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November 16, 2007

Larry Kenney's Best 40 Years Ever

The VH1 star, voice of Lion-O, and veteran of commercials and radio speaks. 'I can't imagine having done anything else.'

Keith Huang

If you've ever turned on a television set, chances are good you've heard the voice of Larry Kenney. The 60-year-old veteran disc jockey, television host, and voiceover actor is most celebrated as the voice of Lion-O, the leader of the early 1980s action-cartoon ThunderCats. And today he is also well-known as the fun-loving, raucous announcer on Best Week Ever, the snarky comedy-clip show on VH1.

Images courtesy of Larry Kenney
"One time I auditioned for something that read: 'Larry Kenney-sounding voice.' I didn't get it, though. I didn't sound enough like myself, I guess."

Images courtesy of Larry Kenney

But before he was recapping pop culture, Kenney had spent four decades speaking into microphones for commercials, cartoons, and drive-time broadcasts. He has breathed life into two breakfast-cereal icons, Sonny the Cuckoo Bird and Count Chocula, and spent 34 years as a cast member of the Imus in the Morning radio show.

Gelf spoke to Kenney from his home in New York to ask about his transition from radio to voiceover work, his aversion to standing before cameras, hosting old-school game show "Bowling for Dollars," and working for the legendary television-production company Rankin-Bass. (He declined to talk about the Imus-Rutgers furor this past April.) The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: When you were a teenager, you were a cub sports reporter. Why didn't you try to become a sportscaster?

Larry Kenney: I probably would have done that, had the opportunity come along, but I was given an opportunity to be a disc jockey at a big radio station near my hometown. I had been taking a radio class in high school, and we did a show called Ten Minutes 'til Lunchtime for another, smaller radio station in town. They always had two seniors play records for an hour, but instead of playing commercials you talked about what was happening in the area high schools. I did that for about a year and then the program director of the bigger radio station came to class one day and asked if anybody wanted to do a one-hour public service show on Saturdays.

GM: So you've been using your voice pretty much your entire life, then. Was this always your dream job?

LK: There's no heavy lifting, I get to wear jeans to work, I don't really have a boss, and I'm only in one place for like a half-hour at a time—and the pay is pretty good. So, really, looking back, I can't imagine having done anything else. I thought radio might have been my career, but that quickly branched off into voiceover commercials.

GM: How did that transition happen?

LK: At smaller radio stations, part of your job is to take a pile of scripts and record commercials for local merchants. That turned out to be a great training ground because once I got to Cleveland—my first job in a major city—I joined a union and found out there's a lot more money in voiceover work than radio, unless you're a superstar disc jockey or something. Even though I loved radio—I was a disc jockey until about 1982—you make the same amount of money sitting someplace for four hours and talking as you do in 15 minutes saying, "Buy this today!"

GM: So now, after all these years, what's an average day for you?

LK: An average day might consist of five auditions and two recording sessions. Like everyone else, I go wherever there's an audition and then run off and do sessions, like for Best Week Ever. Today I had a callback audition for an on-camera television commercial for Charles Schwab. I decided to go for an on-camera gig because it'll be filming in Miami for three days. (I don't normally like to do on-camera stuff because it's so time-consuming.) Within a day or two after an audition, my agent might call and say I got this commercial. But the ones you don't get, you just don't hear about.

Kenney congratulates two ThunderCats fans on their nuptials.

GM: After all these years and with all your credits, you still go through the audition process?

LK: Oh, sure, everybody auditions. It's my main means of making a living. Even though I have a body of work that most people in the business know, a lot of clients still like to hear their words come out of my mouth. They know what I can do—it's no longer a matter of proving myself—they just want to hear what it sounds like for me to say this or that. And, frankly, sometimes it's just about them getting a kick out of meeting me, because there's a lot of young people in the voiceover business who do the auditioning. And they'll call me in just to meet me and to hear what it might sound like for me to read. I can always tell when that's the case, but I still get a kick out of it, anyway.

GM: Have you ever heard yourself on the TV or radio and forgotten you'd done that commercial?

LK: It's funny. It's usually my wife or kids who'll ask me, "Isn't that you?" And it usually is. There are lots of commercials where I don't mention the product. You could be watching an ad for something and my voice will be coming out of a television as a sports announcer or something: "It's a long, flyball—it's out of here, and the Yankees lead three to five!" [Editor's note: Click to hear Kenney announce the first-ever 3-5 lead.] But lots of times I'll go into an audition and the script will only have my lines on it—nobody else's—and it won't say what the commercial is for. So I'll read the lines, go home, and never know what the commercial was for.

GM: Do you ever imitate other famous voiceover actors?

LK: Well, I've done commercials where they've wanted me to read something in a voice that sounds like Don Pardo or Gary Owens. I have gone to auditions where the description on the copy says things like: male, 35 to 50 years old, authoritative grandfather-type. Oh, one time I auditioned for something that read: "Larry Kenney-sounding voice." I didn't get it, though. I didn't sound enough like myself, I guess.

"There's no heavy lifting, I get to wear jeans to work, I don't really have a boss, and I'm only in one place for like a half-hour at a time—and the pay is pretty good."
GM: Is your voice insured?

LK: I do have an insurance policy. It's not one of those Lloyd's of London things, but I have one because even though I have very good insurance coverage through unions like AFTRA and SAG, if something were to happen to my voice, most insurance companies would pay for the medical aspects, but they probably wouldn't consider me totally disabled. They might say I could still do other types of labor. So in terms of disability and stuff like that, I might not get it. They would say that not having a voice would keep me out of the voiceover business, but I could still get other work.

