Even if you don't know Kristen Schaal's name or face, you definitely know her voice. Gracing the best animated cartoons of the past decade, you've inevitably heard her childish, high–pitched intonation, whether due to her leading role as Louise in Bob’s Burgers or Sarah Lynn in BoJack Horseman.
Though it doesn’t seem like her voice did her any favors early on in her career — in numerous interviews she’s discussed how she was told “at every turn that my voice would keep me from being an actress” — Schaal’s voice definitely lends itself to the roles she inhabits.
In clips of her stand—up, she initially leans into the cutesy persona evoked by her voice, but quickly defies comedic expectations. Comedy bits beginning with innocuous topics quickly turn dark and raunchy. Schaal starts out discussing her sparkly dress before suddenly transitioning to talking about taints. The audience bursts into surprised laughter — not only because of the sudden change in topic, but also because of Schaal’s voice, which she uses to the greatest effect. It’s a unique comedic style bolstered by a unique voice.
In the critically—acclaimed animated series Bob’s Burgers and Gravity Falls, Schaal takes on the roles of children often precocious and wildly energetic. Louise Belcher from Bob’s Burgers is mischievous and sarcastic, delivering one—liners that seem far too witty for a 9—year—old. Mabel Pines from Gravity Falls is hyper—energetic, enthusiastic, and unlike Louise, very bubbly.
Conversely, in much of her live action work, Schaal plays obsessive women. In Flight of the Conchords, her character is a fanatic stalker — her high—pitched voice becomes tinny; it invades your personal space. A child's lack of emotional maturity mixed with manic sexuality brings about this uncomfortable, yet hilarious female character. Schaal plays a similarly intense and irritating, though less raunchy, character in The Last Man on Earth. Though the actress is nowhere close to being typecast, her voice naturally lends itself to certain kinds of roles.
However, Schaal’s best work, which earned her acclaim and an Emmy nomination in 2017, is as Sarah Lynn on BoJack Horseman. It combines the types of characters she's played in the past: the sexual, invasive female figure and the bright—eyed little girl. It's a role that heightens to a comedic and tragic extreme, making the most of both her natural voice and considerable talent.
Sarah Lynn is a manic, drug—addicted 30—year—old who has sex with BoJack Horseman, a man who once played her father on a television show. She's also one of the show's most memorable and tragic figures.
Schaal poignantly plays both young Sarah Lynn, traumatized from life as a child actor, and the adult irrevocably shaped by that trauma. Her voice bolsters Sarah Lynn's initial petulant behavior before progressing towards something darker, just like her stand up. It finds its perfect match in the character, a damaged adult stuck in perpetual childhood, even remarking that, “I’m at a place right now where I never need to grow as a person.”
In one of the series’ most acclaimed episodes, “That’s Too Much, Man!,” Schaal’s voice becomes the vehicle for the loss of Sarah Lynn’s childhood, dreams, and life. In the penultimate episode of the show, "The View from Halfway Down" (which is also currently the highest rated episode), it becomes a child’s rage against an entire life wasted before a sudden end.
Schaal reaches out beyond the humor and witty dialogue she is known for and grasps for the last remnant of innocence in a deeply damaged adult. Sarah Lynn is unlike any character she’s played before, and the role has cemented her as one of the most memorable voice artists of the last decade.
Many voice artists are successful because they can change their voices to fit their roles. Others have naturally pleasing voices that lend themselves well to the work. However, Schaal has found a way to make the most of a nontraditional voice, matching it to the roles she plays. With her animated characters, she weaves herself into some of the decade's most beloved shows. There is simply something compelling about the little girl's voice that breaks into something deeper and more profound. Many might recognize Schaal's voice, but it's time we further recognized the scope of her work.