Host 1: Ok! And welcome back to Cult Radio A-Go-Go! Live! with Terry and Tiffany, and we are on the phone right now with the man, the legend behind three little smaller legends.
Tiffany: That's right, we're talking to Ross Bagdasarian, Jr., son of Ross Bagdasarian, Sr., who was creator of The Chipmunks, and the man who has continued the legacy. You're on the air live with Terry and Tiffany, welcome to the show, Ross, it's such an honor.
Ross: Well, thank you very much. You know, certainly The Chipmunks are legends, I'm not exactly sure my wife and I fit into that category, but we're thrilled to be part of the furry little munks' career.
Terry: Well I must say, Ross, my heartiest congratulations to have the number three movie over the Christmas season. $50 million, boy, that'll buy a lot of hula hoops.
Ross: Well, you know, thank you so much. I mean, actually it's first week, it's actually a little over 100 million domestically, so we get to put in another order of even more hula hoops.
Terry: Ooh. There you go.
Terry: So, I wanna ask you, I mean, it's been a long time. I mean, The Chipmunks, they almost gotta seem like your children. I mean, you were raised with them around your dad, and now you kinda, like, adopted them and taken them over.
Ross: Well, you know, it's funny because, as you know, my dad created them in 1958 and when he passed away, really much, much, much too young, at the age of 52 about 35 years ago, I really wanted to just continue what he had done just in terms of, you know, I thought for a year or two we'd have The Chipmunks so that people could really appreciate what he had created. And so my wife and I, some 30-some years later continue to write the shows, and do the voices, and put out the albums that continue to do so well. So, it's obviously a kind of a crazy thing that 30-some years later, we are continuing to do more things with The Chipmunks and now The Chipettes.
Terry: It's really crazy because we're sitting here, and we're a father and daughter team by the way, and I'm 53 years old, so I grew up more with you're dad's show and my daughter grew up when you took over in the 80's with your lovely wife. And, you know, she's very grateful that your wife decided that Alvin needed a girlfriend.
Ross: Well, you know it's really funny because in about 1982, we had been doing albums for a couple of years and, you know, Chipmunk Punk, and Urban Chipmunk, and Chipmunks Christmas, and you know, they were all platinum selling albums, but we wanted to do some girls. There's so much great girl music, whether at that time it was The Go-Go's, you know, whatever the cool sound was, but you know, Janice, my wife, just kept saying, "You know, we can only put them in wigs and dresses for so long. We've gotta create girls to sing these songs," and she created The Chipettes in 1982 and then we designed them, of course, for the movie and it's amazing how tremendously well they've been received.
Terry: Of course, led to one of the most successful marriages in Hollywood. You guys have been together for a long time. Where'd you first meet?
Ross: We actually met in a health food restaurant in 1975, and for me, it was absolutely love at first sight. Janice, not so much. And it took me a couple of years of constant badgering for her to, you know, feel the same way. But we've been, you know, together now for well over 30 years and celebrated our 29th anniversary a couple months ago.
Tiffany: Oh, congratulations!
Ross: Thank you.
Tiffany: So, we want to, of course, talk about the new film and kind of get into that. Now, back in 2007 when Fox came out with the first Chipmunks movie, how did you guys feel about kind of having The Chipmunks go into yet another look? I know they've had many different looks over the years, but how did you feel about them going into actual computer-generated, real-looking chipmunks?
Ross: Well, you know what, we were all for it, because, you know, we do that. None of this happens without our absolute OK with it. You know, Janice designed The Chipmunks for that movie just as she did The Chipettes for this movie. We've been wanting to do The Chipmunks in kind of a live-action world, and so we knew they'd have to look more realistic. You know, they couldn't be three feet, four feet tall any longer because it'd then be "Attack of the Killer Chipmunks."
Ross: So, you know, it was absolutely the thing we wanted to do and because for us it's also 51 years later, how do you continue to kind of re-invent the characters in a new, fresh way and yet still keep the essence of who they are so that the three generations of fans all feel that they can recognize these characters. They are, you know, so beloved.
