David Spade’s Improv Background Made 1 Disney Movie a Hit

Those who have seen the Disney animated movie The Emperor’s New Groove know why it’s become a cult classic. The tale of a vain, selfish empower who gets accidentally turned into a llama, the peasant he has to rely on for help, and the villainous sorceress determined to take his throne is genuinely funny. That’s in no small part thanks to the impressive improv skills of comedian David Spade who provided the snarky voice of Emperor Kuzco.

The journey to making this film had as many twists and turns as Kuzco and Pacha’s trek back to the palace. In fact, did you know many of the characters’ lines were improvised?

‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ began as a different movie

The movie that eventually became known as The Emperor’s New Groove was several years in the making, according to Vulture. It started as a film initially titled Kingdom of the Sun. Starring the vocal talents of David Spade as a vain, selfish prince, Owen Wilson as a humble llama herder the prince would switch lives with, and the iconic Eartha Kitt as the voice of an evil sorceress out to blot out the sun. The Disney movie was inspired by tales of Inca myths and originally had director Roger Allers (The Lion King) at the helm. 

But the project stumbled for a while due to poor screenings, internal fights, and many doubts. It ended up shelved for a time until The Emporer’s New Groove finally found its, well, groove. Mark Dindal came on to direct the fun-filled comedy. Spade stuck around, though his character went from prince to Emperor, as did Kitt as the villain Yzma. John Goodman came aboard as the kind peasant Pacha and Seinfeld‘s Patrick Warburton as the adorably clueless Kronk.

There was a lot of improvisation

According to the YouTube channel MsMojo, this underrated movie tossed Disney’s usual blueprint for a carefully orchestrated film out the door in more ways than one. Instead, it featured heavy improv from its talented cast.

Spade was given a great deal of creative freedom in improvising lines for the film. In fact, the actor often had to be “reeled back in.” According to the directors, Spade’s improv skills are sharp and fast. Often the creative team just went with what he came up with. 

Spade wasn’t the only one experimenting on the job. Warburton entirely improvised Kronk’s “theme music” to hilarious effect. Later in the film, Kitt’s Yzma is turned into a kitten. When the actor heard her modified voice, she stopped to question if it was really her. The team liked the line so much that they left it in.

David Spade went from stand-up comedy to Disney movies

David Spade Disney movie
David Spade performs at the Boot Campaign’s Comedy Boot Jam at The Improv on October 28, 2015 in Hollywood, California. | FilmMagic.com/FilmMagic

No doubt Spade has quite a bit of experience with comedy. He began performing stand-up in college, which led to him moving to Los Angeles to pursue it full-time. Following a few small acting gigs, he landed on Saturday Night Live as a writer and performer. And the rest is history. 

The Emmy-nominated star’s career continued to grow when he left SNL for his sitcom, Just Shoot Me! This led to notable film roles like Joe Dirt. And though he continues to make live-action appearances, The Emporer’s New Groove kicked off a significant voice-acting career for Spade. He returned to the animated screen with the fourth film in the popular franchise, Hotel Transylvania: Tranformania, in 2022. 

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