-by Ken Plume
When it comes to the kind of subjects I get it into my fool head to interview, they generally tend to be choices that your average celeb-chaser would blink twice at and then move on, with little comprehension of the fascinating people and careers that exist outside of names like Pitt, Gibson, Cruise, or Hilton.
A few years back, I decided to begin interviewing cartoon voice actors. Spurred on by a love of animation and a deep respect for the often unsung actors who bring characters like Homer, Spongebob, Bugs Bunny, Ludwig Von Drake, Fry, Tigger, Huckleberry Hound (the list could go on, and on, and on), and many more to life, I set about doing in-depth interviews with as many voice actors (who would a) grant the request and b) not hang up) as possible.
Due to various delays and scheduling snafus, many of these in-depth pieces have sat on the proverbial shelf for the past few years, but are finally being presented here at Quick Stop.
The first interview from the vaults is with an amazingly gifted voice actor who an entire generation is familiar with as one half of Pinky & The Brain (the big-headed, world dominance craving Brain half), Maurice LaMarche. Suffice it to say, he’s had a fascinating and varied career, and I’d much rather leave it to the interview, and his own words, to tell you more…
MAURICE LAMARCHE: Hey, Ken. Maurice here.
KEN PLUME: It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you.
LAMARCHE: Nice to speak with you. I wanted to do this from the pool of my Beverly Hills mansion, but I realized I don’t have one. I’m gonna have to settle for parking on a side street in Beverly Hills and pulling out a Cuban cigar.
KP: Aren’t there loaner pools for voice actors?
LAMARCHE: I don’t know. I wonder if there are talent pools for voice actors, and I hope to find one.
KP: So you would you prefer Maurice, Mr. LaMarche, or just Sir?
LAMARCHE: Mo. Everybody calls me Mo.
KP: You’re Canadian, right?
LAMARCHE: I am.
KP: Born in the late 50’s…
LAMARCHE: Yes, 1958.
KP: Were you raised in Canada?
LAMARCHE: I was not farm raised or grain fed, but yes, I was raised in Toronto. Actually, I started life in Toronto and then immediately, almost like right out of the maternity ward, we moved to a little town called Timmins, Ontario, which is where Shania Twain is from.
KP: There’s sort of a time warp aspect to the more rural areas of Canada.
LAMARCHE: Yes, but I left when I was four so it was still the hippest place going as far as I was concerned. Except for the 25 degree below zero days in May. But other than that, it was all I knew. But it did give me the hardy texture I have today in terms of dealing with cold and all… I mean, I still go out in shirt sleeves in, you know, 40 degree weather out here, and people marvel at it. My blood was thickened at an early age.
KP: That’s as frigid as it gets in L.A., isn’t it?
LAMARCHE: Oh yes.
KP: What were the cultural aspects that you were exposed to at that time? Canada at that time is a weird sort of cultural prism, and the elements weren’t exactly what we here in the U.S. would have had.
LAMARCHE: It’s a bit of a bubble, I’d have to say, culturally. I think a lot of staying in. The most important thing to do when you were a kid in Canada was to somehow get home from school without freezing to death, and going right inside and watching afternoon television. So you always got a healthy dose of Star Trek and Batman and the Commander Tom show, which was a local cartoon host show. Lots of butter tarts, which are this gooey, very fattening food which are needed to put a layer of blubber on most of us so that we can withstand the cold. A lot of pain, a lot of tourtiere, which is a French Canadian meat pie. Just warm, fatty comfort foods, you know, once you get in the door. And a lot of Hockey Night in Canada, which was very difficult for me, because I’m the only heterosexual Canadian male born without the hockey gene.
KP: How did that affect you growing up?
LAMARCHE: There are flaming drag queens in Canada that care more about hockey than I do. And I don’t know how the hell that happened because my father palled around with the Mahovlich brothers and Al Arbor in his childhood. He was from Timmins, and that’s where they’re all from, and if it wasn’t for his height, he actually might have made at least the farm teams. He was very talented as a hockey player and a natural athlete, and could skate rings around people. It was actually fascinating to watch.
