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Toon Zone Was There: Press Party With The Casts and Crews of Disney TV

Imagine along with me: you’re driving through West Hollywood north on La Cienega, heading into Restaurants’ Row. You can feel the price range soar above your head. As you get past Melrose, you see the destination of your journey off on the right, with valets literally standing right there to take your car and save you from the agonizing pain of finding parking in LA. If you’re like me, you’ve already started feeling weird about the upscaleness. (For instance, imagine me bothering the valets several times because I forgot stuff in my car. Betcha that sort of thing doesn’t happen to Tom Hanks.) Instant welcome from everybody around you, and even bigger welcomes once you mention your name; ladies and gents, that’s what it’s like to be “on the list”. You walk upstairs into a swanky, medium-lit room already populated with industry folks and actors talking turkey and gossiping before you even got there. Welcome to a Hollywood party.

It’s a press party, really, and in a way, everybody is there to work: the press guys like myself to ask questions, the subjects-of-our-admiration to answer them, and the press agents to make sure that the former two things happen with high frequency. Still, this is such a different atmosphere than anything else I’ve gone to. I’ve been to the Annies, I’ve been to Comic-Con, and I was at the Yin Yang Yo! press breakfast. At Comic-Con and the Annies, you’re a paying customer with a general-audiences ticket; the stars are gracious but you’re also an inevitability. At the press breakfast, it was much more of a specific, orderly event calculated to impart information and haul out the creators to field questions. This, on the other hand, felt like a party – something where all the guys and girls who actually work in this business got together and just gabbed amongst themselves for a while, despite the odd reporter here and there. Mind you, that’s no complaint. It’s a heady atmosphere, and there’s that constant voice in the back of your mind, “I’m at a Hollywood party! Woo!”

So allow me to set the scene for you. We’re at the Republic Restaurant and Lounge, upstairs in the Lounge area, although down below you can see the actual restaurant with its massive wall o’ wine bottles. There are a few banners off to one side of Toon Disney, Jetix, and the Disney Channel where pictures can be taken, and a couple of flat-screen TVs showing silent clips from their five represented shows, but otherwise Disney is letting the Republic do the work for the mood and setting of the affair. Despite the high-class feel of the place, most folks are dressed in nice-casual, like it’s a get-together with friends. Disney’s featuring five of their shows here tonight: The Emperor’s New School, Yin Yang Yo!, The Replacements, American Dragon: Jake Long, and Kim Possible. Some new, some continuing, and one coming to a conclusion. The good folk behind these series are munching on the hors d’oeuvres and drinking either wine or Toon Disney water bottles. I saved one, and if I can find a decent digital camera, I’ll update this article later with a picture (on Jerry Beck’s suggestion). There’s just something amusing about the idea of Disney-bottled H2O, as if they own a mountain range somewhere to get their own spring water. Being that it’s Disney, this could very well be the case.

Ultimately, the real meat of this event is meeting and interviewing the voice actors and crew members behind these shows. I don’t think I can give a rundown of literally every single person I met, but here are some of the highlights:

