It Took A Lot Of Trial And Error To Find The Right Voice For Futurama's Bender

One of the main characters in Matt Groening's and David X. Cohen's animated sci-fi show "Futurama" is the appropriately named Bender, an alcoholic robot played by John DiMaggio. Bender is an amusing, crass rogue, fond of telling the organic beings around him — which he has nicknamed "meatbags"  or "pork pouches" — to bite his shiny metal ass. Because of a bizarre design quirk, robots in the future are fueled by alcohol, meaning all the robots on "Futurama" are the tiniest bit drunk at all times. If they don't drink enough, their batteries wear down and they ... also behave as if they're drunk. 

Bender, in addition to his alcoholism, is also a petty criminal, known for snatching purses, picking pockets, fleecing houses, and, according to Fry (Billy West), stealing human blood on the odd occasion. Bender has had run-ins with the Robot Mafia, participated in high-stakes gambling, and has engaged in just about any vice you can think of. He has even had several encounters with the Robot Devil (Dan Castellaneta). On a commentary track for "Futurama," Cohen admitted that censors gave him and the show's writers a good deal of leeway when it came to Bender's behavior.

In the early episodes of "Futurama," Bender had the voice of an old hobo. Slightly strained, a little bit slurred, certainly antagonistic. As the show evolved, Bender's voice became clearer, but also noisier and more brash. In a 2011 interview with SpoilerTV, Cohen admitted that the "loudmouth" voice he has now wasn't always the plan, and there was a lot of experimenting with just how "robotic" Bender ought to sound. 

Conditioned by science fiction

Cohen, with a tone that reads a mite like pride, admitted that even he auditioned for the role of Bender. All of the actors they saw were given "robotic" voice performances — either flat, electronic voice readings or bold, deep Robby the Robot-style performances. Because they had so much trouble finding an actor, Cohen even stepped into the booth briefly. It's worth noting that Cohen's own voice, while clean and clear, has a nasal quality far from the eventual voice audiences would hear with DiMaggio. Cohen explained: 

"At the very dawn of the show, we were trying to figure out what Bender would sound like, and it seems obvious in retrospect that he sounds like this loudmouth drunk, but ... we were conditioned by the history of science fiction that ... he should sound like a robot, probably."

If a co-worker tells you that you sound like a robot, it may not be out of kindness. But that's the way Cohen took it when he heard that very thing, leading to him auditioning for Bender:

"At first we thought he's going to talk in a monotone way, and then we said it's not working, so we got all these guys with super deep voices, and we were just going on and on auditioning dozens of people for the role; nothing was working. So at some point someone at the office said 'Hey Dave, you sound like a robot, why don't you audition for the role?' I've never been entirely sure how to take that, but I've decided to take it as a compliment."

Although he was the showrunner on "Futurama," Cohen did not get the role.

Just imitating robots

Cohen elucidates on his audition process and how it revealed to him that he is certainly not an actor. It surely didn't help that Cohen was also the one listening to audition tapes and was unable to break the patterns he and the other casting execs had been repeatedly exposed to. Cohen, at least, gained a new appreciation for the craft of voice acting. It turns out that not just anyone can do it, no matter how much your co-workers think you sound like a robot: 

"I auditioned, and I often point to that as the moment I gained great respect for actors, because the goal was to sit down and deliver the lines in the voice of David Cohen, and the second I started reading it I became unable to do that. All I could think of was how did the last person do it who was auditioning? I was utterly incompetent at it"

Actor John DiMaggio has been voice acting since the 1996 surrealist MTV series "The Head," and had something of a career breakthrough playing multiple characters on the 1990s version of "The Mr. Men Show" based on the children's books by Roger Hargreaves. DiMaggio became an indispensable part of "Futurama" and Cohen was relieved to hear the actor's take on a drunken robot. The solution was elegant: more drunk, less robot. 

"Luckily, John DiMaggio came in and did his drunken Bender voice as the audition for the professor, and someone suggested he try it again as Bender, and it instantly seemed to work, so a miracle happened. So I'm the would-be Bender, but other than that, no I don't think I'm a good match for any of them."

"Futurama" will return on Hulu in 2023.