KP: So did you have issues with coordination?
LAMARCHE: I just didn’t care. It just didn’t register. Didn’t appear as a blip on my radar. It was none of my business. The game going on at the Maple Leaf Gardens was no more my business than the fight my neighbors five doors down were having.
KP: In Canada, that’s almost unpatriotic.
LAMARCHE: It is, absolutely, and I was ostracized. Even from my father. He couldn’t figure me out. He thought it was blasphemy that here I was this French Canadian kid and I didn’t care about hockey.
KP: I can’t imagine how you would try and relate to the other kids then.
LAMARCHE: I didn’t. So hence I went into my own little world of cartoons and sixties television. There was a show on local TV there called Tiny Talent Time, and much like Bobby from King of the Hill, I remember going to my parents and telling them I wanted to go on Tiny Talent Time, and be a comedian. And all they had was kids from the age of four to eleven doing their talent. It was a really cheesy show. And I remember my grandmother said, “You wanna be a what? A comedian? Oh, I can’t imagine anything so frickin’ ridiculous.”
KP: So not only did you lack the hockey gene, but you wanted to be an entertainer.
LAMARCHE: Yes. Now, my family were all natural entertainers. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a master mimic. He wasn’t professional, but he was well known in his group of friends for his impressions of Maurice Chevalier and Adolph Hitler.
KP: What a winning combination.
LAMARCHE: Yes. Of course, you’ve got to realize this was pre-holocaust in the war. He was just sort of this mean guy in Germany. After the Nuremburg Trials the true horror of what he had done really began to spread through the world, but before that, he was just looked at as this aggressive SOB over in Europe and it was really none of anybody’s business. So my grandfather did a great Hitler, a great Maurice Chevalier. And my mother also could mimic any one of her friends. She didn’t do famous people, but she would relate stories of conversations she’d had with her friends, and play all the friends in the conversation. You knew exactly who was talking, and four people were talking in this story. She kept it very, very distinct and separate and spoke in their voices, and she was a wonderful storyteller and joke teller. My father had a very sardonic sort of sense of humor and just ridiculed everything. So the two of them… my father couldn’t tell a joke to save his life, but my father denied the two main rules of comedy - which is brevity is the soul of wit and… well, this is more of an anti-rule - the joke is always about somebody else. It’s always about two Jews walk into a bar. You don’t say, “I happened to walk into a tavern with two men of the Judaic faith.” My father would always cast himself as a character in the joke, completely ruining it. I mean, God rest his soul, but I don’t know…
KP: So he had both timing and structure issues.
LAMARCHE: Absolutely. But let somebody cut him off on the freeway, and my father could launch into a string of expletives - understated expletives - sarcastic, cutting references to the person that would have you on the floor laughing. So my father was unintentionally funny whenever he tapped into his anger. My mother, wonderful raconteur and mimic… and these two things missed me entirely. No, I guess they sort of came together in me and formed whatever sense of humor and comedy that I have.
QS: Did you get a sense at that point that the mimicry ability and humor was not something that everyone had?
LAMARCHE: Yes. I felt like I’d escaped from the bottled city of Kandor.
KP: And making a very nice Superman reference.
LAMARCHE: Yes indeed. And coming here, it’s like going back into the bottled city of Kandor because I meet people like Billy West and Jim Cummings and Jess Harnell and Jeff Glen Bennett, and… who else am I leaving off the list that I think is absolutely brilliant? Rob Paulsen, of course. A whole passel of people that can do what I do. So it’s like Brainiac beamed me back in the bottle where I’m with all these other people with super powers. So I’m just sort of ordinary here. But yeah, it made me stand out, and I guess people didn’t quite know what to make of me. I was sent to school psychologists because I wouldn’t stop doing these voices and acting out these cartoons and playing all the characters.
