John Ratzenberger is known to many of us as Cliff in Cheers, but to the younger generation, he’s the voice of Pixar. Ratzenberger has provided the voice of characters in every Pixar movie. We’ll soon see him reprise the role of Hamm in Toy Story 4.
I caught up with Ratzenberger to learn about how he got an accidental start in Improv, Cheers, and the road to being the voice of Pixar.
Let’s go back. What’s your earliest memory of comedy or film that made you want to do this?
For me, when I was young, it was Laurel and Hardy.
Have you seen Stan & Ollie yet?
I haven’t seen it yet and the trailers look fantastic. John C. Reilly looks like he has really nailed it. As well as Coogan. That’s not an easy thing to do with those two characters. That little dance they do is from Way Out West. It looks like those actors have it down.
You’re in for a treat. So, Laurel & Hardy?
You know, Stan Laurel was from Kennington?
I do. He’s a South London guy.
He grew up a few blocks from Charlie Chaplin. That was my first real memory of being fixated. I was young and watching them on TV. They were real artists. They were the blue angels the way they executed things seamlessly, it was just beautiful.
At what point did you decide you wanted to be a comedian?
There was this girl I was seeing in college and she was in acting classes. I thought I’d try out for a part so I could continue my wooing and I ended up getting the part of the understudy. The lead quit before opening night and I went on stage and improvised Tennessee Williams. People came up to me and said I was really funny. Someone pointed out I had a gift for improvisation, and this is back in 1960s.
On the subject of improv, you then went and did Sal’s Meat Market which you took on tour.
That was based in Kennington, across the street from the cricket ground. We were based there and that’s where we developed the shows. That’s where I met Pierce Brosnan who started his career there. Stephen Rea started there too.
What was the basis of that show?
It was all Vaudeville. We were on the road with a couple of suitcases, we’d hit a town, do the show, and then sleep there, and take off again. We went around Europe and were left to our own devices.
It’s all gone now. It’s all Second City. Ray Hassett and I put ourselves out there on a limb. We didn’t know anyone. The first thing we learned was to always buy a beer for the custodian. He was the guy with all the keys on his belt and get you into where you needed to when you’re setting up the show.
Our show would be about 90 minutes to 2 hours and would be 90% improvised. It changed every night. We’d have the beginning, middle, and end and our props. We had fun as we went along and neither of us went to acting school of any kind.
At the height of our time there, we got invited to RADA to teach our technique. I turned to Ray and asked him, “What is our technique” We taught the class the same way we did the show and that was to make it up as we went along.
Ray went on to become a highly decorated homicide detective.
After Sal’s, Cheers happened, and now you’re the gift to Pixar. It’s funny how things happen in life.
Well with Ray, the state department has him traveling all over the world teaching de-escalation and how to handle hostage situations around the world. He’s actually in Thailand now. He had an extraordinary eye for detail, that’s why he was great at improv.
We’d be standing on a street in SoHo or Picadilly and he could tell what country people were from just by the shoes they were wearing.
The normal person would not even think of that.
He’s the funniest and most attention to detail person.
Cheers happened after Sals. You invented the role of Cliff. What did you say to the guys to convince them that they needed Cliff?
The truth is, I wanted to leave that room with my dignity. I had already worked in Europe for ten years, improvising it into other languages and touring it. It was an experience that no one could guess at.
With all the films I had done by that time, and the popularity of Sal’s, I never had to audition for anything because the casting people had seen my show. I had worked with Milos Foreman, Ken Russell, Peter Hyams, and Irvin Kershner.
I had this great body of work before I stepped into Cheers and I knew my audition was terrible because I didn’t understand the audition process then or now. I didn’t want to leave with my dignity in shatters.
I was in LA because I was hired to write a late night comedy based on the life of Emperor Nero and that’s why I was in LA. The writer part of me took over as I was leaving the audition. I turned around and asked if they had a bar know-it-all. I just improvised this character on the spot, used things on the desk, and explained as Cliff how the ballpoint pen was invented. I wanted them to laugh enough so I could leave with my dignity. I knew what I was doing. I come from the Jackie Gleason school of put me on the spot and roll the camera and I’ll make you proud.
Cliff is iconic.Then Pixar happened. You’ve become a Pixar staple. How did that first role happen for you?
It was simply a call from Pixar because they knew Cliff. They were approximating the Cliff voice when they were rendering the Hamm character.
John Lasseter suggested it and I said absolutely.
Here we are and Toy Story 4 is out in June. Was it fun to revisit Hamm again?
The fun part is to work with John. He’s got this childlike glee in his work. The beauty of working with Pixar and Brad Bird is that they set such a high standard. They then give themselves the job of surpassing that. I’m so lucky to be a part of that. They work so hard and they enjoy it.
With the ADR, it’s not a group session, they do it individually. Is that challenging without having someone to bounce off?
You want to bounce off someone when you’re on stage or in film, but for animation, if you have five people in there doing voiceover work and you hear change rattle or something, you have to do it again. So, doing it by yourself is faster.
You just have to hand it to Pixar because the director is also the writer and that person knows that script like their own baby. They know every comma, they know every breath, when to pause, the level of anger, or the level of laughter. With Pixar, you simply listen to the director and do what they say. It just makes it so much easier.
What can you tell us about Toy Story 4?
Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are in it. [laughs]
Let’s do a one-word association :
Fritz from Inside Out
The London opening. When we flew over there to open that film. Amy Poehler was just so sweet.
Mack from Cars
He was an homage to my father. When John Lasseter was putting the film together, he asked what kind of truck my father drove. I said it was a Mack. They had planned to use another brand, but right there, he changed it to a Mack because that’s what my dad drove.
He didn’t have to do that. That was the sweetest thing.
Juan from Coco
That’s my name. What strikes me about that is the artistry. Like with most Pixar films, you could cut out any part and hang it on the wall. They’re museum pieces. They’re paintings.
Every single frame. Hamm? We’re going to see him soon.
I get a kick out of him. I started doing this a long time ago – calling kids who are down on their luck. I call them as Hamm and they get a call from him and I get such a kick out of it. I’ll ask the parents if they can record their end and some of these kids are so sweet. You’ll see how excited they get. “It’s Hammy.”
That’s such a beautiful and wonderful thing.
I started it years ago. I was at the airport. Someone stopped me and said they loved Hammy. I told them to get their kids on the phone and we called them. I just such a kick out of it that I started offering it to charities. I think I have a better time than the kids do.