New Batman Toon Is “Knight” Lite

Ever since he got the job, Diedrich Bader has relished getting up in the morning and telling himself — using the hushed, all-business voice he gives the character — “I’m Batman.”

The comedic actor, known for his roles on The Drew Carey Show and in Office Space, has to rein in his tendency to go for the laugh as he trolls the comic-book universe of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which debuts Nov. 14 on Cartoon Network. Instead, he plays straightman to all the lushly animated mayhem surrounding him.

In stark contrast to this summer’s dark, brooding blockbuster The Dark Knight, the new series harkens back to a simpler time, when the line between good and evil was more distinct. Producer James Tucker has drawn inspiration from the work of celebrated Batman artist Dick Sprang, whose bold, splashy colors mixed with vivid angles to bring the heroic struggles of the Caped Crusader to life. In The Brave and the Bold, that heavy black outline you see around the characters is intentional.

Based on a 1950s comic book of the same name, the show teams Batman with a different superhero each week, and takes them out of Gotham City to fight the villain. The writers comb the farthest reaches of the DC Comics universe to dredge up good guys and bad guys who rarely, if ever, have jumped off the page. Be on the lookout for the likes of Red Tornado, Blue Beetle and Plastic Man doing battle against foes like Gorilla Grodd, Gentleman Ghost and Black Manta.

Special guest voices include animation stars Tom Kenny (SpongeBob SquarePants), R. Lee Ermey (Toy Story) and Will Friedle (The Batman).

Bader shared with us how being Batman every week is like hosting a party, and how he is getting a crash course in comics history.

What’s your history with Batman? Were you a fan before getting this job?

Diedrich Bader: I was always a fan of the Adam West Batman. When I was a kid I would watch it after school all the time, and then when I actually got to work with Adam West I was such a geeky fan, I totally geeked out on him. He was a really cool, sweet dude. I loved the sense of humor on the show. Recently I watched the movie version of the Adam West version and I love it. It’s hilarious. They’re so tongue-in-cheek through the whole thing, and one of the things we’re trying to achieve on this show is a type of humor that’s in keeping with the history of Batman. Although I think this show has a very distinctive sense of humor from all the other incarnations of Batman, it’s still in keeping with the soul and the spirit of it.

Has this been an education for you on the nearly 70-year history of Batman?

Absolutely. There are so many of these guys — I had no idea who they were. That’s why when we were at Comic-Con, you could hear the cheer come up from guys who said, “We love the really obscure [villain].” Because that’s really what we’re focusing on. I knew just the basics, really. That’ll be fun for both diehard fans and for kids that want to watch and see something really brand new and fresh.

So when you hear the writers and animators talk about artists like Dick Sprang, or villains like Gentleman Ghost, do you have any idea what they’re talking about?

No idea. (laughs) But I’m starting to learn as much as I can, because I really respect when somebody has a singularity of vision and that to me is what really makes a successful show. The thing about The Drew Carey Show that made us so different is that Drew was really the visionary behind the show and he had a really consistent way of looking at both the humor and the show. I think that’s what makes a hit. That’s what makes something really different, and James [Tucker] is that guy. So I’m learning and catching up as much as I can, but it’s been a really fascinating process and one I’ve really enjoyed.

Given everyone else’s Batman expertise, are you intimidated a little bit in offering your own input on the direction of the show or the character?

James Tucker is the expert for all time, and Batman: The Brave and the Bold is the reason he’s in animation. It really is his baby. I didn’t want to step on any toes creatively, so I just pitched jokes sometimes, both for me and other characters. Because I’ve done comedy for a really long time so I stick to that. But I don’t try to come up with any sort of storyline or anything like that, because that’s really James’ gig, and he loves it and he’s good at it.

Was there a lot of trial and error on your part in finding the voice, or were you able to get it right away?

What was interesting was Andrea Romano, who was the dialogue director and a really great lady, asked me if I wanted to listen to some CDs of the show [after recording was completed], to see how the first two episodes went. It was really interesting to listen to the difference between Bruce Wayne and Batman and also to see if tonally it all sort of matched and had a distinctive sense of humor that was consistent throughout it. So listening to that really was a chance for me to kind of hone where I wanted to go. I didn’t really have it right from the start. I think I had a sense of humor and the voice for Batman but not really the overall tone of the show. I think as we’ve gone on it’s gotten better and better and better.

You have a long history of voice-over work. How does this experience compare?

Well, this is very different and a lot of fun. First of all, being the lead of a show where there’s only one regular and that’s me is a lot of pressure. But I try to really welcome everybody coming in and set a nice, comfortable tone for everybody to express themselves and have a good time. Because when I was on The Zeta Project, again with Andrea Romano — this was many years ago — there were a lot of regulars. So there was something very democratic about it, because you’re all paid the same, and you see each other every week. But in this there’s only me and then the guest stars. Luckily, we have a great ensemble that comes and goes and plays a lot of different characters. It’s different. More pressure, but also a lot of fun. I feel like the host of a party every week.

When you do your recording, are the other actors there? If not, are you able to at least hear their characterizations?

That’s the thing about Warner Bros. They have you record with everybody else, and it’s vastly preferable. But because everybody’s a guest, you have to be host.

You’re playing more of a straight man role, then?

Yeah, that’s it. Batman has a sense of humor, but it’s more dry and ironic and more of the straight man. Exactly. He’s more of a commentary on how crazy the people are that he’s with and the crazy situation he’s in rather than sort of driving the comedy, which is what a lot of the guest stars do, a lot of the guest superheroes.

A lot of your roles are more wild and outgoing. Is being a straight man difficult?

It is interesting to have to not play up to my hammy instincts. Because when you’re the lead, you have to make sure that the story stays on track and doesn’t sort of fly off, with everybody doing whatever they want. That’s what you need to do, especially in an action show, where the action has to be clear and the story has to propel forward. So sometimes we have guest stars and have an absolute blast — you know, Tom Kenny — and I feel a little envious that I’m not able to kind of go as out there as they can because I have to keep the story on track.

Just to show the devotion the fans have to the character, I remember being shocked at Comic-Con when you guys came for the panel, and one of the biggest receptions was for Andrea Romano. I mean, how often do you see that kind of reaction for a voice director?

I loved that! That was huge! And it meant a lot to Andrea as well. You know, it’s a very small, cloistered world, the world of voice-over. You don’t really know that anybody knows you when you step out. It’s always fascinating to see real genuine fans of animation and that they know who you are, because there’s a real anonymity to it, obviously. You know, you’re a cartoon or you direct the dialogue of cartoons. But Andrea’s really one of the three best dialogue directors I’ve ever worked with, and just a joy. It was fabulous for me to see her get the recognition that she did that day.