Pitt grad voices Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck on Cartoon Network
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"What's up, yinz guys?" doesn't replace "What's up, doc?" as Bugs Bunny's catchphrase but it easily could as part-time Pittsburgher Jeff Bergman gives voice to Bugs, Daffy Duck and other classic Warner Bros. characters in a new animated series, "The Looney Tunes Show" (8 p.m. Tuesday, Cartoon Network).
The new program marks an attempt by Warner Bros. to update its classic characters with a more contemporary look, sound and setting.
It's not Mr. Bergman's first time giving voice to Bugs and company. He voiced them in the early '90s when the characters made appearances on "Tiny Toon Adventures." And his history as a voice actor goes back even further to when he was a student at the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1980s.
A Philadelphia native, Mr. Bergman studied theater at Pitt and got involved with a student-run radio station.
"I thought it would be very cool to get involved in doing radio production as it relates to making commercials and doing voices for the ads," he said in a phone interview last week from Los Angeles, where he arrived earlier in the day after a 12-day stint in Pittsburgh.
His interest in radio led to an internship at KQV and WDVE.
"That was the coolest thing," he said. "I could work at the radio station and learn how to edit production and play with reel-to-reels. I got to meet Steve Conti, who was a terrific engineer for KQV and WDVE at the time, and he made my first demo reel."
KDKA-TV's "Evening Magazine" did a report on Mr. Bergman's voice work and that story ended up airing on "Evening Magazine" broadcasts in other cities across the country. He used that report to land representation at the William Morris Agency after graduating from Pitt.
That graduation might not have happened if not for the advice of Mel Blanc, the original voice of Bugs Bunny.
"He was doing one of those lectures at David Lawrence Hall and I found out he was staying at what's now the Wyndham Hotel," Mr. Bergman said. "I saw his lecture and thought it was terrific and then later that night I knocked on his door at the hotel.
"I don't know what gave me the courage to do that," he continued. "Thinking about it now, it's such an absurd thing to do."
Mr. Bergman said Mr. Blanc opened the door clad in a bathrobe and invited the college student in.
"We talked and he asked me to do some voices," Mr. Bergman recalled. "I didn't want to stay in school. I wanted to get out and perform, but he said, 'Get your degree, stay in school and you'll do fine.' That was a big turning point for me."
Eight years later, Mr. Blanc died on Mr. Bergman's birthday.
"There's some unusual synchronicity, you could say," Mr. Bergman said. And it doesn't end there.
For "Tiny Toon Adventures," Mr. Bergman picked up where Mr. Blanc left off, giving voice to Bugs, Daffy and other Warner Bros. favorites.
"I was the original successor to Mel Blanc but I was only doing the voices for a couple of years," he said. "I was not in a position to move to Los Angeles. It just was not in the cards at that time in 1991. Then 20 years went by and a lot of other capable guys did the [Warner Bros. character] voices, but there weren't a lot of things with the characters -- a few high-profile projects I was not involved in -- until the casting of this [new] show."
In the late 1990s, Mr. Bergman worked on-camera in the AMC comedy-drama "Remember WENN," which was set at a Pittsburgh radio station just before World War II. He played a radio station intern, not unlike his real-life role at KQV and WDVE.
"Here I was, an intern at these really great radio stations in Pittsburgh and years later I have a part as an intern at a Pittsburgh radio station in 1939," he said. "I must have had six callbacks and every time they had me doing more voices."
The show was canceled after its fourth season, just before Mr. Bergman's character was planned to have a more prominent role.
But he kept busy through the years, providing voices for commercials (Mr. Bergman is the voice of the Pennsylvania Lottery's Gus, "the second most famous groundhog in Pennsylvania," featured in state lottery commercials), kids cartoons ("Disney's Doug") and prime-time shows ("Family Guy," "The Cleveland Show").
Mr. Bergman, 50, spent many years commuting among Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia before moving back to Pittsburgh in 2000 to be near his sons, who grew up with Mr. Bergman's ex-wife in McCandless, where Mr. Bergman maintains a part-time residence when he's not in Los Angeles. One son now attends Mr. Bergman's alma mater with his second son planning to enroll in Pitt this fall.
"In 2008 I decided it would be a good idea to come out to Los Angeles and make my career here, but I still spend time every month in Pittsburgh," Mr. Bergman said. "It's a family town and a great place to raise your kids, and I think the boys are the better for it."
Mr. Bergman said it was intimidating to give voice to Bugs and Daffy when he did it 20 years ago on "Tiny Toons" but he said it's less so for "The Looney Tunes Show."
"It is very different because they are putting these characters in situations that are so contemporary," he said. "It's almost like a continuation with new scenarios."
Sam Register, executive vice president of Warner Bros. Animation, said Mr. Bergman was hired because of his willingness to be adaptable with the character voices.
"Different guys have played the characters, and they know this version of Bugs or this version of Daffy and we're doing something a little new," Mr. Register said following a Warner Bros. Animation press conference last July in Burbank, Calif. "Jeff was coming in saying, 'I'll be open to whatever Bugs and Daffy need to be,' and since we changed it a little for the show, we needed an actor to be versatile."
Mr. Bergman said there are "huge differences" between the old "Looney Tunes" and the new show, including the sound.
"In the 1940s and '50s, every movement, every footstep, had some sort of musical accent for the characters," he said. "There's no enormous musical score like that."
He described the dialogue as more conversational and sitcom-like. but he said the characters will be recognizable to Warner Bros. animation aficionados.
"Bugs and Daffy, their core characteristics are very much the same," Mr. Bergman said. "If anything, there's more depth to their personalities.
"For me, the most fun thing was coming into this and having some tailwind from the historical pedigree. We have great references to work from," he said, "as opposed to 'Family Guy' or any new show where you start out and hopefully find the characters. We had a running start even though we wanted to make something for this generation. The writers are young and have sitcom writing experience -- some are from [the comedy troupe] The Groundlings. They made this for this time, and the references are contemporary as they were in 1950 or 1945. Daffy is still a faker and a quitter and a baby, so those core characteristics are the same, but their emotional palettes have expanded a lot."
First Published May 1, 2011 12:00 am