By: Jessica Nakamoto –
Generating over 40+ million views on YouTube nearly 11 years ago, with viral clips such as “The Christmas Tree” and “My Son is Gay”, it wasn’t long before actor and comedian, John Roberts made the impressive jump from one of social media’s first stars to America’s (animated) sweetheart.
Now, most recognizable as the voice behind beloved matriarch, Linda Belcher, of the Emmy-award-winning comedy, Bob’s Burgers, Roberts’ flamboyant personality and charming charisma have effectively lit up screens across the US for 9 impressive seasons of over-the-top “Belcher” humor and earned him his very own Emmy nomination for “Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance”.
Thus, when it comes to Roberts’ love for music, it’s no surprise that his on-stage personality is just as lively and vibrant as his animated one.
Taking to the studio, Roberts’ first solo EP, Looking, is a flashy dance floor party that oozes electronic beats, retro tracksuits, and multi-colored neon lights.
However, before this dance party lands on streaming platforms on July 26th and Bob’s Burger skicks off their 10thseason, we had the pleasure of speaking with John about his character Linda, new music, his longtime friendship with Blondie, and more!
To start, I should probably wish Linda a happy, belated birthday!
Oh yeah, I know! (laughs) She’s getting up there! (jokes) But Linda doesn’t age, that’s the nice thing!
(laughs) That’s true! But the show does have a great history! I know that Bob’s Burgers just wrapped up its 9th season and has been renewed for a 10th. How do you think Linda, has evolved as a character throughout the years?
Well, I think she’s actually evolved with the writing of the show. It’s neat because the fans kind of dictate that in a way. Also, we’re cutting in deeper to her character over the years and learning more about her…that she likes to poop at a hotel! (laughs)
She loves wine, and she loves animals and there are all these details and intimacies that come out about Linda. It’s been nice to find these things out.
It’s like you’re giving her a relatable, human sense.
I heard Linda is based on your own mother, Marge. When you’re going into the studio, do you ever stop and think, “what would my mom do?” or warm up your voice?
Yes! I imagine how she would sound or say a certain word, for sure.
I try to do a vocal warm up as well. It especially helps if there’s a song and I practice it. Doing a vocal warm up singing in Linda’s voice can be a little challenging! (laughs)
If I need to work on singing that day, I’ve got to find the right voice. Especially if they write a lot of high parts for me to do as Linda. But it’s fun! It always comes out as Linda would sing.
I heard you guys record episodes together, all in the same studio. I was curious, why together as opposed to individuals?
Well, Loren [Bouchard, the creator of Bob’s Burgers] likes us to be together because we all love the show and we love to improvise! This way, we add to what’s already a great script.
Special moments happen when we’re together, kind of like stand-up comics. We’ve all been doing comedy for a long time, so it’s a very friendly, familiar, environment. I think that’s when the good comedy comes out. And of course, Loren loves that!
This must generate some incredible laughs in the studio!
Yeah, we laugh a lot! It’s a great way to earn money and also spread love too! It’s contagious in a way, and the laughter is hopefully appreciated.
Does your mentality shift any when you’re voice acting for TV versus for the big screen?
Oh no it’s still Linda. If I were to book an animated movie, it might be a different way of working compared to Bob’s, but I don’t really audition for other stuff. I’m probably not going to be doing that. I just love being Linda and that’s enough for me.
(jokes) I wouldn’t want to “poo-poo” anything, but the show is great and it seems like it’s not slowing down for a while.
I’m glad to hear! Another thing I was curious about was, as a voice actor, do you think that there’s any misconceptions or neat benefits to the job that people might not be aware of?
As far as misconceptions…one would be that we record the vocals to the visuals. But we actually do that stuff before. That’s actually where a lot of the improv happens.
The benefit is never having to learn your lines! (jokes) And, not being in a trailer all day and shooting for twelve hours! It’s very quick and painless. It’s probably the best job I’ll ever have!
I’m sure many people recognize you as the voice behind Linda, but what they may not know is that you’ve also done a lot in the music world, even throwing it back to Opti-Grab!
Yeah! Opti-Grab was early aughts.In the beginning of the 90’s, I wasn’t doing much after I graduated from acting school. I was just playing around with music in my apartment on the Lower East Side. There wasn’t really a gay comedian mainstream kind of thing. No one was really out at that time and I didn’t feel I had a place there. I wasn’t into auditioning as well. So, music to me, seemed a safe place to express what was happening.
I was also very introverted. I would just sample beats and learn how to play stuff. But it was all good practice for learning how to work with gear, microphones, and being comfortable with headphones on. Writing too. So, when Opti-Grab came around, in the early aughts and when you had to sample a beat or loop something in addition to write, it all came in handy.
That’s when things really started to happen. Opti-Grab was more of a band that I made with my friends. It was very tongue-in-cheek and kind of goofy. Probably goofier than I wanted it to be! (laughs) But everyone seemed to like it. We had a really good time. And there are some fun songs that people still really like. At the end of the day, you just want people to enjoy it. But we had some good success with it as well.
You said that you were a bit introverted in the beginning. What drew you into the spotlight or drove you to put yourself out there?