KP: Was it an inclusive thing, where you were the class clown, or did you create your own little world and it was an “everyone else be damned” kinda thing?
LAMARCHE: In earlier life, absolutely it was my own little world. Only in my junior year in high school did I learn to harness my powers for good instead of evil. In other words, I learned to turn it outwards. The turning point for me was 10th grade and the high school variety show. I was schticking around in the cafeteria with a couple of the seniors, and they said, “He’d be great.” This one guy, Harry Van Bommel turns to Steve Barton - I know you know these guys, so that’s why I’m telling you - and said, “He’d be great in the variety night.” Steve Barton said, “Yeah.” I said, “But what would I do? All I’m doing with you guys is just floating lines from television shows.” And Steve Barton said, “Don’t worry, I’ll write you an act.” So he wrote a little three minute long standup, “celebrities as waiters.” And I actually used that bit. I mean obviously I refined it, tweaked it, but I used that bit up until the very last day I did standup. It remained a cornerstone of my act. And lo and behold, I got a standing ovation at the variety night, and everything changed. The next day I came to school, I was no longer the outcast. I was a hero, people were treating me special and nice as though somehow or other this thing that I’ve always been able to do, that got me ridiculed, was now something to be admired. It was a bit heady. I imagine at an early, early age… it’s like those athletes that peak in high school. I had, like, this degree of celebrity within the microcosm of my school, and it kind of sent me into a bit of a headspin kinda space.
KP: Were you able to accept and enjoy it, or was it something you were suspicious of?
LAMARCHE: No, I accepted and enjoyed it a little too much and began to think a little too much of myself. But I quickly snapped out of that when I entered the real world. I took my little high school act down to New York and open mic night at the Improv when I was… how old was I when I did that? I was 18. And when they didn’t ask me immediately to become a regular and move down to New York and - quite the opposite - they just totally ignored me…
KP: That was what - ‘75, ‘76?
LAMARCHE: That would be the summer of 1977. So I’m mistaken - I had just turned 19.
KP: That period was quite a heady time within the comic community.
LAMARCHE: Yes it was. Maybe the best thing I could have done was to actually move down to New York at that time, but when I walked past Silver Friedman and she… you know, I didn’t make a blip on her radar, and she said, “Well, come back next month I guess.” I went back to Toronto with my tail between my legs. But I’d gotten my first taste.
KP: Was there a sense, growing up in Canada, that entertainment originated outside the country? That you had to go elsewhere?
LAMARCHE: Well, we had our own entertainers. They weren’t very entertaining, but they were there. Actually, there were some very good people. Second City was getting going then. And I think because of developing in the bubble, it developed its own kind of humor. Very self-deprecating, much along the lines of the Canadian national character at the time. References upon references, somewhat unstructured. Not Pythonesque, but almost.
KP: Well, the comedy kinda combined the best aspects of both British and American humor, didn’t it?
LAMARCHE: I think so. But again, I think in both cases, neither of those styles is as culturally referential as, say, some of the stuff Second City did… for instance, that Fantasy Island routine that became a Bob Hope routine. Just constantly going inside itself. I think that was uniquely Canadian. Other than that it’s really hard to nail down what Canadian humor is.
KP: It’s almost comedy in search of an identify, isn’t it?
LAMARCHE: Yeah, but it’s finding itself. It’s finding itself. The Kids in the Hall, and Second City of course, and now all those guys are becoming the grand old men of comedy. The new Burroughs.
KP: Was the goal to be a success outside of the country?
LAMARCHE: You were actually shunned if you did that. I remember… let me think here. Oh, here it was. I was watching Jeopardy last night in the restaurant - it was the high school edition of Jeopardy - and I turned to the person I was with and I said, “Look at this. Alex Trebek has come full circle.” And the person, being American, had no idea what I was talking about, so I explained that when I first started out, I had a little job at a TV station in Toronto when Alex Trebek was doing Reach for the Top, which was a high school student quiz show. And I, at the time, had just landed my first job in show business, which was hosting a local variety show. Kind of like Tiny Talent Time except they feature high school students. And me being just out of high school, they thought I’d be a good host for it. So when I was negotiating my contract, I was getting a big $175 per episode. And I remembered saying to my friend last night, at one point Alex Trebek and I were making the same money - because my producer of this show explained to me that that’s what Trebek gets for Reach for the Top: $175. And when Alex Trebek came down to California to host High Rollers, everybody at that local station turned their noses up at him as though he’d sold out to the great American entertainment Satan.
