Niki Yang speaks life into two characters on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time.
by CHELSEA HAWKINS
This story originally published in KoreAm Journal May 2013.
When Niki Yang answers the phone, I’m startled at how much she sounds like the quirky, adorable characters she portrays on TV. Her soft-spoken, easy-on-the-ears sound box provides the voices for Lady Rainicorn and Beemo on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, the odd-ball comedy about a boy, Finn, and his dog, Jake, living in the Land of Ooo, a post-apocalyptic candyland of sorts. It’s a show that finds its flavor in just how random and outlandish every misadventure becomes.
You might say that Yang’s foray into voice acting was a case of being at the right place at the right time. Originally from South Korea, she came to the United States to study animation at CalArts in Valencia, Calif. After she graduated, she found herself working as a storyboard artist for Family Guy, before being tapped by Frederator Studios to work on several animated shorts. While at Frederator, Yang happened to share an office wall with Pendleton Ward, who was developing Adventure Time. The two got to know each other, and Ward asked her one day if she was interested in doing voice acting. Next thing she knew, they cast her as Rainicorn, a giant rainbow-unicorn hybrid creature, and Beemo, the strange yet lovable video game console who thinks he’s a real boy.
Rainicorn speaks solely in Korean throughout the show—and always without subtitles. To humorous effect, characters, save for Jake, do not often understand what Rainicorn is saying, but she happily continues chatting. Meanwhile, Beemo speaks English with a Korean accent in what sounds like a digitally enhanced version of Yang’s calm and pleasant speaking voice. In addition to Adventure Time, Yang also makes frequent voice appearances on Disney Channel’s original series, Gravity Falls, where she plays recurring character Candy Chiu.
Last month, KoreAm spoke with Yang about her adventures on the popular Cartoon Network show and what exactly is behind these so-called “drinking and draw” sessions at work.
Why does Rainicorn speak Korean?
[Laughs.] I don’t know! I think Pen [Ward] thought it was really funny because Lady Rainicorn and Jake are a couple in the show, and she speaks only Korean and Jake speaks only English, but they understand each other. There’s a kind of humor there because we don’t have subtitles at all, so people don’t know what she’s talking about, but Jake understands.
I know you have also worked as a writer and storyboard artist for Adventure Time. Can you tell me what that process was like? Where did you get your ideas?
Adventure Time was my first writing gig. Since I grew up in Korea most of my life, it was hard for me because English is my second language, and the humor is a little bit different. I learned a lot at the time. … I watched SpongeBob a lot, and Flapjack is another good show. [In the studio] we have a partner, so we joke around with people, and that’s where the humor comes from. That’s why the Adventure Time humor is really not [a kids show]—I mean kids love it, but it’s also entertaining to adults.
Why do you think Adventure Time is enjoyed by people of all ages?
Many people ask, “What’s the secret behind Adventure Time?” But, really, I don’t know. It’s just very sincere and genuine about what we feel, about what humans feel essentially, whether jealousy or first love, you know, those things everybody feels at some point in their life, so everybody can relate easily. It doesn’t come off as preachy, it’s not forced, it’s really natural, and the humor is really genuine.
Also, the art style is so unique, and the world is mesmerizing. You’re watching it, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next, who’s going to show up next. It’s unpredictable.
What is it like to work on the show? Do you all work collaboratively? Do you record together?
Some shows record separately, so all the characters are recording by themselves. But Adventure Time is always recorded together, so it’s full of energy, and you’re inspired. Everybody is laughing together and making jokes. It’s really an alive environment. In the studio as well, we are all friends. … When I was in the first season, we all went to the same school so we kind of knew each other. It’s just a very fun environment.
Pen is always throwing, “Drinking and Draw” [parties], so basically we come and just drink and just make a really funny drawing. We get closer to each other. I think that’s why you can tell the show is done by close friends, and we just goof around a lot. When you have fun, that’s where the most funny joke or story comes from.
What’s been your favorite episode to work on?
That’s a really hard question! I like “My Two Favorite People.” It’s a storyboard by Pen. It’s not really “cracking up, back-to-back jokes,” but it’s just a sincere story, going into the characters and their issues and friendship.
Which character do you enjoy voicing the most? Which one do you get to have the most fun with?
Beemo is definitely more fun because they’re digging into the character, and he’s becoming more three-dimensional now. We see the other side of him, and I like those kinds of things. [In] the episode, “BMO Noire,” he meets some new friends, and kind of, almost gets married. [Laughs.] It’s just fun to act out with this little character. Rainicorn is … more comfortable for me because I can speak Korean. [Laughs.] It’s just me talking! She just gave birth [on the show], which is kind of shocking. I’m surprised at how much stuff we get through on Cartoon Network; you couldn’t even imagine it at some of the other studios.
You’ve gained a cult following with Adventure Time. Have you had any really interesting interactions with fans?
I just recently went to Wonder-Con, and that was my first time on a panel in front of screaming fans. That was fun. People will add me as a friend on Facebook and post pictures and fan drawings—it’s really touching, and I really appreciate their love and support. Especially Korean kids will write me in Korean or English, and they are so cute. I remember one [man’s daughter] heard [Rainicorn speaking] Korean from the TV, and she was excited and explained it to her dad. I guess she was too young to write, so her dad actually wrote me about how excited his daughter was. It was really cool.
Have you ever received a really crazy piece of fan art?
They’ve made a Beemo cake, that was really cute… [but] they are all nice. I’m really thankful.
How does it feel to be the most adorable video game console on TV?
[Laughs.] How do I feel about it? I feel really breathless. Even though it’s my voice, Beemo is really cute—it’s a kid design. Especially when he dances, it’s hilarious. I love watching him even without my voice. I guess it’s an unexpected joy in life.