Tiffany: Absolutely, and since you took over The Chipmunks, I mean, you are actually doing the voice of Alvin and Simon, and of course Janice does Theodore and The Chipettes. Now, am I correct in understanding that originally in the film, you were supposed to do the voice of Alvin and play David Seville?
Ross: Well, I wasn't gonna play David Seville, although I certainly worked with Jason Lee about how to perfect that "ALVINNN!!!," so we got the yelling part of the thing down pretty well. But, I did the voice actually for Alvin and Simon for kind of a rough track of the movie, as Janice did Theodore for the first movie. And then Fox wanted to bring in actors that they thought would give it some more marketing appeal and what not. So we then taught Justin Long, who then played Alvin, and Matthew Gubler, who played Simon, and Jesse McCartney, who played Theodore, we basically taught them how to do it and it made the work a little bit easier because all three had grown up with the shows that Janice and I did for the network during the 80's and 90's.
Terry: Very, very cool. And, you know, I'm so glad. I think a lot of it was probably taught to you by your dad and the fact that you have not sold the characters, and I hope you never do. Is that something your dad kind of instilled in you?
Ross: It wasn't really that. No, it was really a matter of, you know, you want to have as much control over what you do as possible. And, you know, that's a tricky thing in this business. So, what my dad always said was, you know, "Do things for as long as you have fun and enjoy it, and as soon as you don't, get out out of that business." So, we, you know, our thing is that we will continue to do this for as long as we have fun with it and right now we're still having fun.
Terry: And well, being an old-time guy, I'm of my fifties along with you, I mean, I feel like sometimes I can't get out of bed, but you're way more energetic than I am.
Ross: Yeah, I don't have that feeling, I'm happy to report.
Terry: Very good. You know, a hundred million dollars will help that. But, in watching your dad's show and growing up with it and knowing how they look different now, now a lot of people have said that they like the look and some people have said they didn't. But realistically, The Chipmunks kinda started out looking like a chipmunk. I mean, it started out as a puppet-
Ross: You're absolutely right. You're 100% right. It is very much the look when you first saw them, you know, in 1958, 1959, even 1960, they very much had the bushy tail of chipmunks, they had the stripes of chipmunks, the kind of pointed muzzle, etcetera. So absolutely. And the trick for Janice in designing them was: "how do you keep the essence of the look that people have grown up with so that they can see the characters of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore in what is a little more photo-realistic look?" And I think she really bridged that gap nicely.
Terry: Definitely. And the other thing I wanted to ask you too, in talking about the look and the style and what we're used to seeing and what we expect from them, in the very first film with Lee, they kinda were a little different in the fact, well I guess that was a part of the plot, maybe that's why - to where they were all hip-hop and I was thinking, "Oh no, we're not going to see them they way I'm used to." And now in this new movie, it's kind of more like they're going back to the original format with the costumes and everything.
Ross: Well, you know what though, don't mistake- if you see the characters from the first movie, don't forget they still did "The Chipmunk Song," you know, there was nothing hip-hop about that, and songs like "Bad Day" and what not. You know, what The Chipmunks always did was they played the music of their time. So in 1964, you know, my dad went to London met with The Beatles and came out with the album The Chipmunks Sing The Beatles. So, if The Beatles were doing hip-hop in 1964, that would have been what The Chipmunks would have done then. So it's just, stylistically, they're always going to do something that's a little different. As you know, we did country music back in '81 and then went back again in '91, down to Nashville.
Ross: So you know, musical styles really- that doesn't define who the characters are. The characters bring their own personality to whatever musical genre they play. And in this particular movie, you know, as you mentioned, in The Squeakquel that's out now, it's more rock-n-roll.
Ross: It's, you know, songs by everyone from The Kinks, you know, "You Really Got Me" to Beyonce, with The Chipettes singing "Single Ladies." So, you know, it's a real variety and stuff, but it's stuff in the 70's, "Shake Your Groove Thing," you know, it's a real cross section right on through. On the new album, you know, we also do Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling," so there's a little of everything there and I think it's the cross section and the variety that The Chipmunks are really so comfortable with musically.
