Interview Date: 06/08/2010
Run Date: 06/23/2010
Billy West is a voice actor extraordinaire, having been a part of everything from Hanna Barbera to “The Howard Stern Show,” but in recent years, he’s become best known for his work on “Futurama,” where he’s responsible for the voices of Philip J. Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, Zapp Brannigan, and quite a few other random characters. Bullz-Eye had a chance to talk to West when “Futurama” first rose from the dead via a series of straight-to-DVD movies, and now that the show has received a new lease on life via a 26-episode commitment from Comedy Central (the series returns to the airwaves on June 24th), we decided that the time was right to chat with him again.
Billy West: Hey, how are you doing, man?
Bullz-Eye: I’m doing good. I don’t know if you remember, but we chatted a couple of years ago.
BE: Okay, great. I remembered it fondly, but I just wasn’t sure that you did.
BW: (Laughs) Oh, yes!
BE: Excellent! Well, I was fortunate enough to be able to check out the first two new episodes of “Futurama,” and they’re great.
BW: Oh, you did? ‘Cause I didn’t.
BE: Whoops. And they even sent me an extra copy. I could send it to you, if you’d like.
BW: Oh, yeah…? Nah. I don’t know I’m supposed to. I don’t know if they want me to have it.
BE: They may be intentionally keeping it from you.
BW: Yeah, you never know. I think they don’t want too much being spilled.
BE: So how did it feel when you found out that the show was being picked up beyond the movies for a whole new season?
BW: I’m just so excited, because all I ever wanted to do was work when I got in the business, and to know that not only is this popular, but it’s back for two seasons, because we did two seasons. It’s thrilling, because it’s my favorite show that I’ve ever worked on. I love doing the show, and even if I’d had nothing to do with the show, I would’ve been a fan because of the writing.
BE: With the first new episode, I loved that they tied it right into the last moments of the last movie.
BW: Yeah, I know! I just love the fact that the Professor has a rebirth machine. This doddering old fool is responsible for the show being on again. (Laughs)
BE: I’m sure that, since you’re asked to do the voices all the time, you probably never really lose the “Futurama” voices, but did you have to get back into synch at all?
BW: No, because it’s not really in the throat or anything. It’s in the head, and the voices just fall into place. I mean, you can never forget how these characters go in your head, because they each have a different musicality and cadence and stuff. It’s, like, that’s what I do, so I didn’t have any problems. Plus, we were like a family at that point: when we all got together again, it was like we never stopped working together.
BE: Plus, the Fry voice is obviously not that far from the surface at any given point, anyway.
BW: (Laughs) Yeah, right. Well, that was deliberate.
BE: I read recently that Charlie Schlatter originally had the part of Fry. I hadn’t known that.
BW: Yeah, and Nicole Sullivan was Leela.
BW: Yeah, it’s a long process before it gets to be what it is.
BE: So how would you say the character of Fry has evolved over the course of the show’s run?
BW: I don’t know. It seems like he’s learned something, and then he cancels it out by doing something stupid. It’s a back and forth with him. Like, Leela gets mad at him because he uploads something very unflattering of her onto the internet, which is a stupid thing to do, given all of the sensitive things that he’s said and done, so he goes back to being an infantilized adult.
BE: So will the romance that’s budded between Leela and Fry continue at all during the new season?
BW: Yeah, I think so, much to the chagrin of a lot of people. It’s, like, “When are they going to get together?” But I think you always have to have something dangling like that to put some more gravity into the thing.
BE: Were you surprised when they finally decided to go down that road, or did you see it as inevitable?
BW: I never take anything for granted, because the writers are so cool and smart and funny. To me, wherever it is, it is, and I just can’t wait to fulfill the objective.
BE: I think we talked about this before, but have there ever been any lines that the writers have put in the script that have just gone completely over your head?
