Emmy-Winner, Joe Alaskey Talks 'Duck Dodgers' (
With an Emmy under his belt for his current series, Duck Dodgers, and a history of voicing some of animation’s most beloved characters, Joe Alaskey has range that is a virtual “Who’s Who” of cartoon characters. And, luckily for us, he was able to find time to grant Toon Zone an interview, giving us a look at the man behind the animation.
Toon Zone: You were brought to Hollywood by Bill Scott, then had the chance to work with Friz Freleng and Mel Blanc. So you’ve run with the kind of company that people would offer a limb to hang out with. Do you consider yourself lucky or destined?
Joe Alaskey: As the old Hollywood joke goes, it’s… timing. To have become part of the second generation of Looney Tunes voices, I just happened to have been in the right place at the right time with approximately the right pipes.
Although I hasten to add that I never exactly ‘ran with’ Messrs. Freleng or Blanc, I did work several times for good ol’ Chuck Jones, including “Father of the Bird” (CJ’s tribute to Friz, a theatrical short in very limited release so far), “Timberwolf” (for the Internet), and the soon-to-be-seen-in-schools “Daffy for President”.
Was I destined to do this work? Who knows? Am I lucky? Definitely.
TZ: With so much experience in the animation industry, have you ever considered writing a book or opening a website based on your experiences?
Alaskey: I may write an autobiography or career-overview book someday. I’ll let you know.
In the meantime—Yes! Thanks for asking!—I am about to launch a website, which will be up and running by July 1, 2004. There will be info galore about my life and career, all the usual stuff, but skewed by me towards the absurd.
TZ: You have played many animated characters. Is there a philosophy or technique you have for managing such a large variety of personas?
Alaskey: No, except maybe not to start thinking like any of them! Don’t worry. My own eccentric personality would never allow that.
And no, there’s nothing in the way of a technique I employ to tell one from another. I have a pretty sharp memory and can keep every character in line.
TZ: Time for a segue. Rumor has it that you’re a huge Looney Tunes fan.
Alaskey: I’ve even been accused of being an historian.
TZ: So, the new Duck Dodgers series has certainly been a big success on Cartoon Network. What was your first reaction when you heard that Warner Bros. wanted to revive the original cartoon as a new series?
Alaskey: Hmm, let’s see. I think it was: “Get me on that show!! Sob!! Squeech!!”
Seriously, the competition was fierce. I was not the original choice, in fact. But voice tests with impartial audiences changed things to go my way. The same thing happened with Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Same tests, same results.
TZ: Well, they must’ve picked right, because you just won an Emmy for “Outstanding Performer in an Animated Series” for your work on the show. How do you feel about the show’s success and your achievement?
Alaskey: Just fanstastic, thanks! Since the show’s premiere, I’ve been thrilled to see the ratings climb as it progressed, slowly but surely. Can Season Two do any less well?
As for my winning the Emmy— Well, I was not expecting that. Almost everyone I know said to expect the late John Ritter to get the nod. I agreed. Now, words can neither express my amazement nor my gratitude. I only wish the show could’ve won its award as well.
TZ: The first season of Duck Dodgers won lots of acclaim. What would you say are the series’ strengths, and what would you like to see develop in later episodes of the show?
Alaskey: There’s a strong commitment to character on Duck Dodgers. Spike and Tony also believe in balancing the character-driven comedy with unique and dazzling action, even more of which should be in evidence in Seasons Two, Three, and perhaps—etc.!
This may sound dull, but I’d like to see more standard, traditional plots explored and retooled for this series. The best series exhaust all possibilities, you know, funny and serious alike.
At the same time, I would personally like to see more stories involving the mystical, the bizarre, the impossible. And how about a whodunit?!
TZ: “The Green Loontern” was a huge crossover hit. Has any thought been given to more cross-over episodes?
Alaskey: Gosh, I hope so. (Heh heh.)
Next question, please?
(Besides, you’d hate me if I told you.)
(But wasn’t it cool?!)
TZ: Without ruining it, can you give us a hint about any surprises might see in the second season of Duck Dodgers?
Alaskey: Oh, okay. I will merely hint that there are some music megastars aboard now and then, and that one of my favorite actors from another CN show will make an appearance in Season Two. Or should I say “another appearance”?
TZ: Hmm. How about characters? Are there any other characters you’d like to see make a guest appearance in the Duck Dodgers universe?
