Voice Cast Cavalcade: Word Up, WordGirl!

02.14.2010

This article was first published February 14, 2010 and has since been revised and updated with new information. Please scroll down for the most recent additions.

Although I have done previous voice cast features here on the blog, I’m introducing it as a series with a fancy-schmancy title — “Voice Cast Cavalcade” — where I will periodically spotlight the voice casts of TV shows, movies, films and video games which I think are worthy of mention.

WordGirl image courtesy of PBS.org

First up is the Emmy Award-winning PBS series, WordGirl [<– official site link], one of my current favorite animated shows.

Yes, I know it’s a kids’ show. And no, I don’t have any kids. But as a writer I’ve always had a fascination with words and their meanings. I’m also involved in education as an acting coach for kids and teens, and I perform an “edutainment” reading program for children. So if I must justify why I watch WordGirl, there you go.

But I also watch the show because I just love cartoons. And as an animation critic, I can’t say the show’s animation is particularly striking or even outstanding. But that’s not worth criticizing because WordGirl is designed to have a functional, simplistic coloring book/comic book-esque look that’s easy on the eyes and works for the show’s format.

And it’s on PBS so it’s expected that WordGirl‘s focus is education, which it has in spades — it’s geared to help boost reading comprehension and vocabulary.

But quite surprisingly it also entertains…for all ages.

Most studios producing animated educational programming for kids unfortunately share a common problem: they often seem to forget to try making the show entertaining for adults too. (Many parents — good parents — do watch shows with their kids rather than letting the TV serve as a babysitter. I’m an uncle several times over and I love watching kids’ shows with my nieces and nephews because I find it interesting to observe what they react to.)

And because PBS shows are sponsored by companies who want parents to buy their products, I don’t understand why a production company would not attempt to make a kids’ show at least moderately entertaining for adults. Otherwise, the sponsors and advertisers seem more of an afterthought.

WordGirl is one of those rare kids’ shows that seems to have been intentionally crafted to be entertaining for all ages, and with a production studio like Soup2Nuts behind the series…well, that explains a LOT.

Soup2Nuts is the same studio that gave us Science Court, Home Movies and Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. Home Movies and Dr. Katz — both skewed for adults — have developed a strong adult following through Adult Swim and Comedy Central (respectively). And Science Court was a kids’ show that thanks to clever writing and comedic voice performances had a broad audience appeal.

(And thankfully, WordGirl doesn’t use Soup2Nuts’ trademark “Squigglevision” from any of those series.)

And I’m not the only adult who has noticed WordGirl‘s entertainment value.

Popular animation fan site toonzone.net ranked WordGirl #19 on their Toons of the 2000s: Top 25 Animated Television Series, actually ranking WordGirl higher than such fan favorites as King of the Hill, Teen Titans, South Park and Chowder. Toonzone calls it “one of the smartest shows on television” thanks to the “humorous and fast-paced dialogue,” “unique villains,” “zany…secondary characters,” and the narrator’s commentary which “makes for some of the greatest highlights of the show.”

Toonzone calls it a “nominally…educational program,” and adds that there is “nothing nominal…about its entertainment value.”

PBS and Scholastic also seem deliberate in promoting the show to adults. In 2007, they enlisted PBS’ news anchor Jim Lehrer to do a “mock interview” with WordGirl for a show promo:

But what personally hooked me on the show were the cast performances and guest stars, which helped WordGirl to win the award for “Best Voice Talent” at the inaugural 2010 KidScreen Awards.

Danna Feinglass (photo courtesy UCBTheatre.com)

The show’s title character, WordGirl (aka Becky Botsford) is voiced by Dannah Feinglass (also credited as Dannah Phirman) who is also the voice of Penny, Bessie Higgenbottom’s sidekick on Nick’s popular animated series The Mighty B!. Furthermore, Feinglass voices Zaria and Linda the Sheep on Tak and the Power of Juju (also on Nickelodeon), and has voiced characters in the Mass Effect video game series. [FYI: Feinglass has also written episodes of WordGirl and The Mighty B!]

Feinglass is also an alumni of the Los Angeles’ comedy troupe, The Upright Citizens Brigade — which if you browse the Performers page on UCBTheatre.com you’ll discover this is a common connection with several other members of WordGirl’s voice cast: James Adomian, Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt, Matt Besser, Danielle Schneider, Ron Lynch and Nick Kroll.

