“This is your new character from now on…”
Adventures In Odyssey: Episode 031- Family Vacation Part 1
Adventures in Odyssey: Episode 032- Family Vacation Part 2
It’s been reported that when I first was given the role that would become my greatest claim to fame that I was rather underwhelmed and irked by it.
This is true.
Upon 35 years of reflection, I realize the reasons for not being too excited were dependent on a number of factors.
My experience up to this point had been playing different characters every time- except for Bobby because clearly the writers room had depleted all boy character names in the first 20 episodes. Made sense to a 10 year old. And so, when I was given this new role, I wondered if I had messed up. Maybe I wasn’t good enough to play multiple roles like the adults who were my heroes and idols.
And this is a good time to talk about a facet of Voice Over work and Acting that is worth delineating.
I am not a Voice Over Artist.
I am an Actor that also does Voice Acting.
Good god, Dave. What’s the difference and why are you splitting hairs?
Because I respect the medium and my colleague’s skillsets.
Voice Over Artists are a subset of those in the Acting profession who have the specialized ability to manipulate their voice to serve a variety of character needs. A lot of these folks have super elastic vocal chords or extreme musical ability and can mimic their voices to overdub bad language in movies for tv debut or when ADR work is needed in film because the vocal tracks from the original actor were damaged and the actor has a clause stating “no ADR” (I have a theory that all the great mimics have perfect pitch and that mimicry has more to do with musical ability than acting ability) I am one of those Actors that should never overdub ADR. I have no musical or rhythmic ability and can’t even duplicate my own performances when played back through headphones.
I am the kind of Actor in Voice Over work where my greatest strength is… Acting.
That seems like such an obvious thing to say. Duh, everybody in VO work Acts, right? Wrong. Many of them are fantastic at bending their voices but the Acting they do is not that deep. Which is fine for 98% of VO work. But the unique thing about audio theater is it is an intensely personal form of Art for the audience. And audiences need a depth of performance in order to really dive into it and suspend disbelief and get swept away by the story, IMO. It’s very difficult to have that kind of emotional depth. Certainly for most 10 year old kids it is an elusive thing.
I could/can dependably, reliably, deliver an extremely delicate and vulnerable emotional performance at an incredibly young age. I don’t mean vulnerable in the sense of about to cry vulnerability– although I can do that, too– I mean vulnerability in the sense of emotional openness. Where the audience can emotionally buy-in to the performance.
AND THERE IS A REASON WHY I’M UNIQUELY GOOD AT THIS THAT WE WILL LEARN ABOUT LATER.
Many of the greatest Voice Over Artists don’t do this part as well. This is not me taking shots at anyone… I’m mainly trying to explain that in this realm of the Acting Industry there are different skillsets and abilities. Some of the all time greats can manipulate their voices to amazing degrees but the performance will be a bit surface level. Most audiences will not know the difference, btw.
And so it was known to me that I had limitations. At home I would try to manipulate my voice the way the adults did, and of course I still sounded like a pre-pubescent 8 year old girl. I didn’t really appreciate the things I was good at because nobody ever told me what I was good at or not. Usually my understanding of this was by process of information elimination: Ok… they’re giving this note to that kid regularly and I don’t get that note. Therefore, I must be doing that thing right. But, they keep giving me this note, therefore, I must be struggling with this concept. Etc.
And so, the information that I was being given “only one character from here on out”… I admit it hit me in a way where I thought it was a punishment rather than a gift.
ISN’T IT INTERESTING HOW MUCH I WAS ALWAYS WORRIED ABOUT BEING PUNISHED? Any other Effin’ Evangie Kidz
™ have that as an ever-present reality and worry in their day-to-day lives? Just me?
Another factor that affected my first experience with this character is that I was never really given any kind of character description or understanding of who the character was or what the character history or backstory is… all those helpful things that give an actor some idea of where to start their character work.
We always had to do that on the fly.
I remember being in session once with Katie and she had just come from a project where she was going to be playing a major character on a new animated Disney show called Darkwing Duck (those godless Hollywood monsters creating propaganda to turn kids into… ducks. The Horror.). And she had a sheet with drawings of the character. I could tell there were ways that Actors received information about characters. Bits and pieces of information. I never really had that ever.
Not even like a paragraph of character info.
And so I don’t recall (perhaps my memory has failed me here) any information about Jimmy. Just… here’s the character… go.
I didn’t know what made him different than any of the other characters I had played.
At some point in that first year, an internal decision was made to separate the child actors from the adults. I got the feeling that it was due to the nature of some of the kids being non-professional and difficult for the adults to work with. I could sense the adult’s annoyance at times. This is 35 years ago, long before people knew about ADHD and sometimes kids would have a hard time focusing, or be disruptive… or stumble in the work too much. And a session would drag or the takes would get ruined.
