John Roberts: Face of a Man, Voice of a Mom
Updated: Oct 13, 2020
Within the world of voice acting, it’s natural that many viewers will be surprised that the characters they watch are voiced by unlikely people. Maybe the difference of age, gender, or simply the normal speaking voice of an actor that makes them double-take when they finally put their face to the character. One particular actor who would surprise you with his abilities is John Roberts, a fellow alumnus from New York. His work is primarily voice acting for comedic, feminine, animated roles. Roberts has lent his voice to shows such as "Gravity Falls," "The Simpsons," and "Archer," but his most notable role on television is Linda on Fox’s "Bob’s Burgers."
The Brooklyn-born actor seems to have been knocking his funny-bone since his youth. Going back to his high school years, 16 year-old John was already performing stand-up at Stand Up NY (a very clever name if you ask me). It’s not hard to imagine that the environment was quite intimidating, being that Roberts was the lone queer teenager surrounded by a majority of Baby Boomers. Thankfully, it didn’t discourage him from pursuing his dreams of performing, and at the age of 17, Roberts was accepted into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, graduating in the class of 1991.
Roberts claims that training at the Academy was a great experience where he made long-lasting friendships as well as helped develop his stage presence. “The Academy really helped inform a lot of what went into my stage performances. It taught me about showmanship, finding your comfort zone, and of course the discipline of having to rehearse all the pieces.” He says, “Acting involves so much creativity and a sense of playfulness onstage, which I’ve definitely carried with me.” However, it wasn’t without some setbacks. “They had a weird rule. They wouldn’t let you perform in clubs.” He says, “I think after acting school I was just not into actors or acting at all, even though I’m friends with a lot of people I went to school with, I love them and kinda came back around.”
After graduating in 1991, Roberts moved to the East Village and focused on a music career with his friends, forming the band Opti-Grab. “We got a really great fan following that sort of looked like that scene in 'Revenge of the Nerds' when they play that last concert, it sort of looked like that.” Needless to say, his comedic side played a huge part in his stage presence and music-writing. “Our music was a little tongue-in-cheek, we didn’t really take ourselves too seriously.” Opti-Grab would get the opportunity to open for bands such as “Scissor Sisters” and “Gogol Bordello.” The band even opened up for the famous rock band Blondie, which then resulted in Opti-Grab going on tour with them back in 2007. Roberts had befriended Debbie Harry, the lead singer of Blondie, and has collaborated with her on projects throughout the years since then. (If you’re curious as to what sweet sound they made, you can find Opti-Grab on iTunes and other streaming services.)
When Roberts wasn't singing, he turned his attention back to writing comedy skits. And he couldn’t have picked a better place to show off his skills-- YouTube. In 2007, when the site was only 2 years old, Roberts used this new platform as an opportunity to publish his own original sketches, with each video gaining over 3 million views. Now, Roberts’ YouTube channel has over 20 million hits. His rise to internet fame was the result of playing a comedic character simply called “Mom,” who possesses enough sass to fill up the whole ocean. “It’s very East Coast New York City, Boston, Italian Jewish woman vibe. And they’re a funny type of woman. But all moms are funny in their way.” With a red wig, sunglasses, and a nasally Brooklyn accent, you cannot possibly look away from this marvel of a woman.
These videos of Roberts’ imitation (which are still available to watch on his channel) is what caught the attention of Loren Bouchard, an animator, producer, and writer. In 2011, Bourchard co-created the show Bob’s Burgers with Adam Reed for Fox. The character, “Mom,” that Roberts plays on his channel is what inspired the character “Linda” for the show. He explains, “Linda’s voice came from, basically, my mom, me imitating her. She’s from Brooklyn, from Bensonhurst. And I’ve pretty much been imitating her my whole life.” I urge you to place clips of “Linda” and clips of “Mom” side-by-side and point out the shocking similarities.
When voicing a female character as a man, it’s not without a little commentary. Roberts admits that one of the most-asked questions he gets is regarding the balance of male and female actors in the business. “I do get questions about how I feel about the equality, about playing a woman and how maybe that would ‘take away’ from a female actress. In animation, a lot of female actresses can do guy roles as well, like Pam Adlon on 'King of the Hill.'”
When it comes to voice acting for "Bob’s Burgers," John Roberts can’t express enough how grateful he is to have been a part of such an amazing group of creators and actors. Voice acting for the show allowed him and his co-stars a lot of freedom in the recording studio. “Well, Loren [Bouchard] 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.” This is very uncommon as most voice actors record apart from one another, even in shared scenes.
"Bob’s Burgers" has ten Primetime Emmy nominations, two of those winning in the “Outstanding Animated Program” category in 2014 and 2017, with Roberts getting a Primetime Emmy Nominee for “Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance.” The show would then get its own movie, which would’ve been released in theaters on July 17th, 2020, however it has been postponed to April 9th, 2021.
With the talent that John Roberts has to offer, you’d get excited to see if his sights are set on the big screen. But no! He seems perfectly happy with what he’s doing on television. “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.”
These days, Roberts is spending his time experimenting with music again. In July 2019, he released a solo EP titled “Looking,” a techno-pop song with seductive undertones that would make Freddy Mercury grind at the club, or as Roberts describes it plainly as “feel good” music. His other two songs, Dirty Little Secrets and Lonely Boys Have Fun Too also follow the sexy and retro theme. Roberts said, “It’s very 80’s! 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!” We can only hope that Roberts doesn’t stop writing music anytime soon, and it seems like he won’t. “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!”
With all that he has to offer, music or voice acting, his colorful character and thirst for creating, there seems to be no stopping John Roberts. If there’s anything we can learn from him, it's his love for the craft. “Keep having fun, keep writing until you feel like you’re connecting to the material and your audiences, and remember why you love the work. It’s always about the work.” It’s safe to say we haven't heard the last of Roberts or Linda!