Alaskey: Oh, plenty. And the incongruity of some Looney Tunes characters inhabiting the space opera format is almost irresistible, yet the urge has successfully been resisted to guest star the likes of Bugs Bunny, Sylvester and Tweety, Foghorn Leghorn, Pepe LePew, Beaky Buzzard, Rocky and Muggsy or Hubie and Bertie … so far!
But you have noticed Yosemite Sam, Elmer Fudd and J. Evil Scientist in the mix, right? So maybe there’s hope for Ralph Phillips yet!
TZ: You play Duck Dodgers and Martian Commander on Duck Dodgers. You also played Sylvester and Tweety on The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries. Is it hard to flip from the hero to the “dark side” so often?
Alaskey: Well, I used to have to really concentrate to do that when I closed my stand-up act with the Looney Tunes voices. I once did a very fast exchange between Daffy and Peter Falk as Columbo, along the lines of the ol’ mid-point switcheroo gag: “I say I’m innocent!!” / “Guilty!!” / “Innocent!!” / “Innocent!!” / “I say I’m guilty!!”, etc.
In the case of Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries, the canary was recorded separately. But on Duck Dodgers I’m allowed to switch characters on the same page, so occasionally Dodgers had Marvin’s egg-voice for one line-reading … and the Martian Commander has lisped unintentionally more than once!
But to tell you the truth, I always prefer playing the “dark side”! Villains invariably have the best lines! One of my favorites was Drake Darkstar (Duck Dodger’s doppelganger), whose “You sold his sister to a sausage factory? Dude, that’s cold…!” still makes me laugh.
TZ: You also lent your voice to Looney Tunes: Back in Action. In fact, that film brought together a lot of the classic characters and also a lot of actors who have shared duties on many of them. How did you decide who did which voices in the film?
Alaskey: Whoa, Jonny! If you think the voice actors make the decisions, you’re Wackyland material! The real answer is that many people (mostly producers and director Joe Dante) had a say in the casting, with no decision going unquestioned. And animation director Eric Goldberg seemed to have had carte blanche to do whatever cameo voices he chose as well.
TZ: Brendan Fraser did the voice of Taz in Back in Action. Is he a natural or did he get coaching?
Alaskey: In fact, coincidentally, I was there when he auditioned. He had just finished looping some of his own lines and, when asked if he did any of the Looney Tunes characters, humbly admitted he could do a passably good Taz. So he went back into the booth and absolutely floored us with his natural Tasmanian charms. And very little coaching.
TZ: I notice you did some commentaries and Bugs-and-Daffy extras for the Back in Action DVD. Will you be doing any interviews for any upcoming Looney Tunes DVDs? And if so, which specific cartoon(s) would you most like to discuss?
Alaskey: Well, I was interviewed for the first volume of the Golden Collection of Looney Tunes. I can’t quite recall if they included any parts regarding specific works, but I know they have me talking about Mel. And of course, I hope I’m included on future releases.
TZ: Do you find any of the classic Warner Bros. voices harder to grasp than others?
Alaskey: ‘Grasp’ is a good word to use here. The short answer is yes. It took me almost no time to dredge up the many emotional intricacies and vocal tricks of Daffy Duck, but, ironically, the seemingly easier technique and nuances of Bugs Bunny took years of study for me to properly ‘grasp’. Bugs is about the hardest voice in the world to get right.
TZ: Out of all the cartoon gags (spit takes, falling anvils, Acme products, etc.), which is your favorite?
Alaskey: I don’t have a favorite gag per se. Although I love consistently dependable character humor, like Pepe LePew’s, and the consistent failure or misapplications of Acme wares by a certain coyote. This is called the Comedy of Anticipation. You know what’s going to happen, and somehow, that only makes it funnier. The best gags for a show like Duck Dodgers would combine visual and verbal elements, I think.
Hey, and I’m also really into a good parody. I’ve often told Tiny Toons fans that my favorite episode of that show was “Night Ghoulery”. Now I’ll tell you why: It was all parody, each segment done to a very neat turn.
TZ: Lest people think you only work on Looney Tunes, we should mention some of your other work. For instance, you’ve worked on Rugrats, which has had a hugely successful run for more than a decade. How has the experience of that show compared to other projects you’ve been on?
Alaskey: Being a facsimiloquist (Don’t look it up—I coined it.), at first I was very scrupulous about getting the voice David Doyle used as close as possible. But after a while, I was actually asked to give Grandpa Lou Pickles more of my own sound. This I did as subtly as I could.
