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Why thesps can’t laugh off animated voice gigs

Work can be deceptively, if not disastrously, challenging

The pay can be nice, the scripts fun and inventive, and perhaps best of all there’s no makeup required. Animation voice work — which often includes some of the funniest performances of any TV season, even if Emmy doesn’t have a category to recognize them — is a sweet gig, even for the most prominent thesps.

There’s just one drawback: The work can be deceptively, if not disastrously, challenging.

“I’ve been casting and directing voices for about 20 years, and some people fall into it really easily,” says Andrea Romano, who now works on the Cartoon Network’s “The Boondocks.” “Other people really have to work at it. They don’t understand the energy and the technical aspects of using their voice only and not their physical being. They need that on-camera fix.”

So for those unaccustomed to bad news on the performance front, voice gigs can have surprising pitfalls. That’s why Romano values an actor like Kevin Michael Richardson, who lacks a big name but boasts more than 100 credits, often playing multiple characters in a single “Boondocks” episode.

“I don’t like to replace actors, period,” Romano says. “But replacing a celebrity … that’s really uncomfortable.” Fortunately for Romano, she had no such dilemma when Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson guested on “Boondocks” this past season.

“I don’t think we had to do more than two takes on anything,” Romano says. “If we did do more than two takes, it was just because we wanted to hear it again, not because he did anything wrong.”

Jackson also ad-libbed with success, according to Romano and series creator Aaron McGruder. In general, McGruder is pleased by how his guests surprise him.

“Mos Def came in and did (the character of) Gangstalicious,” McGruder says. “He just did something very different from what I expected, but it was just absolutely brilliant.”

With primetime animation quietly flowering, notable guest turns were by no means limited to “The Boondocks.” One performance that had people talking months later was “The Simpsons” appearance made by the man behind “The Office,” Ricky Gervais.

“It wasn’t just him showing up. He wrote it,” says critic Mark Dawidziak of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. “There seems to be a lot less of a hit-and-run aspect to that. He was there to play, he was there to execute his own vision of ‘The Simpsons,’ and he clearly was a ‘Simpsons’ fan, and it also clearly fit his sense of humor.”

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