KP: He should be happy with his $175…
LAMARCHE: It wasn’t about the $175, it was about the fact that he was doing a high level quiz show for high school students, and that that should be his calling in life, and that this should be okay. You know, that he should be satisfied with that. I guess there’s the sense of, in Canada, “Who do you think you are to go beyond the ceiling?” This is actually part of the reason I hate socialism and why I’m not living there today, amongst other factors, the prime of which is that I’d never want to put my back out shoveling another friggin’ driveway. But the idea that there’s this cap and it’s actually this ceiling that’s actually quite low that you should never try to break out of, otherwise everybody looks at you saying, “Who the hell do you think you are to try to be better than the rest of us?” It’s dangerous. And I absolutely heard at least three people talk about Trebek that way. That he…
KP: So it’s a fervent defense of the middle ground…
LAMARCHE: Absolutely. And why should anybody try to… don’t rock the boat, we’re all getting our health care taken care of, it’s free… Of course it’s not free. It comes from the astronomical taxes that the Canadians pay, but they all think their health care’s free. Meanwhile, 66% of their money’s going away. That’s the free health care.
KP: Ironic that the show they shunned him for leaving was called Reach for the Top.
LAMARCHE: Yeah. It should have been called Reach for the Middle. No, they wanted him to return to Reach for the Top, and you know what, to Trebek’s credit, he actually came back and did Reach for the Top for the same $175 for another season while they were paying him $10,000 a week down in the states to host the first season of High Rollers. He still came back. He felt a moral duty and a sense of purpose that he was quizzing high school students and keeping the bar high in terms of educational standards. Finally though he said it’s just not worth coming back to Toronto to do this. I assume.
KP: Was the shaming overt?
LAMARCHE: Not to his face. Behind his face.
KP: Was it something he could feel?
LAMARCHE: I have no idea.
KP: Was it something that you felt?
LAMARCHE: Oh yes, absolutely. When I left and made the attempt to better myself, the comedians at the comedy club, two or three of them wished me well, but most of them told me how tough it would be and why are you going there, you’ve got a good thing going here, you’re a big fish in a small pond here, stay in the small pond. I just didn’t see it that way. I saw it as my job to make the best of my lot in life. I’ve got this talent and let’s see what I can do with it. Let’s take it all the way. Now a few things… I had a few bumps in the road and I did retire from standup… retire… I left standup after my dad was murdered, but… this isn’t a very linear interview, is it?
KP: No, they never are, and that’s usually for the best.
KP: I’m not gonna limit the conversation is what I’m saying.
LAMARCHE: Okay. But as I said, there were a few bumps in the road, and… but my point is I still saw the States as that old cliché, the land of opportunity. You can become anything you want to be here. That’s why I still love this country.
KP: When you’re actively making that decision, how difficult… you talk about your first foray down to the Improv. That didn’t go as you had hoped, and when you returned, does it harden you and make you even more resolved to go back, or is it something that turned you off for the immediate future?
LAMARCHE: No, no. I absolutely wanted to come back and try and do better. I actually had a little anxiety attack when I got back from Toronto, which manifested in my chest so everybody thought I’d had a heart attack, and I actually went to the hospital. Of course with the free health care… free health care that my parents’ taxes were paying for, I stayed in the hospital for three weeks for observation. For having chest pains at 19 years old. You know, because why not? We’ve got all this money to spend on health care.
KP: Are you saying it’s not terribly efficient?
LAMARCHE: Do you get that impression?
