Creating ‘Bob’s Burgers’ Linda Belcher: How John Roberts Became the Funniest Mom on TV
It was Thanksgiving, and Linda Belcher planned to spend the day with her kids at Wonder Wharf, an amusement park on a pier. The Wharf was holding a “Turkey Trot,” which was supposed to be a kid-friendly version of Pamplona’s famous running of the bulls. But the turkeys assembled for the occasion were crazed and zombie-like and swiftly overran the pier.
After hiding out in the Wonder Wharf’s House of Mirrors, Linda spotted her kids, who were spiraling out-of-control on an unattended teacup ride. Along with a couple of friends who were also stranded in the park, Linda covered herself in stuffed animals and braved the savage turkeys to rescue her children.
That scene, from Season Five’s “Dawn of the Peck,” is just one of countless outrageous Linda moments from Bob’s Burgers. Yet, despite the larger-than-life situations the wine-loving, loudmouthed, fiercely loyal wife and mother gets into on Bob’s Burgers, there’s more realism to Linda Belcher than most cartoon characters.
Linda’s voice is supplied by actor, comedian and musician John Roberts, who began doing the character in gay clubs in Manhattan’s East Village years before Bob’s Burgers debuted in 2011. He later took his act to YouTube, where his short videos quickly went viral and caught the attention of Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard, who wrote the role of Linda for him.
While Bouchard helped bring Linda to television screens, the true credit for her success still belongs to the woman Roberts based her on — his mother. She might never have rescued him from a horde of zombie turkeys, but she always supported him on his path to stardom, which Roberts happily recounts below.
‘I know you are, but what am I?’ — Pee-wee Herman
When I was 13, I saw Pee-wee Herman perform at Carnegie Hall. This was in 1984, before his show, and I was obsessed. In junior high, I was pretty shy and didn’t have a lot of friends. After those awkward years, I found theater in high school, and I began to do Pee-wee at my school talent show. I was 15, and being able to get up there and have a good performance changed my outlook on life and how people saw me. It helped me come out of my shell. My family encouraged it because being a ham was something I was good at.
I began impersonating my mom when I was like six years old. Before Macy’s was called “Macy’s” it was “Bamberger’s,” and I used to imitate my mom saying, “We’re going to Bambergers.” My mom’s Italian and from Brooklyn — she’s just a lot of fun to make fun of. She had a really good sense of humor about it, too. My whole family’s like that. They’re all colorful characters from Brooklyn, Long Island and Staten Island, and they’re all able to laugh at themselves. Honestly, I’m probably the worst at it.
I grew up in Edison, New Jersey, but I moved into the city when I was 17 and started going to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. My grades had been pretty terrible, and back then, they didn’t diagnose things like ADHD, they just said you were lazy. Since performing is what I was good at, my parents supported me — they always told me to do what makes me happy.
A friend of mine’s brother taught me about electronic music, and I started to get into sampling and the rave thing. But I’d only create privately in my apartment, while I mostly worked waiting tables. This was the early 1990s, which was a great time for the LGBTQ community in New York City. Because of the AIDS crisis, a lot of people came together — there was a real sense of community and pride.
But I also became a wallflower during that time. It took me a while to come out of the closet and start to find myself. It wasn’t until about 1999 or 2000 that I started to come out of that. That’s when I got out my wigs and started to perform again.
‘We just got the tree, it’s gorgeous’ — Mom
In the East Village, there was a club called Starlight, and I knew the owners. There was a little stage in the back, and every Tuesday, I’d do a show and develop these characters — including my mom and a few others. Sometimes there were six people in the audience; sometimes there were 40. Regardless, it got me back on my feet after being so introverted for so long.
Then I decided to take what I’d been doing on stage to YouTube when YouTube was still pretty new. I did “My Son Is Gay” about when I told my mom I was gay, and “The Christmas Tree,” which was about how my mom acts around Christmas trees. These videos went viral, and people started to quote them back to me all the time.
That’s when I started to show up on the radar of other comedians, too. Jon Benjamin and Eugene Merman were performing like two blocks away from where I was performing, but it was kind of like they were a separate world away because the comedy scene was much more straight back then. So the videos introduced me to a lot of new people. I also had friends who knew David Cross, and he introduced me to people as well.
I had an audition for Saturday Night Live in 2007, but it didn’t go well. I think Lorne Michaels was a little grossed out by the wigs. They really do help me. It’s an easy way to quickly transform into a character. Eventually, though, I grew to resent the wigs. I started touring with Margaret Cho in 2009, and they felt like props that I wanted to get rid of. I was tired of schlepping all these wigs around.
Around 2010, I wrote a pilot with Bob Odenkirk for MTV. It was The John Roberts Show, and it was all my characters. It almost got picked up, but then there was a big change of the guard at MTV. I’m not sure it would have worked anyway. There eventually got to be too many cooks in the kitchen on it. One issue was that I was a bit more dressed up than I usually am. I’m not a drag queen, I just plop a wig on and do some of the clothes. A drag queen is something different, I’m just not that.
The show not getting picked up was a huge disappointment, but everything happens for a reason — because Bob’s Burgers swooped in after that, and it’s so much better.
‘Alright!’ — Linda Belcher
Jon Benjamin came to one of my shows in Brooklyn. Through him, I met Loren Bouchard, and when Loren Bouchard was developing Bob’s Burgers, he wrote the part of Linda for me.
We did a pilot first where we were this family of cannibals, and it took about a year and half after that for the show to get picked up. Then we just got short orders for the first two seasons. So it was a real nail-biter for a while there. I was worried because it’s just the best job ever. Thirteen seasons and one movie in, I still leave a recording session with my face hurting because I’ve been laughing so hard.
I love everything about playing Linda. Better yet, the Belchers are a sweet family who really accept each other for who they are. The show is a bright spot in dark times and gives a lot of people comfort, which I couldn’t be more proud of.