In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
A talented actor who’s appeared in everything from Law & Order to Grace And Frankie—on which he plays Nwabudike “Bud” Bergstein, the adopted son of Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston’s characters—Baron Vaughn has also made a fairly substantial name for himself in the comedy world. He’s done stand-up for years, and has not one but two podcasts: Deep S##! With Baron Vaughn, his philosophy podcast, and Maltin On Movies, which he co-hosts with legendary film critic Leonard Maltin. Most notable to some, however, is Vaughn’s next project, as he’ll provide the voice of Tom Servo in the upcoming Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot, appearing alongside human host Jonah Ray and Hampton Yount’s Crow T. Robot. There’s no release date for that reboot yet, but it’s expected to drop sometime later this year.
The A.V. Club asked Vaughn its 11 Questions backstage at the Riot LA comedy festival.
Baron Vaughn: That’s actually not a bad question in and of itself. I just like being heard.
I guess I’d like to be asked, “What are you moving toward?” which is a very generalized sort of idea. It can mean so many things. It can mean what are you moving toward spiritually, psychologically, personally, or career-wise. It’s a question that’s about your aim and your focus and your drive, as opposed to what you have already done. It’s more about what you want to move toward, what you want to do.
AVC: And it can be a short-term question or a long-term question, as in, “What do you want to do by the end of the year, and what do you want to do by the time you’re 80?”
BV: Sometimes I have young comics that ask me, “What should I do when I meet an agent or a manager and they ask me stuff?” And I say, “Well, they always usually ask, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years, 10 years, 15 years?’ And it’s good to have an answer for that.” Because that’s exactly what going to happen, and it can be generalized. It’s like, “Oh, in five years, I want to have been on a show, and in 10 years, I want to have maybe been in a movie or two, and sold a movie, and in 15 years I want to blah-blah.” You know, stuff like that just to have some targets to aim for. Does it mean it’s going to happen exactly that way? No, but it shows where your mind is at.
AVC: You probably wouldn’t have guessed you were going to be a robot.
BV: I had no idea that I would be Tom Servo. Exactly. It wasn’t until a series of magical events happened and I found myself being responsible for a voice that a lot of people have very strong opinions about. So I aim to please, and hopefully not disappoint those who love the show.
AVC: How do you do that? You’re surely not going to try to please everyone all the time, but are you hearing from people on Twitter who have advice and, as you said, strong opinions?
BV: Yes. That does happen. Actually, when they were making the announcement about who was doing Tom Servo and Crow, we had a long conversation with the Mystery Science Theater 3000 brass, if you will, including Joel [Hodgson], about how to handle the social media burst. They were like, “people are going to have a lot of opinions,” so they knew that there were going to be a lot of people that wanted to chime in and say a lot of different things.
I’ve gotten a little feedback like, “Oh, the voice should be more like this,” but the thing about that is that they’re thinking about the voice and not necessarily the chemistry. What’s more important is the chemistry that me and Hampton [Yount] and Jonah [Ray] have and how we play with each other. So the voice is actually secondary. But that said, there are some ideas I have on the character, if you will, of Tom Servo that will make the voice sound different than I think a lot of people expect.
AVC: People might also think they want one thing, but that doesn’t mean that’s what they really want.
BV: When it was announced that Michael Keaton was going to be Batman, everyone was mad. When they announced that Val Kilmer was going to be Batman, everyone was mad. When it was announced that George Clooney was going to be Batman, everyone was mad. When it was announced that Christian Bale was going to be Batman, everyone was mad. And everyone was mad about Ben Affleck. So every single incarnation, people are going to be mad; you just can’t do anything about it.
BV: A giraffe.
AVC: Like a 40-foot-tall giraffe?
BV: Oh yeah. But that’s their neck. Like if you’re driving down the street, you keep the neck forward. So that way you can clear out the lanes. That’s what it would do, just kind of clear people out of the path.
AVC: They are a little frail in the leg region, though.
BV: They seem like they’re frail. But are they, really? Or is that just how they want to seem to lions?
AVC: They’re probably fast.
BV: I think they are pretty fast. They seem to outrun predators here and there, at least when I look at the videos. They’re like, “Let’s get out of here!” But they’re so lanky that it seems like they’re moving slowly.
AVC: This is a gross question but have you ever seen a video of a giraffe having a baby?
BV: I haven’t. They have them standing up, right?
AVC: Yeah. It’s just like, blam!
BV: Technically isn’t that how humans are supposed to have babies, too? Like, crouched over, like that “Oh! Let gravity do it!” sort of a thing. But I’ve never seen a video, no.
AVC: It’s harsh.
BV: Well it looks like I’m going to be in a really disgusting Google/YouTube K-hole tonight.
BV: You know, it used to be Ladybugs starring Rodney Dangerfield and Jonathan Brandis and Jackée. For some reason that movie just always seemed to be on if I was flipping around cable, but it might be The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, the Terry Gilliam film that kind of ruined his reputation in Hollywood. Or Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. It’s a toss-up between one of those two movies. Do you know The Last Dragon?