KP: It’s kind of subtle.
LAMARCHE: I’m not trying to hit you over the head with it or anything.
KP: What were you thinking, laying there for three weeks under observation?
LAMARCHE: I was thinking I wish I’d just belched and gotten the damn gas out of my chest or whatever the hell it was. No, actually, what I was thinking truthfully was, “Oh my god there’s something horribly wrong with me. Look at all this attention I’m getting! Hey, maybe I can parlay this into getting laid.” That’s what I was really thinking.
KP: Well, at least it gave you time to think.
KP: If you hadn’t had an anxiety attack, would you have thought about going back into the fold and saying, “I gotta get out of here…”?
LAMARCHE: Actually, if I hadn’t had the anxiety attack, I probably would have told my mom and dad “I’m moving down to New York this week.” And I’ve always regretted not moving to New York. I came straight to Los Angeles three years later, and I always… afterwards, in retrospect, I thought it was a mistake. I think that a couple of years in New York would have made me a stronger comedian. I think nobody… there’s an earthiness to New Yorkers that makes you funnier. That gives you a bit more of an edge. And I think by forestalling for three years, I got to L.A., you know, without much refinement. And I think that would have been a baptism of fire that would have refined my comedy muscles a little more.
KP: What did your act consist of at the time?
LAMARCHE: My act? They used to describe me, “He’s like Rich Little on speed.” I used to do very rapid fire impressions. My downfall as a comedian, or my shortcoming rather as a comedian, was that I never had great material. I don’t think I was clever enough to write great material, and I never really… apart from one really great writing session with a guy named Josh Goldstein who went on to create Fresh Prince. He wrote on Fresh Prince. He co-created the one that was on Saturday nights about the Kennedy era, American something.
KP: American Dreams?
LAMARCHE: American Dreams. He co-created American Dreams. Anyway, Josh and I paired up for like two days and wrote about 10 strong minutes, but I had 30 minutes, so the 10 strong minutes in my act were from the Josh session, and the rest of it was just me kinda demo-ing my voices. Sort of the high point of my career was I got to be on the 1985 HBO Young Comedians Special, the 9th Annual Young Comedians Special. And I watched it the other day, and I thought to myself, you know, I was about two years away from becoming really good, and probably about five years away from becoming great, because the problem with impressionists is we don’t say anything from the stage. We just put on these little skits. Putting celebrities in wacky jobs and weird situations and implying a homosexual relationship between two well-known characters. You know, those little devices, but we don’t come from anywhere.
KP: So it’s more about performance.
LAMARCHE: Yeah. And I think I was about five years away from figuring out that I could be the only impressionist that actually comes from somewhere. That has something to say. But you know, unfortunately in 1987 my dad’s best friend thought it would be a good idea to resolve a little argument they were having by shooting him in the chest, and I went into a tailspin of depression. I began drinking and that became problematic.
KP: At that point was there nowhere you could turn?
LAMARCHE: No, I was in therapy, but it’s tough to work through therapy when you come in smashed. You absolutely must go through therapy sober. Otherwise it’s not gonna work. It’s like turning on the air conditioning and a space heater in the same room. You’re not gonna get anything. So I eventually did get sober in 1989. I stopped drinking on January 20th, 1989, and haven’t had a drink since. By then I’d lost so much momentum, and I realized there were still Reagan jokes in my act. It was just tough to get… after falling off the horse and staying off of it for a full two years, I just never quite got back on.
KP: Can you define the spark that disappeared? Was it your heart wasn’t in it?
LAMARCHE: In 1987 when my dad died, I remember thinking that I… this is the one thing… don’t forget, we got the hockey thing still hanging there. The idea that my father was ashamed of me. And this was the one thing he was truly proud of me for, that I’d found my niche in life and I was doing this thing and I was doing it quite well. In spite of my own critique of myself and my material. I was opening… the outside world was treating me okay for it. I was the opening act for Rodney Dangerfield for a year and a half. The Temptations and the Four Tops had me on the road with them. I opened for George Carlin, David Sanborn, Donna Summer. I was playing Las Vegas, Atlantic City.
