James Earl Jones. Robin Williams. Tom Hanks.
These are all incredibly talented voice actors who’ve given us iconic animated characters on film, and yet, they live in the shadow of an even greater, sonically gifted prodigy; a woman bestowed by the gods with the power to make so many sounds with her mouth, she’s voiced hormone monsters, presidential candidates, emojis, pop icons, damp bathmats, and the ghosts of both Whitney Houston and Elizabeth Taylor.
It’s Maya Rudolph, guys. We’re talking about Maya Rudolph. Really, the title alone should’ve given that away.
Rudolph, who spent her formative years, comedically-speaking, honing eccentric characters on Saturday Night Live, has always had a set of pipes. Her mother, the late Minnie Riperton, sported a five-octave coloratura soprano range and was known for her ability to sing in what’s called “the whistle register,” a frequency so high, holding it for an extended period of time could, theoretically, break glass. She was called “The Nightingale,” and why Marvel hasn’t swooped in to craft an original superhero after her legacy, we’ll never know. The costumes and amount of exploding glass alone justify it.
All that to say, Rudolph was genetically blessed, nay, destined, to carve out a career for herself in entertainment and while she enjoyed some success on SNL, it’s her time in the recording booth that may come to define her career, which is only fair because while her predecessors and contemporaries may be what we call “voice actors,” Maya Rudolph is a goddamn voice artist.
We will now move forward with the presentation of evidence.
Exhibit A: The SNL Years
Rudolph spent seven years voicing an eclectic array of characters on NBC’s late-night comedy sketch show. Some of those were original creations – Glenda Goodwin, the attorney at law who would represent you in personal injury claims involving wooly mammoths, shape shifters, and mermen – and some were impressions of big-name celebrities – Mariah Carey, Maya Angelou, and Michelle Obama. Still, Rudolph’s greatest hits from the show are a line-up of skits containing memorable characters with even more recognizable vocal inflections. Like Nuni Schoener, the off-beat art dealer with furniture made from gorilla hair who enjoyed liquid ice cream only when blown through a tube from her childish manservant. Or Jodi Dietz, the thickly accented, fast-talking co-host of The Bronx Beat who regularly became verklempt while interviewing guests and talking about her dead-beat husband. And then there’s Rudolph’s impersonation of Beyonce Knowles, a characterization so lived-in, so over-the-top yet so nuanced, one might easily confuse Rudolph with the real thing. She’s softly-toned, rhythmic, and often drops her vowels in a nod to her Southern upbringing.
Each of these characters became legend on the show thanks to Rudolph’s ability to craft their unique identifiers using her comprehensive vocal range, whether it was through the rich, full-bodied mispronunciations of Shonda, a Super Showcase Spokesmodel or the commanding, confidently timed diction of Senator Kamala Harris. No one’s been able to voice quite as many comedy gems as Rudolph did on her original run, and it’s that thought that keeps Lorne Michaels up at night.
Exhibit B: Big Mouth
Arguably Rudolph’s greatest contribution to the competitive world of voice acting, her turn on Nick Kroll’s pre-pubescent coming of age animated series is – and this is in no way an exaggeration – a creative masterpiece that rivals Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and any of that drivel Shakespeare put out. Rudolph voices a variety of characters on the show – the aforementioned bath mat, a couple of ghosts, Diane Birch – but her piece-de-resistance is Connie, the Hormone Monstrous, a deliciously lush personification of a pre-teen girl’s hormonal angst, rage, and desire.
In Connie, Rudolph gleefully indulges her octave range, flitting between high-pitched directives screamed with emotional gravitas – as when she demands her ward Jessi shoplift lipstick, listen to Lana Del Rey on repeat, cut up her t-shirts, scream at her mother and then laugh at her tears – and sultry, syrupy intonations that elevate even the most mundane words into works of auditory art. It’s not “bubble bath” but “bwubble bath.” It’s not “pharmacy” but “phwaaarmacy.” Terms of endearment are mouthwatering delicacies like “Hush, Puppy” and “My Little Ravioli.” Connie encourages us to break free of the aural chains society has heaped upon us, to delight in the chaos of lower-octave seductions and register-rising outbursts. She transforms three-syllable phrases into club bangers and Beethoven sonatas. Your fave could never.
Exhibit C: The Sh*t You Didn’t Even Know About
Rapunzel in Shrek. Precious in The Nut Job. Aunt Cass in Big Hero 6.
This is the portion of the broadcast where we confirm the lingering suspicion you’ve always had when watching an animated show or movie: Is Maya Rudolph in this?
Yes, yes she is. She’s in Turbo, and Family Guy, The Simpsons, The Awesomes, she’s Matilda in those Angry Birds movies and Smiler in The Emoji Movie (we know … we know). She’s in Star Wars video games and Lego movies … she’s even the motivational speaker Beanie Feldstein’s character hypes up to every morning in Booksmart. She’s in everything you’ve ever loved or will love and so, she is everything you’ve ever loved or will love.
Few comedians, hell, few thespians, have the vocal range of Maya Rudolph, but hardly anyone can inject the kind of personality and chutzpah she brings to every character she inhabits on screen. We’re just saying what you’re all thinking: Maya Rudolph could do Stewie, Peter, and Brian on Family Guy, but Seth McFarlane could never do Connie the Hormone Monstress and the Ghost of Elizabeth Taylor on Big Mouth.