If you came of age in the late '90s and early 2000s, you'll remember a little show on Nickelodeon about an inept alien invader by the name of Zim. Lasting for barely two seasons, Invader Zim premiered 17 years ago today and was created by cartoonist Jhonen Vasquez, who had done comic books like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and its spin-offs, Squee! and I Feel Sick, all of which featured his manic and dark art style.
This style would serve Vasquez well in his forthcoming animated series, which was a blend of colorful characters, graphic imagery, and memorable humor. Most notable among the cast were Richard Horvitz as the frenzied Zim who masqueraded as an Earth child, attempting to take over the planet and avoid detection. The only person who was suspicious was Dib Membrane (Andy Berman), a fellow classmate always trying to prove Zim was an alien. Then there was GIR (Rikki Simons), Zim's simple-minded robot companion that posed as his dog and harbored a love for taquitos. Among fans, his "Doom Song" is legendary.
Zim was canceled in 2001, but it did not go quietly into the vacuum of space. In the intervening 17 years, the show has gained a powerful cult following. Appreciation for the series became so overwhelming that Nickelodeon is currently working on a television movie that will pick up where the show left off.
SYFY WIRE spoke with the voice of Zim, Richard Horvitz, who gave us an inside scoop on the fresh invasion attempt. Horvitz is a prolific voice actor one might recognize from shows such as The Angry Beavers (Daggett) and The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy (Billy) and video games like Destroy All Humans! (Orthopox) and Ratchet & Clank (Zoni). During our interview, Richard teased the new TV movie's release, spoke about his favorite sci-fi voiceover roles, and explained why Invader Zim was canceled in the first place.
Tighten your radioactive rubber pants and prepare for a crash-landing as Zim returns to our planet once more!
Right off the bat, what can you tell us about the status of the Invader Zim movie at the moment, and when we might get to see it?
Richard Horvitz: The actual recording’s been done. It’s a great script. What I’m allowed to say about it is if you enjoyed the series and you also enjoyed the new comic books that came out, you’re gonna really like the movie. Some have called [it] a reboot, but it’s not really a reboot, because it’s just Zim’s latest plan for world domination. As far as the release of it, I don’t have an official word. But the official recordings have been done and I know they’re working around the clock to get it done.You have this long history of providing the voices for incredibly energetic (somewhat naive) characters like Zim, Daggett, and Billy. Where do the voices come from, and how do you find the energy to put into them?
It’s interesting, people always ask me which character is most like myself, and I have to say that the closest character that resembles my own personality is Daggett. I’m not necessarily insensitive [like he is], but I’m definitely a little bit more sarcastic.
As far as energy for the characters is concerned, when we were doing the Invader Zim auditions, I always thought that I was more right for the Dib character. When Jhonen brought me in, I thought that’s what I was going to be auditioning for, but Jhonen said, "No, we want you to do Zim.” And so, if you look at the animation’s file of that show, it calls for that kind of energy. There’s just so much action in it and there’s so much going on, and the energy for Zim in particular is because I don’t want to be caught and dissected. I’m an energetic person by nature, so it kinda comes easily to me. Sometimes it’s a help and sometimes it’s a hindrance. Billy on [The Grim Adventures of] Billy and Mandy, his energy, comes from youthful curiosity, 8 to 10-year-old boys like “Ooh, what’s that?! Hey, what’s that?! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” Little boys and little girls are curious like puppies, so that’s what I use for energy.
Going back to the early 2000s, how did you become involved with the show, and what were some of your initial thoughts on Zim as a show and as a character at the time?
When I was doing Angry Beavers, a crew had come to the studio and started moving in, and all of a sudden I saw like backlights everywhere and goth people everywhere and fluorescent lights being covered with black and purple gels. [I asked], "What is going on? Are the Children of the Night moving in or what?" What happened was I was doing Angry Beavers at the time and Jhonen Vasquez was a fan of my work from my other shows that I had done earlier. And so he really wanted me to play Invader Zim. Now, I always like correcting this story, because it’s been reported before and it’s never accurate. No one ever prints the accuracy of it, and I’ve never figured out why, but maybe you can help here. Jhonen wanted me to play Invader Zim, so they brought me, they loved me, but the executive producer at the time said, "Well, he’s already doing Daggett on The Angry Beavers, and we don’t want him on both shows, so we’re not going to hire Richard, we’re going to hire Billy West."