BV: Oooh. Taimak, Vanity, a young William H. Macy… It’s basically—you would say a late Blaxploitation era—but basically a Black martial arts film that Berry Gordy produced, with an amazing soundtrack featuring DeBarge. Great movie.
AVC: Those are three very different movies.
BV: That’s how eclectic I am.
Maybe the Disney animated version of Robin Hood, too. The one with the foxes? I’ve seen that a lot too.
AVC: A lot of people have a crush on the Robin Hood fox.
BV: Really? An anthropomorphic crush?
I just like the music. The music is incredible. It’s an incredible film.
BV: It was a long time before I understood what the word “specific” was. I remember being a kid and thinking it was “pacific,” and being like, “Can you be more pacific?” And I believed that for maybe five, six years until someone was like, “It’s ‘specific.’” I might’ve been like 11 or 12 by the time I heard that, and I was like, “Oh, I should know that by now.” That’s the first thing that comes to mind. I wish I could be more pacific but that’s the first one that comes to mind.
BV: I read recently that I was born in Arizona. I wasn’t born in Arizona. I was born in New Mexico, but I can understand why people might confuse those two Southwestern desert states.
AVC: Did you read it in an article, or just on Wikipedia?
BV: It was in an interview that I gave.
AVC: Also, why mention that?
BV: I believe I specifically talked about being from Las Vegas, and for some reason that turned into Arizona. So I’m just kind of like, maybe this person just thinks Vegas is in Arizona.
BV: I want to say it was a shrimp head, which is pretty common in Japanese cuisine. I went to a sushi restaurant with a girl I was seeing at the time who was Japanese, so we ordered the omakase, which I believe means, “I trust you.” You just basically say, “Whatever you have, bring it. I trust you. You’re a great chef.” And they brought these shrimp heads. She was like, “Oh, I love these!” and I was like, “there’s eyes.” That was—if something’s looking at me, that’s the really hard thing.
AVC: Do you eat it whole or do you just suck out the insides?
BV: It was tempura. You just eat it. I think you’re supposed to like crack it open and then suck out the… I don’t know, the brains or something? I was like, “I’m not sure I’m into this.”
AVC: They’re a little bug-like.
BV: Well, shrimp are the insects of the ocean. They’re bottom feeders. So they’re delicious, but they’re the bugs of the sea.
I don’t really go to live music that much, because I don’t know if you know this but they’ll let anyone in. Anyone who buys a ticket can just go in there, and I don’t like everyone, so I always see concerts as like, I’m going to get punched, I’m going to get elbowed, I’m going to get stepped on, get spilled on, someone’s going to hit me with their body odor or something. But my girlfriend in high school was very much into classic rock. Heart came to town and she could not believe that I had never been to a concert. So she and her mom—because that’s how high school works—took me to see Heart. And I walked out of there going, like, “That was really loud.”
AVC: And Heart’s not a stereotypically loud band.
BV: Well, they were trying to rock it out, so they turned everything up to 11.
AVC: You know, they also let anybody into your shows.
BV: That’s true, but I’m on stage. I have all the power. With the microphone, my voice is being magnified. Easier situation.
BV: I did get to go to Africa. I’d never been.
The first show I was on was a USA show called Fairly Legal. They were showing it in a bunch of different countries in Africa, and so they asked me if I wanted to go to South Africa. I was like, “Yeah.” Go to Johannesburg on their dime? First class air, which I would never be able to afford in a million years! And then I basically did an entire day of interviews and hung out in Johannesburg walking around and kind of seeing what it was like. I just never thought I’d be able to go to Africa, at all.
I learned a very important lesson, too, about our country’s body dysmorphia, because Los Angeles to Dubai is like 16 hours, and then Dubai to Johannesburg is eight hours, so it was 24 hours of flying, plus a two-hour layover. But if you look at a map, New York to L.A. is a bigger distance than Dubai to Johannesburg, and that only takes six hours. I’m thinking, why is this taking longer? Is it because we’re going north to south? It’s because we make America look huge on maps. That’s what it is. The continent of Africa is gigantic. And we’re much smaller. So I was like, “Oh, we have body dysmorphia.” That’s what it is.
AVC: Those “here’s how big everything really is” maps are always interesting to look at online.
BV: You can fit two United States and maybe a third one into the entire continent of Africa, but on a map we make the entire continent of Africa look like the size of the United States, which is why a lot of people don’t know that Africa is a continent. They think it’s a country because it looks as big as we do.
AVC: People are also dumb.
BV: People are also dumb. But I’m saying that that’s some serious indoctrination to be getting from like third grade, like that, “Africa’s really small, we’re awesome” sort of situation.
AVC: Or you learn about the animals of Africa but you don’t learn about the countries.
BV: Yeah, you learn about the animals but you don’t know where you can find them.
BV: Ska. I was really into ska.
AVC: Were you in high school or was this when you were older?
BV: I was in high school. It had to do with the fact that I heard a ska cover, and I thought that that was amazing, so I was specifically only into cover songs.