BW: Yeah, there have been a couple. I do remember one time where the doctor said to Fry, “Hey, Fry, beer makes you stupid,” and Fry says, “No, I’m doesn’t.” And when I read it, it was, like, I thought it was a typo. I said, “No, I’m doesn’t?” They said, “Yes, please read it as written.” I said, “Are you sure?” Because I didn’t get the joke…and when I actually did deliver the line, I was truly not aware of what the joke was, because I was so caught in the thick of it. But when I saw it on television, I was… (Bursts into laughter)
BE: There are a ton of sci-fi reference in the series, obviously…
BW: …and I was a huge science fiction fan from way back, and I used to go to those movies in the ‘50s.
BE: Do you have a favorite sci-fi film that isn’t necessarily cited by a lot of people as a classic?
BW: There was one called “Invaders from Mars,” where this little boy has a dream that Martians attack…and then they really do. And they took his dad and zombified him, and he had to go look for him. There were these mutants that had big eyes, and they sort of hopped from side to side as they moved forward. I love cheese. I do, I love that kind of stuff.
BE: So who can we expect for guest voices on the upcoming season? I know Chris Elliott is in one of the first episodes.
BW: Yeah, but…you know, I’m not sure who they got, because I’m not there when those people get recorded. So I’m not sure who they bring in. I remember recording the episode as we knew it, as an ensemble, but I’m not sure who they brought in. But they always bring in the offbeat kind of people rather than stunt casting, which is celebrities who are known for being celebrities.
BE: So for the most part, then, do you guys record the episodes together when possible?
BW: Yeah, it’s kind of ensemble.
BE: Right, I heard you say that, but I didn’t know if that was something you did consistently. Are most animated shows recorded that way, or is “Futurama” an exception rather than the rule?
BW: We’ve always done it like that, but then there are times when somebody can’t be there, and they have to come in after the fact and do stuff. There have been so many incidents where I talk to myself for six or seven pages, with three different characters going. People will hang out until I get that squared away and then come back in. Sometimes it’s piecemeal, and sometimes it’s ensemble, where we’re sitting there, bouncing off of each other.
BE: So how crazy was it for you when Fox put out a casting notice for “Futurama” last year in the midst of the cast’s contract negotiations?
BW: I said, “They’re going to have to find some kind of freaks that can not only do the characters that exist but are able to do all of the other characters that those people voice. You know, John (DiMaggio) does multiple voices, Phil (LaMarr) does multiple voices, I do multiple voices, Maurice (LaMarche) does multiple voices, Tress (MacNeill) does multiple voices. I mean, you can’t just go out and find people like that.
BE: Did the studio really retract your invitation to Comic-Con during the negotiations?
BW: Well, you know, I didn’t care. I went anyway, and I was sitting with Matt (Groening) and David (X. Cohen) when they were signing stuff. They had this life-sized Bender head that’s filled with DVDs, which was a new product, and they were autographing them, and I just sat down with them and autographed stuff. It was a tender moment. (Laughs)
BE: Do you have a favorite obscure character from the show?
BW: Yeah, there was a character once who was a ball of light. Do you know what I mean? He was this entity, and they said, “What are you going to do (for the voice) for the ball of light?” And I said, “I just have something really weird in mind.” So he’s trying to pick up Leela in a bar, and he said… (Goes into this high-pitch, near-shriek of a voice) … “I’m very lonely!” It was this weird voice that sounded like he was all spent. “My phone doesn’t ring!” (Laughs) It was just a weird thing to go with a ball of light talking.
BE: Do you have a favorite of the “Futurama” movies?
BW: I liked “The Wild Green Yonder.” I thought that was a really cool one. Yeah, it’s…it’s too exciting. It’s just sinking in that we’ve just almost recorded 26 new episodes. We’ve got about three more to do, and then it’s going to be premiering on television on the 24th of June at 10 PM, an hour-long premiere consisting of two brand-new episodes.
BE: Yeah, actually, I mentioned watching the first new episode, but I also watched…uh, I’m referring to it as the Garden of Eden episode.
BW: Yeah. That’s a sickening proposition… (Laughs) …that Leela should have to be put upon by Zapp Brannigan and his nonsense.