I think it started in Junior High and High School. I started to really obsess over comedy and stand-up comedy. Especially Pee-wee Herman, Ed Grimley-Martin Short’s character on Saturday Night Live, and SCTV. I started to do stand-up comedy in the city probably around 15 or so and I was very ambitious. Then, I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. They had a “no-performance” rule and wouldn’t let us perform, which I thought was really stupid.
It kind of knocked the wind out of my sails! Then, right after that, I started to deal with my sexuality. So, crazy times! (laughs) But performing at a young age and getting on stage was amazing. I have this picture of me doing Pee-wee Herman in my High School talent show, which was kind of like a big moment for me because I was a Freshman and pretty awkward. It really was a good moment where I realized I could get up in front of a lot of people and have that connection. It was something to feel good about!
And now you’re here, right!
Yeah! (laughs) It all lead to this place!
Diving back into your music a little, I know you have a new EP coming out. That has to be exciting! How do you think your sound has evolved since those beginning days?
It’s very exciting! What’s nice is, I worked with a producer on all the new stuff. I definitely have a big hand in writing the lyrics, but Big Black Delta [Jonathan Bates], is an incredible artist. He produced this EP. So, it definitely sounds much more in-line with what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s all about meeting the right person to bring it out, make it happen, and get it done.
We have a great connection together and we’re very productive! I think the EP sounds like a radical homo, which is what got me into music in the first place. Having a voice to express what’s happening in the world right now and my experience as a human being is what I love about music.
It’s the personal space people can have with it. They can take the music into their space and have some type of relationship with it outside of me. This is the type of music that I’m making now. Whereas before, it was a little goofy, or just unfinished, really! (laughs) So, this feels mature and is something I’m proud to perform, tour with, and keep going.
I just got a chance to listen to the EP, Looking, and was really struck by the lyrics and the sincerity. The visuals and the music video, were over-the-top fun, but the message is great!
The first one’s very 80’s! (laughs) It’s like this old show on New York Cable called The Robin Byrd Show. It’s very much celebrating sexuality and kind of shoving it in people’s faces a little bit. But it’s also just a good dance floor track that’s about getting laid, or not getting laid! (laughs) The other stuff is more introverted. “Lonely Boys” is definitely about being a lonely person but still obsessed with the world. “Dirty Little Secrets” is just a fun kind of wedding song about people going out and getting their freak on during weekends, or just being freaks and hiding that part of themselves.
For some of the other things I’m writing, I’m working with Babydaddy from Scissor Sisters and Junior Sanchez. It’s more introverted and emo, but always with a good beat. It’s work that celebrates life or the LGBTQ movement’s progress, puts visuals to it, and we perform it live.
I recently watched the music video, and from the track suits to the neon signs to the push-button phone, it looked like a lot of fun to make! Do you have a favorite memory from producing the video or from the EP overall?
Overall, my favorite thing is to write music. So, when I’m in the studio and the song’s coming out, that’s really my favorite! Producing a video is kind of a nightmare and I’m never going to do it again! (laughs) But, I had a great time working with all the talent from Ned Stresen-Reuter, the director, Jonte, the choreographer, the two dancers, Nicole and Natalie, and in the art department Richard Dibella and his whole team of people! We only had one day to shoot it and not too much time to rehearse the dancing, but it all came out really fun and it serves the purpose of the song.
So, I think for the next one, it’s going to be really exciting to work with the producer and take it to the next level. That’s part of the fun. You have to start somewhere and grow it into something that gets from your vision and what you see in your head, out into the world. That’s always a challenge but I’m really excited about it.
Are you planning a tour to accompany the release of the EP, or anything of that sort?
Yeah! I have a performance in LA at School Night. KCRW sponsors it at Bardot. It’s on Monday July 15th. I’ll be singing all the songs from the EP and one or two of the new songs from my next EP. Then, I’ll definitely be back in Brooklyn in the fall or New York City in November. I’ll start putting together the visuals and set design for that now. So, that’s really neat too!
I have so many songs that I’ve been writing, so it’s nice to be ahead of the curve a little bit and plotting my next stuff! I have over an hour’s worth of material now. These producers are great and I’m definitely growing and it’s because of these guys. It’s a challenge in a lot of ways but it’s exciting!
You’re definitely no stranger to working with creative, talented people! I read Opti-Grab opened for Blondie and you were featured on “Love Level” a couple years back. Given your friendship with Debbie Harry, has she heard your EP yet or given you any music tips?
Yeah! She’s really helpful, super supportive, and probably also a big part of why I didn’t let the dream die when it comes to music. She loves the EP and thinks it’s sexy and fun! I love to talk to her about this kind of stuff. (jokes) Not too much, because she’s probably like, shut the fuck up! (laughs) She’s always really positive and always so supportive and I hope I get to do something else with her again because it was really incredible to work with her.
Do you think that she would ever jump on a Bob’s Burgers episode?
I would love that! But, it’s Loren’s call there. I’m sure Debbie would be down for it, but we’d have to see because Loren would say, “it has to be appropriate for the episode”. But that would be awesome!
To wrap up, I have a few fun, fill-in-the-blank questions. Would you like to give it a shot?
Something I can’t wait to do this summer is…
Definitely swim in the ocean.
If I could travel anywhere, I would visit…
Right now, I’m going to say Berlin.
One song I can’t stop listening to would have to be…
“Ain’t Nobody” by Chaka Kahn.
Last one! My go to hamburger or veggie burger order is…
The Impossible Burger, hold the cheese!