GM: You hosted Bowling for Dollars in New York in the late '70s. Why didn't you stick with television?

LK: It's a natural progression to go from radio to television. When I hosted Bowling for Dollars for three years, it was on every night, five nights a week, so my visibility was high. I enjoyed doing it, but then I did a couple of soap operas and on-camera commercials, and before long, I told my agent that I didn't want to do TV anymore because it was just so time-consuming. And I had also gotten used to the voiceover business where I show up and read something three times and leave. The most I'm ever in a recording session is maybe an hour, and that's if we're doing three or four commercials or it's very complicated. But usually I'm only in a place for about 30 minutes. But when you're doing camera, you show up at 6 a.m., you have a read-through, and you sit around for three hours while everybody's in makeup. And then you rehearse once, and then it's lunch. I hate it! I can't stand the sitting around and doing nothing. If you're going to be an actor, you really have to learn how to use the downtime. For a 30-second television commercial, it might take four days to shoot that.

GM: But you still got recognized back then. Didn't the fame appeal to you?

LK: Yeah. I couldn't walk down the street without getting recognized. But the great thing about it was the level of recognition—Bowling for Dollars was a local game show in New York, which was a pretty big deal, but people didn't come up and tear my clothes off like I was a rock star or something. I didn't get that constant thing where people stared at me all the time. But there were a few rare occasions. I'll never forget one time, when I had some friends in from out of town and I took them to a Broadway show. My wife had been telling them how successful my show was, and then when we walked into the theater, the whole audience started applauding. But that was rare. People would usually just recognize me, and say, "Hey, I like your show," and that was it.

GM: Did Bob Murphy give you any tips before you took over Bowling for Dollars from him?

LK: No, I actually never met him. Wow, who even knows Bob Murphy used to host Bowling for Dollars?

GM: There's quite a few esteemed alumni who hosted that show, like Chick Hearn

LK:...who, by the way, I used to watch as a little kid in Peoria, Illinois, when he was a sportscaster. When I was like seven or eight years old, I used to watch Chick Hearn every night during the summer, and he'd have either the Happy Cub or the Sad Cub, depending on whether the Cubbies had won or lost. [Editor's note: Bowling for Dollars' other illustrious hosts included Verne Lundquist, Wink Martindale, and Jim Lange.]

Lion-O

Lion-O

GM: How did you come up with the voice for Lion-O on ThunderCats?

LK: What you hear is pretty much my voice. I made it dramatic or authoritative when it needed to be, but overall I didn't want to give Lion-O any kind of glorified voice. I wanted him to sound real. If you think about it, all the ThunderCats, except for Mumm-Ra and Snarf, are non-exaggerated. They all sound like regular people.

GM: What did you think of the cartoon itself?

LK: There was a lot of discussion in the early '80s about changing children's programming. There was this call for less violence, not only in animated series but in commercials for toys, too. So I think one of the reasons Rankin-Bass created ThunderCats was to change the course of animated cartoon shows of that genre. And they did. Before that, it was just superheroes beating the hell out of people. You know, I get emails from people today from all walks of life who tell me that ThunderCats gave them this moral foundation, or how it showed them a better way.

GM: What was it like working for Rankin-Bass back then?

LK: It was probably one of the best jobs I ever had in terms of the people I worked with. It was just the nicest, friendliest, most fun, most pressure-less atmosphere I've ever worked in. It took us about three years to record all 130 episodes of ThunderCats. So we were together a lot. Like family. We worked two full days a month. I don't recall once—and I mean this—anyone in the cast getting angry with each other, or with the producer, or anybody. There was just never any ego or any dissension or anything like that. It was just a great experience. Of course, the contract requires me to say all that (laughs).

Family Guy's send-up of ThunderCats.

GM: Rankin-Bass did create Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, after all.

LK: Yeah, I know. I remember watching that when I was a kid, too, with Burl Ives and Fred Astaire. So it was just a thrill for me to know I got the job and would be working there. And then we did Silverhawks and TigerSharks, which weren't nearly as big as ThunderCats, but most of the same cast got to do Rankin-Bass holiday specials like A Star for Jeremy, The Life and Adventure of Santa Claus, and The Twelve Days of Christmas.

GM: How did you get Best Week Ever?

LK: I had done several VH1 shows as announcer a few years prior to Best Week Ever. I can't remember the names of them now, but most of them ran for only a few months. It's pretty much the same format—they'll show clips and then have four or five comedians make jokes about them. So I'd done a few shows that were pretty good, but then they came up with Best Week Ever, which would never run out of material. It's topical, so the writers never run out of copy. But I'm sure I auditioned for it, just like everything else, and I guess they just liked me best.

GM: Do you think the show is funny?

LK: They do a good job, but I rarely watch it. Usually on Friday afternoons when I come home, my son asks, "So who had the best week?" and I'll either say, "I can't tell you," or "I forgot." Because, like I said earlier, I'll come home from an evening and just forget what I recorded. I usually have to look in my appointment book. What can I say? I'm getting old.


Related on Gelf

An interview with the biographer of Mel Allen, another noted voice.

Keith Huang

Keith is a comedy nerd.







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- Media
- posted on Jan 17, 09
manny

best cartoons ever

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Article by Keith Huang

Keith is a comedy nerd.

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