Tiffany: Now for me with growing up with the 80's version of The Chipmunks, The Chipettes, to me, I just- I absolutely loved them. Brittany and all them.
Tiffany: Now, how involved were you and Janice with the casting of the voice actors for The Squeakquel? Because, were you looking for- like, for example, Brittany has a little bit of an attitude.
Tiffany: Were you looking for someone who could portray that? I know you ended up getting Christina Applegate. How involved with that were you?
Ross: Well we're, you know, we're involved in everything because we have approvals over everything. You know, Janice wrote the story, she wrote most of the script. You know, we have casting approval, director, everything. So, we're not only, you know, absolutely involved in that and none of these people do this work that we don't approve of, but we're also there giving them the sense of who the characters are right down to the line reading.
Ross: So, you know, it's about as involved as you can possibly be without being in that person's body.
Terry: Well, I think it's kinda proven that you must have a good relationship with Fox or you wouldn't be moving on, because you had a problem with Universal, right?
Ross: Yeah, you know, honestly, we absolutely had a problem with Universal. Universal had promised they were gonna do all kinda of things for the characters and then did none of them. So, that was clearly a problem for us. We are not interested in seeing the characters, as Universal said, "Listen, if we have to put them in hibernation for ten years, we will." And Janice and I were obviously not interested in that. So, we wound up taking it away from them and, you know, we just continued to look to do new and interesting things with the characters all the time, and that's always been what we've tried to do is, "What can we do that's new?", you know, that will surprise people and continue their enjoyment of the characters.
Terry: Well it seems to run in like, I noticed, if I'm calculating this right, it seems to run in like 20 years cycles. Like, every 20 years it becomes new again.
Ross: Yeah, and, you know, and we're hoping that, you know, with each new film or each new project it becomes new again. And it's fun because as big a hit as the first movie was, as you say, in 2007, the current film is probably playing at almost double the numbers of the first one, so- and worldwide it's the same thing. So, it's really exciting to see the characters grow and be so well-loved around the world.
Tiffany: Now, just for our listeners who, I know you've probably told this story a million times, but for our listeners who haven't heard it directly from you before, can you tell us a little bit about how your dad actually ended up creating The Chipmunks? How did it all come about?
Ross: Yeah, sure. And, you know, in early 1958, my dad wrote a song called "Witch Doctor" and he had bought a tape recorder, with, basically, the last money that the family had, that allowed him to change speeds and, you know, it's not the kind of thing that you would normally go out and do, but my dad was a real gambler and his motto was: "Go big or go home." So, if the "Witch Doctor" song hadn't worked we were gonna go home, but I'm not sure there was gonna be a house there for us to live in. So, you know, he came up with this slowing the speed down for that voice that become known as The Chipmunks, but for "Witch Doctor," it was, you know the character that sang that "oo ee oo ah ah, ting tang walla walla bing bang," and he liked that voice so well that after the "Witch Doctor" song was such a huge hit, you know, sold a couple million records, a little later in that same year, 1958, he wanted to use that voice but give it more personality. And so he wrote a Christmas song because my brother, who was about four years old at the time, in the middle of July, asked if it was Christmas yet, because he loved the idea of Santa Claus coming with gifts. And so my dad loved that idea, but wasn't sure if that singing voice character was gonna be, you know, orangutans, or elephants, or reindeer, or what. And when he was driving through Yosemite, not far from where he was born in Fresno, California, this little tiny chipmunk, and, you know, chipmunks are small to begin with, but this little tiny chipmunk jumped out on the road and basically dared my dad and this huge car he was driving in to try and drive past. And my dad fell out of the car howling with laughter and knew that it was obviously gonna be The Chipmunks. And that little character became Alvin.
Tiffany: That's fantastic.
Tiffany: And, of course, I mean, Ross, Sr. went through so much history and he actually was on The Ed Sullivan Show. Was that the first time The Chipmunks were seen?
