lauren stern gets wizardly with Randy Pearlstein from Comedy Central’s Ugly Americans …
Ugly Americans which airs every Wednesday on Comedy Central, is an animated series about an alternate version of New York City inhabited by monsters and abnormal creatures. After watching it for the first time, I realized this isn’t just another animated series. What makes this show so great is that it mocks and shines light on problems in our current culture and the personas of public figures in our society. The show really makes you look at yourself and the world around you with a whole new perspective.
What also drew me into the show was Randy Pearlstein, the voice behind Leonard, the show’s 600-year-old wizard and a former professor of mine from Rutgers University. I first met Randy last spring when I signed up to take his screenwriting class. On the first day of class, I didn’t really know what I was in for or how difficult it would be. I will never forget the first day of class when he walked in and started talking. Until he mentioned grading, I thought he was one of my fellow classmates.
After the first class, I remember going onto IMDb to learn more about him and I discovered that he acted on Chapelle Show and a number of movies including Dead Man on Campus and Center Stage. It was so cool to think that I was being taught by a renown actor and comedian.
Looking back on Randy’s class now that’s over, I realized that class has taught me more than just Screenwriting; it has taught me skills I can and have used in my professional and everyday life. It was a real pleasure for me to catch up with Randy to talk about Ugly Americans, his character Leonard, and his career as both an actor and a professor.
Pop-Break: What made you decide to get involved with Ugly Americans?
Randy Pearlstein: Well, it wasn’t so much deciding to be involved in Ugly Americans, I auditioned. I knew Comedy Central was making a cartoon. I had worked on Chapelle Show up until I guess maybe a year or so before Ugly Americans, give or take. There was an audition, my manager called me and mentioned I could go for this cartoon. I’ve used to be an impressionist for about 10 years in the comedy clubs — I just did kind of a straight up impression act. I’ve done voices, I’ve done cartoons, I’ve done voiceovers before, so it was kind of perfect. When I went into read I just had to do a bunch of voices for the auditions. In the final call back, I was in the booth, they semi-randomly put us in groups of five, and I knew everybody in my group of five — so it made it easier and more fun. I’m always available to entertain America if you need me.
PB: I see Ugly Americans as Comedy Central’s best kept secret in a way. Just because the show isn’t like South Park. Everybody knows South Park. It’s kind of this underground comedy cartoon. How do you feel about it’s recognition? Do you feel that there’s a lot of people who watch it? Do you feel that it’s still new so it needs a little more time to grow to maybe a South Park status?
RP: We do have a fan base and we meet them when we go to Comicon; we’ve been there the past two years. You get e-mails every once in a while, which is kind of a neat thing. People dress up as our characters for Halloween and you see that on Facebook and stuff. But anytime you do anything, you first hope people like it and then you hope more people like it. So we want to put on the best show we can. We welcome everybody to this show. I think there’s different parts of the show that would appeal to many kinds of people. It’s pretty silly and wild as a comedy. It’s also got a nice heart, you know, a sitcom story to it. And in the animation, anybody who kind of likes the future, or werewolves, or just kinda cool animation in general, we definitely want more people to watch it. From what I understand on Netflix people watch it and it’s big in South America. So we’re pretty big in South America. You’ll see people tweeting about Ugly Americans from Latin America, Latin MTV. So we welcome everybody.
PB: I feel like it’s kind of like Futurama. Like a different kind of Futurama.
RP: I think we have similarities. It’s own universe. I’m not sure if we’re in the future, but it seems like it since it’s not our world and there’s robots and stuff, that it seems like it is a future world. Although there are things from 2012 in there too. Yeah, people love Futurama and I love Futurama, so I hope people jump on board with this. And I like the episodes from this season. They seem streamlined — [from] a lot of the jokes to our characters to us as performers to for the writers … and this happens even with classic shows, by season two or three people people start to get a stride and you start to see what the strong elements of the show are.
PB: So, lets talk about Leonard now. He’s this 600-year-old drunken wizard. Is there anything in particular or anyone in particular that inspired his voice to come about?
RP: Yes, absolutely there was. When auditioning for this show, either the first or second time, they showed us pictures of characters that were pre-drawn and how would you voice or your ideas for this character. And so I saw Leonard, I saw this old man, he was a wizard, and I am of the mind that older people are funnier than younger people. And one of my favorite comedians, older comedians, I was a active member of the Friar’s club for many years, and there’s a comedian I love called Dick Capri, that you can find on YouTube. He did a Comedy Central roast I think, maybe the Shatner roast or something. But a really funny Catskills comedian. I thought he would be kind of a good, his comedy cadence would be right. It’s strong, it’s opinionated, it’s lovable and so I kind of based him on Dick Capri and it’s kind of found a life of it’s own.
PB: So what are some cool, crazy, or noteworthy story lines for Leonard’s character coming up?
