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NOCC: John Ratzenberger - Up Close and Personal

Company: Wizard World
Product: New Orleans Comic Con 2014

For the uninitiated, allow me to paint a picture. You're excited and giddy as you walk into a large, yet fairly stark, rectangular room. You find a seat as close to the front as you can, then sit and fidget anxiously as you wait to see a panel with that guy that played your favorite character from that movie - or, even better - multiple movies. Perhaps your favorite cartoon voice or the artist or writer of your favorite comic book. In front of the large array of seats stands a raised stage with a simple table with a few chairs on the other side, where the honored guests and panel members will sit, facing the audience and fielding the questions you've had burning in you for quite some time. If you, personally, actually do have a question you're dying to have answered (and you can work up the courage to actually ask the question), you know that you should work your way to the microphone in the aisle on the left hand side, where a line has already begun forming to do just that. When it's your turn, you'll step up to the microphone, introduce yourself, ask your question and then, if you're not too overcome with the thrill of talking to your favorite celebrity, attempt to make it back to your seat.

That's how this goes, people. So, what happened during the first part of John Ratzenberger's Q&A section was as unexpected as it was adorable.

When John Ratzenberger came up to the stage, he found that there were two available chairs - one in the center of the table and one on the far left of the table (as viewed by the audience); the seat on the far right was occupied by his publicist, Derek Maki. Not knowing which chair to sit in, Derek suggested he sit in whichever chair he preferred, as they both had microphones. John sat in the far left chair, then asked Derek, "Who can we get to sit here?" ...and so it began.

The first person in line to ask Ratzenberger a question was a cute little boy, so Derek invited him to sit in that chair. He came up on stage, shook John's hand, asked his question and then, pointed out that the next child in line was his brother and invited him with a "Come on Down" that indicated the child had seen "The Price is Right" more than a few times. Next was another small boy who, when asked his name, stated it, then immediately tromped up onto the stage to ask his question. (You see, they're young... they don't know how it works.) Derek then invited the next little boy at the mic to come up on stage. Then, there was a girl dressed as a zombie version of Little Red Riding Hood who prefaced her question by asking if she could come up on stage to ask her question. As Derek put it, "We'd better let her."

Another interesting thing that occurs when so many of your adoring fans are so young is that they, evidently, ignore any banter that goes on before they get their turn to ask their question. The result is that, instead of that one person who asks a question that was asked earlier and gets berated a bit over it, most of the questions that were asked fell into the category of "Why did you do the voices of the Pixar characters" or "What was your favorite/ hardest/ funniest character to voice?" (Even if it may have sounded like "Why did you, um, voice the Pixaw Chawactaws?") It was fun, informative and cute, in a you-sorta-had-to-be-there way, but, for those of you who weren't there, read on...

Q: Which Pixar character was the hardest to play?

Ratzenberger: I don't really - I - the ones with the accents, would not - I wouldn't say they were harder - but, you know, an accent like Mustafa in Ratatouille (John does a quick line as Mustafa), Gordon from Brave (John does a quick line as Gordon) that, uh, Scotsman... but I love what I do. I just look at the characters...

[He then turned to the boy that asked him the question and inquired if he was Italian. When he replied that he was, John began talking to him in Italian, but the boy couldn't speak it.]

...Kids these days.

Q: How did you start playing the voices of Pixar characters?
Ratzenberger: It was simply a phone call. Pixar called and said, "Do you want to do the voice of a piggy bank" and I said,


I wish it were more complicated and adventuresome than that, but that's exactly what happened. And I've been doing that now for eighteen years.

