My first introduction to John Roberts was through a very good, very Brooklyn friend of mine who found Roberts' video impersonations of your typical New York yenta—his mother to be specific—hilarious. She wasn't alone. Roberts' videos like “The Christmas Tree” and “Jackie & Debra“, which Roberts filmed and produced, soon found a wide audience on YouTube, garnering interest from a viral fanbase that led to stints on local and national television, including a Good Day New York appearance alongside his real mother, Marge. The characters in Roberts' videos were an extension of his sketch routines, and soon the longtime comedian and part-time musician was gaining traction outside of the NY metro area where he was born and raised.
Indeed, his characters were funny, but for a gentile like myself, I could only initially relate to the humor as an outsider. That is, until Bob's Burgers hit the air. Roberts' character of Linda Belcher—one of two female leads voiced by men—was cast by the show's creator Loren Bouchard as a direct result of his YouTube mom impersonations. As he explains, it helped create the character, and even placed the family in the east coast.
Though a New Yorker at heart, the openly-gay Roberts now lives in Los Angeles where he works constantly. It's worth mentioning he's openly gay because he “came out” in another one of his mom videos, “My Son Is Gay?“. And if you haven't noticed, his mother is a strong and driving force in his work. Roberts took some time to answer a few questions before his return home to perform at Joe's Pub this weekend. If you're in the crowd, be sure to look out for the real Linda Belcher. I'm sure she'll be front and center.
So you were born in Brooklyn . . .
Born in Brooklyn, raised in Edison, New Jersey, back in Manhattan when I was 17 at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts where I earned an Associates degree.
That's two years, right?
Yeah, two years is all I could take [laughs]. Then I kind of got into music a little bit, then got back into the comedy world. Which I was kind of into comedy when I was 15 or 16… saw Pee Wee Herman at Carnegie Hall, and that changed my life. The old Letterman, stuff like that.
Would you say your start was more theatrical than comedy?
I definitely loved comedy for sure, and I would write my own stuff. When I was 16 I would come in and do places like Stand Up NY and bring family and friends to support me because I was really young. All the other comics there were like baby boomers. Then I stopped doing that when I started acting; they had a weird rule, they wouldn't let you perform in clubs. And I was really dorky and listened to them, I don't know why I did that, because it was kind of a dumb rule and I was already doing so well on my own. 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. At that point I started with music and got into drum machines and digital samplers and keyboards and stuff and moved to the East Village, worked at Angelica Kitchen and kept to myself a lot. I think the more I didn't perform the bigger it became in my head when I did it again, which took me like another ten years after I graduated. I just became more of a creative hermit.
Did you ever play out in bands?
I did in 2002, I started a band called Opti-Grab, we were out of the East Village. We had some fun downtown success; we opened for Gogol Bordello and Scissor Sisters, we toured with Blondie a little bit, which was so exciting. And you know, we'd play Bowery Ballroom or Mercury Lounge and sell it out. 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. Our music was a little tongue-in-cheek, we didn't really take ourselves too seriously. You can still find our music on iTunes and stuff like that.
So going back to when you were a kid starting out in New York, were you openly gay at that time?
No. In college I was dating the hottest girl in school, so I knew there was something wrong [laughs]. I think right after college I wrote that letter to my mom that became the “My Son Is Gay?” thing.
She's obviously one of your biggest supporters.
Oh yeah, for sure.
Because she seems to be everywhere, I know she was at the NY Comic-Con, and the Good Morning New York video . . .
Well, you know, my mom is very cool and she's always been a big fan of comedy. All moms love that stuff. The only person you can brag about yourself to is your mom. Or just the person who's going to enjoy it the most. I love whenever she can be there. She just turned 70, so we had a really nice time in vegas, saw Elton John, she loved it.
So you do these viral videos that take off, the voice is very close to Linda Belcher, is that kind of where the casting came from?