AVC: There are a lot of ska cover songs.
BV: Exactly. Because most of the ska bands, their original music, I don’t really care for. But a creative, fun, upbeat cover of a song I already knew? I’ll go with you on that. Some ska bands are great, though. I found some of my favorite bands through that phase. But a lot of them are just horrible.
AVC: How far did you take it? Were you wearing suspenders and checked Vans?
BV: Not that far. If you saw me you wouldn’t have known that I listened to ska. I would’ve just been like, “Hey, did you listen to that new Reel Big Fish?” and you would’ve been like, “Uh… this black guy is talking about Reel Big Fish.” That’s what happened, basically. Mostly.
BV: The only thing I’ve ever stolen are hours out of people’s lives with meandering conversations.
Surprisingly I’ve never really stolen anything. One time when I was really young, I was walking down the street, found a GI Joe in the mud, and took it home and I was like, “I got a GI Joe!” And then my great grandmother was like, “You stole that.” I said, “What are you talking about?” and she said, “That’s not yours.” I’m like, “But I found it!” She’s like, “But it’s not yours, and therefore you stole it.” So I just went and put it right back in the mud where I found it.
AVC: But how would you know whose it was? You couldn’t return it to them, necessarily.
BV: I thought it was finders keepers, losers weepers. That’s what I was told my all of my teachers! But not really.
AVC: Maybe if it was in someone’s yard in the mud you could be like, “Okay. It might be owned by whoever lives here.”
BV: Yeah. It might’ve been in someone’s yard, but it was an open yard.
BV: Fortunately on Grace And Frankie I’m working with a bunch of famous people, you know, but before that, you know who I met a couple times is Brad Paisley, country superstar, because my friend’s sister was married to him. And he’s a cool guy, but he’s super famous.
One time I was really close to Steve Martin. I was too afraid to actually go talk to him, but I’ll count that as meeting.
AVC: It’s hard to know what to ask him. You want to talk to him but you also want to have a meaningful conversation. What do you even say?
BV: It was a situation in which he seemed to be being really social, and I heard he’s not usually that social, but he was like shaking hands, and people were like, “Go talk to him! Go talk to him!” But I was like, “What am I going to say to Steve Martin? What am I going to say?” And then I was outta there.
Oh! Chris Rock. I did meet Chris Rock. He’s very famous.
AVC: It’s hard to know who’s the most famous of those people, objectively.
BV: Yeah, because Brad Paisley is very famous, but only to certain people, but enough people that he’s more famous maybe even than Chris Rock.
AVC: Chris Rock may be more famous worldwide.
BV: Chris Rock is pretty famous worldwide. As is Dave Chappelle, who I’ve also met. Those are probably the most famous.
Bonus 12th question from Paul F. Tompkins: What are you afraid of?
BV: Possibly abandonment, and, if you will, in a really existential way, being exposed as a fraud.
AVC: Everyone’s afraid of that.
BV: Everyone’s afraid of it, and I definitely am. This is a fear that motivates. Oh, and heights. And getting stabbed.
AVC: Why stabbed and not shot?
BV: Because getting shot is really common in our country. Getting stabbed is uncommon, and it also takes longer to die. So you have to sit there with that pain of being stabbed. Also, you might survive it and have a crazy scar.
AVC: This is morbid, but I always think about how much more hardcore things were before guns were readily available. Like, if you watch old movies or historical movies like Gangs Of New York, it’s a good reminder that if you used to want to kill someone, you had to really get up close and personal.
BV: Yeah, that’s when killing someone was an up-close, face-to-face thing. After we invented guns, you could do it from a distance. Before, it was all about stabbing or punching someone until they were dead. You had to really want that person dead.
AVC: You could both get stabbed and be found out as a fraud at the same time.
BV: And the fraud is just like an “I didn’t want to kill him but then I was stabbing and I might as well follow through” sort of situation.
AVC: What do you want to ask the next person?
BV: What place have you always wanted to go?
AVC: Do you have an answer?
BV: I really want to get to Asia. I haven’t been to Asia.
AVC: Where in Asia?
BV: The thing is that where I want to go isn’t necessarily tied to what’s going on there politically, but I think Vietnam is a really beautiful country. I think Thailand is also really beautiful. So a lot of the countries that have messed-up politics…
Also, the Middle East is gorgeous, but again, politically, I would not want to go there. But if I could just go there and not have to deal with anyone and take in the sights, then Saudi Arabia and Iraq… those are historical places. The alphabet was invented in Iraq, so it’s a cool place.
AVC: If you say you want to go to Vietnam, do you want to go to Ho Chi Minh City, or do you want to go to little islands, or do you want to do the whole shebang?
BV: It’s more about the little islands. It’s more about the jungle. And the nature that places like Cambodia and Vietnam and Laos, Burma have…
AVC: You want to get in a canoe and go down those rivers.
BV: That would be amazing to do. Will I get kidnapped? Definitely. But if there was no kidnapping possible, I would want to go there.