Ross: It actually was the first time they were seen. He was on The Ed Sullivan Show eight different times as a matter of fact and one of the reasons that Ed loved having him on, not only because the characters were so popular, but also because to be on The Ed Sullivan Show was something that every top performer, from Elvis to The Beatles, would kill to do. His Sunday variety show was just, you know, phenomenally successful. So, everyone coveted every minute that they were given and my dad was one of the few performers that would always take less time than Ed gave him because if my dad didn't think he could do a tremendous performance for two shows or two songs, then he'd say, "You know what Ed, just give me one, I don't have something great for the other thing."
Terry: Alright. What did your dad think about imitators? 'Cause, being the age I am, I have a few 45s around here, I think there was something called "Uh! Oh!" by The Nutty Squirrels or there was Pepino, the little Italian Mouse. What did he think about that?
Ross: Well, you know, I mean, you know, I guess it's that old adage that, you know, it's the most sincere form of flattery, is copying, is imitating someone. But, he took that certainly as a compliment, but at the same time wanted to make sure that that stopped. So, he was very successful in stopping folks, and as we have been. You know, obviously, when you are as successful as The Chipmunks and The Chipettes have been, there's imitators all the time and, you know, we have to continue to stop them, although we know it is in some form a compliment.
Tiffany: Well, with The Chipmunks being so successful, I have to imagine that when you were in school that everyone just revered you and your dad.
Ross: Well, yeah, you know, it's always a funny thing because we moved to a new school when I was at the end of the fifth grade and, you know, coming into a new school is always hard and I remember telling kids, 'cause I was, you know, desperate for people to, you know, welcome me and accept me, "You know, my dad does The Chipmunks!", and, you know, immediately I was greeted with, "Uh, no he doesn't, a guy named David Seville does it." And I kept trying to explain to them, "No, no - well, that's my dad's stage name. That really is him", and no one would believe me. They said, "Ross Bagdasarian doesn't sound anything like David Seville." So I'd have to take like 800 kids from my school over to my house and ask my dad to please yell, "ALVINNN!!!" And then they'd go, "Yeah, okay. I guess your dad is that guy."
Terry: See, you were born in the wrong time Ross. If you would have had an iPhone-
Terry: There's a three dollar iPhone app where you can make your voice like Alvin.
Ross: Well, yeah, I know it, we put that together. I've been wanting to do that actually for probably ten, fifteen years now.
Tiffany: Now, just something that I'm curious about, I don't know if you get asked this a lot, but of course the original chipmunk's voice was done by your dad with the tape speeding method.
Ross: Sure, sure.
Tiffany: I imagine now you guys do it digitally with computers and stuff. When you-
Ross: We don't.
Tiffany: You don't?
Ross: No, we don't. We still do it with the old tape speed.
Tiffany: Oh, wow.
Terry: Wow, old school! Yes.
Ross: Yeah. And I'll tell you why. I didn't mean to sort of stop your question midway,-
Tiffany: No, you're fine.
Ross: But, no we don't. And the reason that we don't, and being in radio you guys understand this, tape has a warmth that digital lacks.
Terry: Yes. Definitely.
Ross: And one of the real keys to The Chipmunks' and The Chipettes' success is the warmth of those characters and you can't get that with just a sort of sped up kind of plug-in.
Tiffany: Absolutely. Well, what I was gonna ask is I've just always kind of been curious with doing the method you do for the voices, when you or the other voice actors do the voices of The Chipmunks, do you actually do a different voice from your normal speaking voice or is it just your normal speaking voice that is sped up?
Ross: No, it has to be a little bit different because obviously if I'm doing Alvin, it isn't just the tape speed, it's also the personality.
Ross: So, you know, Alvin is gonna be more emotional, more hysterical, more down in the dumps that things aren't going well, you know.
Ross: His range is huge, you know, he has the highest highs, so his excitement level is completely different. When I'm doing Simon, Simon is much more logical, you know, "Alvin, excuse me, but I beg to differ," you know, it'd be more that. And Alvin would be, "Please Simon! For God's sake get out of the way, man!", you know. So, it's a completely different character and you have to become that character. So there's the performance of who the character is and then there's the speed issue.
