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This Pigeon Don’t Fly

Nancy Cartwright talks about pigeonholing in the voice over business and how it just doesnt fly with her.

Pigeonhole (n) a category or label assigned to somebody without a great deal of thought.

Nancy Cartwright.

The idea that you could possibly be, consciously or unconsciously, limited or pigeonholed into one particular type of show, character, age or voice ability may not seem very real to you at this point in your career, but it is something that should be reckoned with right now. In the voice-over industry, versatility is the name of the game.

Think of some of The Greats: Daws Butler, Mel Blanc, Don Messick, Joanie Gerber and June Foray. Each one of them, in his/her own right, created multiple voices over the span of no less than four decades. Each of their characters was unique, creating a plethora of vocal memories for all of us as we grew up. These vocal pioneers created some of the most memorable characters that are still admired today, thanks to videos, DVDs, and cable television. When animation was in its Golden Era, these icons laid the firm foundation for what we all are enjoying today.

Cartoonland of Opportunity

With the explosion of television into the American marketplace in 1948, animation became a form of entertainment to be reckoned with. I am sure you all know of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Bugs, Droopy, Betty Boop, Popeye, and Mr. Magoo, just to name a few. These colorful cartoon characters set the bar for the characters we voice-over actors are doing today. Bart, Homer, Marge, Lisa, Chuckie, Shrek, Woody, Buzz and the entire family of the Incredibles, makes my point. There are dozens of animated shows currently airing on television and I am amazed at the opportunities presented for us voice actors to be cast in a new pilot or series. One might have the tendency to think that this industry is so small that there really are not any opportunities for anyone else. That viewpoint is just folly, so do not believe it.

When I reflect on the career of Butler, I cannot imagine him getting pigeonholed as a one-note wonder. His range transcended what your average bear sounds like, giving us some of the most memorable characters in the history of animation. From Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quick-Draw McGraw and Snagglepuss, to Elroy and Peter Potamous, Daws vocal talents remain a marvel, especially to me. There were only a handful of actors who could hold a candle to Daws ability to strike the right chord when needed, and they too were wonders in their own rights.

Maybe I am a bit of a softy when it comes to Daws as he was my mentor; however, I truly believe there just was not anyone else who had what he had. Messick and Blanc were shining bright at this time as well, yet it was such a new art form that none of these pioneers ever seemed to run out of unique sounds.

I Have More Voices!

Unfortunately, it is not quite the same today. There are many studios producing dozens of shows and the challenge for me, as a working artist is, How do I not sound like Bart, Nelson, Ralph, Rod, Kearney, Data Base, Chuckie and or Rufus, the Naked Mole-Rat? It is a dilemma for me, and something that I constantly have to keep in the back of my mind, and voice when auditioning for a new part.

In the late 1990s my contribution to vocalization for animation was limited to only one show The Simpsons. Try as I might, working with my agent, reading the trades and talking to my fellow voice actors, I could not get another voice-over job for the life of me! I decided to take the matters into my own hands and called a friend who at the time was a studio executive at Disney. I had a suspicion of why I was not being cast there and wanted to find the underlying cause of it. I simply wanted to know the truth so I could do something causative to try and change the condition.

Speaking Up

I believe, it is not just who you know, but how you know someone in this industry. So, I met with my friend at Disney, trusting that he would be honest with me. Our relationship had originated back in the early 1980s at UCLA in the theater department. He treated me to a lovely meal atop the rotunda. Our meal was served, and in the middle of our cappuccinos and cheesecake, I laid it on the line.

So, when I come in to audition, what do they say about me after I leave the room? He was dumbfounded. I clearly cornered him, although by design, the rotunda has no corners.

What do you mean? he replied.

I mean, when I walk out of the room, after I have just given the reading-of-my-life, what do you, the casting director and assorted production people say about my performance?

Nancy he looked at me wide-eyed, like a fish.

I am on the hottest show on television and there isnt an end in sight. I just want to know why I am not being cast on any of your shows. It would actually help me out if you would just tell me that it is because I sound too much Bart, Nelson, Ralph or whomever. I would totally understand. Is that it? Do you think I am too Simpson-ized?

Yes, he said, and looked away ashamed.

The Truth Can Set You Free

Regardless of how courageous and strong I pretended I was, the roof of the rotunda literally blew off the building. Thank you for telling me the truth. Now, I have to ask one more question: Did you know that I dont do any girls voices on the show? Did you know that? In fact, did you know that I can count on one hand how many girl voices I have done in my career? As much as I have created a niche for myself doing the voices of 10-year-old boys, I have a whole other side of me that is capable of sounding very girl-like. After all, I am a girl, you know.

They say confession is good for the soul, and that conversation acted very much like one. I had been holding this all in like a secret, and suddenly the floodgates opened. Call it circumstantial, call it coincidence or call it good karma. Whatever, the willingness to lay the truth on the line opened the possibility for not just this one exec producer, my friend, but many others to consider me in a different light. In all of these shows, The Critic, God, the Devil and Bob, Animaniacs, Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain and Toonsylvania I played the girl every time. Cool, huh?

The moral of the story? It is far much holier, and more remunerative to be a holy-pigeon than to be pigeonholed.

It is up to you to make sure that you are nurturing your muse. I decided a few years ago to take full responsibility for my career. By that I mean that I allow and encourage my agent and my management staff to assist me, but I have the final say, literally, as to how I am going to be perceived, pigeonholed or not.

As a result of taking full responsibility, I am now exec producer of The Kellys the only animated series on stock car racing currently available at This is a show about a stockcar-racing family who, despite their efforts, just cannot seem to win. The show has received awards from the Houston Film Festival and the prestigious Aurora Awards. With guest stars including Catherine Bell (JAG), Camryn Manheim (The Practice), Isaac Hayes (Shaft, South Park) and Nextel cup driver Kevin Harvick, the show is rapidly becoming a favorite selection within the Internet world.

Oh, and by the way, I am the voice of Chip, a seven year-old boy. (Hey, nothing wrong with getting younger, if youve got the opportunity, take it!)

Nancy Cartwright is best known as the voice of spiky-headed Bart Simpson on The Simpsons. She has voiced dozens of cartoon characters in her career that has spanned more than 20 years. Currently she can be heard as the voice of Rufus the Naked Mole Rat on Disneys Kim Possible and Chuckie on Rugrats and All Grown Up. To learn more about Nancys career, listen to her new audio book My Life as a 10-year-old Boy.