We visit a recording session and speak to the cast, including Tom Petty, about bringing their characters to life.

by Eric Goldman

(Courtesy of IGN.com.)

September 20, 2007 – Going into an incredible 12th season this Sunday, King of the Hill continues to be the work horse of the FOX Sunday animation block, getting little of the attention of Family Guy and The Simpsons, but still delivering plenty of laughs. This summer I paid a visit to a recording session for the series, and got a very entertaining look at what goes on when the actors assemble to voice their familiar characters. Series co-creator Mike Judge records his role as Hank Hill from Texas, but there was still an impressive assemblage of talent from the show there that day, including Kathy Najimy (Peggy Hill), Pamela Adlon (Bobby Hill), Brittany Murphy (Luanne), Johnny Hardwick (Dale), Stephen Root (Bill), Lauren Tom (Minh/Connie), Breckin Meyer (Joseph) and an obscure voiceover actor named Tom Petty (Lucky).

Breckin Meyer didn’t join the show until a few seasons in, but sitting in the green room before he began his work for the day, he told me “It’s funny, whenever I tell people ‘I can’t man, I’ve got to go to King of the Hill today’, they say ‘You’ve been on that show forever!’ It’s the steadiest job I’ve had in my entire life! It really is, for all of us.”

Meyer also works as a writer and actor on Robot Chicken with his longtime friend Seth Green, and recalled that when he first came to audition for King of the Hill, “They were going to recast Joseph’s voice, because they wanted him to go through puberty. Brittany was doing it originally. I got a call to audition for Joseph; Seth Green and I actually both came in. I think we even came in together. I did the audition and I didn’t get it, and then they brought me back for another random kid voice, like a week later, like “Bobby’s Friend #3”, a Texas kid. Because I had the balls finally, because they hired me for that part, I said ‘Can I give that Joseph thing another thought?’ They were like “Okay,” and then I got it. It was so crazy, because it wasn’t the way it normally goes.”

Meyer noted that the hit film Clueless was one of about four times he and Murphy played boyfriend and girlfriend and said “It was funny taking over for her

[as Joseph]. I wasn’t sure what the hell his voice should be. If you ever hear the original Joseph that Brittany does, it’s f**king crazy! It’s just nuts! She does the weirdest Joseph. Luanne as well, but Joseph was just crazy. She had this weird voice where it was like her mouth was filled with popcorn and she was double fisting cigarettes. So when I came on, I was like ‘Well, I don’t know how to do that!’ So it took me about two months to realize what voice I was going to do for Joseph and then it slowly became what it is now.”

Meyer said King of the Hill was a great job, remarking “Where else am I going to get to work with [Stephen] Root for six years? He’s one of the funniest cats. Seriously, where else are you going to get that? It’s unbelievable. And Tom Petty is here! F**king A! This is crazy! The people who roll in, it’s just awesome. So it really is fun. That’s the really fun part about voiceovers.”

When I asked Lauren Tom if this was the longest job she’d ever had, she laughed and replied “I actually never stopped to think about that, but it absolutely has! And it’s my favorite all-time job too, I’d say.” Tom, a regular on Men in Trees, is a very busy voiceover actress, featured on shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Teen Titans and her role as Amy on Futurama. Tom noted that King of the Hill “sort of launched my whole second career; my parallel voiceover world, so I feel so grateful and indebted. Because once you’re sort of in the little loop, the little circle, you’re in and people kind of pass you around from show to show.”

For her role as Minh, Tom said her inspiration was her grandmother, though she had to pull back some of the gruffness she originally was doing, because King of the Hill co-creator Greg Daniels (now the showrunner on The Office) “Wanted the character to be really cutting, but in the sweetest possible way, so she wanted my voice to be higher and a much lighter touch, so I just had to make that adjustment in my head, to still channel [my grandmother]. Because my grandmother was very much like Minh, in the sense of being sort of materialistic and competitive. But she would do it in a much more direct way, like ‘You look fat!’ Instead of ‘Oh, what big shoes you have, Peggy Hill!’, it would be ‘Those are the biggest feet I ever saw!'”

As for her other role as Minh’s daughter Connie, Tom recalled reading for both that role and for Luanne. She noted that playing young Connie “I felt like I got my training here for little kid voices, because that’s mainly what I do now in my other shows. And so Greg Daniels was great working with me, because my voice is kind of naturally young sounding, so I just took it up a little higher, and then it got it to the right age. I was making it just a little bit too cute, but he was like ‘Just flatten it out a little bit, so it’s more real. Don’t try for anything other than how you speak, just make it a little higher.’ It was a great lesson – On the job training.”

