For a certain demographic of television viewers, the mention of Nick Toons conjures memories of a simpler era. The Nickelodeon of the 1990s was representative of a different sort of family programming, one that was bit messier and less wholesome than that of Disney. There’s a certain energy contained in those early ’90s cartoon programs that is indicative of a creative expression that trusted kids rather than pandered to them. Certainly, the generation of kids that grew up watching those early Nickelodeon shows (this writer amongst that milieu) have strong memories of those shows but also a distance from them. The culture has changed so much, that the content of those shows is separated from their context.
Over the last several years, however, Nickelodeon has returned to their roots with programs that inhabit the spirit of the early NickToons. Their most recent addition to the NickToons canon is Big Nate (Paramount+), a rollicking and peppy animated show based on the long-running, highly-successful comic strip created by Lincoln Peirce. The main character, the titular Nate, is a sixth-grade kid with a “never-ending need to prove his awesomeness to the world.” Nickelodeon needed someone who could provide that energic, anarchic spirit to Nate, and they found their main man in Ben Giroux.
Giroux, an actor and director, is no stranger to Nickelodeon. He’s previously acted on both animated and live-action shows and brings a child-like sense of spontaneity to his roles. I recently caught up with Ben to ask about the influence of the early Nickelodeon cartoons, recording his role during the depths of the pandemic, and how he got the role in the first place.
AJ Frost: Hi Ben. So nice to chat with you. I wanted to start off by asking about your new show Big Nate. How did you learn about the role? Did you audition for it with Nickelodeon, or did they come to you? And were you familiar with the comic before you heard about the television show?
Ben Giroux: Great question! I’m 37, so I think I missed the initial Big Nate surge, even though I grew up in a comic book store with my family literally selling Big Nate books. So, it’s been fun for me, and it’s been exciting to retroactively educate myself on the global fan base for an already-beloved character.
As far as this specific show, I’m no stranger to Nickelodeon. I’ve been playing The Toddler on Henry Danger and Danger Force–with those roles on camera–for almost the last 10 years. And certainly, I’ve done lots of Nickelodeon animated projects. I was Mikey on Bunsen is a Beast a handful of years ago. I’ve done some tons of stuff on The Loud House, Blaze and the Monster Machines, etc.; I’ve had a great relationship with both Nickelodeon on the on-camera side and the animation studio for a number of years.
As far as Big Nate was concerned, I first auditioned for it in December 2019. And, you know, Nickelodeon certainly has their shortlist of people that they go to, especially adult men who they know want to play kids. There’s not a ton of us [in Nate’s voice]: That can kind of like authentically sound like a kid! I’ve been grateful to be part of that shortlist for a long time. But look, I went through the same audition process as anybody else. And it was grueling. Nickelodeon auditioned hundreds of people for this role, because I know that Big Nate was a priority for the network. Ramsey Naito, who’s the president of the [Nickelodeon Animation] studio, has been a longtime fan of Big Nate. The studio really took their time and did their due diligence; I’m so grateful to have been cast.
You know what’s so exciting is that I, quite coincidentally, had great friendships with the other leads on the show. Bryce Charles—who plays Dee Dee Holloway on the show and who is a theater nerd in the Big Nate canon—and I met doing a play a handful of months prior to getting cast in the show together. Arnie Pantoja, who plays Teddy Ortiz on the show, is my real life writing and improv partner. There are just all these great parallels. And, you know, certainly the existing relationship with Nickelodeon was helpful, particularly because we’ve done this whole thing through the pandemic. We had our existing relationships and friendships to lean on in a remote setting.
Frost: You just brought up my next point. Can you talk about the recording process that you did? Because, from what I understand, all the actors were separated by the pandemic yet somehow recorded together?
Giroux: Up until March 2020, all my experience with Nickelodeon Animation was going into this colorful state-of-the-art studio recording, sometimes as an ensemble, or with a handful of other actors. Fast forward to March 2020, and I literally booked the role the first week of the pandemic. The last in-person memory I have prior to the pandemic hitting is sitting in the lobby of Nick Animation for my third or fourth callback for Big Nate.
We immediately started recording the show remotely.
Where our show differs, and where I think it’s the first of its kind, is that we still found a way to record as an ensemble. Most animated series immediately went to 1:1 voice sessions from an actor’s home studio to a director to an engineer. And then they would cut the performances together. But on our show, we sometimes get 1-2 actors together on a Zoom. What that afforded us was the ability to react to and off each other.
I give our showrunner Mitch Watson a lot of credit. He’s a theater guy like me. I grew up in Phoenix, AZ doing tons of theater around town. I’m an improviser. And so, Mitch gives us the freedom to really play and react and riff and improvise and write outlines in the script. I think those little unscripted moments are magic and have really elevated the comedy of our show. And that could only have been possible with ensemble recording. I’m grateful to the network for figuring out a way for us to still do it, even though we’re all in our home voiceover studios.
Frost: As a kid of the ‘90s, did you look back at older Nickelodeon shows to inform the way you perform the voice for Nate? How did you approach the role?
Giroux: As you so eloquently noted, I am a product of the 90s. I grew up watching Doug, Rugrats, and Ren and Stimpy with my sister. I think the thing that is most special about this show is there’s been a real emphasis at Nickelodeon over the last couple of years with the new leadership in getting back to Nickelodeon’s roots: which are equal parts hearts, smarts, and farts. Which all those old school shows had! What I appreciated most about those old Nickelodeon shows—the Nicktoons of our childhoods—was that there was an edge to the humor, there’s a bite to the comedy. Adults and kids alike could really enjoy the shows.