So [with] Billy West, they record the whole pilot. And so, when Angry Beavers ended in , I was now available to do Invader Zim, so Jhonen came back and said, "Look, we just finished the pilot, but I’d really like Richard to do the role again, take a shot at it." So they brought me in to dub over what Billy had done, and then they pitched it a little bit in the beginning. If you notice in the earlier episodes, I have more of a robotic sound, and then as we moved on we just kind of went with my own voice. I ended up dubbing over the pilot, but only in specific scenes like in the lunchroom scene, in the parents scene. What ends up happening is that when they promote it, they always go, "The never-before aired Invader Zim pilot, starring Billy West." Well, the fact of the matter is, is that it was 70% me and 30% Billy. In a lot of cases, now that you know this, if you go back and hear it, you’ll hear me do half the line and then Billy will finish it. Or it’ll be Billy saying it and it’ll be my laugh.
So, it wasn’t really accurate that it was all Billy and not me. That’s always been a misconception about the pilot, and I absolutely am on the pilot, but because I was paid to just ADR [automated dialogue replacement] it, I only get like ADR credit for it.In terms of the character’s demeanor, were you given any specific notes on Zim’s background from Jhonen Vasquez when you were building the voice for him?
Jhonen’s even said many times that he had a vision of how he heard the character. What he liked about the character was like [surprised Zim voice]. That sort of thing, which was what I brought to it, that "Heh?! Hmmm Heh?!" As Jhonen would say, he would give me the way he heard a line, and then I would interpret it my way, and as he’s said in many interviews, that it’s not exactly how he envisioned the voice of Invader Zim until he had his direction combined with my take on it and he said, "Wow, that’s something I’ve never heard, so yes, I like that."
Jhonen is very specific, and I really rely on [him] to be able to describe how he hears the lines. I love when he gives me a line reading, because it helps me to understand what he’s seeing in his imagination. A lot of the times, the improvisation stuff comes as the ADR of the show, we get the episode back and there’s some missing things. But in the opening episode, “The Nightmare Begins,” there’s a very famous line where Zim says "Invader’s blood marches through my vein like giant, radioactive rubber ants," was the original line. And I accidentally said "giant radioactive rubber pants," and so Jhonen loved that, so we kept that.
Why was the show canceled by Nickelodeon, and what are your thoughts on the cult status it's achieved in the years since?
There’s been a lot of rumors that have abounded for years about as to why Invader Zim was canceled. People think it’s the bloody GIR episode, because there’s a quick subliminal shot of GIR all bloodied, but that’s not it at all. Nickelodeon knew about that shot and they didn’t seem to mind. But what [the cancellation really was] is this plain simple fact: We had horrible ratings. There were two things that were going on in 2001. Our ratings were not doing well, our demographic at the time was not The Fairly OddParents demographic, which is what we premiered with, and we premiered to really, really good critical acclaim. But ratings-wise, the only real barometer [was the] target audience, 6- to 10-year-olds, and I think that it was a little too much for that [demographic], and the parents also might have thought it was a little graphic for them. Our ratings never really got off the ground.
There was one other thing that people often forget, is that the show premiered in March of 2001. By September of 2001, we had the horrible downing of the twin towers. At that time, given the mood of the country at the time, I don’t think people wanted to see shows that were about any kind of destruction or anything that had to do with someone trying to conquer the Earth.
As far as the cult following, what's amazing to me is that it really found its groove initially with more of a cult following of people who were maybe a little bit more on the periphery than the mainstream of animation. And they liked it, they understood our humor, they understood what we were going for, and they took to it. It just grew and grew with now, the generation of kids that grew up on it, they’re parents now and they’re showing their kids the show, and they love it. Some of the most memorable moments in my life are—we spend a lot of time in a dark booth just making each other laugh and recording and not realizing where you’re reaching to.
This show has reached every corner of the world, and I’ll be at a convention or something and a soldier will come up to me and he’ll be so respectful and say, "Sir, I just want you to know that I did two tours in Afghanistan and the only thing that would make us laugh and smile again was watching your show after a horrific battle." That just touched me beyond words. Oftentimes, I get a lot of letters [from] people that were in hospitals with severe illnesses that thank me for bringing a smile and laughter to their day because the rest of their day was pretty bad.