WordGirl‘s voice cast is far too lengthy for me to include here in its entirety, so I’ll just list the principals, recurring roles and notable guest stars (note that these are all recurring characters featured in 3 or more episodes).

Chris Parnell – Narrator, “The Exposition Guy”
Maria Bamford – Mrs. Botsford, Violet Heaslip, Leslie the Assistant
Ryan Raddatz – Mr. Botsford, Todd “Scoops” Ming
Cree Summer – Granny May
Tom Kenny – T.J. Botsford, Dr. Two Brains
James Adomian – Curator, Security Guard, Robber
Fred Stoller – Chuck the Evil Sandwich Making Guy
Patton Oswalt – Theodore “Tobey” McCalister III
H. Jon Benjamin – Reginald, the Jewelry Store Clerk
Ron Lynch – Mayor
Larry Murphy – TV Reporter
Grey DeLisle – Lady Redundant Woman
Jeffrey Tambor – Mr. Big
Jim Gaffigan – Mr. Dudley
Pamela Adlon – The Birthday Girl
John C. McGinley – The Whammer

Other notable guest stars include Kevin McDonald (Kids in the Hall, Invader ZIM), Ed Asner (Freakazoid!, The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Wayne Knight (Seinfeld, Toonsylvania), Kristin Schaal (Flight of the Conchords), Andy Dick (NewsRadio, Clone High), Judy Greer (Arrested Development), Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible, Airplane!), Elliot Gould (Friends, Kim Possible), and Brian Posehn (Transformers Animated, Mission Hill).

Here’s a segment from WordGirl introducing one of the series’ recurring villains “The Butcher” via PBS’ official YouTube Channel, featuring the voices of Dannah Feinglass (Becky, WordGirl), Chris Parnell (Narrator), Maria Bamford (Violet), Jack Ferraiolo (The Butcher), Jen Cohn (Bank Teller, Rich Old Lady), H. Jon Benjamin (Reginald), and Mike O’Connell (Grocery Store Manager).

For the show’s on-air credits, the cast is listed by name only which unfortunately makes it difficult to ID the voices, and I am unable to find an official source with a complete voice cast. The cast lists on IMDb.com and Wikipedia.org are useful but lack 100% accuracy.

I’ve contacted PBS Kids and Scholastic in hopes that they will be able to supply this information for the fans, and will update upon their reply.

DVD cover for 'WordGirl: Earth Day Girl' (via Scholastic press release)

And in very closely related news, PBS issued a press release (via toonzone.net) on Jan. 19th announcing WordGirl’s first-ever DVD release for March 30th: WordGirl: Earth Day Girl.

WordGirl: Earth Day Girl includes 8 episodes with bonus content that will both educate and entertain younger viewers, and I believe animation fans will find the show refreshingly entertaining too.

I personally hope it sells extremely well with parents and thus possibly help season box sets to be released in the future…for my future kids, naturally, but for me too.

Update: 5.04.2010
— I’ve given this article a complete overhaul and added images and video clips, and tried finding some other cast interviews via Google search:

– Found a mention on the official site for Ryan Raddatz (series writer and voice of WordGirl’s dad, Mr. Botsford) of a WordGirl live event (held in Los Angeles January 22, 2009) where Raddatz’s mentions that they had just wrapped production on “104 eleven-minute episodes” for WordGirl’s second season. (Barely half of Season 2’s new episodes have aired as of May 2010.)

And in a follow-up post, Raddatz shared several photos of the event featuring the voice cast.

In a more recent post, Raddatz blogged February 12th, 2010:

I’m currently writing my last script of season four (episode 155!) and we’ll be in the booth recording all next week. We should hear soon about more seasons….Fingers crossed!

– Series writer and voice talent Jack Ferraiolo was profiled in a June 2008 interview following his Daytime Emmy win.

Animation World Network published an interview February 2009 with WordGirl executive producer Deborah Forte and series’ creator Dorothea Gillim.

– Two interviews with Maria Bamford:
womensradio.com
creativeloafing.com

Starpulse.com February 2009 interview with Chris Parnell.


Saturday Morning Cartoon: The Beginning

01.09.2010

As I mentioned in December 2009, I’m introducing a regular feature for the blog called “Saturday Morning Cartoon.”

