Joined: 07 Jan 2004
Location: Milford, PA
Fri Dec 13, 2013 12:33 pm
In this edition of #BeyondTheBooth, we chat with voice actor Townsend Coleman, the voice of Michaelangelo from the original 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series, as well as the lead voice on The Tick, and Gobo on the animated version of Fraggle Rock. For 16 years, he was the promo voice for NBC's Must See TV, and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
In Part 4 of this interview, we learn about Townsend Coleman's sixteen years as the voice of NBC's "Must See TV" promos and how his character-style vocalization helped to change the sound of the TV promo industry. We also discuss his long run as the promo for Jay Leno's Tonight Show, and what's next in his remarkable career in voice-over and beyond.
Watch the rest of our interview with Townsend Coleman here:
Part 1 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACmO_z2RpX8
Part 2 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EF2vYFu7B4
Part 3 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSX1T0feIDA
Voice Chasers (VC): These days, are you doing much animation anymore?
Townsend Coleman (TC): Not really doing so much animation anymore, not really pursing it that much. Not that I don't want to, but listen, Kristy, honestly, I had a really solid, great fifteen to twenty years of having more fun than a guy should be allowed to have, and getting paid for it. I was, kind of all along, always doing a lot of commercial voice-over work as well, had a lot of big accounts that were on-going, and that did very well for me, and I enjoyed, and I always enjoyed just the change-up of the different kinds of work that I was doing. And then in 1993, the very same month that I started The Tick in August of 1993, I got this fluke audition to go over and read a "Must See TV" promo at NBC. Went down in the basement in Burbank, sat in Danny Dark's chair, put his headphones on, sat at his mic, and did the very first ever "Must See TV" promo for watching The John Laroquette Show. I remember it was at the end of August in 1993. And I'd never done a promo before, and I thought... again, not to be a smart alec about it, but it was like, how hard can this be? Because of my radio background, I had a really good sense of timing. N now with my animation background and my commercial background, and stuff, I felt well-suited to it. So we just played, and this first session, they liked what I did so much, they ended up putting it on the air that night. And I was like, what? No kidding. I've got a promo on the air that's airing on NBC tonight, and how crazy, my parents met working at NBC all those years ago! How weird, sort of full circle, is this? And then, they invited me back the next week to do more Laroquette promos, and then, kinda one thing led to another, and then I was doing promos for all the Tuesday night shows. And then within three months of starting there, at Halloween time of 1993, so exactly twenty years ago, they called me on a Friday night at home and said, "Uh Townsend, listen, you know Jay Leno's been doing The Tonight Show for about a year now, and he's kinda getting his butt whooped by Letterman, and they want to kind of change the direction that they're going with these promos, and they'd like you to do them. Would you be willing to do them?" Uh, yeah... I mean, literally, they called me 7 o'clock on a Friday night, at home, and I said, yeah, well what would I need to do? And they said you need to commit to five weeks, be here five nights a week, seven o'clock every night, you can't be late because we do the promo, and then they satellite it back to New York immediately within, like, fifteen minutes, it goes right on the air on the east coast during that last half-hour of prime time for that night's show. Because what they were going to start doing was actually taking bits from the show, as it taped, here in Burbank. And then taking little bits of those, and write a twenty-second promo, put those bits that were actually going to be on the show that night, in the promo. So, in essence, it's about the next best thing to being a live promo.
VC: That was the first time they ever did that?
TC: That was the first time they ever did that. Yeah. And so they called them "hot topicals." And they really needed to change it up and do something different to try and get Jay more visible. And so they said, you've got to be here seven o'clock every night, five nights a week, for five weeks for the November sweeps, and I'm like, great, when do you need me to start? They said, Monday. So, that weekend, I was like, I can't believe this, I'm going in Monday to do a Tonight Show promo for Jay Leno. So that Monday night I showed up, we did our first Tonight Show promo that way, and at the end of five weeks, they just never told us to stop. And I ended up doing that for sixteen years, they're still doing it the same way now. They're still doing it the exact same way every night now. And of course, Jay took off, and has been sort of king of the hill there, in that playground, for a long time. But, boy, what a rush that was, and so I ended up doing Jay's promos for sixteen years, went into NBC, down there in the basement, every night, for sixteen years, doing those promos.
VC: Amazing. And do you think that your "Must See TV" promo voice, do you think it was... I think before that, a lot of the promos were very "radio announcer-y," I think?
VC: Yours was probably more character... probably like the first that really kind of a character voice doing the promo ads.
