Monday, March 19, 2012

GREG BERG: An Interviewee to be Heard

(No, Muley: that's "heard", not "herd!")

A while back, I was given an opportunity to visit with one of the nicest fellows you can hope to meet: Greg Berg.  Our first meeting happened at that wonderful event called MuppetFest back in December 2001.  I was getting autographs in my “Jim Henson: The Works” book when I mentioned that I liked his embroidered “Muppet Babies” jacket.  He discussed with me that the cast and crew of the show got one and as the discussions continued I learned that was the voice of Baby Fozzie (everyone knows that, in The Muppets cast of characters, right after Kermit my favorite is Fozzie) so I immediately flipped to a page in my book and asked him for his autograph, an inquiry to which he graciously obliged.

Of course, that whole Muppety connection is what got my interest flowing; but, Greg is much more talented than just Muppets—he’s been in a TON of things, usually working in ground-breaking animation-firsts:
A. Robotman and Friends: D.I.C. Animation's 'first' Canadian-American animated venture.
B. Muppet Babies: 'First' animated Jim Henson network show with Muppets (or younger version)
C. Worked on the Simpsons, 'longest' running animated show
D. Worked on Toy Story: Pixar's 'first' full length film (w/Disney)
E. Voiced on Disney's Chicken Little: their 'first' all CGI film

This is a VERY LONG article, so I plan to post part of it today with a follow up tomorrow.  It’s a very important follow up tomorrow for a few reasons: 1) the remainder of the interview with Mr. Berg; 2) Muley does his “In Print” “Mule on the Street” questions; 3) it’s the release date of 2011’s “The Muppets” on DVD and Blu Ray and you’ll only be able to learn what Mr. Berg’s thoughts were of the film and his own INCLUSION in the movie as well as Muley’s review of the film—so be sure to check back tomorrow!

Right now, I really do appreciate his taking time to discuss his life and career with us and hope you enjoy this article.

KEVIN WILLIAMS:  So, Greg, what can you share about your childhood and the inspirations that you found which made you want to work as a voice actor?

GREG BERG:  I was born in Brooklyn, NY, and we moved to Ohio after I was about 4.  Must've been something in the water at both places as many entertainers I have admired were from both places. From the 3 Stooges, Marx Bros. and Danny Kaye to Daws Butler, Jonathan Winters and more!

My inspiration was a possible mix from a local Akron, OH, DJ named Jerry Healey, used to do a morning show providing his own natural voice, then switching to an elderly man and then elderly woman and would hold humorous conversations fooling thousands of listeners into thinking 3 people were there. He would let me watch from time-to-time.

Then it all led to my discovery of Mel Blanc doing silly voices for cartoons many grew up hearing. Later it evolved to me trying to imitate others (having seen) Rich Little appear on TV doing impressions to much applause.

KW: Speaking of inspirations and influences, who are your heroes in the industry?

GB: Heroes in the industry? Like 'SuperVoiceman?' There have been MANY talents who have impressed me to continue voicing, from the top of the list, the funny and creative Mel Blanc, in the category of performing came Daws Butler.  Eventually, I learned of the talented Frank Welker who is a creative, great, impressive and talented guy who I hold in high esteem. He is also someone that anyone in multiple voice and character work should have on their list as the best of the best! And anyone else who is the best or is striving to be the best at whatever they do.

KW:  When did you realize you could make a career performing voices?

GB: When I figured money could be made (was) probably when I was able to manage my time. This came about after learning how to recognize, relate and assimilate myself to applying myself to whatever I wanted to do. I set a goal and went for it!
KW: What existing character would be your dream character to perform in your career?
GB:  That sounds like asking if I could be someone else then who would I be?  I can't ever recall wanting to BE a certain established character.  I have admired the careers of some of the most known character voice talents and would love my work to aspire to their recognition status.

KW: What has been your favorite project to voice and why?
GB: Enjoying the creative side of v.o.'s, talents constantly are evolving and so for favorite voice projects, after spending 8 or 9 years of providing the Muppet Baby characters for which I'm known, the years spent 'playing' on that project were very happy times and yet after spending 1 season on the series 'Yo, Yogi' as Young Huckleberry Hound was a joy and ethereal experience having the ability and honor to do the young version of my teacher, who was one of my inspirations to do voices for my livelihood.

Each project has a benefit from my experience so really there are no single outstanding faves.
As a multi-voice, each character has to have something to make it worth doing which is also why I can't think of a major favorite character.

