Toy Story

Everyone knows Toy Story has a very recognizable cast under all that colorful CG — Tom Hanks and Tim Allen voice the leads, and Don Rickles and Wallace Shawn help fill out the supporting cast. But one of the very first actors cast for the groundbreaking project was actually Penn Jillette, of the magician duo Penn & Teller.

Jillette has a cameo as the announcer in the Buzz Lightyear toy commercial that finally convinces Buzz he’s actually a toy.  In the most recent episode of his podcast, Jillette revealed exactly how the role came to be, what the experience was like, and what the one wish was that John Lasseter wouldn’t grant him. Hit the jump to get all the details on the Penn Jillette Toy Story appearance. 

On his podcast Penn’s Sunday School, Jillette begins his Toy Story tale with the disclaimer that his memories have “definitely morphed” in the 20 years since the movie was released. To be sure, our memories of the mid-’90s are pretty hazy as well. So here’s Jillette’s Toy Story role if you don’t quite remember it.

And now, on to the hows and whys.

Penn Jillette may have been the first actor cast.

Back when Pixar was making the first Toy Story, the studio wasn’t nearly the powerhouse it is today. Jillette says he only knew about Pixar “because Steve Jobs told me about it,” but the Pixar team was definitely aware of Jillette.

I believe when Pixar set up their computers, the first two servers they set up were named Penn and Teller. And I believe the first person cast for Toy Story was me. John Lasseter really wanted me to play the part of the announcer. He got in touch with me, he said he was doing this movie. It’s really funny ‘cause in my journal that I keep every day, I don’t have the name of the movie right. I have it “Toy Store.” I thought that was the name of the movie. And I just say “some cartoon thing.” ‘Cause when I recorded it Tom Hanks wasn’t cast… I don’t think he was cast. I may be wrong on that.

John Lasseter wanted Penn Jillette to be as loud as possible.

In any case, Jillette agreed to do the role. As toy commercials for kids involve a lot of screaming, Lasseter wanted “to record the loudest human voice ever recorded for this Buzz Lightyear commercial.” But beyond that, Jillette recalls, Lasseter wanted him for his personality. Jillette continues, paraphrasing Lasseter:

All this copy here about Buzz Lightyear, you are in a certain sense playing yourself. You are the buzzkill. You are the one that explains that Buzz Lightyear is not a flying toy. You are the moment when they realize that they are toys. And so you are really really important to the plot. You only get a few lines, but you’re really really important to the plot.

Lasseter reportedly told Jillette to “put a full day’s work in that 15 seconds” that it would take to record the part. Jillette was instructed to hold nothing back because, Lasseter promised, they’d get it all in one take.

After all that, Penn Jillette was actually too loud.

According to Jillette, Lasseter told him to “scream like someone in your family is dying and you have to save them,” to scream until he was choking and his head was hurting, to scream so loud he’d need a full day to recover. Jillette followed those instructions perhaps a bit too well.

So I stood in the room and I went [inhales and exhales deeply]. I took the paper in front of me, and I went [inhales and exhales deeply]. And then I started yelling. And I yelled the whole Buzz Lightyear ad, and then I bent over, put my hands on my knees, I was faint.

And I looked through the glass booth and everybody in the other room was laughing hysterically. And I went — I put up my fingers — is that okay? And Lasseter shook his head no. And I went — I was shocked. I opened the door and I went in the room and he went, “you bent the needles. It’s total distortion. We had it on one and you just bent the needles. We’re in here just laughing ourselves sick.”

He said, “the engineer is so mad because I told him you were going to be loud, he said there’s no way you’re going to get this loud, he said he didn’t have the right compression, he didn’t have anything, he said we ruined the take, and he said you did exactly what we asked and we fell apart, we didn’t do it.” And he said, “so you’ve got to do it again.”

The second take went more smoothly, and was the one that was used in the film. To this day, Jillette believes that Toy Story recording session was “the loudest I’ve ever been in my life.”

It’s (maybe) because of Penn Jillette that the words “toy story” are never uttered in Toy Story.

One random fact about Toy Story is that the phrase “toy story” is never uttered within it, and Jillette takes some credit for that. See, Jillette used to host Movie Nights in New York’s Times Square, where the tradition was to clap every time the title of the film was said within the film. But Lasseter warned him he wouldn’t be hearing any applause during the Toy Story Movie Night.

John Lasseter looking over the script of Toy Story said to the writers, I do not want the Movie Nighters to applaud once during this movie. I want them to be lost in it, so you cannot say “toy story.” And he said that he crossed out the words Toy Story from the script three times. Just because he did not want the Movie Nighters to be applauding. So if you listen to Toy Story — some of you are going to make me a liar of this, they’re going to go through and say oh, they do say Toy Story in Toy Story, but I don’t think so.

Now, Jillette probably isn’t entirely responsible for decision — as his co-host points out, it was probably just a better decision for the movie in general — but adds genially, “I want to pretend it was because of me. Can I do that?” We’ll let him have it.

Penn Jillette did have one request John Lasseter wouldn’t grant.

Despite a good experience overall, Jillette recalls that there was one Toy Story wish that Lasseter wouldn’t grant.

The one thing I didn’t get that I wanted, that I begged John Lasseter for but he wouldn’t give to me, is my credit in the movie is “announcer.” And I wanted my credit to be “himself.” Because I do commercials, right?

Ultimately, though, Jillette describes his Pixar role as “another one of my wishes that came through before I had them.” He recalls, “I was driving my car — this was three years after Toy Story — going boy, I wish I had just a bit part in one of those Pixar movies. Oh yeah, I do!”

Listen to the full episode of Penn’s Sunday School here. And here’s Penn Jillette’s Buzz Lightyear commercial again, now that you know the whole story.

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