TC: I think so! When they first started doing the "Must See TV" stuff, what they said they wanted, is they they wanted a very conversational sound. And they were actually looking for a guy who ended up not having any interest in doing network promos, but who had a very popular sound at the time, who had a very sort of monotonous, kind of deep, midwest, sort of sound, and just sounded kind of like a grown guy, didn't sound like an announcer at all, and just kind of talked, kind of non-stop without taking a breath, kind of thing. This is what they were saying that they wanted. And I just so happened to be standing in my agent's office because he handled that guy at the time, and we were talking, and he gets this call from this guy at NBC saying this is what they were looking for, and he said, trust me, he'll never do network promos, which he wouldn't. He said, but I happen to have a guy here who can sort of do that style, let me put him on the phone with you. So he puts me on the phone with this guy over at NBC, and I do this over the phone, and he says, wow, that sounds real good. Can you come over here and try it at NBC? And I said, sure! So that's why I ended up, that afternoon, driving from my agent's office, over to Burbank, sitting down in the chair, playing around with this stuff. But, again, it was because of my radio background, a decent sense of timing, I had a looseness, you know, being willing to try different characters, 'cause to me, that style was a character. Know what I'm saying?
TC: And when I started doing that, initially, once they heard it, when we were first trying it out, they realized it really wasn't the direction they wanted to go, because it needed to have more energy. It still was a promo, and needed to have more life, somehow, but they just didn't want it sounding like, you know, radio announcer-y stuff. So I said, let's sort of play with this, and try some different stuff, and we kind of chopped it up, and like I said, they liked what we came up with that day, and put it on the air that night, and one thing led to another and, yeah, boom. There I was. So what I was going to say was is, so there I was in 1993, it launches this, what became a long career in promo. So here I was, I had these three, kind of legs of this stool of my career, one being solid commercial stuff with its own accounts and stuff, and characters, as well, within the commercial realm that I was doing, animation, and network promo. And, I mean you talk about dying and going to heaven...
VC: The trifecta. Yeah.
TC: And this is back in the days before we all had ISDN boxes in our home studios. We're all going to studios all over town, just bopping around from studio to studio, seeing all your peers, and the studio managers, and the recording engineers, and even the receptionists, and it was such a great big family, and what a great time that was. So now, getting back to what you were saying, we were talking about my animation, I'm not doing so much animation anymore, not really doing much commercial anymore. Kind of, as it's turned out and as things have shaken out over the years, promo is where I've kind of landed. And listen, I count myself as one very lucky man to still be working as much as I'm working, at this point of my career, at this age, I'm going to be sixty next year, don't mind saying that. I've been very lucky, very fortunate, feel great, have my health, and love what I do. So, even though NBC let me go four years ago, back in fall of 2009, I've been able to parlay with the help of my great agents sort of one thing into another. I've been doing the Judge Judy radio spots for probably sixteen or seventeen years now, so I'm still doing those.
VC: I didn't know that show was on the air that long...
TC: Oh she's king of the hill. She just signed another contract until 2017. So I do the Judge Judy radio spots every sweeps, so I do those four or five times a year, for season premiere stuff, and I do a ton of stuff for The HUB. For ABC Family, do a lot of comedies for them. I do the Live! With Kelly and Michael spots every day, do their promos every day, I've been doing those for years, too. I was doing those when it was Live! With Regis and Kelly. So I feel very fortunate to have made that transition. And then talk about transitions, after being so associated with one network, one major network, for so long, as sort of the voice of comedy at NBC for sixteen years, when they let me go, I figured, well I've seen my day in the sun. I'll never get another chance like that. I can't complain, sixteen years, a great run. But I'm on ABC now. So here, I'm back on another major network, I do four comedies for them now. They took me on-board last year, and I'm having a blast saying "ABC" now instead of "NBC." Look, I'm just lucky to be able to still be doing what I'm doing. The one thing that I do miss, Kristy, is getting out of my house, and going to the studios anymore. The only time I get to do that is when I do do an episode of a cartoon, when they want the whole ensemble cast there, and I get to run into some of my old pals. Or when I do an episode of Adventures of Odyssey, a show I've been doing for nineteen years now for Focus on the Family. I play Jason Whitaker in that. I get to see some great people when I go to do those. But those are the relatively few times I actually get to leave my home to go work.
VC: Is it just because the technology has changed?
TC: The technology has changed, I've got an IDSN box here at home, which allows me to hook up to any studio in the world, virtually, who has another ISDN box on their end. So all my work, all of it, 100% of it, I do from home. You know, ABC, ABC Family, The Hub, Judge Judy, Live! With Kelly and Michael. It's all daily stuff that I do right here from home. So I need to find reasons to go leave the house, like going over to my Cirque School LA in Hollywood and working out on the trapeze and my aerial silks.
VC: Is that something you want to do?
TC: Well, it's what I am doing now just in terms of a gym. Rather than going to the Y and working out on the weight machines, using your own body as weight resistance is just the best way to do it. You've got the performance aspect... not that I'm up on a trapeze... I mean I am working out on a trapeze and the aerial silks, but they're low to the ground. It literally is a gym that uses circus equipment instead of gym equipment. So there's that, and like I was saying, because I've got the mustache and lack of hair is because I just did this play over in Hollywood that closed about a month ago.
