Disney Legend Bill Farmer, who’s been the voice of Goofy and Pluto for more than 30 years, has stepped out from behind the microphone to explore the world of dogs for the Disney+ series It’s a Dog’s Life. Throughout the 10 episodes, you’ll meet dogs from around the country who do incredible jobs, from the wild to the weird, while also learning about everyday hero canines, and getting some fun appearances from those famous animated dogs Goofy and Pluto.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, voice actor Bill Farmer, who’s the show’s host and executive producer, talked about how this idea came about, pitching the show to Disney, how his own curiosity drives what happens in each episode, how he originally came to be a voice actor, the differences between voicing Goofy versus voicing Pluto, the idea that he’d like to kick off Season 2 with if they get to do more episodes, what it means to him to be a Disney Legend, and learning how to do his voice work from home in the age of coronavirus until it’s safe to be in the recording studio again.
Collider: I was just so delighted by this show and absolutely loved it.
BILL FARMER: Oh, I’m glad. I’m very happy with the way it came out and I hope that the audience thinks so, too.
How did this all come about? Who had the idea and how did this happen?
FARMER: It was a joint effort. I have a good friend, who’s been a friend for almost 20 years, Steve Duval, who’s one of the executive producers on our show, along with my wife Jennifer, and he was a cameraman on the show The Amazing Race for about 25 seasons. He lived in Reno and was gonna do a television show up there. There was a local equestrian center that he was gonna do a story on, for a little local, “Here’s what’s happening in Reno,” kind of thing. The horses there go on rides with their hounds, like those old English fox hunts. There are no foxes up there, so it’s basically to exercise the horses and the dogs. And he asked me to be the host of it, just to pitch the idea. When we got the footage, we looked at it, and the stuff of me playing with the dogs jumped out at us and I said, “I think it’d be better if we just did a show about dogs and their jobs.” So, along with Jennifer, we came up with this idea and a sizzle reel about me stepping out from behind the microphone, after voicing Goofy and Pluto for 30 years, and finding out about real working dogs. It was as simple as that. Through my contacts at Disney, we got a meeting with Dan Silver and Disney+ and were able to pitch the idea, which they loved and immediately said, “We want 10 episodes.” Now, we’re producers, and we had to get employees and staff and editing bays, and all of this stuff, to put a show together and go out and shoot this thing, which we’ve been doing for the last year. It almost seems like it fell together. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the right time.
What’s it like to pitch a show? With something like this, did you figure that there was just no way they could say no because it would be about these amazing dogs that you just couldn’t deny?
FARMER: Well, it was our idea that, how can you say no to these dogs? People love dogs. They like Goofy and Pluto. There’s never been a Disney legend hosting a show. I didn’t even really know much about Disney+ at the time, so we didn’t have that in mind. It was just a great story and would be a lot of fun to do, and they loved the idea. We went to Don Hahn, who produced Beauty and the Beast and so many other movies, and said, “How do you pitch a show?” And he said, “Well, you get these materials, so that they can see what your idea is.” He helped us with that and was our fairy godmother in this process because we had never pitched anything before. We went in and we were very nervous and hoped they’d liked it. We had no idea that they would buy our very first pitch ever on the spot. People were saying, “That just doesn’t happen.” So, I guess ignorance is bliss in that regard. We didn’t know what to do or what not to do, but they liked it.
I love how the show weaves together the different working dogs with everyday hero dogs, and it still has time to include appearances from Pluto and Goofy. Was it important to you to combine all of those aspects into one?
FARMER: Yes it was. I wanted to keep it very upbeat and friendly. Like a lot of other dog shows you see, we didn’t want a vet with a hurt animal because sometimes they don’t make it. I wanted to make this just a fun celebration of dogs and all of the amazing jobs and things that they do for us. That was simply it. I wanted it to be very limited script. We had some questions that we wanted to ask about each dog, but I wanted it to be what I wanted to know about it. I thought that by me asking what I wanted to know, maybe that’s what the audience would want to know, too. So it’s just my curiosity that drives the questions and where the show goes. It’s a seat of the pants kind of show because we don’t know what the dogs are going to be like, or their personalities. We get to explore all of that and have fun, and they always do weird things with me, like bury me in the snow for the avalanche dogs or have a rescue dog bite me. Just finding out the amazing things that dogs do is fun. I love dogs, so there’s nothing not to like about it. And we wanted to make it interesting enough for the adults as well as the kids. I like to do the funny voices for the kids, but still have interesting enough stories that the adults will go, “I didn’t know there was a dog that could find whale poop.”
