“The Show Must Go On!” An interview with Stephen Blum

My second interview for this past weekend came a mere twenty minutes after the first, and I must admit I was a bit nervous going into it. Stephen Blum is a voice actor whose work, including Cowboy Bebop and other Toonami staples, I’d know even when I was young and knew next to nothing about the anime industry as a whole. So meeting and interviewing him in person was both a great honor for me, and once more I’d like to thank the management at Anime USA for making it happen.

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Stephen Blum is one of the most prolific voice-over artists in the west and has appeared on more television shows, anime, and video games than I could list here. His most famous roles include anime characters such as Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop, Roger Smith from the Big O, and many characters in the original Digimon series. In western works, he has also served as the voice of Wolverine in several animated versions of the X-Men, Amon, the lead villain of the Legend of Korra, and the most recent incarnation of Starscream from the Transformers franchise.  To many, however, he is perhaps best known as the voice of TOM, the robotic host of Cartoon Network’s Toonami animation block. On top of all of this, he is also credited by the Guinness Book of World Records for possessing the most video game voice over credits of any single actor.

Unlike Wendee Lee, with whom I had spoken earlier in the day, Blum was not a trained actor but rather a musician in a California-based rock band when he first got into the world of voice over work. His first role was that of a monster in the anime The Guyver, which he auditioned for simply because he had the deepest voice of any male at the audition. From there he remarked that he learned the profession as he went, picking up tricks of the trade, such as timing, as he progressed through a variety of roles in anime, games, and even cartoons. His talents would then go onto land him a variety of roles over the years, and he added that it was his work as Spike in Cowboy Bebop that opened many doors for him, including appearing in the cartoon Megas XLR.

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When I asked why he believes Cowboy Bebop has been as popular as it has over the last decade and a half, Blum stated that it was many things that combined to make up a greater whole. Between the music of composer Yoko Kanno, the slick cinematography of director Shinichiro Watanabe, and all around great writing and story, it was a show that was perfectly suited to appeal to the English anime market and was an easy anime for American fans to get into. He added that he also felt that the dub cast, of which he was a part, of its success in the west and that there was a lot of love put into the dub from all of its actors. Blum also worked with Wendee Lee on Bebop and said that her voice nicely resonated with his, as Wendee had said of him earlier in the day, and that she was like family to him.

Being that he has worked in so many fields over the years, I asked Blum if there was any difference between doing voice work for anime, video games, and western animation. He replied that in the end, acting is acting, and there isn’t any different from the actors’ end when it came down to it. However, he also added that on the production end of things, each medium carries its own quirks, such as anime actors doing work alone in the recording booth, while those in the west typically read their lines together. Video games, in particular, offer a unique challenge, said Blum, as they are much larger in scale then animated work and tend to have much larger scripts to fit. Leading to actors recording more lines per reading than any other format.

As mentioned prior, Blum currently holds the record for most voice overs in the video game industry, but how he got the award is a funny story that I will recount here in full. Blum was first contacted by Guinness with the possibility that he might hold the record in 2012. While he had no idea how many voice acting credits he had at the time, he and his agent then poured over his IMBD page and other sources and counted them up to find that he did, in fact, hold the record after all. Now, Guinness had wanted to award the record to Blum at E3 that year, but sadly, he could not get a ticket to the event, and an alternate venue had to planned. Eventually everyone involved settled on holding the event at the Nickelodeon Studios in Florida, where Blum was at the time recording lines for his role as Amon in The Legend of Korra. After the recording, Blum waited in the lobby with a friend of his who was going to photograph the event. But as time past, they had to leave, and by the time the whole thing finally came together. Blum was unceremoniously handed the award for his record, then photographed against a blank wall;  despite the fact that a banner with his Korra character on it had been prepared for the occasion.

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Blum was full of stories when I spoke to him and also related in-depth how he came to play the role of TOM, the robotic host of Cartoon Network’s Toonami animation block, and the tale behind the block’s 2012-present revival. Blum had initially taken over the role of TOM from his original voice actor when the block began trying to appeal to an older audience. He would voice the character until Toonami’s last broadcast in the late 2000s, but returned for one night in 2012 when, instead of their usual April Fool’s programming, Adult Swim turned the night into a Toonami Revival, complete with showings of every show that had appeared in the original version of the block. These shows were provided free of cost by the studios, and the whole thing was meant to be a sort of gift to the fans of Toonami all those years ago. Blum recorded the dialogue for the event, and did so without asking for pay, at his home studio, and the whole thing was aired on the night of April 1st.

During the event, which was not announced beforehand, Adult Swim’s viewership jumped from 200,000 to nearly 1.5 million, which led to Blum receiving a text from his agent that he had to check Twitter right away. The social media platform had exploded with fans talking about the revival, and Blum quickly learned to use the site and began interacting with everyone watching at home. Even after the night ended, fans clamored for Cartoon Network to put together a complete revival of Toonami. This led to several mass media campaigns, one of which crashed Cartoon Network’s website, and the eventual resurrection of the block as part of Adult Swim’s Saturday night programming. According to Blum, all work on the block is done by employees of the network after working hours and is completely a labor of love for all involved, which includes putting together a podcast every week called Toonami Pre-Flight. Today, he remarked, Toonami is helping to get new anime out there and bring new fans to the medium, as its original iteration had over a decade before.

I wrapped up my interview with Blum by asking what sort of fan response he typically got from his fans at conventions. Blum related that his first convention was in San Jose about fifteen years ago, and back then the fans were absolutely vicious and mean. He even received death threats from fans who felt that he was “ruining the art form” of anime, and the entire experience turned him off doing to conventions for over half a decade. It was only eight years later when some friends of his were going to a con, that he decided to tag along and found that anime fandom had changed drastically in the time he had been away. The fans were nicer, and now even appreciated his work! Some, he recalled, actually knew more about his work than he did, and that they would often tell him that he was the voice of their childhood for his work in shows like Digimon and his various roles on Toonami. He then added that he was humbled by the response he got at conventions like Anime USA and that seeing his fans loving his work so much is one reason he keeps going in the field as well.

With that, the interview came to a close, but not before, by personal request, Blum gave us a pitch-perfect “Big O! Show Time!” in the voice of Roger Smith, the protagonist of the 1999 anime the Big O. A perfect way to end an excellent interview.

I would like to thank Stephen Blum for taking the time to sit down and talk to us at APGNation. You can follow Blum on Twitter @blumspew

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Nicole Seraphita
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My name is Nicole Seraphita and I’m 27. I’ve been gaming since the days of the NES and have owned at least one system from each generation since then. My favorite type of games if most definitely RPGs, with my favorites being titles like Chrono Cross, Persona 4, and Tales of Xillia, though I also sometimes dabble in platforming games, fighting games, and visual novels. When I’m not writing for APGNation or playing games, I enjoy table top and card games, watch anime, and write fiction that I occasionally publish online. I tend to write a lot of Sci-fi and the occasional bit of fantasy, with the often overlooked sub-genre of Biopunk being my favorite. I’ve also written a few visual novels, though only one of them has made it all the way to completion thus far. My current dream is to be able to bring the Monster Girl genre to a western audience.

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