Patrick Warburton is that rare voice actor who looks like he sounds. His imposing, muscular physique complements his deep basso voice, but his warm tone gives a touch of soul to his many memorable performances as lunkheaded alpha males. Quite likely your ears perk up when you hear him. He used to be best known for playing Seinfeld's David Puddy, Elaine's slow-witted meathead of an on-and-off boyfriend. But today, Warburton is most well known for his roles as Family Guy's Joe Swanson and the title character in the short-lived live-action adaptation of superhero animated comedy The Tick.
We caught up with Warburton to speak about his brief career as a male model, his conservative Christian upbringing and his prominent supporting role as “murder machine” bodyguard Brock Samson in the upcoming season of animated Hardy Boys/spy-comedy pastiche The Venture Brothers.
What's your favorite part about playing Brock Samson? Is there a particular tic or move that you do vocally, or an aspect to the character, like how he's always questioning his purpose as a “murder machine?”
[Laughs] Oh, it's so fun to be a Brock when it's the farthest thing in the world from what I'm like. I was 95 pounds during my freshman year of high school. I was the smallest kid in school. I was bullied my whole life, but I've been offered a long line of bully roles throughout the years, just total fuckin' assholes. Brock's a total badass, but I was always the kid who would curl up into a fetal position and bawl if the other boys didn't walk away. So it's a little bit ironic that I voice Brock Samson.
[Series creator Chris McCulloch] tells me for this season that Brock has a bigger role. He develops a romance with the show's version of Wonder Woman. So Brock starts beating up people again, he gets to fuck again, and it's been a while.
One thing I didn't ask Chris is if Brock's Dodge Charger is still electric, or if they gave it a gas engine. They lose me there. I don't dig that shit. It feels a little personal because we own a 1969 Charger, which my son made me buy. He goes, “Brock has the coolest car, you gotta get one.” So we got one seven years ago, and we love it. But you don't fuck with a 1969 Charger by making it electric.
When was the point where you knew or were committed to the idea of making voice acting a big part of your career?
The first opportunity that I got was to do Buzz Lightyear in a TV series, and also to do Kronk for the Disney animated film The Emperor's New Groove. I grew up on Disney. I grew up in a very, very conservative household, with deeply religious parents and three younger sisters. What we were allowed to watch was limited to The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, and Little House on the Prairie during the week. It's a wonder that I survived. It's a fuckin' miracle that I didn't run away from home at 13 on my skateboard. Still, Disney has always been a special, spiritual place for me. After that, work begat work.
Let's back up a moment: You left college to do some acting and modeling work, including an ad for Calvin Klein…
I never modeled for Calvin Klein, but I did do a television commercial for Bugle Boy. It's actually a really cool, stylish commercial done in the … late '80s, early '90s. When I was 19, 20, I went to Paris and Milan for a month and a half to do some modeling. I didn't get any of the runway work I would've wanted. I was immediately let go because I couldn't fit into any of the clothes. The standard size of the jackets for men at the time was something like a 41 for regular. I was a 46 long, and weighed 220 pounds. I rowed crew in college. So my size didn't help me at the time. So all I did in Paris and Milan was get wasted every night. I was depressed, and I just wanted to go home. I might not have been good-looking enough for them, either.
You've said in other interviews that you don't like playing characters who are like you. But Brock Samson's ultra-manly character in The Venture Brothers suggests that there's a certain type of voice you are often asked to do. Do you get typecast by voice? In other words: Do people hear how you sound and ignore what you can do with your voice?
That's what happens, you do get type-/voice-cast just like you can get typecast in live-action. Let's say I go in to audition for the voice of an intellectual surgeon. I'd love the opportunity to do that, but that's not who people think I am. Back when I was doing Seinfeld, I got this wonderful opportunity to do this Australian film called The Dish. They only knew me for playing this fool on Seinfeld, a guy that hit his head and was a few bricks shy [of a load]. He was a bit of a moron. But in The Dish, I play a NASA scientist who is very sharp and articulate. And I asked them, “What convinced you that I could do this?” The director, Robert Sitch, just said, “Well, I reckoned you could.” He was right. I always find it more intriguing to watch a film where somebody's making a turn that you don't normally see them do.
With Family Guy, you've said that you have to treat some of the humor as fantasy because some of it, if taken seriously, is offensive. You come from a conservative background religiously. Apart from disappointed relatives, is there a line you essentially have to set for yourself when doing jokes?
In 14 years, I've only come across one [offensive] joke. Joe wasn't even involved with it. It was so repulsive that I couldn't be in the episode with that line. I can't even repeat it. We turned it off in our house. Not because we're fucking prudes; we are not, not by a long shot. You can sometimes do stuff just to be an offensive asshole, and it's funny. But that's a matter of diminishing returns. It's why I felt I had to say, “Put it in an episode that Joe's not in. You know I'm a team player, and I haven't asked for this before. But I can't be any part of this right here.” I greatly appreciate my opportunities to work with Seth MacFarlane and his creative team over the years, and love what they do with Family Guy. It's fun and offensive. But if I didn't know that I had a line, I'd perhaps wonder if I did.
Can you describe making The Tick? What was it like wearing that blue muscle suit? Give me the Behind the Music version of events: Don't skimp on any of the drugs, sex and gambling debts.
Nothing has felt so perfect for me in my entire life than getting to be the Tick. [Series developer and director] Barry Sonnenfeld thought of me for it. And it's funny, I met people on the streets of New York City who would walk up to me and say, “If they ever do The Tick [as a live-action show], you should be the Tick.” I didn't even know what the Tick was at the time! So it was kismet.
It took two tubes of K-Y Jelly to slip into [the suit], and long days. And we got through it. But we had no support from the network. They weren't impressed with the overtime, the production costs. Ultimately, they didn't care that all the critics in New York and L.A. seemed to like the show. They decided to kill it before it hit the air. They held us back for a year. We were all set to go up on Sunday nights after The Simpsons or Family Guy. But then they put us on Thursday up against the second season of Survivor. They just buried us. But here we are, 15 years later.
The Tick's creators were smart in that they acknowledged without accepting the received notion that, because superheroes are inherently campy, two men working together to fight crime must come across as gay. In that sense, there seem to be two polar-extreme approaches to live-action superheroes in that sense: Christopher Nolan, who would probably have a stroke if he acknowledged Adam West's existence, and The Tick, which acknowledges what people think and just ignores it. Am I correct in assuming that the latter approach is harder?
Oh, absolutely. It's fun to skirt along that a little bit. But let's be honest: There is that love and closeness between a superhero and his sidekick that you can keep describing until it's more and more flowery and beautiful. It is actually that. Are they having intercourse? Probably not. But there is the element of closeness between these two. There are so many directions you could go, but when you hit the nail on the head, it just stops working. That's what I love about the Tick — you have no fuckin' clue what he's going to say next. In so many comedies today, you can see the jokes coming from a mile away. And even if it's not exactly what you thought, it's pretty close. But The Tick is always a surprise.