How did you originally become a voice actor? Was it something that you specifically wanted to do and pursued as a career, or was it something that surprised you as a path that you could end up going down?
FARMER: It’s a little serendipity. I grew up in south central Kansas, in a little town where there was no artistic outlet. Ever since I was a kid, I loved cartoons, I loved the movies, and I loved Hollywood. I wanted to be involved in some way, but there’s no way to do that in the middle of Kansas. So, I did the next thing and got into radio when I was old enough. My degree is in journalism, which came in really handy for the show, but I didn’t know that at the time. I kicked around in radio for a number of years, and got into stand-up comedy for about five years when I lived in Dallas. I decided to try it and it worked. I do a lot of impressions of people, which I got known for back in Kansas, and that came in handy on the radio and in stand-up. And then, on the advice of an agent in Dallas, I came out to L.A. in ‘86, and about four months later, my agent said, “Do you do any of the Disney characters? They’re looking.” Goofy was my favorite, so I said that I could do Goofy. And I could do Mickey Mouse, too. Out of about a thousand people, they liked my Goofy, and I was off and running. I’ve added all of these other characters and probably done over three thousand jobs for Disney over the last 30 years. They’re still using me.
What are the differences between voicing Goofy versus voicing Pluto?
FARMER: Pluto is a lot tougher because it’s just barking, like a regular dog. How do you put emotion in that? If Goofy is sad, he can cry. He can do all of these human emotions. But how do you do that in a bark? You have to do it in a whine. Pluto has to express it in whatever a dog vocalization would be. It’s rough on the throat. If I do that for about an hour, I’m getting hoarse. Physically, it’s tougher on me than Goofy is. So, he’s a little tougher to do and keep it within the ballpark of whether it’s Pluto, or it’s getting away from Pluto.
How has your own connection to the characters changed over the years? Do they mean something different to you now than when you started voicing them?
FARMER: Well, when I started voicing them, I was just very proud to be able to be a part of the Disney family that I grew up with. Here’s a character that I loved when I was a kid, and I’m doing it now. As I get older and have done it for so many years, I realize how many people revere these characters. I take it seriously. People love these characters, and I wanna do right by them and do the best job that I can. People come up to me all the time and say, “You made my childhood doing these characters.” It’s so funny that I’m not famous, but Goofy is. If I do the voice, it’s not like I’m doing an impression of Goofy, it is Goofy, so I don’t take it lightly.
Is there a different feeling then, when you get to do something like this show, where you get to put yourself out there as the host and not just be voicing a character?
FARMER: Yeah, it’s totally a different type of thing. Doing Goofy, I have my script, I go into a booth by myself and I do my lines, and then I go home. Here, I’m involved with the creation, the writing, the producing, and the editing. All of those I get an input in. I’m working with Disney to create something together. I’m providing one facet of that when I’m voicing a character, and I’m in charge of the way I do that, but I still have a director that tells me to make him brighter or sadder, or whatever it is. On this one, I’m the director of myself and I’m taking the show where I see it going. It’s still a collaborative effort between all of us, coming up with the questions and deciding what dogs would be a good subject to do a show on. It’s very hands on, and it’s actually very rewarding and a lot of fun.
When you were trying to find dogs and dog occupations to explore for this, was there a big list that you had to choose between, and were there a lot that you couldn’t get to that you’d like to do another season and explore?
FARMER: Oh, yeah. After this season ended, we said, “Why don’t we just sit down and have a think tank session and come up with ideas that we like?” We have researchers that have been scouring the internet to find stories, and we came up with 50-some stories, very easily, that we would like to do in a Season 2. Even since the coronavirus, I found that there are dogs that they’re teaching to smell for coronavirus. That would be a perfect story to begin the second season with. It’s amazing, the stories and the occupations that some of these dogs have. We could do several more seasons without running out of ideas.
