Q&A: Futurama's Billy West

Chances are that if you've ever watched television, Billy West's voice has rung in your ears. One of the industry's premier voice actors, West has provided the caterwauling of both Ren and Stimpy, the husky speech of a transvestite in The Oblongs, the innocent tone of Nickelodeon's Doug, and thousands more, as well as voice-over for countless commercials.

But West is best known for his many voices on Futurama, including Philip J. Fry, Professor Hubert Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, and Zap Brannigan. (For those hardcore fans, West's actual voice sounds like an older version of Fry.) Futurama was canceled by Fox in 2003, but is back in a big way with four feature-length DVD releases.

The vocal chameleon chatted with about the latest Futurama film--Futurama: The Beast With a Billion Backs (out on DVD today)--how he got into the job, and his worst gig ever. How did you get into voice acting and when did you realize that you were really good at it?

Billy West: Let's see, I came from radio. I was in radio back in 1980 and before that I was a musician. I was always on a microphone and I was always either singing or screwing around with characters. It was always a part of my life, even when I was a little kid, I used to just make these horrible noises and voices and stuff like that. Do you think it's a given talent? Or do you think it's something that anyone can work on?

Billy West: I used to sell myself short thinking, you know, I don't want to show off with this. I mean, obviously everybody else can do it, they're just too cool to do it and then I learned wait a minute, I'm a freak. You know, the average person is not a freak. They might be at something else, but this is my offering to the world, being a freak that can, you know, do all kinds of stuff. Do you have any special voices that you've stored up and you're just waiting for the right character?

Billy West: Yeah, in the movie The Beast With a Billion Backs, there was this voice that I used to do when I was a kid and it was this series of different sounds and tones and shaped into words. And it was Kiff's parents--a swarm of flying hookworms. And the thing had this eerie, multitoned voice. Almost like a buzzing, and I did that. That was not electronically processed. Can you give us a briefing of what the Planet Express crew is up to in The Beast With a Billion Backs?

Billy West: It's the story of an anomaly [that] appears in the sky. It appears like it's the end of the world and this being, this lover of all people, things, men, women, decides to come and make the world better and Fry gets sucked into it and he starts a religion. And I love the fact that his girlfriend is never happy unless she's got, like, 25 boyfriends. That was just the funniest thing in the world. And it's David Cross is playing Yivo, the loving being.

Billy West: Yes, and he really did a great job playing this, like, kind of cloying, passive-aggressive, benevolent being with an agenda. I've always considered Fry's voice to be one of the most underrated in the business. I just think it fits his personality so well. How did you go about creating Fry?

Billy West: He's just a 25-year-old version of me. I remember what I sounded like [when I was his age]. Which is kind of higher--I had a plain, nasally, vanilla, I don't know, kind of neutral voice. What about Professor Farnsworth and Dr. Zoidberg?

Billy West: Farnsworth is a composite of all doddering wizards and senior citizens, all mixed into one. He's 147 years old. Zoidberg was a fusion of a couple of characters. There was a vaudevillian named George Jessel and he had kind of a marble mouth and then there was Lou Jacobi, the character actor from a million years ago. And he had a marble mouth too, when I think about it and I kind of fused the two of them. Because I thought, what else would Zoidberg sound like? He's got all this, you know, this magnificent meat hanging off of his face.

And Zapp Brannigan, he's like another composite of all the big dumb announcers that I used to listen to when I was a kid. I listened to the radio and there were all these self-important kind of voices that filled every speck of the air, and then I met Phil Hartman and we talked about that. We had that in common, this great love of these big dumb announcers, you know, making fun of them and then I found out that he was supposed to be the part of Zapp Brannigan. And then we lost him, but I was friends with him and I try to bear in mind that he was going to do this role and I had to walk the line between my intention and the fact that he was going to do it. So I guess, no matter what I thought, it kind of turned into a tribute. Which is fine by me. I mean, you know, he was really, really good. I've talked to David X. Cohen about this, but what was your reaction when Futurama got canceled and then it got resurrected in the form of these features?

Billy West: I knew in my heart of hearts that it was too good to go away, because it had so many layers. I mean, when there's a show where people are that interested in it that they go back and watch it again, just to see if there was something they missed, that gives it a little more life. A little more emotional resonance, I guess. You've had the opportunity to do some of the voices that the great Mel Blanc did. That had to be scary to follow him, a little intimidating, didn't it?