Most of those kids were total novices– I mean, they were scrambling to find non-union kids. Employee’s kids were used. They even auditioned my brothers hoping lightning would strike twice in the same family!
And it was super frustrating to have 4-6 people in a studio together and a scene keeps getting scrapped because a kid can’t focus or is struggling taking direction. It makes a session go extra long when there’s traffic for the adults who all work and live in Burbank and Hollywood and the Valley to get home from Pomona.
I think that was one of the reasons.
Another reason was that due to my physical proximity to the Pomona facility, I was really easy to schedule to come in any day of the week.
At some point, I began recording more and more… alone. Isolated.
I was good at this. I had a vivid imagination and could very comfortably play the part with nobody else in the room. I could predict their performance and respond accordingly. Helps to have great scripts, for sure. But it also helps to have an insane imagination where it doesn’t matter if anyone is there or not. I can still bring the goods. Listen to that old episode… does it seem like the actor playing Jimmy is in a room by himself? Again… I was 10.
And this was one of those sessions.
So, it didn’t occur to me that a major part of this character was that this character CAME WITH A BUILT-IN SUPPORTING CAST.
Because I didn’t meet any of them that day. It was me by myself.
All I knew was the kid seemed to like to write his name and his name seemed to matter to him:
“This is the journal of Jimmy Barclay.”
Do you want to see something adorable?
Well, I think it’s adorable. In a kinda cringy way.
Remember when I showed you all my first ever tape?
GET TO THE POINT DAVE.
Alright… did anyone notice that I wasn’t IN that episode?
I was in Episode 002.
So, why wasn’t I showing the reverse side with my episode on it?
BECAUSE SOME ASSHOLE DEFACED IT.
That is the attempt of a 10-11 year old untrained Actor taking information from a script and trying to get into the headspace of a character. I told you I took this work seriously.
Remember reading about Heath Ledger locking himself in a hotel room for weeks and creating this notebook full of his character work to play the Joker?
This is a 10 year-old kid attempting to do that 20 years earlier. I didn’t know how else to prepare for the character. Nobody taught me how to have a regular character as an Actor. And I really wanted to create something good. And so… I tried to do things with what little knowledge and process I had. I had to kind of invent my own process. Try to cobble together a vivid fantasy life for the character. And all I’ve got to go on is this script I recorded earlier where I didn’t even have time to try to build a character. What can I learn about this character from the information in the script?
CLEARLY HE LIKED WRITING HIS NAME ON THINGS.
I’ll bet he’s a kid who writes his name on his baseball glove. His baseball cap. His bicycle. His underwear.
And since I’ll probably get in trouble writing the name of this character on things I own that my parents got me, what can I practice on that no one will mind?
I would listen to my episodes endlessly. Fascinated by what performances worked and jokes held up and flow of delivery and editing choices.
No joke, I studied the episodes after I would get them. And so, I was listening to my tapes and decided that Jimmy was the kind of kid that would write his name on his tapes, right?
I came home from that first session as Jimmy and listened to my tapes of other characters (had a few of them by that point) and attempted my first character backstory and living history.
How few people on Earth have an original produced tape of episodes 001 and 002? And I was so desperate to be a good Actor that I ruined mine!! D’oh!
Years later my Acting Coach- who I studied with for a half decade- would get on me for being “too Methody” meaning The Method. I had no idea what The Method was (google it), but here is a kid naturally finding the process at a very young age.
So, that is the tape of Freddy, being vandalized by Jimmy… as 10 year old Dave Griffin is doing character prep for his new permanent character that he knows almost nothing about.
I TOLD YOU ACTORS WERE FUCKING WEIRD.
Take a moment to consider this point:
Think of alllllllll the child actors you’ve ever watched or listened to…
in the history of recorded entertainment going back over a Century.
“How many child actors ever had a character created… for them?”
In the full history of recorded Media… at the highest levels…
….how many child Actors ever ….
had a character created….
especially for them?
This is the kind of thing that coulda shoulda woulda made an agent or manager sit the fuck up immediately and take notice.
But since I didn’t have an agent…
and my parents were out in the parking lot and had no idea what was happening in the studio…
…nobody paid a lick of attention.
I recently watched an interview with Gary Shandling talking about how he had 3 episodes in production as a writer before he had ever tried to sign with an agent.
And the first agent he called, when he heard that Gary already had 3 episodes in production flipped out, “You don’t have an agent?!?”
And he signed him immediately.
If I had people looking out for the health of my career…
this would have been that moment.
It SHOULD have been that moment.
It is disgraceful that this did not happen.
….an unsupervised 10 year old kid….
….was given a personally crafted character….
….that Focus on the Family would use for YEARS….
….with no one in his life the wiser… or understanding the magnitude.
Sound like conspiracy theory mumbo jumbo?