Do you have to find a way to identify with dogs in real life in order to voice the dog and bring them to life on screen?
FARMER: Not necessarily. When you voice a character, for whatever the dog is, a lot of them are based on my dogs and things that they do. I did a series called The 7D, and there was a little dog called Sir Yips-A-Lot, and I had to make that a little different. He was a little dog, so I figured he’s got a higher voice. I did it higher and shriller than Pluto, and it seemed to fit. It’s an intuition, and it’s using anything in your repertoire. My dog Roxy makes the weirdest noises, that most people don’t even think would be a dog, and growls. I’ll tape that, from time to time, and practice that and see if I can use it sometime in a cartoon.
There’s a difference between the dogs that we have as pets, whose sole purpose really is just to love their human, and dogs that have a job and a bigger purpose. Were there things that most surprised you or most impressed you about what dogs can be capable of?
FARMER: I always knew that dogs had an amazing sense of smell, but I was blown away by the pet detective dog that finds lost pets. He can find anything from horses to turtles, and he’s a bloodhound. They were saying that he could follow a scent, like from a dog that walked through a park, for up to three weeks. It doesn’t matter how many other dogs went into that park, he can lock onto that one scent of that one dog and follow them for up to three weeks. They think they can smell down to maybe one or two molecules of a scent, which just blew me away. They have an incredible sense of smell. They can smell blood sugar levels in diabetics, skin cancer, pneumonia, malaria and other diseases, and now maybe coronavirus. What’s it like to smell like that? It would be so neat to be able to inhabit a dog’s body for an hour, to know what their world is like.
What does it mean to you to be a Disney Legend?
FARMER: That was probably my biggest single day of my career, to be honored in such a way with Robin Williams and Betty White, and all of the other people that got their Disney Legend awards, on the same day in 2009. It was a culmination of 20-some years of doing this voice, and it was great. It’s a little immortality thing. My hand prints are up at the Disney studio in brass. It’s a reminder that maybe I’ve made an impact, and hopefully a good impact, on Disney and all of the people that watch these shows. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy the dog show as well. I just hope people enjoy what we’re doing. I’m enjoying it, and I hope people join me.
When you’re given an honor like that, how do they inform you about it?
FARMER: I just got a letter from Bob Iger saying, “You’ve been selected to be a Disney Legend this year, and the ceremony will be at such and such a time. We’d love you to attend.” It’s just a letter in the mail, one day, and I’m a Disney Legend now.
Did you have any idea that letter was coming?
FARMER: It was totally unexpected. I had known, the year before, that they’d made Wayne Allwine and Russi Taylor, Mickey and Minnie, Disney Legends, so I was certainly hoping that they would do that, but I had no idea that they actually would. It was a big surprise to me.
What have been the best or most exciting things that you’ve gotten to do, or be a part of, or experience that you wouldn’t have, without being a part of the Disney family?
FARMER: Well, without Disney, we wouldn’t have a show. Just being a part of the last 30 years of shows and movies that we’ve done. A Goofy Movie was a high point. I love the series Amphibia, where I play a frog named Hop Pop. I love that series. I love doing the Goofy series, and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. All of this stuff is just a delight to do. I have to do two cartoons later today. It’s a little different, doing it from my home studio, but we’re doing it and we’ve been doing it for a couple of weeks now. We’re working it out and figuring out how to do it properly, but you can do it. It’s just a joy. People always say, “You’re old enough. Why don’t you retire?” And I say, “Retire? Why? I love it.” As long as I love it, I guess I should keep doing it.
Has it been a bit of an adjustment in figuring out how to record from home now? Have you had to get into a different groove with it?
FARMER: A little bit. My son’s an audio engineer, so he helps me out. I had to get better internet, but other than that, it’s actually almost the same. My house isn’t that soundproof, so when there’s a plane going over or a motorcycle going by, we have to break for a second until that calms down. Other than that, it’s very similar. I just watch on a monitor and they’re in their respective places, but I can still see them and talk to them, so it’s not that much different. It’s just like there’s a longer extension cord on the mic. That’s about it.
It’s a Dog’s Life is available to stream at Disney+.