VC: Would you like to do more theater?
TC: I do. I would like to. And so I'm thinking maybe that's the next phase for me. Either into more theater, or maybe, actually, getting back into pursuing what I moved out here, nearly thirty years ago, to begin with, and that is, you know, pursing the theatrical stuff. Movies and TV stuff. Who knows?
VC: Possibilities are endless.
Yeah. And who knows how long this buzz cut is going to last. Maybe one day I'll actually have my hair back again, my shiny hair, as my youngest daughter used to call it. She said, your hair's not grey, it's shiny. I said thank you, Lindsey, that's nice of you to say. But who knows how long this will last, or this... nya-ah-ah.
VC: And then the other night, we were both at the Bill Ratner one-man-show, and I got to see the Don LaFontaine Voice-Over Lab. I know you were very involved in getting that put together. Can you talk a little bit about that?
TC: Sure. Well, you know, I've been very involved with the unions, of course, all these years. With all three, SAG, AFTRA, and Equity. In fact, the funny thing about Equity, I actually got my Equity card in 1981, but only because I was an understudy for Robert Urich in Barefoot in the Park back in Ohio.
VC: So it was before you even came here?
TC: Yeah, for Summer Stock Theatre. And I never went on stage, because he went on every night. So I had to be there every night, just in case, because I was the understudy. So that's how I got my Equity card. But never actually did an Equity show, since then, until the show I just did. It was an Equity show. So it's the first time I actually got to be paid to be on stage, as an actor, rather than just behind the mic, as an actor. So that was great fun. Or in front of the camera, as an actor. So I've been very involved with the unions for years, and years, and years, and of course SAG and AFTRA merged a couple of years ago. And, Don LaFontaine, of course you know who he is, and I imagine you guys all do too. But legend in our business, and just a prince of human being as being an enormous talent, passed away a few years ago. And Don's best friend, Paul Pape, and Joe Cipriano, another very prolific voice guy, and talk about prince of a man, Joe Cip was also a very good friend of Don's. And Don's personal engineer, and the man who built his studio in his house, a guy named George Whittam. The three of these guys decided, wouldn't it be a cool way to honor Don and his legacy by starting this Voice-Over Lab, and actually building this state-of-the-art studio down here at SAG/AFTRA headquarters in Hollywood to be a place that any union member can come, and for free, get workshops in voiceover, build demos, use them for sessions for a small fee if they need to hook up with a client across country via ISDN, you know that kind of thing. And even open it up to non-members for a small fee. Wouldn't it be a great way to honor Don, and his way of wanting so much to give back, because that's what he was all about. He recognized where he came from, and wanted very much to give back. So they came up with this idea of building this thing, came to a number of us who were very involved in the voice-over world and who knew Don, because I knew Don from the years that I spent at NBC doing comedy, he was there for many years doing drama. Doing the drama stuff. So we'd often run each to each other down there and chat. So we got the ball rolling with this thing, and they asked a number of us to be on the advisory board for this, so I'm privileged to be a part of that. And it's this wonderful organization that is up and running. It's been up and running for three or four years now, where actors can... there are on-going workshops down there, and union actors can sign up for these workshops free of charge, and find out about this whole, to some people, mysterious world of voice over, that's seemed to have exploded in the last bunch of years, in terms of interest, nationwide. Why there's such a huge interest in it, I'm not sure... I mean, I can't say that. I do understand because, like you, I was a huge fan of voices before I got into it. But I always thought I was a bit weird, and sort of a bit of a nerd, because I didn't know anybody else, like me, who was as into it, and the sound of voices and the magic that they can produce up here. I really didn't know anybody else that was it like I was. But come to find out...
VC: There's a whole lot of people!
TC: A whole lot of 'em out there. So yeah, that's what the Don LaFontaine Voice-Over Lab's about.
VC: It's a great facility.
TC: And you got a chance to see it the other night, tour it for the first time?
VC: I did. It's beautiful. I'm glad that resource is out there. And I hear there's a New York one that they're working on?
TC: Yeah, they just approved plans to build one in New York City. Not sure what they're going to call that one yet. It'll be interesting... it's going to be fun to see what they end up naming that one, and who they choose to honor by naming it after. I assuming they're going to name it after a person. So yeah, it's branching out on the east coast now, and who knows where it could go from there? I mean, maybe one in Miami, one in Dallas, one in Minneapolis, one in Cleveland! Who knows? The possibilities are endless.
VC: Well thank you so much for your time today. Such a pleasure.
TC: My pleasure, my privilege, and you've been an absolute delight to spend some time with.
VC: Thank you so much. Bye, guys!
TC: Thank you!