RP: There was one story line that got cut from [a previous] week’s episode which in theory can be used in the future and someone said online that there’s a rough animation to it as like a deleted scene. But it was one where Leonard, to make money starts a bus line, kind of like Kenny Kramer, the real Kramer in New York City has his own Cramer tour, where he drives a bus, he gives you pizza, and shows you Seinfeld places. Well, Leonard has Leonard Lines and takes you places in his bus for whatever reason. I tend to like the episodes when Leonard has, I mean it’s so ludicrous, has these entrepreneurial ideas. It’s been mentioned in the Harry Potter episode that he’s going to start a chicken place, he’s got his own toothpaste or something, and it seems silly because since he’s a wizard, he can make money appear I assume, just make it appear out of nowhere. Also, he can do his own job pretty easy. I just love that he likes to do new, fresh things. I guess he was a prostitute last week as well. Those seem to be my favorites, but I wanna see this Leonard Lines, it was really funny to do, maybe it will come in at a future date.
PB: I hope so, it sounds really funny.
RP: Thank you for riding Leonard Lines!
PB: So let’s talk about Lionel Chang, Leonard’s son. But is he going to appear in any other episodes? Are we going to see Lionel again?
RP: I don’t know. The rule of thumb, in dramatic writing of course, is as Chekhov said. If you see a gun in act one, someone gets shot in act three. So if the show continues for X amount of time, you figure, Leonard will either have another child, or Lionel will come back. I kind of hope he does. Cause he would have grown up a little bit. He seemed to be able to shoulder some responsibility.
And maybe he will finally become a wizard this time, maybe.
PB: How did we leave Lionel?
RP: He didn’t become a wizard.
PB: Did he die?
RP: No he didn’t die.
RP: As long as he didn’t die then he could come back.
PB: What part of Leonard’s character can you personally relate to?
RP: Well, I guess anytime you say lines, you are already relating to the character. But I relate to him in that he does have a desire it seems to make every situation easier. He likes to take the easy route. So kind of I understand that and I think that’s funny that someone takes the easy way out every time is sad or pathetic but also hilarious. He’s distracted by things that feel good. He seems very kinesthetic. He likes his booze, he likes ladies, he can be distracted by fun. He likes to take the easy way out because he wants to have fun and anyone could understand someone who wants to have fun. The few times we’ve seen his past life of the 600 years, it always looks harder, you know, life in the Elizabethan era was harder. It was harder to get food, it was harder to get around town, ya know, less awesome things. So, he seems happier now than during the flashbacks because it’s a beautiful world, it’s 2012 there’s a lot of awesome things for a gambling, drinking, sex addict. Yeah, so I think he’s having fun.
PB: Is Leonard or any character on the show reminiscent to someone you know?
RP: Yes, I think everybody’s had a nutty room mate — so [there's] Randall (voiced by Kurt Metzger) the room mate. We’ve all had these people in our lives, they’re in our families, you know you just want to go home and realize somebody’s a total wise guy. Everybody’s had a woman in her life like Callie (voiced by Natasha Leggero) who’s beautiful and sexy and has the devil in her to a certain extent. Her role is based on women like this. So yes, absolutely. If I was going to tell you that no woman every steered me wrong, it would be a lie. So everybody kind of does in their own way. Twayne is a lovable boss but he’s not as confident, so yeah everybody does but I think the person that I totally know a lot of are the room mates like Randall. I don’t know too many good-doers like Mark. I wish I did. Although Oberg is one of those guys in real life, Matt Oberg [who voices the character Mark Lilly]. This guy’s a salt of the Earth guy, so it’s easy for him to play.
PB: So let’s talk about your career. So which do you prefer doing more voice over work or on screen acting?
RP: To a certain extent I think of it all the same way because there’s a story. When somebody wrote it, as much as you can, you just want to be able to do it so that it’s as unfiltered and un-messed up as possible. You are to deliver to the audience in the best of fashion as possible — whether you’re on camera or off camera. If you’re writing or if I’m writing it’s ‘Here’s an idea, how can we get it to the audience as simple as possible.’ So I don’t compartmentalize it anymore as this kind of backing or this is that kind of backing. It becomes easier and more fun if it’s kind of a more a simple idea of like: We’re putting on a show, my job this week is to do this, my job next week is to do that.
I saw this great play that’s going on in a public theater called Gatz, and it’s The Great Gatsby, it’s eight hours, a guy reads the entire book. Doesn’t miss a word, the entire book is read out loud by this guy and there’s actors in it, it’s not artsy. It’s really fun. So it’s eight hours and by the end of this play, and it’s kind of a hit, everybody was just told this great story that was delivered from reading so effortlessly that then you can enjoy the book and the actors and nobody was smashing on the face with something that you weren’t on board with. It was just something that was direct and nice and warm and you can get into the dream state. It really doesn’t matter to me.
With this show, these other guys write the show in LA right, and so we get the script and I just think it’s like how can I get there, what they laughed at in LA, how can I get it to the audience in that same spirit. But it’s easier to be a voice-over actor. You don’t have to shower, you don’t have to shave, you can just roll in there. You don’t have to remember the lines, you’re reading the lines. I live a block from the studio so I have gone there sometimes last minute or whatever and you can just go and read it — there’s no preparation really necessary. The preparation is the voice you’ll be using, sometimes they’ll throw that on you and go: ‘By the way, you’re playing this cop, here come up with a cop voice now. Or you’re playing this accountant, here do this account.’
