The role of the voice actor is changing. With cinema-established actors and actresses flooding the field, very few voice artisans remain intensely committed to the craft. Billy West is one of them. A self-described musician-turned-voice actor, Billy West has brought some of TV’s most memorable characters to life for more than 20 years.
West’s work includes a long stint on The Howard Stern Show, original voice creations with Doug Funnie and Stimpy and also impersonations of former greats, such as Mel Blanc’s Bugs Bunny for the 1996 film, Space Jam. But West is best known for his work with Matt Groening and David Cohen on the satirical sci-fi romp, Futurama. The innocent Fry, the marble-mouth Zoidberg and the senile centenarian Professor Farnsworth are just a few of West’s creations (lest we should forget Nixon’s head-in-a-jar).
Futurama returns to Comedy Central tonight for its seventh season. West (whose normal speaking voice resembles a deep-voiced Fry) spoke to us in anticipation of the much-lauded cartoon’s return, a show he admits is the best gig he’s ever had.
In several interviews I’ve heard you state that you grew up in a “sonic world.” Can you explain that a little bit?
Billy West: When I was growing up, I had less interest in visuals. My interests were more sounds like the radio, music, guitar or the sounds of people’s voices on the radio. Just listening. My interests were kind of peripheral. I loved the way people talked. I listened to the way they talked. I was interested in tonality and the musicality of someone’s voice or just the flat lining of somebody’s voice. I just listened to everything very intently, and I watched things just as intently, but it was more about sound to me as a kid.
Do you remember the first voice you tried to impersonate or create?
West: I remember when I was four or five, I think “Blue Suede Shoes” by Elvis Presley had just came out that week. I remember jumping up and down on a bed and listening to the radio, and I was trying to sing like Elvis.
Was there a particular voice actor that you admired growing up?
West: You couldn’t avoid it when I was a kid. They would show those Looney Tunes cartoons all day. They would show The Three Stooges in the morning before you went to school. I was getting a pretty liberal education in something I never thought I’d wind up doing. Mel Blanc, June Foray, Daws Butler, Don Messick—all of those actors knocked me on my ass. I would listen to the stuff they did, and they could to upward of 15 to 20 voices during a show because there would be only one or two names. I realized that this is something real interesting. Something is going on here that’s a high art as far as I’m concerned. [Voice acting] is something that chooses you. It’s not like I chose that. It’s a great love of mine, but I was a musician. I used to also draw. I was an artist when I started out, but music knocked that out of the way. I played guitar from a pretty young age. I had my first band in the mid-60s. That’s what I really wanted to do, but I noticed that when I was on stage and I broke a string or an amp blew up, I used to start treading out voices and doing little routines and noises. Who knew?
It’s interesting how you came from a music background. How did music affect your work as a voice actor or vice versa?
West: It all works together. There’s many different kinds of ways to play on an instrument. You can play humoresque, You can play evil. You can play drama. The sound of people’s voices and the way they do things with volume, dynamics and tone is very related. Voices to me have a certain musicality. There’s a melodic form to every voice that you hear. I was always well aware of the rhythms and melody of people’s voices and the way they talk. Music can make you soar. It can descend you into a pit of despair. It can make you feel a zillion different ways and so does the human voice.
In the ‘90s you scored two big roles almost simultaneously doing the voice for Doug Funnie on Doug and Stimpy on Ren & Stimpy. You were also working with the Howard Stern Show at the time. Was that a pretty hectic moment in your career?
West: Yeah, it was crazy, but I was a young guy and I had a lot of energy, you know? I could work for 18 hours a day and be like “What else have you got?”
In the late ‘90s you started working with Matt Groening and David Cohen on Futurama. How did you originally get involved with that show?
West: Auditions were going out looking for people to do Matt Groening’s second cartoon show. I said, “It would be so great to work with him.” I got a call to come in and there must have been a hundred people and maybe more on a different day. But the day I went there were tons of people from all over the place. I see Ryan Stiles and guys like that, and I figured he’s going to mop the floor with this audition. So I went in there and I did what I thought was appropriate for the different characters they showed me. I auditioned for Fry, the professor and Zoidberg. I also auditioned for Bender. Zapp Brannigan wasn’t around yet to audition for. I think they were going to use Phil Hartman as much as I know. You know, unfortunately he left us, and eventually they threw that at me. I couldn’t believe it. I was just hoping for something so that I could work with Matt and David and all those writers.
