We Enlisted An Expert To Explain Moira Rose’s Unrecognisable Accent On ‘Schitt’s Creek’
"David, stop acting like a disgruntled pelican!"
While the phrase “David, stop acting like a disgruntled pelican!” is a funny enough concept on its own, it’s the delivery by Moira Rose on Schitt’s Creek that makes it one of the funniest moments in TV comedy.
In fact, Moira Rose is a comedy revelation.
She’s melodramatic, pretentious, narcissistic, bedecked in a bewildering array of feathers and furs and a revolving rotation of wigs, both beautiful and bizarre. Trapping the weird hothouse parody of a big-city socialite in a tiny, backwater town is already a strong comedy premise — but at no point did we ever expect the glorious strangeness of Moira Rose.
A lot of this is because she’s played by iconic comic actress Catherine O’Hara, who made her name on shows and films like SCTV, Home Alone, Beetlejuice, and ensemble comedies like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show.
O’Hara has made Moira a joy to watch in so many ways, but one of the most distinguished elements of her character is a kind of unhinged verbosity: “I am very booked up, David. I am positively bedevilled by meetings, etc.”
Her extreme vocabulary is also paired with a delivery that is described in the show as an “unrecognisable accent” — part stage actress, part dowager queen, part Victorian governess — and it takes the most common phrase and twists it into something strangely flamboyant, anachronistically curated, and as a result, extremely funny.
Some of the funniest parts of the show are simply her saying the names of people around her.
“A Heavy Salad Might As Well Be A Casserole”
Moira Rose and Schitt’s Creek in general is almost infinitely quotable — it’s cleverly written and takes a real delight in language.
Certain verbal tics like Alexis Rose’s unique vocal fry have become common and eagerly deployed weapons in day-to-day speech for me, but considering Moira is the character whose quotes both delight me the most AND seem most relevant to every day life (I too am unreasonably fabulous and out of place), it frustrates me that her accent is so difficult to imitate.
In this interview with EW, Catherine O’Hara describes her accent as “…how people speak when they want to reinvent themselves over and over again!”
That doesn’t help me, unfortunately.
The closest I’ve gotten is pronouncing the word “baby” as “be-be”, much to the annoyance of every new parent I know.
don't ask me why but here's 22 seconds of catherine o'hara saying bebe pic.twitter.com/PjCX0Vq9NJ
— hattie (@hattiesoykan) March 23, 2019
Being able to accurately replicate a Moira Rose quote is actually huge currency in the awful circles I move in, so I reached out to professional voice and dialect coach, Nick Curnow.
Nick had never watched Schitt’s Creek before, and was professionally bemused by my request. I sent him several YouTube clips of Moira Rose speaking, and awaited his thoughts.
— Schitt's Creek (Pop) (@SchittsCreekPop) December 1, 2017
“Gossip Is The Devil’s Telephone — Best To Just Hang Up.”
“Glorious, but quite a thing,” was Nick’s first impression of Moira Rose’s accent.
“If I met someone in real life who spoke this way one guess I’d have (aside from early speech development issues) is that perhaps they hadn’t spoken English until about the age of six or seven?” he told me. “First impressions are that she is affecting an intentionally inconsistent and generic ‘Mid-Atlantic’ actors voice, big in the early-mid 20th Century.”
This is a pretty amazing description of Moira, considering he had NO idea about her character before watching a few YouTube compilations.
He told me that she’s affecting a kind of “hyper-conscious” method of speaking, like someone who hadn’t spoken English until late in life.
“But from my experience, as O’Hara suggests herself, that hyper-consciousness can come in other forms and in several waves! We perceive it as affectation, but it commonly speaks to a deep emotional need to be noticed, heard or understood, either universally, or at a particularly formative stage of one’s life. As a character, I’m sensing that one of her best qualities we respond to is her eloquence and wit, but her less attractive qualities are emotional distance and control —and both of those aspects speak of a need to be needed, noticed, etc.”
…Yikes, that’s a pretty good description of Moira, at least in the earlier seasons before she begins her development!
“I’m Eating Egg Whites And Hoping The Building Will Collapse”
But, as fascinating as that all is, it doesn’t help me DO Moira Rose’s accent.
I asked Nick for some tips.
“So, one of the keys to it — annoyingly — is its inconsistency.”
“But the recurring trends are the intermittent British LOT vowel (canNOT, NOT, POSitively, pettiFOGging). The PRICE diphthong is exaggerated and lengthened — ‘you and I have arrived…’ ‘I had just had my eye-lashes dyed!'”
Look, there’s a lot of technical language in there, but it makes so much sense from context clues.
“The GOAT diphthong is also often exaggerated and ‘faux British’. By exaggerated I don’t mean lengthened with this one, but the lip movement is over done. She leans into and lengthens the TRAP vowel, but that is quite an American thing to do, so I think what I’m noticing is the bigger space in the mouth — and much more open and free jaw.”
At this point, I’m marching around the office, using a more open and free jaw, exaggerating my GOAT dipthong, fucking around with some TRAP vowels — and friends, it’s working!
“She also affects a ‘clipped’ “British” sound by glottalising some T’s and K’s — like in the word ‘next’ or even on the ends of words (although she also releases the final T’s quite often in the style of RP (Received Pronunciation).
The other classic ‘American-doing-British’ thing she does is the clipped THOUGHT vowel. Instead of fully rounding it, it’s just shortened, so it sounds a bit like ‘THOT’.
“I Had Just Had My Eyelashes Dyed — Everything Was Cloudy!”
Nick got so into the conundrum of Moira’s voice that he went off to watch Schitt’s Creek, leaving me to practice my vowels.
“Watching the first episode and her voice is nowhere near the same,” he points out. “Not entirely surprising — Karen in Will & Grace didn’t get her distinctive voice until a few episodes in. PS. I love this show already.”
“Ah, episode two and here it is straightaway,” he notes.
“It’s interesting that in another interview she described Moira’s voice as a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn — the former being so well known for her sultry breathiness, and the latter being known so well for her performance in My Fair Lady — doing ‘British’.”
— Shakita (@DaysGeek) July 16, 2019
After spending an entire day using Nick’s hints, I’m much closer — but it doesn’t feel consistent. Every second line that I try to do in her voice just turns out outrageously British. I have to wonder if there’s even a method to the madness, or if Catherine O’Hara is just doing a weird voice without rules?
“Oh, I think it’s all a conscious choice,” he tells me, allaying my fears. He also points out that her accent is not just a “funny bit”, but a carefully chosen character choice.
“Our voices are like records of our real and present lived emotional, physical and mental experience. And of course with comedy the more real the experience of a character, the funnier we find it as an audience. Her ridiculous accent isn’t just there for comedy’s sake — it’s integral to the entirety of Moira in the story she finds herself in.”
Schitt’s Creek currently has five seasons up on Netflix.
Patrick Lenton is the Entertainment Editor at Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton. He is going to be insufferable to talk to for the next few days.