Among the resurgence of adult animated shows, Bob’s Burgers stands out for its joyous, optimistic look at working class family life. Madeleine Chapman spoke to John Roberts about impersonating his own mum and how that became a full-time gig as Linda Belcher.
I watched three seasons of Bob’s Burgers before bothering to look up the voice cast and I was shooketh beyond comprehension when I saw John Roberts’ face on IMDb next to ‘Linda Belcher’. No way did that guy voice a mum character who is emblematic of almost every mother in the world. And yet, there he was, all man face and Y chromosome. Digging deeper, I soon discovered that this was no one-hit wonder. John Roberts was one of Youtube’s first stars thanks to his series of videos where he impersonates his Brooklyn mum. They’re hilarious and relatable and somehow perfect.
Since those videos over ten years ago, Roberts has played his mum on stage, in a web series, and now vicariously through Linda Belcher. Roberts is also an accomplished singer and so it’s no surprise that Linda is too, being the star performer on The Bob’s Burgers Music Album, a collection of every original song written for the show (over 100). The songs are lyrically ridiculous and masterfully produced, an appropriate description of the show itself.
When I spoke to Roberts over the phone, I wanted so badly for him to ‘do the voice’ but I was too scared to ask so instead we spoke like two regular people.
Did you even have to audition for this part or did they see your YouTube videos of your mum and just ask you to do it?
Yeah basically it’s a small world in the New York comedy scene and one of the writers, Holly Schlesinger, was close with my manager at the time and I was performing the YouTube stuff live as well, which is how I started doing it, onstage. They caught wind of it and came to see my show and yes, Loren [Bouchard, creator] cast me as Linda based on that character.
Was singing always going to be a big part of Linda’s character or did you bring a bit of that once you started recording?
Well it’s funny, I had no idea that me and Loren were both music nerds and both really into music, like we have all the Guitar Centre gear catalogues and we’re always into the latest gear [laughs]. I do love to sing, and my mom’s not a singer but we were always singing around the house growing up, so Linda would just break out into improv song. I think it was kind of just a good match with me and Loren in terms of just us both loving music and having fun with Linda kind of improvising stuff and then them starting to write a lot more music into the show, which was a really great surprise.
With improvising, do all the voice actors record together to do that or do you do it one by one?
We record together and it makes for that backstage green room comics vibe. So it’s a lot of fun, everyone’s laughing, and it’s an ensemble so everyone’s kind of getting a shot to be hysterical. My face usually hurts at the end of every record. We’re able to improvise a lot. We do about three takes for each scene, and usually on the second and third scene we’ll start to improvise a little. Loren has a lot of patience and he’ll really listen and just let us go, and pick some gems out of there. Or we’ll play off of a scene and create another scene that would maybe go back to the writers room and they’d maybe bring us in for pick-ups to re-record a bit of that to shape it into a full bit.
You hear a lot of film actors talking about how they love doing animated because it’s so, quote, “easy”. Is voice acting really that easy?
It’s extremely difficult [laughs]. No, it’s too easy. I have to pinch myself a lot that this is my life because it is too easy. Although I waited tables and did odd jobs and things for a good twenty-something years, so I know what it’s like to suffer [laughs]. I’m enjoying it but it does feel oddly too easy. But all the work is the animation and the writers, they’re really doing all the hard stuff.
On the album, there’s a lot of Linda obviously because Linda’s the big singer on the show.
She’s got a big mouth, yeah.
Is it easier to sing in character as Linda or as yourself?
It’s actually harder to sing as Linda. Especially sometimes, like when it was allergy season here and then my voice got really low. They were picking some pretty high songs for me in really high keys. I just did a really high disco ballad and it was very hard to sing as Linda. But the fun part is Linda’s not a professional singer. And she often sings when she’s drunk or just having fun, so it doesn’t have to be perfect with Linda. When I sing I try to make it sound as good as possible.
You’ve played your mum in YouTube videos and you play Linda, who’s also a mum. Are mums just funnier than dads?
Dads are pretty funny but moms are funnier. They’re just more full of life, really. Dads can be pretty boring. Moms just never stop caring and nurturing, and out of that nurture and that nagginess of it all – which comes obviously from a place of love – it’s endearing but funny. It’s this the person that gave you life so, you know, moms are special. But they are funnier.
It was mothers day here two days ago and my mum got messages from all of her kids except for one. And she posted a message in the group chat saying “thank you to all my wonderful kids except that one who I didn’t hear from” which I thought was very funny. She didn’t mean it to be funny. Somehow mums are just funny even when they’re being serious. And dads kinda try to be funny and aren’t really that funny.
Exactly. Moms can’t help themselves. My mom is like that. Even just watching her from afar when she’s on the phone or talking about going to Atlantic City. My mom also has a very thick Brooklyn accent and there’s something that also makes that even funnier. It’s very east coast New York City, Boston, Italian Jewish woman vibe. And they’re a funny type of woman. But all moms are funny in their way.