I asked Tom if when she’s recording, she needs to have a conversation with herself, playing both Minh and Connie. “Oh, yeah!”, she replied, adding “Those are the best, when it’s the schizophrenia scenes! I actually like doing it back and forth like that, rather than doing my all my lines in one character, and then switching. It makes it fun and fresher for me.”

I then was able to watch as Adlon, Meyer and Tom film a scene from an upcoming episode called “Strangeness on a Train”, in which Bobby, Joseph and Connie get very excited by the prospect of having no adult supervision. While most of the cast would sometimes move their hands and make motions while recording their voice work, Meyer was particularly energetic, gesticulating and making a lot of big movements. This, coupled with the hysterical line readings he was giving to Joseph, who’s oh so excited by the ideas he’s coming up with, lead to Adlon, who was standing right next to him in the recording booth, continually breaking up and laughing when she looked at him, which in turn caused Meyer to laugh. Adlon’s solution was to finally just turn and face the other wall while Meyer spoke, in order to resist the urge to laugh. At one point Root decided to join them in the recording booth. Not actually part of the scene, he took a seat and watched the others record.

When the trio finished the scene, Tom was asked to do some material needed for previously worked on episodes that required some additional beats – a common practice on the show. This called for Tom to take turns saying anything from one word, to a gasp, to a longer line of dialogue. Seeing her switch from Connie’s voice to Minh’s was a very amusing and impressive thing to behold, as she went from the cute young girl to the very different sound of her judgmental mother within moments.

There was also the opportunity to watch Najimy and legendary rock star Petty record together, and it was especially funny to see Najimy improv a couple of lines onto the end of the scene, in which Peggy Hill makes some un-Peg like advances towards Petty’s character. On King of the Hill, the main cast often also voice other incidental characters, and so it was this day, with Petty pulling double duty and doing a very good job changing up his voice to play a character simply referred to as “Driver” in the script.

Petty then sat down with Adlon, Root and Hardwick, to talk about his surprising second job as a voice actor. He said it began simply enough, recalling “They called me and I came down and did a part for them. They liked the character and kept writing him in, and now he’s been going on three years.” Petty revealed “I loved the show long before I did it and it was a complete coincidence that I got called, because it was really one of my favorite shows.” He also said he felt comfortable with his character because “I know who Lucky is pretty well. Lucky is very philosophical. He’s a philosophical idiot.”

Petty had lots of praise for his costars, saying “they’re a fantastic cast.” The others all laughed when he said “It’s intimidating because they’re real actors,” because as Adlon put it “he’s Tom Petty and he comes in and he’s intimidated by us!” Added Petty, “They’re great people, and they made me feel at home. It’s a privilege to work with them.”

Joking aside, Adlon said she could understand Petty’s remark about being intimidated, noting “Everybody has a level of insecurity when they go into a room and you’re doing a voice. You kind of just want to say ‘Can you all just turn around? Don’t look at me! Let me just do it.’ Because you’re almost more exposed. Even though it’s just your voice, where you do it, in the room, it’s just raw, because people are looking at you saying ‘That’s so funny’, but you feel totally exposed. The point is that everybody feels that way. Everybody feels nervous and green, no matter how many jobs you do.”

The cast said they have definitely not gotten over having someone as iconic as Petty working with them, with Root saying “Are you kidding? It’s one of our biggest calling cards!” Hardwick revealed “I came home the other weekend and I said ‘I just sang with Tom Petty!'” Hardwick said this came about during “An episode where Dale’s doing a Queen ripoff, and Lucky got written into the scene as saying he was doing a great job.” Petty noted that the next thing they knew “We started [singing] together.”

Adlon said that Petty’s longevity on the series is “not because they knew what was gonna happen with Lucky. It was because he’s good. He came in and he was a really good actor. You were so good. If you sucked, then there would be no Lucky.” Before Petty had to leave, I asked him what his family felt about his role on King of the Hill. Everyone in the room laughed, as Petty replied “I think they’re more impressed by that than anything I’ve done. That gave me an incredible validation with the kids, you know? ‘Oh, That’s what he does! I get it!'”


King of the Hill: Season 12 premieres Sunday, September 23rd at 8:30 pm ET/PT on FOX, after The Simpsons.