Television here in Madden Mansions isn’t as grown up as we like to pretend. Oh sure, we talk and twitter about ‘The West Wing’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and ‘Dollhouse’ and ‘House’, but I’d say 85% of the time if the television’s on, it’s on channel 611 – Playhouse Disney. Call it a side-effect of having a really small child. Despite arguably being too young for the amount of TV he gets to see, he still has his favourites. If there’s singing and dancing, he wants to join in. If there’s silly noises – even better. And I’m exposing him to as much old Sesame Street as YouTube and the Sesame Street website can muster. But more than any of these, he loves ‘Handy Manny’.
‘Handy Manny’ is about, well, Manny Garcia, a bilingual Hispanic handyman and his all-singing all-dancing tools – Dusty the Saw, Pat the Hammer, Rusty the Monkey Wrench, Squeeze the Pliers, Stretch the Tape Measure, Felipe and Turner the Screwdrivers, and in later episodes, Flicker the Flashlight. They live in Sheetrock Hills, where they solve the locals’ building, maintenance and sometimes moral dilemmas. I’ve described it to friends without kids as ‘Bob the Builder’ meets ‘Dora the Explorer’ – it’s aimed pretty much exclusively at pre-schoolers – it tackles all the essential lessons of teamwork, cultural diversity, friendship, manners and even basic Spanish. The target audience is very definitely pre-schoolers, though – this isn’t something you’re likely to turn back on once the kids are in bed, but it is one of those rare ‘little kids only’ shows that you won’t be annoyed at having to watch with your little ones.
To promote Hispanic Heritage Month, Disney Channel in the US will be showing a week-long marathon of Handy-Manny episodes starting on September 14th. These will be have various celebration themes – birthdays, Cinco de Mayo, Quinceañera (Hispanic Heritage, remember?), New Year’s Eve – and at the end of it all a mini-marathon and a brand new episode on September 18th. No word just yet on when we get the new episode this side of the Atlantic, but I’m sure they won’t leave us hanging too long.
But the really big news from Sheetrock Hills is that for one night only, Manny is going primetime. Sunday October 4th will see Playhouse Disney air a special family reunion/road trip episode. I was lucky enough to get to talk to Kath Soucie, who voices Dusty the Saw in advance of the special events about her work on the show and her fantastic career voicing animation and video games. If you’ve been a fan of cartoons at almost any point over the past 25 years, chances are you’ve heard her voice in something. Full disclosure – thanks to a 12 year old minidisc recorder finally and unexpectedly giving up the ghost, I had to change this from the Q&A format I’d intended. Further disclosure – Kath is lovely to talk to, so I’m fairly sure I ended up gushing by the end of the interview. When talking about the characters she’d played, on more than one occasion she demonstrated the voices and continued the interview in character – if I ever get to talk to her again, I’m definitely getting set up to podcast it.
So what goes into recording ‘Handy Manny’?
“We usually get through about two episodes in a days’ session. We get into the studio, we chat, we laugh, we do a read through. The director will then usually give us some pointers – put more enthusiasm into this line, emphasise that word, and then we start recording. At some point we’ll break for lunch, go back and record some more.”
“It’s such fun working with those guys. Sometimes I’ll get a script, I’ll see a line and immediately I’ll think how I can’t wait to hear how Dee (Bradley Baker, who plays Turner) or Tom (Kenny, who plays Pat) or Fred (Stoller, who plays Rusty) will play it. I really love Rusty – I love all of them, but I love how Fred puts himself entirely into the character. And don’t you love Mr. Lopart? He has this great, if misplaced confidence in himself and I love his naïveté.”
I do love Mr Lopart, I tell her, (I also mention he reminds me of John Hodgman) but my favourite aspect of the show, and one that I always marvel at is Kelly’s Hardware store, and her uncanny ability to have everything in stock. In one show, she has a windmill axle. Not something that will do in a pinch, but a boxed, branded windmill axle. It’s pretty incredible. “I know! It’s great, isn’t it? I’m going to give you a spoiler – we have an episode coming up where Kelly doesn’t have the part in stock. But there’s a great moment, they restore an old lawnmower, and it’s a great lesson not just in recycling but in the memories, the emotions we attach to old things.”
Kath has a phenomenal resumé – her IMDb page includes credits going back to the early eighties, across video games, kid-oriented animation (like ‘Rugrats’, where she was probably best know as the voices of twins Phil and Lil DeVille), and more grown up fare (including ‘Futurama’, although I chicken out of asking her to say the line “what’s the matter, never seen a genius’s wiener before?”) I figure she’s had some favourites over the years.
“I’ve been lucky enough to play some great characters. I played Nerissa in a Disney show called ‘W.I.T.C.H.’, who was a really great character to play. Rolly in ‘101 Dalmatians’ was such fun, because of the voice, you have to get quite high and childlike, but at the same time snuffly and distracted.” I’m completely geeking out at this point, because she has started to adopt the voices as she describes the characters. “Oh! And Miriam Pataki! Miriam’s great. On this Nickelodeon show, ‘Hey Arnold!’ I played Miriam Pataki, who is the mom of one of the kid characters in the show. With the writers, we wanted to do something a little bit subversive with the character, so there are hints throughout that she’s kind of an alcoholic – whatever she’s drinking out of you’ll hear the faint clink of ice cubes, or she’ll seem to black out for a minute. Her voice is fun to do, too – it’s a little pinched and sort of rushed.” I can’t do justice in print to what it’s like to hear Kath switch into a character voice. It’s all I can do not to crack up.
So what’s on her wishlist for the future?
“I’d love to do something for Animal Planet. I love everything on that channel, I’m a big pet lover and I think you could do a lot with pets. They’ve such distinctive personalities, I think there’s a lot you can do with that.” I mention the show ‘Meerkat Manor‘, about a family of meerkats (filmed in a documentary style, but with dramatic narration added later). “I love that show! Couldn’t you see that working well with other animals too?” Soucie’s love of animals goes beyond just watching them on TV, of course. “We’ve adopted some cats, one of whom has gone on to have kittens. And I do a lot of work with Best Friends, an animal charity in Utah.”
In the US ‘Handy Manny’ airs weekdays at 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. ET/PT, and weekends at 8:30 and 10:30a.m. ET/PT during Disney Channel’s Playhouse Disney programming block for preschoolers. A new episode to wrap up the Hispanic Heritage event airs September 18th.
In the UK, ‘Handy Manny’ airs every day, roughly every two hours between 7.30am and 10.30pm on Playhouse Disney (Channel 611 on the Sky system).
The Primetime Special, ‘Handy Manny’s Motorcycle Adventure’, airs Sunday October 4th at 7pm on the Disney Channel (US only). Guest stars include Donny Osmond and Kris Kristofferson, and it features new songs written and performed by Tom Kenny and Andy Paley.
The Best Friends Animal Society is at bestfriends.org.