One of the trends over animation over the last fifteen years or so has been super high and crazy cartoony… like really like over-the-top high speed. And our show harkens back to those old school Nickelodeon cartoons. The reason I bring that up is because my approach to the voice is indicative of the vibe of the show, which is a grounded performance. I think you’ll find that a lot of the performances on the show are grounded. [In Nate’s Voice] You know, doing Nate’s voice, it’s not so much changing my voice much, but just finding my inner confidence. And like, I think it’s about cadence and about vibe as opposed to like doing anything crazy with my vocal cords. Whereas, you know, seven or eight years ago in doing Nickelodeon shows, I was doing a voice like this, [voice of Mikey from Bunsen is a Beast] You know, it was like, super over the top. Both are awesome, but I’m really enjoying the grounded nature of our performances, particularly as the central character on the show. It gives a little relatability to it, a little bit of more authenticity to it, a sophistication to the show.
One other thing that I would note is that our show is a twenty-two-minute series. It’s that traditional sitcom structure. A lot of kids’ shows right now are eleven-minute chunks. We have the freedom to pace the comedy, to let jokes breathe, to have moments of silence. I think that really helps add to, again, the level of sophistication of the show and the grounded nature of it.
Frost: Did you go back to read the comics during the production of the show to find some inspiration about how you would approach the character of Nate?
Giroux: Yes, certainly. Leaning on the source material has been key in making sure that we reflect that edge that creator Lincoln Peirce gave Nate over the years, turning him into a likable prankster. And I think the real challenge, the real task for me, and for the writers really, is to make sure that Nate, while he is a troublemaker, while he is overwhelmingly confident and fearless in his choices, doesn’t come off as a jerk. He’s still a good kid.
That’s always been the fine line that Lincoln has walked with the character in the book series and the comic strip. Nate has unearned confidence. He has no right being this confident because he’s not as cool as he thinks he is. What is cool in the show is that deep down, you get to see his insecurities, you get to see that a lot of what he puts on is a façade. And he leans on these really dedicated loyal friendships with his co-conspirator Francis in pranks. My challenge has been showing both sides to the character to ensure that despite an insane level of confidence and rule-breaking tendencies, he still is, ultimately, a likable kid.
Frost: Where do you feel that this show fits within a socioeconomic context (stay with me here…)? As I watched the first episode, I noticed that the kids are in a school that’s not really in good repair. How does that display the values of the show as a reflection for the audience?
Giroux: I mean, look, we both grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. I went to okay schools, but like, not the bougiest schools in the world either. What I love so much about our show is like you said, the kids go to PS-38, which is a totally underfunded public school; everything in the classroom is run down. It is quite literally in the shadow of Jefferson Middle School, which is the nice charter school across the street with Roman columns and water fountains [laughs]. Yet, that adds to the character of the show. And I think that PS-38 is one of the characters on the show. There’s a real nostalgic quality to our show which is emblematic of a big push with Nickelodeon to expand their existing franchises or existing IP.
It all harkens back to a simpler time. I’m obsessed with nostalgia as can be seen in my “Back to the ‘90s” music video. I direct commercials largely around nostalgia and so nostalgia has been a big piece of my career. It’s been so great to work for a network that seems to be fueled by nostalgia right now.
The reason I bring this up is that in our show, you’re much more likely to see a rotary phone than an iPhone. You’re much more likely to see a broken lamp in the corner that is lighting the scene. You know, like, I think literally, I remember in one episode, we’ve got like, the kids are watching something on a screen in a classroom. And they literally wheel in one of those little TV consoles that we grew up with in the 90s rather than any kind of slick projector. I appreciate the analog quality to PS-38, as I think it’s reflective of the nostalgic tendencies of the whole network.
Frost: What do you hope viewers get out of this experience of watching Big Nate? And what do you hope happens in the show’s future?
Giroux: As an actor, I have had the privilege of having so many incredible projects. But I’ve also been part of some projects where you’re happy to have a job, but not necessarily proud of the result. I am the proudest of this more than anything I’ve ever done in my career because the characters are so rich and dynamic. The writers’ room is so talented, we’ve had the freedom to play. It’s also been a unique experience recording this from the pandemic, as we’ve created every episode of this show—animators, writers, directors, cast—without ever being in the same room together. And I think that’s a real achievement and a testament to the human ability to adapt to ever-changing circumstances in our crazy world.
This show has been the biggest, brightest light for me over the last two years, which have had some dark times. My hope is, as people watch the show, that it gives them a brief respite from the chaos of the world. Because for me, what I can provide is levity and laughter. I can provide comedy. That’s why I do what I do. Certainly, I’m able to see that vision through by playing Big Nate. I hope it makes people laugh. And I hope people really enjoy it; there’s a lot of heart behind these characters.
Thinking of the long term, I hope you may see a Big Nate movie at some point. I hope that we just keep getting season after season because when you have a property like this, there’s just so much source material to mine, and so many more storylines to build. The task is twofold: It’s honoring the source material, but it’s also inviting in a whole new generation of Big Nate fans. I hope we just keep expanding the universe as much as they let us.
Frost: Thank you so much for chatting with me, Ben.
Giroux: Thank you!