Billy West: Totally. Totally intimidating, because all the best work was done before any of us were born. You know what I mean? I tried to go along with whatever the direction was from [Space Jam producer] Ivan Reitman and tried to stay faithful to the character. It was a great thing to do, but I think I have more interest in being an originator of a character, than a mimic. I love it and I can hold up franchises. I've done enough classic characters, you know, I did Popeye and Woody Woodpecker and different cartoons. I'm sure you saw the recent news about The Simpsons cast and their new contracts. Some people would say they're overpaid, some people say it's well deserved. What's your take on them making $400,000 an episode?

Billy West: It's absolutely well deserved. It's probably the most popular TV show of all time and so all of sudden there's a difference between whether it's live action or a cartoon? It makes more money than the average sitcom. I'm just glad that they're not getting treated like the redheaded bastard stepchildren of the industry. They basically make the show.

Billy West: Absolutely, and to me, that just sets the bar a little higher in terms of what's possible for voice actors to get in on. Maybe you can help inform me here. But what guild do you guys fall under?

Billy West: AFTRA. SAG is the Screen Actor's Guild, I happen to be a member of both of them. Do you have an opinion on the feud between SAG Hollywood and AFTRA?

Billy West: Yeah, we have met the enemy and they are us [laughs]. Are you going to take a side? You know, SAG's trying to get AFTRA members to vote down their deal.

Billy West: Well, I go by the recommendations of the union. You know, I'm not a maverick, I'm not going to just go decide that I'm going to be, you know, Anthony Adverse. I go along with the recommendations of people that I know and that I trust. I'm pretty much an AFTRA performer. When the cartoon people were striking, you didn't see any actors out there, you know, when we were on strike. I don't know, it's like every man for himself...I guess that is what it all boils down to. But there has to be a union solidarity and as long as everybody's at each other's throats, then somebody walks away laughing with an advantage and it's not us. What's the best gig you've ever had and what's the worst gig you've ever had?

Billy West: Futurama is the best gig I ever had. It's my favorite show and I always say this, but even if I had nothing to do with the show, I would have been a fan because of the writing.

The worst gig I ever had. I was doing a commercial for some product and the booth was filled with people that didn't know what they wanted. They were rarely paying attention and they were ordering lunch while I was trying to come up with something that would make them happy. They kept saying, "All right, what do you want to do?" And I would do it and then they'd go, "What if he sounded, like, more feminine?" So you'd do eight variations on that and they'd go, "What if he had a Spanish accent?" Then it turns into an all-request line and you're doing 200 passes on something to make them happy and the one they always go with is the very first instinct I had, and any voice actor or actor will probably tell you the same story. And they're trying to order lunch while you're doing it.

Billy West: Yeah, I mean, that's the worst of all. You're in there and you just want to find out where you stand and then the mic will come on and they'll say, "I don't know, maybe we're in the wrong ballpark." And in the background you could hear, [seamlessly changes into a perfect mockery of an advertising executive's voice] "Yeah, moo goo gai pan, I had that yesterday, I don't want to have that today. How about an egg roll? What about Italian food?"

Thank you, an ad exec ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much. My next impression... [Laughs.] Oh, man, do you just do that all the time? Do you just have fun with that, just improvising?

Billy West: Yeah, I'd go insane if I couldn't just riff on the stuff that I see and hear, yeah. It keeps you in a place where you really never grow up. Because I'm 56, but there's people that are in their 30s that seem like adults to me. Have you heard any talk about bringing Futurama back to series?

Billy West: Yeah, supposedly this is the benchmark, with this movie. If it does well, I think they're going to talk about television. Anything else you want to talk about before I let you go?

Billy West: Let's see. Well, they're actually going to bring that creature from the movie around...the Yivo creature. They're going to bring him around--what do you mean?

Billy West: Yeah, in Boston at the American Craft Beer Fest, June 21...this is where the Yivo is going to be mega-invading. He's a 30-foot-tall Yivo and he takes over Love Park in Philadelphia, and in Minneapolis they're going to do it and also in San Diego, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, at these different conventions. Wizardcon in Philadelphia on June 23rd. It's just going all over the place and I'm just really happy with that. Oh, that's good, so he's going to make love to everybody.

Billy West: Yeah, right. Well, the world needs it, doesn't it? Yeah, absolutely.

Billy West: But it doesn't need an agenda to go along with it. I hear you man, you're speaking my language. All right Billy, thanks a lot for talking to us.

Billy West: My pleasure.

Futurama: The Beast With a Billion Backs is out on DVD today.

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