So what would a Billy West-voiced Bender sound like?
West: It sounded like a tough construction worker, but the way John [DiMaggio] played it as a punch-drunk fighter. That was really cool. That was dead on. You couldn’t get better than that.
When creating a voice, what other elements are important to consider besides just the character’s physical appearance?
West: It depends on what the dialogue is and how to interpret it and knowing what they’re describing the character to be. What type of a guy is this? In Zapp’s case, he pretends to be heroic but he’s a coward. He’s this pile of contradiction—these clashes in personality displays. You can hear him struggling and fighting with himself sometimes when he’s trying to bail out of why he would back off from a situation. “I didn’t want to hurt anybody” [In Zapp’s voice].
So it’s pretty easy for you to slip into a character’s voice. You mentioned how old voice actors would sometimes voice 20 characters in an episode. In Futurama, you’re juggling four. Is it weird or difficult to have conversations with yourself?
West: No because I’m a freak. I’m designed to do that obviously. I can’t do much of anything else except play music and sing. I still can’t tie a necktie right. I don’t know why, but I can’t. I even learned to tie my shoes wrong when I was a kid. I used to do a lot on Doug between Doug and his bully, Roger Klotz. I used to have a couple pages of dialogue, and we’d do them in real time. Ren & Stimpy was not done in real time. I would go through the script as one character, then go through the script as another character. I could have done in real time, but they did it that way and they would add other characters that I would do that were in the episode. One way of the other we got through it, but It was pretty grueling to scream and yell like that all the time. I used to blow my voice out all the time.
I know you were one of the more vocal cast members on Futurama in efforts to get the show back on air after in was cancelled in 2003. What sets Futurama apart from other shows today or shows you’ve worked on in the past?
West: I would say it’s excellent material. It consistently makes different types of people laugh. There are some things that someone wouldn’t get, but somebody else would. I think that’s the way a cartoon should be. It shouldn’t be whittled down to only kids who can understand it or it’s too adult and only adults can groove on it. Rocky Bullwinkle was like that. There would be things that adults would laugh at that I didn’t get, and there be things that would tear me up. When I go to work on Futurama I’m blown away by the people around me and their abilities. I swear to you, sometimes it’s like I’m going to school. I’m sitting there watching people that are at the top of their craft. I think they’re brilliant. I’d hate to use the word genius because almost everybody’s a genius now, but these are people I hold in the highest of esteem.
After creating voices for almost 30 years, what’s your favorite thing about voice acting?
West: I guess it’s to be able to interpret characters that are drawn and thought up by someone else. The only way you can make it come to fruition is that you have to rely on a bunch of people—like a committee—to make it work like he animators, the artists, the timers, the track readers, the directors, the producers and the performers. It’s a lot of love into it by committee, and I love that process. I also love that I don’t have the luxury of doing who I am for every character unlike celebrities. I don’t have that luxury. I treat it as a craft. Anyone who does something otherwise, to me, isn’t a craftsman or an artist. They’re celebrities.
Has there been a noticeable change in voice acting in the last couple decades?
West: Everybody in the world wants to do it. Most celebrities that are actors, or vice versa, they get into it and they just do what they are and I’ve always had a problem with that. There’s no alchemy, but that’s what makes a cartoon magic. You don’t bring who are what you are. I wouldn’t have the nerve to keep saying, “I’m famous now. I’ll just be Billy West wherever I go.” People would just shut the door on me, but isn’t that what celebrities do? They draw the character to look like them. They design it to be like them and sound like them, then they just say, “Why don’t we just get the guy who is this character.” There’s no magic to form there. I’m sorry, but I’m old fashioned. My heroes were not celebrities when I grew up, my heroes were artists.
What is the future for Billy West? Not necessarily in the year 3000 but…
West: I’ve always been an objective fulfillment machine as far as voice-over stuff goes. I’ll come in and keep working. If they like what I’m doing they’ll keep you and I’ll keep going until they tell me not to come into work anymore. That’s how I live. I also write. I also have ideas for characters and shows. I’ve written four shows with my partner. One of them we’re trying to get off the ground right now. We’re going to start animating it. That’s very exciting to me. To actually have ownership over something rather than coming in and being a stylist, which I absolutely love to do. I can’t talk much about the show right now, but when there’s news about it, don’t worry, I’ll make it known.