Just being on the team, though, has meant a lot to me. And they treat their talent very well at Klasky-Csupo.
TZ: Grandpa Lou always seems to fall asleep when he has babysitting duties. Would you leave your kids with him?
Alaskey: Never mind him; he’s great. But we all remember when Daffy was a professional babysitter!
TZ: Recently you’ve been doing a semi-recurring role as Peter Potamus on Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law. Have you mastered any other voice impressions from the Hanna Barbera catalogue?
Alaskey: Oh, I do a fairly decent Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, but my Daws Butler interps need work. I’ve always had more of a knack for Don Messick voices. That came in handy when the HB crew asked me to do “Fear One”, an old Birdman villain updated.
And did you know Butler’s Potamus was based on ’30s comic Joe E. Brown? Well, now you do.
TZ: We’ve heard you’ve worked with Tommy and Nzinga on Cartoon Network’s Fridays. How was the chemistry with the hosts, and what role did you play?
Alaskey: That went over very well, I hear. I didn’t see the finished product,—still waiting for CN to send me a copy!—but the premise was a phone interview with Duck Dodgers, supposedly live (but with me on tape) in front of the kid audience. The way I heard it, those kids were stupefied!! You’d have to credit Tommy and Nzinga with making that flow naturally. They would’ve had to provide whatever chemistry was possible between us. Before that, I met them at a CN trade show in New York City not too long ago. They’re good young people and real pros.
TZ: If you had to pick just one, what would you consider the most rewarding animation project you’ve worked on?
Alaskey: It’s always hard to pick a favorite. I’d have to mention my first professional experience, which was an industrial cartoon called “Return to Mocha”, a brainchild of Bill Scott’s for Union Oil. Doesn’t sound like much until you hear the rest of the cast: Bill, June Foray, Daws Butler, Janet Waldo and Frank Welker! It was the only time I ever worked with Daws, by the way. But rewarding? It got me into the unions and legitimized my entry into Hollywood’s voice-over society.
But how could I fail to mention Who Framed Roger Rabbit, working more or less with Mel, or any of the Chuck Jones ouevre?
TZ: Daffy has Duck Dodgers. Plucky has The Toxic Revenger. What is your super hero persona?
Alaskey: Hmm. Good question! Despite my size, I think I should have been Spider-Man in the movies. We’re a lot alike, in my own mind at least. Because I’ve always known that with great power comes great responsibility… So I use a roll-on instead of an aerosol deodorant.
But then again, sometimes I’m Ant-Man (before he became Giant-Man).
TZ: Rumor has it that you like to sing to keep your vocal cords in working order.
Alaskey: Well, I like to sing, period.
TZ: What type of music do you sing?
Alaskey: Oh, familiar Looney Tunes tunes, everything from obscure snippets to “Rabbit of Seville” and “What’s Opera, Doc?” as well as classic American songs, including rock ‘n’ roll.
TZ: Do you ever sing in a character’s voice for practice?
Alaskey: Say, that’s an idea! Thanks!
TZ: We’ve also heard you’ve written a play. Can you share any details about this project?
Alaskey: Why not, since it’s copyrighted? The title is Just Wave Goodbye, and it’s a seriocomedy in two acts about the changes in the Hollywood culture and its people circa 1928. Naturally, it’s meant to parallel our own times and generation as well. And, of all things, it’s also a romance, more of one than I originally intended. But it’s also, hopefully, a strong character study. Needless to say, I hope to see it produced soon.
TZ: That’s a lot of hidden talents! Any others you’d like to share?
Alaskey: Well, getting back to the website—Thanks for waiting!—there’ll be healthy servings of my own cartoons, about which, so far, nobody knows nuttin’! You’ll have to see them for yourselves! (But they’re not animated. They’re more like magazines’ block-style.)
Plus, I’ve written a passel of short stories which are in the fantasy genre. While waiting to see if I can get them published, I’ll be putting them online one or two at a time and changing the Table of Contents regularly! Not to mention other surprises (all, like the play, copyrighted)! As Plucky says: “Expect the unexpected”!
I intend for the site to be constantly updated to keep potential visitors coming back.
So check it out: JoeAlaskey.com—coming soon to a PC near you!
Toon Zone would like to thank Mr. Alaskey for his time, and to remind readers to surf by JoeAlaskey.com on July 1 for even more information on the man behind the cartoons!
New episodes of Duck Dodgers will begin appearing sometime in August.