Yeah. Like everyone in the cast, Kristen [Schaal] and Eugene [Mirman], there's definitely hints of stuff we bring to the table, and my mother character was always popular and I think it helped as a starting point with Loren. I think we ended up [Bob's Burgers] on the east coast because of that, and it just fit. Thank God that he was into that, and I think it all matched up. Jon Benjamin and I have a good time with it.
It's kind of interesting, because you're the only one who's not playing himself. Whereas Eugene, Kristin, Jon . . . even Tina, Dan Mintz, they're all doing their own voice whereas you're doing a character. So do you ever give them shit for having to do more work?
No. It never really feels like work, because I can do it in my sleep. And I think everyone works just as hard, and Larry Murphy, who does Teddy, he does a bunch of voices and he's really great at that. Our comedy is a little similar in that we like to do sketch and character work, and I think everyone else is based in standup or their live work talks as themselves, so it sort of matches that too.
One of the things I noticed, obviously I could find a lot of videos of you doing your characters and sketch work, but I had a really hard time finding videos of your standup. Is there a reason for that?
Well, I do my YouTube videos and I've filmed stuff at Joe's Pub, but I really like keeping it as a live experience and having too much of the live stuff up there. I guess I'm a little control freak-y when it comes to the online stuff and just making sure it's something a little above the live show, or not above, but if the live show was filmed in the right way I'd definitely be more for it. Sometimes if you're not there in the venue you just don't get the same vibe, if you don't film it the right way, it's just not worth it for me. I work a lot of my stuff that I'll end up filming live or perfecting it, so when I film it the way I want to film it, that seems like a better way to put it out there.
That's why I asked, it seems you're very on top of what is able to be viewed of yours. Now, I also noticed that you play a lot of female characters, but you rarely ever have fake boobs. Is there a reason for that?
Eh, I don't know, it gets a little too silly. I just like to go for the essence; the wigs are so simple, you just need to change your mannerisms and your accent and not put too much into it like that. I just like it being simple. I actually really treat my wigs like shit, I just shove them in the bag when I travel. I kind of have this weird love/hate relationship with my wigs.
I know you guys have a running joke that you come out at every Comic-Con, and my first question about that is, is anyone ever surprised by that or taken aback?
Unfortunately, no [laughs]. They're like, 'ok homo.' No, it is kind of a joke, because it's a thing where people come out a lot and I've never really had that moment. I guess I soiled myself with “My Son Is Gay?”. I've always wanted to have that press release… not really. But no, I don't think anyone is surprised, which is fine. That's a good thing.
And the second part of that questions is, you don't really hear too much about gay comics. You hear more about lesbians, but is there a large gay community in the comedy world?
Well, you know, I've had the pleasure of touring with Maragaret Cho for two years on the road, like two national tours then we went to Australia and London; she really has the gayest crowd for gay comedy. She's really a gay comedy icon, probably before Kathy Griffin was doing it. That audience is very gay. But I don't like to do the gays of comedy night, or something like that. I just prefer to play bars where everyone can come out and be together.
I just meant more performing-wise.
I could be like “gay people be like…” haha. No, but there are some nights, like at Act bar in LA there's a night where a lot of cool gay comics mix it up and they're all genius and great.
Ok, I'm going to end with two questions, you're a Brooklyn guy, or a Jersey guy . . . I would assume you'd prefer Brooklyn, but I don't want to make assumptions.
Well, I'd say New York City, I lived there longer than anywhere. I'm a New Yorka.
So New York, now you're in L.A., do you have a preference?
Well, right now it's L.A. [laughs]. I think L.A. has changed a lot over the past 12 years, but I'll always be a New Yorker. I think I'll definitely live on the upper west side with really long nasal hair and a radio.
You'll bike around with it in your basket?
And lastly, since your mom is the influence for the mom videos, which led to Linda Belcher's voice, will your mom be making an appearance on Bob Burger's at any point?
Oh, she would love that. You neva know. I don't know, we tried to get her and Loren to meet, but she would do it in a heartbeat. My sister also has a great voice. We call her the mouth that roars.