That’s what I thought was kind of incredible. I was watching [Roberts’ videos] ‘The Christmas Tree’ and ‘Mothers Day’ and ‘The Phone Call’ on YouTube. And even though your mum is so different to my mum, somehow they’re exactly the same. Especially the phone call, my mum does exactly that. She might be talking to a friend, she’s talking to a sister in another language, but somehow there’s these universal things that mums do.
Yes, talking on the phone and you hearing their one side of the conversation. Growing up it was almost soothing to me. I would get under the dining room table and just look at the bottom of it and listen to her talk for an hour, whether it was about soap operas or anything. There’s something very relaxing about it. And very funny. Because it’s just the one side of the conversation so you’re left wondering what’s going on.
Although Linda is a huge part of the show, a lot of the episodes focus more on something happening at school or something with Bob. So when you get an episode like ‘Eat, Spray, Linda’, which I loved because we finally got to find out some more about what Linda does, like taking a daily poo in the hotel lobby. Do you try contribute to these finer character details to keep her unique and not just ‘the mum’?
Absolutely. Of course, the writers are so good and they love Linda, they have a lot of fun with her. She’s an honest mom and she’s fun and playful and she’s not afraid to be different and kinda be loud. She doesn’t hold her kids back, either. She lets her kids be who they are with their individuality and that’s a fun, playful character that everyone’s gonna love. Especially since she drinks wine and she sings. She wears her heart on her sleeve. And those are the best moms.
You voice Linda perfectly, same with Dan Mintz and Tina. I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. Have you had any backlash from people about the fact that you’re a man voicing a woman?
When I got nominated for an Emmy there were a couple of people that commented. There’s always, I think, going to be a little bit of that, but we certainly didn’t invent it. The Simpsons [Bart Simpson is played by Nancy Cartwright] and even before that, King of the Hill, where Pamela Adlon played Bobby. That’s just the beauty of animation, the gender bending part of it. So I don’t see that I’m taking work away from any women because it goes both ways. There are women that voice boy parts too. So I don’t think that’s really an issue at all.
It’s such a distinctive voice that Linda has. Have you been on any other animated shows, because you can obviously do voices really well since you don’t sound anything like Linda right now. Are you branching out?
I’m just pretty much doing Bob’s. I’d love to at some point do a film or something, but I think for now Bob’s is great for animation. I’m working on another project for HBO with Amy Poehler and Jon Benjamin, who plays Bob, and that’s live action. I’m also doing stand-up and I just did a bit on the new Blondie album, so I’m also doing music. I like to be on the creative side of stuff so auditioning isn’t really my favourite thing. Which also makes Bob’s such a miracle job because Loren cast me in the role as opposed to me auditioning. It’s kind of a bummer to audition a lot. I try to avoid it. I’m a creative person so it’s easy for me to stick my head up my ass and just write [laughs] as opposed to memorising lines and all that sort of stuff. With voiceovers you don’t have to memorise lines, that’s the beauty of it. You just walk in and it’s very easy.
Loren said they don’t plan to have the characters age at all.
No, that would be horrible.
Is there something you wish you could do with Linda that you won’t be able to do if she stays at the same age?
It would have to be like a fever dream or something where she imagines it. Or maybe one of the kids writes a story about it and then we’d get to see Linda old. Or maybe It’s a Wonderful Life with Linda or something like that. It would be fun but I definitely think it’s smart for him not to age the characters. That’s also the beauty of animation is that even though we’re all rotting away for the past seven years, the characters look exactly the same age.
I’ve seen videos of Nancy Cartwright surprising people on the street with the fact that she voices Bart. Do you ever just whip out Linda’s voice in public?
I don’t surprise people. If somebody’s sick or needs cheering up, I like to do a voice message. I do that a lot, that’s a big one. Usually leaving voice messages gives people something to keep so it’s fun. It’s funny because no one’s gonna recognise me as Linda, really, so if I ever really needed some attention that would be a good way to get it. Go out to the mall and just start talking like Linda and see if anyone asks for my autograph. That would be really sad but I’m not going to rule it out.
So will your mum be taking a break from the internet spotlight?
Yeah well it’s been ten years since I made the first one, and a lot of them actually. I feel like it’s so much with my mom and on Bob’s Burgers that it just gets a little tiresome to do the same thing. What’s nice is they’re all kinda holiday based so they come back each year around the holidays. It’s like a greeting card or something that comes back around. I feel like we’d be beating a dead horse a little bit.
Do you have a favourite song from the album?
I love the ‘Turkey Song’. I love ‘This is Working’ because I took my mum to see Glenn Close on Broadway and I was like ‘hey maybe I could be in a musical’. ‘This is Working’ sounds like I could be in a real musical. The diarrhea song is just so stupid but it’s really funny, the dialogue about ‘sorry we’re late, Bob had diarrhea’. I like the ones where I’m not singing as Linda. ‘Lifting Up the Skirt of the Night’ and ‘Baby Hold On Me’ has more of my Michael McDonald voice.
One last important question. Does your mum watch the show?
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Oh yeah, she watches every week. She loves it.
Does she see herself in it a little bit?
For sure. The ‘alright’ thing where Linda goes [Linda voice] “Alriiiight!” That’s literally from my mom. That’s something my mom says all the time. She’s my muse for Linda.
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