Do you have any top favorite moments between Zim and GIR?
Yeah, I think this has been well publicized, but my very favorite in the series is in “Rise of the Zit Boy,” which is one of my favorite episodes. Zim comes home [laughs], and GIR’s eating a pizza, and Zim gets a zit and he goes to scrub his face with the soap, and he looks and he discovers there’s bacon in it. And he yells, "GIR, WHY IS THERE BACON IN THE SOAP?!" and GIR’s response is "I made it myself." I love it because it’s such a non-sequitur response, and it’s GIR actually standing up for himself for once. That one always moves me to no end.
Would you and Rikki Simons [the voice of GIR] record your lines together to get that repartee?
RH: Yeah. Rikki and I met on the show, but [we’re] dear friends to this day because, one, we’ve worked together, and we’ve traveled together extensively to conventions. We’ve spent a lot of time together. Rikki and I have a great rapport with each other. If you watch any of the YouTube videos of us at conventions on panels, we just know each other’s responses instinctively.
In addition, Rikki and I do a podcast together called The Podcrastinators. We would record together with the whole [Invader Zim] cast. I would be in a separate booth, though, because I yelled so much and I was so loud, they didn’t want me bleeding into the other microphones. So I was in the room, but I was in a separate booth. We were all together: Dib [Andy Berman] and Gaz [Melissa Fahn] and GIR and Zim.
Zim isn’t the only notable alien you’ve voiced. You also portrayed Orthopox in Destroy All Humans! and Grey Matter in Ben 10. What were those experiences like, and do you find that fans remember these otherworldly characters just as much as they do Zim?
They remember Orthopox quite a bit because Destroy All Humans! was actually another cult franchise that did very well for a while until they messed with it. I know that recently they remastered the original one and put it out again in a better quality. People love that one. As far as Grey Matter’s concerned, not such a big character for me. A couple things happened: They recast that thing several times, and I never understood why they kept changing the voices but keeping the characters. To be honest with you, I’m in fewer episodes than people remember. They tend to remember me being in more episodes than I was. The thing that I’m convinced [of] is, when you’re a kid, you wanna be a monster, you wanna fly, you wanna have incredible strength. No one wants to go, "Oh, I wanna be so small I can crawl into the electric panel." Not my favorite alien character, but running joke is, if it’s an alien or a woodland creature, I’ve probably voiced it. [laughs]
Do you yourself have a single favorite piece of alien-related pop culture, be it a movie, book, or TV show?
I loved E.T. like everyone, but alien-wise, I loved Mork from Mork & Mindy, Robin Williams. Mork from Ork is one of my favorite aliens. I really like Roger on American Dad. I think my favorite cartoon of all time is Speed Racer. As far as my favorite animated programs, I was a huge Beavis and Butt-Head fan. I thought that was just brilliant and just tapped into the zeitgeist of the whole video movement.
Going off that, do you have a single voice role, particularly one in the realm of science fiction, that ranks among your favorite?
Here’s a little known fact when it comes to science fiction: I did a guest spot in Babylon 5. It was Episode 10, “Conflicts of Interest.” That was an on-camera role. Most people may or may not know me from my on-camera roles. I did a movie back in the ‘80s called Summer School with Mark Harmon and recently, I was in The Informant! I was in Babylon 5, I come in and I show some sort of science fiction-y thing that I’ve discovered and then I’m killed seconds later. And most of my lines are done while another guy is doing his lines. So, mine are all off camera. For some reason, I’ve got a face made for voiceover.
With the movie coming up, where do you hope Zim’s future will take him and you?
I would love to do the series again, I would love to do an actual major film release of the show. I would love to see it in the theaters and I think it would do really well. I’d love to see the series happen again because there was so much unfinished business. We were cancelled in the middle of our second season and we were just hitting our stride, so that was sad to me… As far as Zim himself, I just think that I want to see him and GIR once again taking on the conquering of Earth.
Hey Arnold! recently wrapped up the series with a movie. Is this movie more open-ended for the continuation of the series or does it offer more closure?
I’m probably not at liberty to say, but I don’t think anything is ever the end of anything [laughs]… Like I said, if you like the comic books, you’re gonna like this one.