KW: What are you working on these days?
GB: (A while back I) completed work on another video game as one zombie (of many), and an electrified demon providing horrifying sounds and gurgles! Sweet, huh? As we just completed it, it's not near being promoted, so it wouldn't mean anything mentioning it for now. In the last year alone my most prominent work included voicing on an Oliver Stone war documentary, voicing a new Transformer (Igor) for the film "Transformers: Dark of the Moon,"and a brief voice of the unseen Stage Manager in "The Muppets."

NOTE: come back to read Part Two of the interview for more indepth discussion of "The Muppets."

Some other credits added to my list:  There was a recent radio commercial played for an AARP convention! Talk about versatility!

For my career, at this point, providing multiple voice duty, I have found my projects to vary on a bigger scale with more than 1 voice to offer, I may be hired to do more TV commercials one year, the next year filled doing more radio, and then, like this year, more video or interactive work.

Also, when I last checked on the website for the 'Build A Bear' company, my voice can be heard as The Mooselator which the viewer enters an English phrase and press the icon to translate the phrase into moose talk! They have had this up (a few) Christmas seasons. Silly and cute!  And commercials.

KW: Now, you know I’m a HUGE Muppets fan, so we can’t escape the Muppet Babies questions. I know what all the other fans will be asking:  Did you get to meet any of the actual Muppeteers while performing voices for the characters?

GB: As the show progressed, Jim Henson eventually paid a visit to the studio and THAT was a dream come true for me. I mean: what do you do when first you are selected for a 'project' that is new to the world, then you feel you record your part and it gets sent to the animators; BUT, when the 'creator' of one of your remotest lifelong dreams shakes your hand and sits in to watch your performance, the game feels won!

Now, if I may express my belief in the Law of Attraction which happened to befall me at a younger age, another story for another time, a short time after booking the roles of Baby Fozzie Bear and Baby Scooter, I happened to visit Beverly Hills (which was far from my usual stomping grounds and hang out area). Never expecting to see ANYONE I know (as the BH is more of a high-end office area), while literally crossing mid-street in a cluster of opposite crossing pedestrians, I look at one of the people and say “Frank?” He says ”'yes” and I turn around to return where I just left to continue the conversation. It was FRANK OZ! I rambled something nutty about “I'm Greg Berg, I'm you for the Muppet Baby cartoon,” which may not even have started to air yet.  The encounter was very brief as we were nearly talking in mid-street and he was on his way to something I'm sure was pressing.

That was a story or two as they were the first two I came across early on.  Later into the show, I visited Henson Studios to a kind welcome, and later when the first Muppet Convention took place in Santa Monica, CA, I met many of the performers (but the convention was after Richard Hunt passed).
This photo is an interview exclusive thanks to Greg Berg
for allowing us the opportunity to share it with everyone!

KW: What was your favorite thing about working on Muppet Babies?

GB: I enjoy 'unpredictable' elements within shows whether animated or live action. (Maybe because it makes you think.) Many successful old TV/radio shows, among them: The Jack Benny Show, The Mel Blanc Show, Abbott and Costello, it's what made Carol Burnett fun to watch -I'm glued to listening to or watching when it happens.  For Muppet Babies, it was when they showed recognizable live action film clips throughout various scenes.

KW: How were you approached about working on the animated series?

GB: As I was new to the animation scene, I had come to town with my mind set on doing what one of my favorite talents, Mel Blanc, did in Hollywood, On-Camera Comedy/Character acting and voices wherever they needed them. In 1982 I had been on an animated pilot for D.I.C. Productions (called ROBOTMAN AND FRIENDS) whose animation programming had just started to become known. I was still learning the craft and watched and studied whatever TV shows included funny or character voices in them about 2 years later had seen MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN-which included the first ever view of the Muppet 'Babies'.

Thanks to the creative awareness of Jim Henson, he had them developed into an animated show. They searched for new people to do the voices as it was to be done in L.A. and the NY talent was too busy and most likely were not able to pick up and constantly travel East and West for a cartoon and continue their local duties. I notified my agent at the time that I heard they were looking, he got me an audition and I tried the young voice versions of Babies Fozzie and Scooter for the auditions for the Muppet Babies. I was later informed I booked the 2 roles.

KW: What were your feelings when you learned you were going to perform those characters?

GB: I was thrilled to hear I was going to be part of ANYTHING connected with Jim Henson.

KW: When you were working on the show, did you realize you were going to touch the lives of so many children--after all, there was a whole generation of kids that Muppet Babies was their first experience with 'Muppets' characters. I recall my nephew even asking me once, "Why'd they grow up the characters?" after I showed him a tape of The Muppet Show.