  • Eartha Kitt! The one and only! Accompanied by her daughter and grandchildren, Eartha made a rare appearance at the party to talk about Yzma. She spoke about how the world around Yzma doesn’t seem to recognize her brilliance: “She’s surrounded by morons! They do something stupid and she says, ‘What is this?! What’s wrong with you?!’…Of course, if she ever did win, there’d be no more show.” Also, the lasting impression of the work: “Whenever someone comes up to me now, they recognize me either as Catwoman or as Yzma – and when it’s kids, it’s always Yzma.”
  • Daran Norris, famed as Cosmo from The Fairly Oddparents, will be playing Dick Daring in the upcoming show The Replacements. The guy was nobody’s envy that night since he’d just had a wisdom tooth pulled. I asked him how he managed to maintain the upkeep of his mouth and throat: “Well, I’m one of the lucky ones, ’cause my throat must be made of steel, but other actors – ones who work more often than me – have to deal with those problems. You know, [Billy West's] down to one vocal cord some day, and he still can do Zoidberg!” On Dick Daring: “He’s just a big kid. I didn’t want to make him dumb or anything like that. He just has a lot of fun doing these daring stunts.”
  • Jack Thomas and Heather Martinez, the exec producer and director respectively of The Replacements, had loads to talk about. The show began as the brainchild of children’s book author and illustrator Dan Santat, who brought it to Disney and sort of passed it along to Jack to develop. The show is meant to have a much more painterly look, much more hand-drawn and classically-made. Jack supervised the writing, but had a staff of five writers that were reportedly superb and have since been snatched up to other things, including one of them at a major sitcom. (That’ll come up later.) Interesting side note: Jack Thomas went to college in Ohio with Nancy Cartwright, who plays Todd on the show, and this is their first work together in the business since they last saw each other at their alma mater. Reunion central.
  • Gary Cole and I laughed about how he costarred in a series with Stephen Colbert and never met him, only to see the guy rise to pop-culture power with his fantastic show. When asked about his favorites in the world of animation, he pointed straight to the classic Simpsons, as well as South Park, which he didn’t give much attention to until after Team America.
  • Jessica Di Cicco, voice of Malina on The Emperor’s New School, on being the new one on the block: “I was such a huge fan of the original film, so getting to be in this show with these characters is a dream come true. I love being able to get in there with Kuzco and shake him around. He needs it! I wanted to shake him around in the original film, too!”
  • Dante Basco, who voices the title character of American Dragon: Jake Long, is a family man. He and his three brothers are working together on several projects, including a documentary on traveling to the Phillipine Islands where his family’s origins are. Jake Long was his first headlining role in voice-over, which he has since started doing more often, and the show means a lot to him: “There’s a lot of me in Jake Long. Some of it’s coincidence, just in how they first made him, but over time they’ve incorporated more about me into that character…It’s a real trailblazing show, because it’s the first cartoon to really feature an Asian-American lead character with an Asian-American actor. Not just Asian, but Asian-American, and it looks at that lifestyle with hip-hop and living in New York and things like that.”
  • Christy Carlson Romano, Kim Possible herself, is clearly going to miss her character when Kim Possible wraps up after its fourth season. While I was speaking with her, one of her executives on the show stopped by to talk, mentioning that the final episode (which Christy had mentioned to me would be a two-parter) might be a two-and-a-half parter. Hmm. She insisted to him that if Disney wasn’t planning a Kim Possible party after it’s all done, then she would. Better step on it, Disney; who knows what crazy stuff could happen if you let an actor plan the wrap party?
  • My final interview of the night was with Nancy Cartwright, aforementioned star of The Replacements and other shows that nobody ever watches, like Simpsons and Rugrats. She described her new character Todd Daring as being a vocal cross between Ralph Wiggum and Nelson Muntz, and then demonstrated for me. It’s somewhat useless to describe in print, but here goes: she found a mid-range between the high Ralph and the low Nelson, used some of Nelson’s graveliness, and threw in some of Ralph’s lisp. The more you can imagine that, the more you have a sense of what voice actors call “fusion”, taking various voices and putting them together to make an all-new character. She also mentioned Jonathan Howard as a writer for The Replacements whose script was the most hilarious she’d ever read, and had her laughing so much that they barely finished the voice session. (He’s the one that got snatched away to a major sitcom.) Nancy clued me in to a job I didn’t even know existed: vocal coaching for kids on Disney feature films, like on Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear: “That’s not a job I’d like to do again. The kids have so much energy, and it’s hard to get them to just focus in one spot and do the work. At a certain point, you just have to do the line for them and get them to mimic your performance.” Ultimately though, her hardest job was stepping into the untied shoes of Chuckie Finster: “That was easily my toughest job. [Christine Cavanaugh] retired in 2001, and they gave that job to me without having me audition. I told them I’d only do it if I could give Chris a year, a year in which she could decide if maybe she didn’t want to stay retired or she’d made a mistake, and I could say I just kept the role warm for her. A year went by and I still had it.”

That definitely wasn’t everybody I talked to (for instance, I had long talks with Mike Moon and Steve Marmel about the power of the Internet in bringing audience response to the artists), but those were the biggies, the big sit-down interviews. As you might have gathered, there’s a lot of names at events like this, and things get packed, panicked, and lost. It’s a party, where everybody’s talking to somebody except inevitably at some point you. You just look around and see the other conversations. Maybe deals are being made. Maybe numbers are being traded. Maybe they’re just giving each other directions on how to make a really fine pot roast. There’s no particular way of knowing, and although with this article I’ve gotten you inside information and quotes from many awesome folks, I can only sit back and wonder at the real insider conversations that happened all around me. Inevitably, that’s what it’s like to be at a Hollywood party – you’re inside and outside all at once.

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