Terry: Well, the 80's cartoon series evolved into a animated full-length feature which is called Chipmunk Adventure, and then of course we have these movies now. Are you gonna basically stay in film? Or is there a possibility to go back to a TV series?
Ross: Yeah, it's a good question. You know, we've definitely looked at it and we may well do a TV show again at some point. You know, having done it for eight, ten years, it's an enormous amount of work. And so, when and if we decided to do that, and we are looking at it, we just want to make sure that we can do as good a show as we want to. And one of the fun things about these movies is it enables to have incredibly good animation, you know. And so, that, for us, as lovers of animation, we get to see our characters with the great subtlety not only of action, but of personality. And, if we could capture that in television, we would certainly consider doing it.
Terry: Now, in being raised around Ross and knowing what's it's like to be kinda like little brother of The Chipmunks, if you will, how did your kids grow up around The Chipmunks? I mean, what did they think about it? Were they different than you?
Ross: No, you know, it's funny because they had the same - especially our daughter, you know, she loves The Chipmunks. Our son certainly appreciates them, but our daughter really loves them and, matter of fact, both of the kids supplied voices for one of the specials that we did. There's a Halloween special called Trick or Treason, we did with The Chipmunks.
Ross: And our daughter, who was then about five or six years old, did some of the voices, some of the kids, in the special. And our son, who was barely able to speak back then, did one the voices of the characters, and it was so hard to understand what he was saying we had to put subtitles below the character.
Terry: Wow, that's hilarious. You know, it's amazing too because back in the 60's when they'd first came out and everything, I mean, there was even kind of a nod from President Kennedy when it came out with a song "Alvin for President," right?
Ross: You know, it was so funny because during that time, then Senator Kennedy was running against then Vice President Richard Nixon, and obviously no real loves lost between the candidates at the time, and so my dad sent "Alvin for President," a record he had done which I still love as has got great personality, this is 1960, he sent it to then Senator Kennedy. And Kennedy, in his just traditionally hilarious style, sent a note back to my dad saying that he was glad to know he had at least one worthy opponent.
Ross: Guys, listen, I've got another thing here that I've got to do so if you have, like, a wrap-up or something I need to do that.
Terry: Well basically, the final question I'd like to ask is now that we've got these great two movies, now that, you know, you've achieved the numbers you have of which Christmas is like- it's a good time to put out a movie, but you've gotta be really brave because that's when, like, the greatest competition is, and know how you've done as well as you have, are we looking for a third movie here? Or do you have no idea?
Ross: Well, no. You know what's funny, anytime you do about a half-a-million dollars or more of business, there's always a strong pull from the studio to have you saddle up and ride off again. So, you know, for Janice and for me, it's about coming up with another story we're anxious to tell. And if we do that, then we'll continue to make more films and, as I say, for us it's about showing a new part of the characters, a new side of their personality, an adventure that we're interested in taking the audience on because I think that the audience has a real connection with the characters and I think a belief and faith that Janice and I will do the things that I think make sense, so we don't want to do anything to tarnish that trust.
Terry: Well, I wanna let you know in letting you go here, that I loved your dad, and we love you. And it'd had to be a real struggle to decide whether to take over or not and do what you did, and you acquired the rights from your siblings, and created, you know, and continued on with the legacy, but you just came to that point where you had to. And if you wouldn't have we might now be talking today. I'm so happy and so proud, and I'm sure your dad's proud of you too. I'm really glad you've done what you've done and done what you've done with The Chipmunks.
Ross: Well, thank you very much. And I honestly started this only because I wanted to please my dad and to let other people see what he had created, and so I'm thrilled that my wife and I are able to continue that legacy and also delighted that people around the world are continuing to enjoy the characters.
Tiffany: Absolutely. Well, we'll let you go Ross. I wanna thank you so much for scheduling some time to talk with us, I know you're very busy these days, and we would like to wish you, and Janice, and The Chipmunks, and The Chipettes a very happy- (audio cuts off).