GB: As a teen in Akron, Ohio, I had played around doing silly voices and sound-alike’s, and would watch and be very familiar with Jim Henson's work from the Ed Sullivan and Jimmy Dean shows, and Sesame Street. Luckily, I didn't disregard it and even wanted to contact the Children's Television Workshop to be part of the troupe of players they used for educational animation on The Electric Company OR Sesame Street. I questioned my abilities and then understood that to be on such noteworthy projects you had to be really talented and specially trained.  So, off to Hollywood to train (because who from MY town was working on such prestigious programming?).  I went when I had the chance, studied with voice king Daws Butler, and, bringing it around to becoming iconic Baby Fozzie, 'understood' this is what I put all my desire into and had a 'responsibility' to live up to.  Or if I tarnished the already established character, my reputation to future voice work would take a long time to reestablish, so I had a lot riding on giving it my best from my training and self-respect of living up to supplying voices to these characters.

I've been very Blessed to be part of a creative, talented, influential legacy.  Yes, this has been entertainment WORK, however I was given this mass audience of kids and fun-loving adults to entertain, and to give them a glimpse of me the actor 'behind the voice’.  I too share in their love of a life in a Muppet World. I don't smoke, drink, or do drugs.  I get a thrill from motivating others to follow their dreams after doing it myself!  I view myself as a big kid and get along well with kids and teens.  I’m a former Boy Scout, fan of The Little Rascals, love performing comedy (improvisational) characters, comics, and enjoying a good laugh.  Describe myself?  When in a silly mood a little like Lou Cosetllo—somewhat reflected as I perform Fozzie; when at a dinner (as I never use alcohol) I'm most likely drinking Chocolate milk or Fresh Lemonade. I’m positive, happy-go-lucky, and caring.

Baby Fozzie

Baby Scooter
KW: What preparation did you do to prepare yourself for Babies Fozzie and Scooter?

GB: The prep work was done as I evolved in my love for the Muppets, so I was aware of Fozzie Bear. I had a Kermit and Miss Piggy hand puppet in the early 80's and would occasionally use them to entertain my niece and nephew when I visited.  One day some neighbor kids came over after seeing me with the 2 puppets and handed me a Fozzie puppet! This was pre-everything that started my career. They said, 'Can you do his voice?' I said, “I'll try” but had no idea of the nuances etc., very amateur, and BAM!! A few years later I was asked if I could try out for the show and auditioned like many others.  Eventually, I was chosen!  I even remember watching the ‘Muppets Take Manhattan’ movie before they even had the idea for the animated show. But since I am a good listener, the voice stayed with me which was easy to relate to.
The original characters Greg saw in "The Muppets Take Manhattan"
not long before auditioning for the roles of Baby Scooter (left) and
Baby Fozzie (right).
KW: “Muppet Babies” featured a lot of beloved characters and even more songs and dialogue.  Were the voice actors all together for these recordings?

GB: As best as the director could wrangle the group together. Howie Mandel eventually had times out of town and had to record at his availability; but, the theme song session had most of us there. And later the schedules worked out to record the show together. The songs, later for the show was separate as we had separate tracks and characters.

KW: Off-topic but on it while I’m thinking about it: Do you own the three Muppet Babies plush from McDonald's all those years ago (the same ones in every Muppet fan's house)?

GB: I have the Baby Fozzie McD’s doll, and have seen many on Ebay. I have a doll from Hasbro as well. Someone gave me a grown-up Fozzie doll also. And McDonald’s had issued the Babies in cars and Baby Fozzie on a Toy Horse with wheels. And I have a grown-up Fozzie Pez dispenser. I have the Muppet Babies singing on 2 cassettes and 1 album. I have a (slightly worn-but not ratty- at one cuff) ORIGINAL embroidered MUPPET BABY JACKET I am eventually going to sell, as it's a large size satin, and I am now XXL.

KW:  I recall that jacket as the thing that started us talking at MuppetFest so many years ago! Looking back now at working on Muppet Babies, what was your happiest moment?

GB: All in all the cast and crew of the show all were great to work with! We all got to work for a terrific entertainment franchise that will be one of my fondest memories and hope to have a future connection anytime they're open to it. I've met Brian at the 2001 MuppetFest convention and introduced myself. I'm aware animation is a different group than puppetry: however, if anyone knew my background in the past 30 years, I've LIVE-voiced for a puppet which I stood next to as the puppeteer and I timed our actions, an interactive robot, and my earliest voice was for a talking interactive snowman. Will they need my talents later if they did another Muppet Babies series, or any series? Hey, we can talk!

(Note from KW: Should someone reading this like to hire Greg Berg you can reach him through the William Morris Endeavor Agency in L.A.!)

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