greeted with the absolute best fans I’ve seen at any con I’ve been to. The people at Dragon Con are enthusiastic, they’re passionate, they’re extremely complimentary and easy in telling you how much they love your work. So many people came to my table, not to buy anything, but just to shake my hand and tell me how much they loved my work. It doesn’t get any better than that.
TS: Is this your first time at Dragon Con?
RB: No, I’ve been here before, but not quite in this capacity. Last time I came I was just a vendor. They stuck me in some hole back there and I got paid a little bit of money and whatever. This time I was more of a guest, so I did interviews like this, and panels, and was much more visible. So it was a much more enjoyable experience this time.
TS: How did you get started in voice acting?
RB: Well, it wasn’t that I sought out voice acting. I started in the voice world because at puberty I went from a very high voice to drop down to what’s considered “an announcer voice.” And so I said, I’ve got this “announcer voice,” so I’ll go into broadcasting. And so I went to college and majored in radio and TV, and minored in theater. As time went on, I got more interested in the less regimented and more creative world of theater as opposed to broadcasting. I got my degree, but I decided that I wanted to be an actor. So I went to New York and got involved with the National Lampoon there, and got on tour, we toured the entire country and played Atlanta. And they started to do a new movie called Jaws: 3, People: 0. It was going to be the third Jaws film, obviously, and I had basically the lead in the film. But unfortunately it was about a movie studio doing a shark movie, and so we were going to use Spielberg’s shark mechanism, and show how it worked. Well, Spielberg steps in and says, “Well, you know what? That’s going to ruin the fantasy of my Jaws so if you guys don’t cancel this film, I’m walkin’.” So what do you think happened? They cancelled the film. And I had a love scene with Bo Derek!
By that time, though, I was already a client of the William-Morris agency. I moved over to their voice-over department and pretty soon that became my livelihood – doing commercials, and animation and whatnot. And that kind of just evolved into my mainstay.
It wasn’t a question of me pursuing it; it was like, well I know I have the ability to do these different voices and to present myself vocally, so let’s just go over there and see what happens. And that turned out well. Very few people, I think, pursue voice-acting. It’s just something that happens, and the door opens that way, so you go.
TS: You’ve been voicing one of the most beloved characters in children’s TV for fourteen years. What do you bring creatively to the character Squidward Tentacles?
RB: It evolved into a more nuanced character. When we first started him, he was a very nasally, monotone kind of guy. Then we started to discover his sarcasm, and then his frustration, and then his apoplexy, and so he became a wide spectrum of emotions, and he became a very interesting character to do.
Talking about the creative process, we have a wonderful convention we use when we’re recording sessions. They were doing two-page stretches of the script. We’ll do two passes of those two pages exactly the way the writers intended. We give our best. And then we do a third take, which is called the “crazy take,” where we can do anything we want to do, which is wonderfully liberating! And sometimes we do things off-color, just to amuse ourselves. But a lot of times our improv makes it into the actual show. So we give them what they want, but they give us the freedom to do what we want also. Before then, we were just improving occasionally.
You’ll hardly do one take of anything in animation; they want some options.
TS: I read that there was a comparison of your voice work to Jack Benny, American comic. One of his characters plays the violin badly, and Squidward plays the clarinet badly. Did you have any idea of the comparison?
RB: I didn’t know there was a relationship to that. I thought you were going to mention Tim Conway. In fact, today there has been two references to me and Tim Conway, which actually has some validity because I used to copy Tim’s physicality when I did stage work. He’s this sad sack kind of guy. But Jack Benny, no. Although he does have this observational sarcasm he occasionally brought out.
TS: Are any other characters you’ve done similar to Squidward?
RB: In my recent history, I’d have to say no, because Squidward has evolved into his own unique character. If you had asked the question when we first started the show, I’d have said he was a rather one-dimensional character. Now I don’t think there’s anything like him out there.
TS: Do you feel like you are Squidward? Do you have any similarities to him, personality wise?
RB: I’m not him and he’s not me, but what I’m required to do for him and what I am enabled to do for him is what makes it like me. It fits my particular talents and skills very well. So in that respect, yeah, he is me, but I am not the cranky, sarcastic, underachieving kind of guy that he is. He’s easy to fall in, I will say that.
TS: You received an Daytime Emmy nomination last year, correct?
RB: Yes, which they’ll never be able to take it from me; I have the little certificate and everything, and I’m very proud of being given that. Unfortunately, there wasn’t really a competition because one of the other nominees was June Foray (Rocky and Bullwinkle) and she is royalty in the animation world. So what that award was really a lifetime achievement award because she’s like 94 years old. There was no way any of the other three guys had a chance. In fact, if any of us had one, there would have been a riot in that studio. So I’m happy to lose to June Foray. I’m very pleased and grateful to get a nomination.
TS: What kind of advice would you give to, say, Georgia State students majoring in broadcasting or theater?
RB: In its essence, I say if you have the urge to pursue this, do it, especially when you’re very young. If you don’t throw your marbles out and see what happens, for the rest of your life you’ll wonder what could have happened. And that can have negative effects on the rest of your life. Not necessarily devastating, but you’ll always have that nagging thing. When you go out like I did – I went from Arkansas to New York City – and if I had done that and spent five, 10 years trying to do it, I would either have been successful or I would have said, you know, I’m done with this. I gave it my shot. The only failure is not trying. And I encourage all young people, if you have any inkling whatsoever, that you can do this. At least try.