Derek: So John, I guess if Disney calls and says, "Do you want to be a piggy bank?" you pretty much just say yes; what if they had called and said, "Do you want to be a tree?" Would that have been the same answer?
Ratzenberger: "Of course."
Q: Are you gonna make an Incredibles 2?
Ratzenberger: I think they're working on it. I don't know for sure, but I do believe there's rumors.
Q: ...and are you going to have a big part?
Ratzenberger: I'll be The Underminer! (Said in the voice of The Underminer, from the Incredibles videogame)
Q:What character was the funnest to portray?
Ratzenberger: Fun? P.T. Flea. Because P.T. Flea... it always makes me laugh when people like P.T. Flea in real life, they - they're either asleep or they're angry. When you meet people like that, that are angry all the time, I just find that funny. Cause it's so sad, then I think, "what a waste of life," cause they're just consistently angry, so all you can do is laugh and hope for them the best in life. That's why I do enjoy playing him.
Zombie Little Red Riding Hood: I was wondering what was your favorite character to play and if you're going to take your sign home.
Ratzenberger: (Immediately grabbed up his Name Sign, and plopped it in front of her) ...My favorite character in my career was when I played the um, the Zombie Little Red Riding Hood, and that was, um, that was a remake of this Laurel and Hardy film. Does anyone here actually know who Laurel and Hardy is? (Cheer from the audience) ...Great! Oh~ 'Cause, usually people in their thirties don't. But, uh... You say the favorite? At Pixar - or anywhere?
Zombie Little Red Riding Hood: Anywhere.
Ratzenberger: Oh, I enjoyed playing Major Derlin in the Empire Strikes Back.
Q: Why did you voice the Pixar characters?
Ratzenberger: They asked me. They said, "Would you voice a Pixar character?" I said, "You bet." I didn't hesitate - and that was back when no one knew what Pixar was. Nobody had ever heard of Pixar - not that that made any difference - but, um, I did it gladly and, um, for some reason they keep asking me back. So, um, I keep going back. They can't get rid of me.
Q: If you had to give up your job, what other job would you want?
Ratzenberger: If I had to give up my job as an actor? Well, before I became an actor, I was a carpenter and I still do woodwork and, uh, I really enjoy working with wood making things. But, uh, my dream job when I was a little boy, eight - nine years old, I wanted to be a tugboat captain. And that was... I just thought that would be the best thing in the world. 'Cause there's something very trustworthy about tugboats; you know - they're not gonna get you there fast, but they're gonna get you there.
Q: You've played Evil Dr. Porkchop and Dr. Porkchop. Which one was more fun?
Ratzenberger: Aren't they one and the same?
Q: No, they're totally different!
Ratzenberger: I haven't watched the movie. some time. Well evil Dr. - that even surprised me, in the beginning of Toy Story - is it three?
Q: [Quotes Mr. Evil Dr. Porkchop]
Ratzenberger: How many times have you seen it? Several dozens or so.
Q: I watch it pretty much every time it comes on.
Ratzenberger: You don't get any other channels.
Q: I like Pixar movies, personally.
Ratzenberger: It's because they have a high standard. ...The people that make them cut them with a passion, because they're also - the directors are always the people that wrote it - usually. And, so, they come in with a passion and the knowledge and it's easy for the actors, because you just do what the director tells you and it's all good, because they know every nuance, they know every comma and semicolon and every word and how it should modulate, so you just listen to what they say. That's why Pixar's Pixar.
Q: How is voiceover acting different from on-screen acting?
Ratzenberger: Well, on-screen acting, if you're being, uh, chased by a rabid dog, you're running. And, if you're doing voiceover, all that activity takes place in your head and you have to translate, so everything has to come out through your voice - the fact that you're running and scared and et cetera. But, the camera - the camera will catch that, so you have to look like you're scared and, you know, probably have to actually run, too, so it's less sweat doing animation, but you still have to convey the message, you still have to translate what the author's intent - but you only have your voice to use.
Q: I know I speak for a lot of us in our mid to upper twenties that we grew up with Toy Story...
Ratzenberger: ...and you did a heck of a job doing it.
Q: ...I'm curious, what do you remember from your childhood, a movie or tv show that just really stood out to you that made you go "that was fun"... What was your favorite thing growing up?
Ratzenberger: See, when I was a kid, um, all the televisions were run by steam; you had to shovel coal into them.
Q: You don't get to claim to be old until you're one hundred and four.
Ratzenberger: Oh, okay, No... it... it, Well, I'm saying that there was only three channels and the television was turned off at ten at night - I mean the networks turned it off.
Q: There's Howdy Doody, there's all sorts of... there was children's programming.
Ratzenberger: Um, well, according to my mom, I wouldn't go to bed until I saw John Cameron Swayze.
Q: I know the name, but it doesn't...
Ratzenberger: He was a newscaster. He would do things - and I don't know if it was him or his commercials, 'cause he'd do things like attach a Timex watch to the propeller of an outboard motor and says, "Takes a beatin' and keeps on tickin'."
Q: I have seen those. Those are cool.
Ratzenberger: Yeah, and um... but, no, also there's a generational... we didn't spend a lot of time indoors. It's, uh... if you were indoors, there was something wrong with you. It's like, come on, get out, go play! And what we didn't realize when we went out and played, you know, because we'd go to the dump and get spare parts and buildin' bicycles out of old parts of different bikes and climbin' trees and building treehouses and all that - we thought that we were playing, but we were actually learning. We didn't know that until later on, that we knew how to use tools and, you know, how to build things and problem solve. But, uh, just being indoors was, if you were indoors, again, something was wrong. But that's all changed, obviously, because you've got so many things to keep you indoors.
Q: You said earlier you started out in carpentry. How did you get into acting?
Ratzenberger: I went to London, England to visit for two weeks and ended up staying ten years there. And, uh, I worked as a carpenter quite a bit and I was building something in a theater, uh, in the lobby of the theater, I was building a new counter top for the box office and I was watching these people rehearse and they were terrible and I said to the guy who ran the theater, I said, "These people get paid for this?" He said, "Yeah! The whole thing, tour Europe and they get paid for that." I said, "That's crazy." So, I said, "I could do better with a sock puppet."

