What The Heck is a “Gonk”?!

Every now and then, a few sound files make their way from sound studio to sound studio — comic and sometimes painful voice-over sessions featuring celebrities unleashing various degrees of attitude towards producers, audio engineers, and anyone else in their path — sometimes justifiably so; often times not.

An increasing trend towards using semi-recognizable (and fully unmistakable) voices of anywhere from well-to quasi-known actors to sell products is a common practice nowadays — from Christine Lahti voicing Oil of Olay commercials for years, to Richard Thomas (of “Waltons” fame) lending his voice to spots for Mercedes-Benz, John Corbett for Applebee’s, Jeff Bridges for Duracell, and the workhorse of celeb V/o’s — Gene Hackman — voicing spots for Lowe’s, Oppenheimer Funds, CNN, and United Airlines. While Morgan Freeman (Visa) is impossible *not* to identify, others (like Willem Dafoe for Qwest) have that intrigue of being just slightly familiar enough to ruin your evening as you rack your brain to recall just who that might be.

The two most notorious V/o sessions which will live in infamy were recordings of two larger-than-life celebrities — Orson Welles and William Shatner — both accomplished and lauded actors, and both were hired frequently for voice-0ver work: not only for their celebrity cache; they both had undeniably powerhouse voices and deliveries which were absolutely distinct.

And one would presume that if they’ve been hired by producers/ad agencies for their unmistakable vocal quality and unique cadence, that those working with them on the sessions would leave them well enough alone in order for them to (to use my worn-out but dear-to-my-heart phrase): “Do Their Thing.”

But no.

Set Phasers to....Humiliate!

In the following sound file, William Shatner starts the V/o in his natural delivery and trademark Star Trek dreaminess that made him the icon he is today — until the producer decided to micromanage his performance: (click below):


At first, he attempts to explain his choice of delivery –then decides against doing so, and does another take in the “more energetic” style the producer requests. “There”, we’re all thinking: “He nailed it!” Not exactly. The producer responds to the take with an elongated “Uhhhhh…..” — as if starting to talk without first formulating what he should say — and we know he’s dead in the water. “Do it for me — exactly the way you want it to sound!” invites Shatner of the producer, who –against better judgment — offers a monotone, deadpan sample with down-ending sentences and all the pizazz of a wet weekend — and which Mr. Shatner imitated with eery exactness. Hearing his excruciatingly ordinary attempt being repeated back to him with startling clarity, the producer recanted his direction; showered Shatner with a sea of apologies, and hugely regretted ever intervening. Out-and-out pleading with Shatner to go back to the halcyon moments of his first delivery — which he undeniably should have just let him do from the start — Shatner cruelly sticks to his guns and refuses to voice anything without the producer reading it out loud first.

While not an advocate of loftiness in front of the mic — and definitely not a proponent of belittling anyone — especially those representing those who are signing the check — the producer’s irreversible mistake of not trusting in Mr. Shatner’s experience and talent was one that he probably still regrets to this day. I’m imagining that he ended up going to agricultural college and pursued a diametrically different career in botany, but still tells that story at dinner parties where time has softened it and made it into a delectable after-dinner story rather than what was quite possibly the worst afternoon of his life.

Would you direct that face?

The next classic recording is a spot Orson Welles did — and unlike the Shatner spot, we see Mr. Welles hit the “red zone” of anger almost off the top — at the very idea that a second take would even be requested: (click below):

Orson Wells 2

Many of us in a playful mood behind the mic will imitate Orson Welles when an innocent engineer asks for a harmless (and justifiable) second take — I’ve been known to adopt the best Orson Welles voice I can do, and bellow: “WHY? I just did it perfectly!” If the engineer is hip, he’ll warble, in a timid British accent: “Well…uh….I thought I heard a slight…GONK outside…..?”  My favorite part of the file is the long think, the long pour of water, the even longer sip, and the request to have a word with the producer. You can almost hear the engineer change careers!

The second Orson file:


…defies analysis: his hackles were up throughout the whole session, from his painful exactness at establishing the correct pea growing season to an almost fanatical urge to correct what he perceived to be crimes against grammar — he became increasingly difficult to work with, as supported by the one of the producer’s helpless attempts to assure Mr. Welles that “you did six for us last year — which were by far the best!” Nevertheless, Orson’s objections of “Too much direction in here!” and that the script was “Unpleasant to read — unrewarding!” made for an arduous and unforgiving session — and makes me wonder, every time I hear it, whether or not they managed to talk him into coming back (after storming off) and giving them the read they needed.

No one is “above direction” — anyone involved in the creative process of creating any artistic medium must be willing to “play” and contribute to the process by hearing direction clearly, responding to it appropriately, and showing your versatility and flexibility by altering your performance to the direction.

Within reason.

A good director will try to incorporate as many of the natural mannerisms and rhythms that a performer brings to the process — that’s why you hired them. In the case of someone with a “signature sound” — like a Shatner or an Orson — you’d do well to trust in their instincts and intervene only when completely necessary — because, in the clenched, fury-driven words of Orson Welles: it just might mean that “…the right reading for this is the one I’m giving!”

Next week, I’ll blog about the conundrum of royalty-free music, in the context of advertising and on-hold systems — in this free-downloadable age, many believe that *any* music is fair game be used for such purposes…and they couldn’t be more wrong.

Thanks for reading!



  1. John Todd Said:

    A “Gonk” is half of “Gonk and Geefle” muppet show routine, which teaches the virtues of sharing, and of the futility of eating nectarines. C’mon, everyone knows that! http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/The_Gonk

    • John Todd Said:

      …and to save everyone the 3 seconds of Google to get to the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFIGX6EfSSc

      (sorry to hijack a good thread on voice talent management with something fairly unrelated, but sometimes even *I* can’t resist.)


    • voicegal Said:

      How could I miss that? Obviously, the engineer meant: “Orson, I’ll have to get another take from you; there’s a blue monster with excess facial hair and a penchant for nectarines outside..” I should hire you as a blog researcher, JT!

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