Pardon me whilst I wax nostalgic to set this up…

I don’t doubt that most reading this have pleasant childhood memories watching Saturday morning cartoons on TV. Even though Saturdays were a “day off” from school, we’d still get up early to sit in front of the TV in our PJs enjoying a bowl of our favorite cereal (at that time filled with less vitamin-enriched sugary goodness).

We laughed at Looney Tunes, Laff-A-Lympics and lots of other comedic characters. We got spooked by cartoon phantoms and costumed villains thwarted by “meddling kids” and their “stupid dog.” We were thrilled by toy-selling animated adventures of robot fights, space flights, rainbow brites, fairy sprites, Bat-Mites and men in tights, but mostly cartoon kids who did the sort of exciting and dangerous stuff that in real life would get us killed, incarcerated or taken away from our parents and sent to foster homes.

And for those of us born before the 90’s, it’s hard to imagine that the major TV networks would ever have shortage of cartoons to watch on Saturday mornings, and yet that’s precisely what has happened. Outside of niche cable programming like Boomerang, Nicktoons, Cartoon Network and Disney XD, it’s slim pickings on the major networks as far as Saturday morning cartoons go. And who’d have ever thought that there would be a time when Looney Tunes weren’t on TV at all, except through a paid cable subscriber service?

But the digital era combined with government-mandated educational programming has brought about an end to broadcast kids TV. Kids mostly don’t want to watch the E/I-rated shows — they get enough educational stuff at school without it being forced on them through what they watch for fun. And with things like videogame consoles and handheld gaming systems, along with the era of streaming videos and content-on-demand, kids no longer have to wait until weekday afternoons or Saturday mornings for their entertainment of choice. And the networks hate it. The advertisers hate it. But it’s the reality we live in.

For animation fans, other than the aforementioned cable channels, our only option for watching cartoons is via DVD, reruns on-demand, the web and digital downloads for portable media devices. And for the duration of this blog (and as regularly as I’m able to do so) I will feature a cartoon here for your viewing pleasure on Saturday mornings, along with behind-the-scenes trivia and details on the voice cast.

So go put on your footie pajamas, pour a yourself a bowl of your favorite cereal, and enjoy.

First up (not counting the cartoons I featured here during the holidays), is Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, which I was excited to discover in December 2009 that the complete series (all 26 episodes) is being offered on Hulu.com (in partnership with Crackle.com).

Based on the Dark Horse Comics mini-series by Frank Miller and Geof Darrow, Big Guy and Rusty aired from 1999-2001 on Fox Kids. It felt more grown-up and “mature” than most animated fare on Fox Kids, and developed a fair following from adult animation fans as a result. I consider it to be an underrated and largely undiscovered gem of a cartoon show that needs more exposure.

The episode I’m featuring here is “The Inside Scoop” which originally aired October 2nd, 1999. (Sorry, I’m unable to embed videos from Hulu via WordPress.)

Voice cast for this episode:

Pamela Adlon as Rusty, Jo
Jonathan Cook as The Big Guy
Gabrielle Carteris as Dr. Erika Slate
Jim Hanks as Dwayne Hunter
Stephen Root as Dr. Axel Donovan
Kathy Kinney as Jenny the Monkey
Kevin Michael Richardson as Garth
M. Emmett Walsh as Mack
Maurice LaMarche as Dr. Ellerby, Medical doctor, Security officer
– and Tim Curry as the voice of Dr. Neugog

Trivia and notes:

– Brain gags galore in this episode.
– This episode reveals full details on the subplot that Big Guy is actually piloted by Hunter, a secret that Hunter and the team manage to keep from Rusty for the rest of the series.
– This episode features Dr. Neugog’s second (and unfortunately last) appearance in the series.
R. Lee Ermey voiced General Thorton in this series, although the character doesn’t appear in this episode.
– Big Guy’s voice, Jonathan Cook, will likely sound familiar — not so much from his other animation and video game work, but more from the huge volume of TV promo announcing he does for CBS, Bravo, NBC, FX and others.
– The sibilant slurp-like sound Dr. Neugog makes at one point closely resembles the same eerie sound Anthony Hopkins made as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

And by the way, if the same ad plays for you that ran during my viewing — that’s Roger Rose (voice actor in The Tick, Grim & Evil, The Super Hero Squad Show and many other cartoons) appearing in the Ad Council spot cautioning against reckless driving.