By Trent Rentsch
A refresher, before the curtain rises. Wally Wingert is a voice actor… a talent at the top of his game, voicing projects most of us can only dream of. But, it all had to start somewhere. For Wally, it was the stages and airwaves of South Dakota, where he built a reputation as a gifted Creative. But Wally had bigger stages in his crosshairs. When the curtain fell on Act I, Wally had gotten airplay of his song parodies on the nationally syndicated Doctor Demento Show, but his real dream was just beginning…
TR: So, one day you’re working at KELO in Sioux Falls, SD, and suddenly, you’re Hollywood-bound, or so it seemed at the time. Was it a snap decision, or had you been planning it?
WW: I had wanted to move to Hollywood since I was five. We took a family vacation to LA when I was 15 and became determined to make it out here someday. It took me several years to actually make it happen though. In 1986 I came out for a week to meet with my contacts and see if actually living here would be plausible. Once I determined that it was definitely where I needed to be, I saved up money for about 9 months and moved out here in January of 1987. I had seen a lot of bad come from those who made the leap before looking, so I wanted to make sure that the move was meticulously planned.
TR: I believe a connection from Doctor Demento was a big help, yes?
WW: Absolutely! I had forged a friendship with his producer Robert Young. So when I moved to LA he and his wife Debbie took me under their wing and helped me get set up.
TR: In a city known for breaking the hearts of hopeful newcomers, I think a lot of people would be surprised at how quickly things started happening for you in LA. Where did it begin?
WW: I started working at Westwood One Radio Network in the office, then eventually wound up doing work as a DJ again at 94.7 The Wave, playing Smooth Jazz. I did mornings for awhile (mornings in LA!), but it wasn’t my thing. I eventually wanted to get back into performing so I became Beetlejuice on stage at Universal Studios Hollywood stage show, “The Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue.” It was a band with Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, etc. It was one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever had and I met a lot of great people. But I had also been throwing my voice-over demo around town and finally got a bite with a small agency. The first big job I booked was on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” as a lottery announcer. Then I booked a gig on “Murphy Brown” as a puppet named Kelbo. Around 1998 I retired from Universal and started working full-time in voice-over -- doing animation, videogames, promos, commercials, narrations, etc.
TR: After working with you, I know how talented you are, but there are many talented people in LA, what made the difference for you?
WW: I found a good set of agents who really believed in me and would promote me to the producers and directors. I got a chance to go in and show my stuff and started getting hired. But I brought a lot of the Midwest work ethic with me. I worked hard, was on time, easy to get along with, eager, friendly, enthusiastic and did my best to take direction well. Sooner or later you develop a reputation amongst the producers as someone who can do the job reliably.
TR: I mentioned a few of your credits last month; remind us again of some of the biggies.
WW: I’ve done probably a hundred voices for “Family Guy,” one of the Almighty Tallest from “Invader Zim,” the Riddler in the new “Batman” videogames, I was the voice of the Pax TV network from 2000 to 2003, I’ve narrated a lot of E! True Hollywood Stories, I’m now the voice of Jon Arbuckle in the new “Garfield Show,” and I’m also Ant Man and Giant Man in “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” I’m the guy you hear at the beginning of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” announcing the upcoming guests and features.
TR: What about on-screen work? You mentioned Murphy Brown, but as I recall you were the voice and the hand inside the puppet…
WW: Initially I was interested in on-camera acting when I came to LA, but quickly lost interest when I discovered that the casting directors for on-camera have no imagination whatsoever. I had all sorts of different characters to offer, but they’re only looking for types, not actors. So since I’m not that interested in being a “type,” I fired my on-camera agent and just focused on voice-over. Any on-camera things I’ve done were probably done as a personal referral or a favor. I did “Saved By the Bell: The New Class,” “Just Shoot Me” and a few small films.
TR: I’m sure many people would like to know how someone gets a voice gig on Family Guy…
WW: A piece of copy came into my agent’s office for one of their first episodes. They were looking for the voice of Bert from “Sesame Street.” As a young puppeteer I tried to master the Muppet voices as best as I could, so I already had Bert in my repertoire. I got that job and then started working more on the show regularly as a utility player.
TR: Is working with Seth McFarland as cool as one might expect?
WW: Seth’s a genius. I’m just sorry it took the world so long to figure out what I knew back in the late ‘90s. And he’s one of the best actors I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch work.
TR: Take us behind the scenes of an animated show… what’s a recording session like for Family Guy or Garfield?
WW: They’re both different. With “Family Guy,” you go in one at a time and just record your lines. That’s because Seth is the majority of the voices, and he directs all the sessions now. Gone are the days of “Family Guy” ensemble reads because Seth’s responsibilities have increased considerably. But I still remember those days fondly when we would all sit around the microphone and act with each other, and I would watch Seth seamlessly weave between one character and another. It was masterful to watch. Garfield is still done ensemble style, even though we all have very busy schedules. But our unit is so tight that we can breeze through an 11 minute cartoon in about 20 minutes in one take. We’ll go back sometimes and do pick-ups here and there afterwards, but Frank, Gregg and I have worked together so long now that we’ve got it down to a science. It’s GREAT fun!
TR: How did you get the Tonight Show announcer job?
WW: The announcer job for the prime-time “Jay Leno Show” came down as an audition through my agent. There wasn’t much copy so I decided to do it about ten different ways. I think they may have responded to the range I gave the copy, because they called me in for a call-back audition. They were looking for a sound and I guess they figured they’d be able to dial me around until they found what they were looking for. When Jay went back to late-night, he kept me on as the announcer. It’s a dream come true, once-in-a-lifetime job.
TR: Have you gotten to know Jay Leno?
WW: Not really. He’s a super busy guy and by the time I get into the studio, all the crew is in full-on show mode -- meaning that their minds are on the taping which starts at 4pm. But I’ve seen him a few times in the hallway after the show, and we get to chat briefly. He’s a really super cool guy and you couldn’t imagine a better guy to work for. It was hard to watch all of the undeserved crap that was heaped on him last year during that whole “Team Coco” nonsense. But the show is back in the rightful hands of those who deserve it, and all is right with the world.
TR: So, part the curtain for us… what’s a day in the life of Wally Wingert like?
WW: Each day is different, but if you read Wally’s Week on my website (wallyontheweb.com), you’ll get an indication of how vastly different my life is from day to day. In fact, the only constant in my life is “The Tonight Show,” which I report to at 3:30 each weekday. Some days are super busy, some not so much. But they’re all super exciting!
TR: To those reading this now thinking, “I want this guy’s life,” what advice would you give them?
WW: The world for the young aspiring performers has changed a LOT since I was their age. We didn’t have YouTube, or any of the other web showcase venues that kids have today. Unfortunately, sometimes less than talented people can showcase themselves on the web and by total accident become a phenomenon. It’s sad that we’re seeing a lot of truly untalented people become major media entities. Simple advice would be, pick a craft. Study that craft. Own that craft. Study how to exploit that craft, look, listen and learn. Never stop learning. And show up on time. Know the history of your chosen field. Research all of the greats who came before you... Don Messick, Daws Butler, Mel Blanc, June Foray, Don LaFontaine. Create new characters, not just voices that the world has heard before. Learn to use your voice, sure. But also learn to use your ears, and learn to listen. That’s just as important.
TR: So, what’s next for YOU?
WW: Dinner. I’m hungry. Seriously though, the next Batman videogame that comes out later this year is going to revolutionize videogames. It looks so awesome and is such an amazing premise that I hope to be playing The Riddler for a long time to come! And season 2 of “Avengers” is going to start this fall, and there are all sorts of fun in store there!