KP: So it’s not like you weren’t a working comedian.
LAMARCHE: Oh no. God no. It was actually tough to split my time between this new career that I’d started, as sort of a part time job in voiceover work, and this full time schedule of traveling around the country opening for famous people, and doing quite well in front of them. Because I was an extra. I was just this little extra… you know, the appetizer for them. But they got this 20 minutes of funny impressions and stuff like that. But my father used to fly in from wherever he was in the world - and he was quite the world traveler, especially in his later years after he’d made money. And he would surprise me, come in from Europe just to watch me in Las Vegas… because Las Vegas was sorta his town, you know. So for him to see his boy’s name on the marquis in big letters at Caesar’s Palace -because Rodney was very generous with billing… He absolutely insisted on giving his opening act 50% billing, which are huge letters when you come right down to it. That was just such a thrill for him, and it was the one thing I’d done that had made him proud. And when he died, I made a decision that it wasn’t worth making anybody laugh ever again if I wasn’t going to get to make him laugh and make him proud of me. So I made a conscious decision to abandon this thing, because it would just be too painful to look out at the audience realizing that I’ll never see his Camel nonfilter cigarette burning in his hand in the third row, where I can just barely make out his silhouette. So there was that. Then there was just the inevitable self-pity that came with being a drunk, and finally after being two years out of the game, just feeling as though I was out of touch with the scene, and that I didn’t know how I would ever be able to get on the bike again…
KP: There’s a quote attributed to you that Sam Kinison said in a Rolling Stone interview…
KP: That “You can make them laugh, but you can’t make them happy…”
KP: What period did that quote come out of?
LAMARCHE: When we were both doing standup. We both had gotten quite smashed one night, and Sam was actually very sad. He was actually in tears. His girlfriend was consoling him because he was wondering about whether what we did meant anything. And he said, “Maurice, we help people, don’t we? We make ‘em happy?” And I said, “No Sam, we make them laugh but we can’t make them happy.” He went, “Yeah, yeah,” and he kept balling because he really felt like his life was meaningless. (laughing) Mr. Cheerful helping Sam out! But it’s the reality. There’s a huge difference between fun and happiness. Fun is momentary. Fun happens in little short spurts and then it’s over.
KP: When you’d get up on stage as a comedian during that period, who were you getting up on stage for? Yourself or others?
LAMARCHE: Well, that really became a turning point for me. I realized I was doing it for myself. And the couple of attempts that I’d made at getting back into it, a good friend of mine, Mike Binder said - I don’t mean to drop names, but here… because Anthony Hopkins told me never to do that - but Mike Binder’s a very funny comedian… He created the series Mind of a Married Man. He said, “Before you go up on stage, Mo, say a prayer to god that you’ll be of service to the audience. That you’ll be able to make the one guy laugh who was there because he’s had a rough day, rough week at the office or he’s got a sick child or something like that, and he really needs to get away from his problems, and you’ll bring a laugh to that guy.” Because I actually made a very, very short lived attempt to get back into standup in 1990. And tragically enough - and I’m not saying these two things coincide - my little sister was killed in a car accident in September of 1990 at the age of 18 and I just, you know… at that point I just threw up my hands and went, “Oh, that’s it. I don’t have any funny left in me. I’m done.” But in that little period there where I tried to come back to it, that stayed with me, and of course when one recovers from alcoholism one has to live one’s life on a more spiritual basis, so I tried to adapt that, and I did fine. It was a better feeling getting up on stage, praying that prayer, “God, help me bring a laugh to somebody who really needs one today.” It definitely… there was a turnaround there and it felt better.
KP: But prior to that, would you say you were doing it more along the lines of sort of a lingering feeling of how you felt in high school when you first got that big rush?
LAMARCHE: Yeah, it was absolutely all about me. Mm-hmm. No question.
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