Jon Stewart has left The Daily Show ... and these lessons in voice over


In the past week, the worlds of comedy, politics and journalism said not so much “Goodbye” to The Daily Show host Jon Stewart as probably “See you later.” Retiring from the program at or near the top of his game, over the years he has displayed a wide range of comedic and acting skills (despite his self-professed lack of the latter). His personal resume includes some voice over work -- as animated characters in films, and not-so-off-camera voices for puppets (such as Gitmo), inanimate objects, etc. on The Daily Show. But we’re not writing here about his voice work. This is larger than that.

This is a list of voice over lessons gleaned from his statements and life experiences. If we have applied these examples in a contrived, gratuitous or even tortuous way, so be it. In any case, they’re grounded in truth.

Jon Stewart: Although Stewart tried his hand at standup soon after college, his early employment history was extremely varied. He was a bartender, soccer coach, a puppeteer for children with disabilities; he even collected mosquitoes (for testing) in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Apparently in homage to those years, or perhaps in characteristic humility, his production company is named Busboy Productions.

Applied to Voice Over: A varied background and broad world view sooner or later comes in handy.

Jon Stewart: “I finally found the plug for my socket. My brain always felt like the rhythm of it didn’t make sense to me in general work situations and school situations in conversation. But comedy, it was like oh, that’s what this thing is for.”

Applied to Voice Over: Never stop learning about voice performance and the VO industry, or about the world in general. That’s how you find your socket.

Jon Stewart: “I love standup comedy. ... I went on every night and learned the difference between impersonating a comedian and being a comedian. That was my break, was learning how to be authentic, not to the audience, but to myself. I developed a baseline of confidence and also insecurity. I knew how bad I was, and also how good I was.”

Applied to Voice Over: Yes, know your limits. But if you have the passion, pursue it, intelligently. One of the sadder things is life is a passion left unexplored.

Jon Stewart: ““[Standup] is a rhythm that either works for you or doesn’t. ... It takes a while to discover your own rhythm, but the rhythm itself made sense to me.””

Applied to Voice Over: Just as not everyone is suited to a comedy career, not everyone is right for voice over. If you are, make the effort to find your best place in it.

Jon Stewart: “It took me 6 years to write my first 45 minutes.”

Applied to Voice Over: Stewart became a great and prolific comedy writer, but greatness seldom happens overnight. Stick with it.

Jon Stewart: One of Stewart's voiceover gigs was as the voice of Zeebad, an evil spring (yes, a villain with a coil spring for a body), in the 2006 movie Doogal, a European movie based on a Euro children’s TV series. The U.S. release was dubbed by many celebrities well known in North America. The result as a whole was panned by critics (mercilessly), and Stewart’s performance has been called “incredibly distracting.” Apparently, by 2006 Stewart’s voice was associated with a certain personality, and an evil spring just wasn’t it.

Applied to Voice Over: Not every actor is right for every role. Nobody wins every audition, and an actor shouldn’t expect to. But what the heck, maybe give it a shot. Once.

Jon Stewart: “You’d be incredibly surprised at how regimented our day is. The infrastructure of the show is very much mechanized ... we have a very kind of strict day that we have to adhere to, and by doing that, that allows us to process everything and gives us the freedom to sort of improvise. I’m a real believer in that creativity comes from limits, not freedom. Freedom, I think, you don’t know what to do with yourself. But when you have a structure, then you can improvise off it feel confident enough to kind of come back to that.”

Applied to Voice Over: A voice actor’s day needs a certain regimentation, too. Practice in the morning, with definite objectives. Record voices that need to be especially relaxed and “ballsy” fairly early, when your voice is at its freshest and most robust. (But if it’s an audition, be sure you can replicate that sound if you get the job!) Allow sufficient time for paperwork, research, billing and prospecting. Do those auditions, and don’t let things slide to tomorrow. An extra benefit of this regimentation and assignment of time is that it will actually leave you with more time ... to try something new.

Jon Stewart: “Jokes don't work when they're lies. So we fact-check so that when we tell a joke, it hits you at sort of a guttural level — it's not because we have a journalistic integrity. Hopefully we have a comedic integrity that we don't want to violate.”

Applied to Voice Over: Whether it’s a character voice or a sales pitch, you’re more believable when you believe what you’re saying yourself. Or if it’s a message that you personally can’t get on board with, be an actor -- at least understand and feel why you would believe it if you did. As with humor, a credible read is in grounded in truth.

Jon Stewart: Stephen Colbert has related that, early on, Stewart asked him to have a political opinion. That forced Colbert, according to Stephen, “to make passionate comedic choices as opposed to successful comedic choices.” Along similar lines, Stewart has stated, “I think it [observing politics and media] made me less political, and more emotional ... more viscerally upset. ”

Applied to Voice Over: Truth is heard from emotion. The veracity, and the listeners’ interest, in a voice over script comes from the progression of emotions as you speak.

Jon Stewart: “When do you decide that even though it’s this place of great comfort and you feel like you’re plugged into it like you’ve never been plugged into anything else that you’ve ever done, is there also a part of you that there are other considerations of family, or even not wanting to be on television all the time. ... It would be nice to be home when my little elves get home from school, occasionally.”

Applied to Voice Over: At least four days a week, he’s had to “work late” at the office. Fortunately, through the magic of home studios and today’s highly mobile equipment, your voice work can be where your family is.

Jon Stewart: “People who worry about where they're going next generally don't end up where they think they're going. When you've got too much of a master plan, it's going to fail. I never thought about what the goal was. Instead, my goal was always to be better than I was at the present time at what I was doing.”

Applied to Voice Over: Important words here are “too much of a.” We would be shocked if Stewart, and certainly Stewart’s company, did not have a formal business plan. Every business should have one, including voice artists. Our takeaway here (if not exactly Stewart’s point) is that the plan should be an evolving framework that enables you to do your best work and improve at same time. It should not be so lofty that it doesn’t apply to present circumstances, and not so rigid that it obscures opportunities or cannot be modified as conditions change.

Jon Stewart: “I cannot tell you how fortunate I've been in this business to have worked with people like Stephen [Colbert] and John Oliver and Larry Wilmore and the writers and producers that we have at the show and all the opportunities that I have. And I consider it gravy, everything.”

Applied to Voice Over: An actor can be successful and generous at the same time. Be grateful to those who help and support you, and be generous as a performer.

Jon Stewart: ““It’s satire, so it’s an expression of real feelings. So I don’t mean that in the sense of, ‘I don’t mean this.’ What I mean is, the tools of satire should not be confused with the tools of news. We use hyperbole, but the underlying sentiment has to feel ethically, intentionally correct, otherwise we wouldn’t do it.”

Applied to Voice Over: Do what you believe in.

Jon Stewart: Of Stewart’s merciless jabs at Arby’s and his fake Arby’s sponsorship statements to Camera Two, an Arby’s spokesman has said, “It’s really no different than two college buddies. They’ll say the meanest, nastiest things about each other and joke in the most awful way possible, but at the end of the day they want to be in each other’s wedding.” Arby’s paid tribute by running actual custom commercials in the penultimate show.

Applied to Voice Over: Always pronounce the client’s name correctly and clearly.

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