And oh yeah… THEY’RE BUILDING A FAMILY OF CHARACTERS AROUND ME.
And it didn’t occur to me then– hell, it wouldn’t occur to me for another 20 years– that an organization called Focus on the FAMILY had just created a fictitious FAMILY that would be featured as a parallel storyline within the world of Adventures in Odyssey.
This FAMILY would take Jimmy away from the Whit’s End-centric storytelling and create a FAMILY sitcom within the larger framework of the show. Yes, Jimmy would still engage with Whit and go to Whit’s End, but many more of the stories would revolve around FAMILY issues.
*For those reading who have never listened to the show none of this will make any sense so let me give a quick rundown. The show is centered around this old guy named Mr Whitaker. Mr Whitaker runs a soda shoppe for kids called… Whit’s End. Most of the show revolves around Whit and his 2 employees Connie and Eugene. And so most episodes are about kids in the town of Odyssey coming to Whit’s End to be given some biblical advice about how to live their lives. What was created for me was a parallel concept that hadn’t existed prior. To create a FAMILY SITCOM within the framework of Adventures in Odyssey hadn’t been done before. Again, we’re only effectively 30 episodes into this show, but it was a unique facet. And then once my family would be kicked out of Odyssey they would replicate this concept every decade or so and bring on a new family.
BUT IT STARTED HERE.
I remember… because I was there.
But, what I didn’t realize is that I had been made into the prototypical poster child of the White Evangelical FAMILY that Focus on the FAMILY was trying to champion in their work.
And, of course, nobody bothered to point that out to me or any of the adults in my life.
It’s a question that’s haunted me all my life in various moments.
Had the production team been looking for a kid to build a family around? If so, why was I chosen?
Did they create the idea of a family because of me? If so, then the entire cast was assembled around me. Right? Does that not tell us something about this kid?
Did we all just stumble into it? Hey let’s create a permanent part for that kid. What kind of part? Ya know… we need a family. And the kid is young and is well-behaved in the studio and has the chops… let’s put a family around that kid.
I could see this playing out in a variety of logistical ways.
If I had to guess… I think it’s the latter. I think they never imagined the show would be this successful. And when it hit, they went from and episode-to-episode seat-of-the-pants way of thinking to a larger conceptual process.
If I was in their shoes I could see that being the easiest explanation.
The show is doing well. This kid is good AF. Let’s give him a regular character. But to make the commitment to a full family… I must have better than just good.
And why did they choose me to play this part? I mean clearly the part was literally constructed for my strengths and against my weaknesses. They’ve declared as much in their behind-the-scenes info over the years.
But, they could have picked any other kid actor. Riiiiight?
Why… me, specifically?
In holding back the later parts of this story for the sake of chronology, it may seem strange for me to focus so much on this question. And so we will come back to this moment later.
But, something else to consider: I’ve never listened to the show. Never.
I have no idea where my performance level was compared to other kid Actors other than the ones I was working with in each episode. I have to think that there must have been something unique or special about what I could do that gave a Production Company with worldwide distribution capabilities the confidence that they could take this little kid and risk building a larger product with him at the center.
Does that seem too arrogant to assume?
I was cheap.
I was mostly unwatched by adults.
I had parents that were Industry naive AF.
My folks trusted Focus on the Family, “They’re christian, right? That means they’re good and noble, right?”
And I was really, really good at this. Like… astonishingly good at this.
And maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe when they told me “this will be your new character from now on”… maybe they were only thinking of using me a few more times, right? RIGHT?!?
They couldn’t possibly have looked at this 10 year old phenom and thought, “we can get years of content outta this kid before his voice changes and it costs us almost nothing”.
That would be cynical exploitation of children, right?
And pro-LIFE christians don’t do cynical exploitation of children, right?
Think carefully how you answer. Baby Jesus is watching and taking notes.
These two words make up a significant portion of my psyche and my early life.
Jimmy lives in my head rent free.
Til the day I die.
Remember how I described in the last post how some characters stay with me? This one stayed a loooooooong time.
And from here on out, we’re gonna travel down the rabbit hole of Being Jimmy.
The Good. The Bad. The Confusing. The Strange. The Bliss. The Tears. The Lows. The Heights.
It’s a complicated relationship that an Actor has to the character he created.
Or was created for him. Make no mistake– I believe Jimmy was created for me and no one else.
Had I never existed, Jimmy wouldn’t exist.
I believe the historical record confirms that.
And that would put me in another, rather unique spot where I would struggle to find peers and actors who had ever experienced anything similar.
But, that day… recording by myself… I could never have imagined the Adventure that would unfold and the effect it would have on my life, for the rest of my life.
30 episodes in… I’ve recorded 1/3 of them.
Dave. Meet Jimmy.
Jimmy. Meet World.