BE: I’ll tell you, there’s a bit at the end of the episode with Zapp where it went from funny to “oh, this has gone on too long” to “okay, it’s gone on so long that it’s funny again.” Do you personally subscribe to that type of humor?
BW: Yes, that’s the Gilbert Gottfried approach to comedy. (Laughs)
BE: So I asked about guest voices for the new season, but who have been some of your favorite “Futurama” guests of all time?
BW: I liked Beck, the Beastie Boys…who else did I like? Stephen Hawking. I mean, if you’re going to have a celebrity…Stephen Hawking is a celebrity, but he’s also one of the finest minds that’s ever existed on the planet, and he’s not in show business. That’s the kind of celebrity I like. That’s like getting Jonas Salk to be a guest voice. We’ve had Gary Gygax, Al Gore…
BE: …Ron Popeil.
BW: Yeah, Ron Popeil! He was fun. He was very fun. I knew all of the commercials by heart, so I drove him crazy.
BE: Was there any unlikely guest star that surprised you with the way they just totally got the show?
BW: Yeah, there was Coolio. John Goodman totally got it. The spirit of adventure was with a lot of people who came in, and it was very interesting to work with some of them.
BE: I presume there are also cases where people were just walking through the episode with no idea what they were doing there.
BW: Well, that’s a lot of shows I’ve done, you know? Like, I work with voice people, so when you get somebody that’s not a voice person yet somehow they’re in there doing voices with you, they just shake their head after the session and go, “I don’t belong here. How do you people do this?” They’re, like, struck dumb after they watch us working. Like, “How is this possible?” And it’s, like, “Well, it’s just another day in the office to us.” This whole thing about celebrities doing voices for cartoons is maddening, because they create a character for the celebrity who looks just like the celebrity and sounds just like the celebrity, and then they give it to the celebrity and say, “Can you do it?” I have a lot to say, and people are always, like, “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to get clobbered or black-listed or something?” And it’s, like, I’m 60 years old. I’m not afraid of anything or anybody. Those days are gone. That’s the beauty of being an adult: you don’t have to explain shit to anybody…especially when you’re 60. The other part about it is that I waited my whole life to grow up and be the guy who could call the other guy “son.” (Laughs) That was a great moment, when I could finally say, “Look, son…”
BE: (Laughs) Oh, by the way, my buddy Jim Leber at Nickelodeon wanted me to tell you that he said, “Hello.”
BW: Oh, tell him I said, “Hello,” please! He’s a really cool guy.
BE: Yeah, he said he’s talked music with you quite a lot.
BW: Yeah, I want to be out playing. I was a musician before I was anything. I played with Brian Wilson a bunch of times.
BE: Oh, really? What, as part of his band, or just guesting?
BW: Yeah, as lead guitarist. When he came back and made the film “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” he went out and played songs to promote that movie, and I wound up in the band somehow, and I was lead guitarist.
BE: That’s amazing!
BW: Yeah! But to me, it was easy. I mean, I know that catalog inside and out.
BE: What’s your favorite Beach Boys song?
BW: Actually, it’s “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” (Laughs) There’s just something so sad about that song, but to me, something that can evoke a true feeling in you I something beautiful.
BE: I’d agree with that. Well, I’ve just got one more for you: what’s your favorite project you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
BW: (Considers the question) Probably “Woody Woodpecker.” They brought “Woody Woodpecker” back, and the episodes…I mean, it was treated very lovingly artistically, and the episodes were pretty funny, but it just kind of went in one eye and out the other.
BE: It followed the tradition of the originals pretty well, though?
BW: Yeah, it was upbeat and it was peppy, and it was as risky as it could be. I mean, Woody Woodpecker used to poke holes in peoples’ heads. We couldn’t do that. (Laughs) But it was really nicely done, and the music was great, but it kind of just came and went…although I did four seasons of it, I believe.
BE: Oh, really? I remember when it came back, but I had no idea that it had gone on for that long.
BW: Yeah. Some of the episodes are on the internet, and I think they hold up. I think they did a really good job with them.
BE: Okay, well, I think that’s it, Billy. Good to talk to you again!BW: You, too! Thanks!