And I did.

That's the short version.

Q: How does it feel to play the pig in Toy Story?
Ratzenberger: Um, very satisfying, because piggy banks, as you know, are the place where you store money. Do you remember the line that Hammy had, "Hey, slow down! I'm carrying over six dollars in change, here." And so, I just get a kick outta Hammy. As a matter of fact, I had bacon this morning in honor of him. That's how much I like Hammy.
Q: Have you ever had one person at a Con that you've gone to that you're like, "I want to meet him so bad!"
Ratzenberger: I do that, but usually inventors. They're usually not people in show business, because I really love the concept and understand the importance of people who know how to invent things, like Steve Jobs. It was exciting to meet Steve Jobs.
Q: You got to meet him?
Ratzenberger: Oh, yeah. And, um, cause, uh, he um... put the money in - he's responsible for Pixar. So, if it wasn't for Steve Jobs, you wouldn't be asking me about any pig, that's for sure.
Q: Was that real beer that you were actually drinking on the set of Cheers?
Ratzenberger: No. No, 'cause we'd uh, we wouldn't be able to get through an episode. Ya know, every now and then, yeah... maybe... but no. No - on a regular basis - no.


Q: What was the funniest part you've played?

Ratzenberger: The funniest part I think I've ever played was a part you never would have heard of, but it was Captain Cretin. I was a superhero of my own, um, for a little piece that I wrote when I was touring through Europe. I had a cape - I was a superhero - and the cape was made out of a bath towel with safety pins here and I made eye glasses out of bottoms of Coke bottles - Coca-Cola bottles, so they were they were very thick - and he was so near-sighted, he could never find the window to fly out of, so, "This is a job for Captain Cretin" - whatever - and then I'd jump up off the chair and run right into the wall. I could never find the window. So, to me, I mean, that was... I kept laughing on-stage, myself, the notion was so silly.

[John was touring as half of the "Sal's Meat Market Theater Troupe" comedy duo. Image courtesy of Unfinished Histories (link below).]

Q: Did you actually run into the wall?
Ratzenberger: Yes - That's the kind of guy I am.
Q: Oh - did you hurt yourself?
Ratzenberger: Not doing that, but I have hurt myself.

-Geck0, GameVortex Communications
AKA Robert Perkins

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