In the newly democratized world of voice acting, quirky, wry, and "real" voices are having a moment.By Brian BraikerApr 7, 2016 9:30 AM
James Conroy has been a joy-riding raccoon, a cannibalistic shrimp, and a fanboy T. rex. For the past 15 years, his voice — slightly nasal, low, and dry, with a barely perceptible lisp — has appeared in commercials for Dairy Queen, Wendy’s, Toys ‘R Us, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and more. (His face has appeared in a few of them, too.) This wide-ranging resumé tells a story: Conroy has benefited from a generational shift in voice acting work towards a quirky, offbeat sound.
“The mainstream market has blown up,” he says. “There no longer is one way to sound. Back in the day, that deep baritone ruled the airwaves. But somewhere in the ’90s, this new type of read evolved.”
Conroy and his fellow voice actors call it the “fuck you” read: wry and dry, it had a true disdain for advertising and the salesman pitch of the old baritone-booming voice. It said to us, “I know you hate to be interrupted by commercials. So do I. So let’s get through this necessary evil together so that we can get back to the thing we were really listening to.”
“Every option was on the table: deep, dry, happy, high pitched, quirky, off-tempo. It was like free-form jazz.”
This wry-and-dry read fell by the wayside after 9/11, says Conroy, when advertising attempted to pump “a little false joy” back into the sound. “That was a tough time to work, as my voice naturally lends itself to wry and dry,” he says. “Thankfully, that phase went away and things sort of got back to normal as the country fell back into old habits and started yelling at each other.”
Voice acting then went the way of the Wild West. “Every option was on the table: deep, dry, happy, high pitched, quirky, off-tempo. It was like free-form jazz,” says Conroy. “You went into an audition knowing that they could want anything. But what they mostly wanted was ‘real.’ Everyday people. Connect with the audience on any number of levels. Their anger, their joy, their frustration, their funny bone. There were a million ways to skin a cat.”
Some traditionalists were rankled by the newly democratized voice acting field. When comedian Kristen Schaal was in college, she wanted to take a class with a “very prominent voice acting coach,” she told Vulture. She went to the instructor’s office, and the second she opened her mouth, the voice coach was stunned. “You have an atrocious lisp!” Schaal quotes her as saying. “I was devastated.”
She needn’t have worried. Aside from being very, very funny, Schaal is today an accomplished actor with a lead role in the hit Fox shows “Last Man on Earth” and “Bob’s Burgers,” as well as parts in Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me 2. Her voice — high pitched and shrill, lispy and sharp — is as much a part of her brand as her comedic chops. It is instantly recognizable.
Performers like H. Jon Benjamin, her co-star on “Bob’s Burgers,” deserve some of the credit for making a career like Schaal’s possible. Benjamin plays Bob and the title character in the animated comedy “Archer,” two very different characters who deliver their lines with the exact same flat, sandpapery monotone. “There’s no better example of today’s go-to offbeat sound than H. Jon Benjamin,” says Conroy. “I’m completely drawn to his tone and how he delivers copy. He might be the first one I can remember that didn’t sound like he was performing. He’s just got that ‘thing.’ It might be his shtick and maybe it’s put on, but it doesn’t ring false at all. It’s unique.”
“Today you do have to be a good actor. But if you have a quirk to your voice, great.”
Oddball voices are having a bit of a moment on the radio, too: Writers Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris helped lead the adenoidal charge on NPR. Peabody-award winning journalist and Serial host Sarah Koenig charmed a nation of newly minted podcast fans with her mellifluous, light vocal fry.
“Back in the day, if you had this big James Earl Jones booming voice, you were going to do well,” says Ed Lewis, a casting director and voice acting instructor based in New York. “Today you do have to be a good actor. But if you have a quirk to your voice, great.”
More recently, technology has helped push different voices out into the ether. “There’s so much more audio stuff being consumed nowadays, on podcasts and audiobooks, that there’s a lot more opportunity for people,” says Lewis, who has hired funky voices for audiobooks, animation, video games, and commercials. “The advent of podcasting has made it easier for people who might not be able to make it on voice, but who have a good personality. If someone is saying something interesting, it shouldn’t matter what her voice sounded like.”
Of course, not everybody loves these voices. On a Straight Dope message board titled “Sarah Vowell — Annoying Voice,” the best-selling author and Incredibles actor’s voice is described as “just horrid.” On Reddit and elsewhere, Koenig’s voice is ruthlessly dissected for its vocal fry.
The sound of an actor’s voice has been a primary concern for as long as there has been audio. It is the very foundation of the plot of Singin’ In the Rain, the 1952 comedy in which three stars navigate the transition from silent films to talkies in the late 1920s: A vapid, shallow leading lady named Lina Lamont has a screechy, grating voice that was no obstacle in the silent film era. But her career can’t navigate the transition to sound — to hilarious effect.
If poor Lina had only been born 70 years later, she’d have found a much happier ending. The haters are on the losing side of history, predicts Lewis. “It irks people, but over time they have to accept it,” he says. “In voice-over across the board — animation or commercial or audiobooks — it’s about the acting, it’s about people who are honest.”