PB: You do more than one voice on the show besides Leonard right? Do you sometimes find it hard to juggle all of them or do you record them separately so you kind of know what voice you have to use for each character?
RP: I’ll do regularly: The Great Brain, The Robot, Leonard, The Man-Bird, and then maybe in each episode there’s one or two other voices I’ll do for characters in that episode. We’ll read them one at a time. And the more you’ve done a character and it’s reoccurring the easier it is not only for you to do it but easier for everyone else to recognize that is the voice from last time. Episode two or three it was like ‘Did I sound like this last time?’ because I’m still getting it; we’re all figuring this out. But now things have become pretty smooth. But when they spring a character on you last minute that’s where sometimes you get something beautiful or you’ve got to dig deep into like, what do I have in my bag of tricks that might work here? Should I do half-Ray Romano half-Paul Reiser? Would that be something? or you can be spontaneous and be like here’s a whole developed person.
PB: So, I also want to talk about you being a screenwriting professor at Rutgers. So I want to know what’s the craziest, most out there question, you were asked by a student about your career? Or maybe something a student said that you’ll always remember because they said something so out there.
RP: What usually happens, and I will try to answer that question in a second, but what usually happens is I will get e-mails in the middle of the semester that would be so long, that I don’t know how many pages the e-mail is, we’ll say it’s 20 pages. That’s “I’m stuck I’m writing this movie and there’s a three act form and I know you said dramas have three acts but all my favorite movies don’t fit into three acts, there’s no way. I don’t know what to do and dadada” Just total freak outs. And thank God they like me and trust me enough that they can openly say “I’m having a nervous breakdown, it’s all because I want to be a great screen writer, which I didn’t realize, I took this class for an easy class and now I actually want to write a movie and it doesn’t make sense and I’m freaking out.” Then the main question will be like “Does the main character really have to be the most important character in the movie?” Then I’ll type back, “Yes, the main character has to be the most important character in the movie, he can’t be somebody we never saw we just talked about the main character. That would be weird, maybe, but why bother you seem stressed out enough, why don’t you just write a normal movie? I’ll give you an A don’t worry about it.’ And then they’ll write me back the next day, “Look I’m sorry, it was a freak out, it was a rarity, I didn’t really mean to have a freak out, I’m sorry it was really late at night” and then they’ll write another 20 page apology over why they didn’t mean to freak out. That’s my most fun. Every semester a few kids will be totally panicked and write me a uber panic e-mail about being sorry that they panicked. People panic and I find it amusing because I say as you know in class you don’t have to worry about it and they believe me. But it does mean they care, so I do like it, I find it charming. I like that they trust me enough to panic. Of course I get e-mails from people about their dating problems. Those are always the most fun.
PB: Really? Do you really get e-mails about that?
RP: Yeah! It’s either why don’t you ask her out or those 20 pages sound like you are in a troubling relationship do yourself a favor and get out now. But as far as my career, I think the one thing is that people will always latch onto the most unusual thing in a story or script or anything. So, if you write something or perform in something, they’ll usually like or be affected by the most unusual thing and want to do that. So with horror movies I was in as a very young man, no matter how good they are or bad they are, they are what they are. But someone will go for the most unusual thing like something with cursing or a lot of blood and say “I really like that you did that, I want to do that with my life.” You really have to be like is that what you’re responding to or is there a school nurse you should speak to and if that’s not what you’re responding to maybe we can talk about what you are responding to that you just want to write about something fun or you imagine that its something fun to make or there was some suspense maybe. Sometimes people will say I really like this thing and you get disturbed and you have to find out what they’re responding to.
PB: What about Dave Chapelle though? Have people asked any weird questions about that?
RP: I was just going to forward into that, when Chapelle Show was big, the catch phrase “I’m Rick James Bitch!” became huge. That is the most striking and memorable thing people will recall. That’s what happened. You can imagine the perspective of folks working on the show, Dave and Neil [Brennan] and all the writers of the show, of all the stuff they wrote and have been familiar with the show, of all the stuff they wrote and have been familiar with the show, it’s been pretty great and neat and special unique stuff, but that stands out. They would hope that even though that’s what people are bringing that up to them that’s not all they got from it. I’m assuming that it’s not all everybody got from it. I always have to be careful because I’m a professor. Anyway, they all want to know why Dave quit the show or why the show got canceled or gossip. People stop me on the street, I get recognized on the street, for Chapelle’s Show once a week, which means people are fans. So, someone comes up to me and is just staring at me weird and says something especially in regards to the Dave Chapelle Show, I just know they’re just such a fan of this show they’re going to be funny. And by and large, they want to know how rich I am. I say, “No what are you kidding me, basic cable!” I used to be ashamed of it but now [sarcastically] “I’m so filthy rich it’s sick. It’s ice cream constantly.” But I think that’s a question that I think is always funny, “You’re on TV! You must be rich!” This is not 1975.
To hear more from Randy Pearlstein as Leonard, the 600-year-old wizard, tune into Ugly Americans every Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. EST on Comedy Central.