Interview: Billy West

words by Jackson Ellis
| Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

Billy WestA condensed version of this interview was originally published in Verbicide issue #18

Millions of people strive to live their lives doing what they love, regardless of egotistical satisfaction or acknowledgment from the public — and those who can live so humbly, happily, and maintain enough income to make ends meet are truly fortunate.

There exists a corps of immensely talented, compulsively passionate, and all-but-completely unrecognized performers whose work seeps into every television set across the continent, yet who could walk through Hollywood without garnering a single acknowledging turn of the head. Meanwhile, the pantheon of performers, directors, artists and producers — all elements of the revered American entertainment industry — is overflowing with attention-hungry public figures to whom undue celebrity status is awarded in abundance.

“There’s that stupid old studio thing, though,” comments longtime voice actor Billy West, “of never letting the audience know who does the characters, and not treating them very well. Like we’re the redheaded bastard stepchildren of the industry.”

It’s no surprise that Hollywood’s most talented vocal performers are denied the spotlight that shines on the faces of who create the tabloid fodder. However, it is undeniable that the characters to whom people such as Frank Welker and Billy West give life to will carry a legacy in the hearts of their fans that will prove to be more enduring that the majority of the superstars who grace the silver screen.

You might be saying, “Frank Whoziwah? Nope, I don’t know him.” On the contrary — have you ever seen an episode of “Scooby Doo”? Welker provided the voice of Fred. That’s a distinctive voice you, your mom and dad, and your grannie can all surely hear imprinted into the back of your mind. Maybe, like I, you were a school-age kid in the 1980s and spent each Saturday morning watching cartoons such as “Transformers,” “GI Joe,” or “The Real Ghostbusters” — Welker worked on those, and many, many others. As of 2006, his resume of vocal work includes more than 500 cartoons and movies. Take that, John Wayne.

West’s career is nearly as far-reaching, and equally impressive — after making a name for himself as a talented vocal performer on the “Howard Stern Show,” West went on to voice Stimpy (and in the final three seasons, Ren, too) on “The Ren and Stimpy Show,” and more recently provided the voices of Philip J. Fry, Dr. Zoidberg, and Professor Farnsworth on Matt Groening’s “Futurama” (also starring Welker), which will return to television for its fifth season in 2008 on Comedy Central.

Interviewing West and Welker is akin to pulling the curtain back on the Wizard of Oz — almost unsettling, but worthwhile to discover the men behind the scenes who bring such fantastic characters to life. Both are interesting, insightful men, and display a common wealth of respect for the industry they work in, their fellow, unheralded voice actors, and the “magic” of their profession, helping to bring life and personality to animated characters beloved by people of all ages, from all walks of life.

Here is what West has to say:

I read on your website that even at a young age you wanted to be one of those “screwy adults with magic voices.” At what age did you begin doing impressions and practicing different voices?
Well, I was always “touretting out” voices. My world was a sonic world. In other words, radio was what I listened to. I listened to people talking on the radio, and I loved it. I remember the week “Heartbreak Hotel” came out, and I remember jumping up and down on the bed singing “Blue Suede Shoes” with my dad’s rain galoshes on, naked. (laughter) I was a little child, and I wanted to sing or talk like whatever was coming out of that radio. And then television, and watching cartoons — that was like something that was very magic.

That magic is all gone today, because you never really knew who these people were. They were these unbelievably talented people who could shift their voice, and change it or manipulate it to do upwards of 100 characters. All the good ones could do that, and that craft is lost today. It’s been invalidated by the arrival of actors wanting to [butt in] on doing cartoons.

Doing the work that should be left to professional voice actors.
Yeah, and they lie about it! They always say, “I’m doing it for my kids,” and I can sort of understand that, because when Arnold Schwarzenegger would come home, he’s not going to impress his kids by saying (in a perfect Arnold Schwartzenegger voice), “I was Conan the Barbarian!” He wants to say, “Hey kids, guess what — I did a cartoon! Daddy does cartoons!” (laughter) You know, and then he feels cool. But the thing is, [executives will say to me], “What are you bitching about? He makes scale [rate of pay].” Scale for them is $10,000 a day!

When I was a kid — and I grew up in the age of Saturday morning cartoons [the ‘80s] — I only saw one cartoon where it was an actual celebrity providing a voice. It was simply because he was playing himself, and it was John Candy in 1988. Do you remember his cartoon—
“Camp Candy.”

When I was a kid [it was a novelty]: “Wow, an actual guy doing his own voice on a cartoon!”
Yeah, can you imagine bringing that to the table? How creative. And it was the same thing with Louie Anderson. He won an Emmy for voiceover not one year, but two years in a row.

And he only played himself [on “Life with Louie”]?
Yeah. (In a nasally Louie Anderson voice) “My dad used to hit me.” It was just, basically, him talking about how his dad used to hit him. I don’t know if his dad is still around — mine is gone, and on Father’s Day I just beat myself up. I don’t need to have a cartoon about it. “Hammerman,” and “Little Rosie” — a cartoon about a fat little Tom Arnold and a fat little Roseanne chasing pizzas down the street. That was the crappy era of cartoons that never took kids on any imaginative journey. “Rainbow Brite” and “My Little Shortcake” and all that other junk. “Pound Puppies”…everything was so cute.

Well a lot of it was product placement — I believe the FCC had to step in when it came to light that everything from “GI Joe” to “He-Man” to “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was [nothing more than a series of toy commercials]. “Hey kids, here’s an exciting, new, obscure Ninja Turtle product in the cartoon that just happens to be for sale at Toys-R-Us right now.”
Warner Bros. was the best at that, because in “The Animaniacs” the WB logo was imprinted into everything. They were always showing it; it would be on the water tower, or a giant WB would pop out of nowhere. You know what they were doing? They’re planting a “customer farm” and [creating] brand loyalty. These kids are going to see WB and know it means “good” to them, because that was a good show.

In the 1980s, Ralph Bakshi was given a lot of credit for bringing back animator-created cartoons when he produced “The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse,” and that philosophy continued with John Kricfalusi’s “Ren and Stimpy.” I am wondering, though, in the general scheme of things, how much are voice actors able to — or encouraged to — contribute to the writing process? Do you get to pitch catch phrases, specific gags?
Well, it used to be something that just happened on your way to discovering the character and trying to be faithful to the writing, and the intentions. Now they expect you to come up with a hook, or some little stupid way of saying something that can go on a t-shirt.

So even if you’re not a writer, you’ve got to come up with the next “d’oh!” or “dyno-mite!”
You’ve got to come up with the next “you look mahvelous,” or, “that’s the ticket!” You know, when you see everyone running around saying the same thing. “Vegas, baby!” Young guys with cutoffs and backwards hats yelling “Vegas, baby” at each other. Even in Vegas they were yelling “Vegas, baby!” and then when they lose their ass and they’ve gotta go home they’re yelling, “Connecticut, baby!”

It’s funny how these things get ingrained into people’s minds, but when something comes along that has great writing, it isn’t as appreciated — the subtler things get by people. Catch phrases can be great, though — I think “woo hoo!” is funny no matter how many times I hear it.
Yeah, but it’s [because of] the way Dan [Castellaneta, voice of Homer Simpson] performed it. It wouldn’t be funny if someone else did it, and there’s a lot of his stuff that is like that — he’s an impeccable performer.

You wouldn’t know he was the Robot Devil [on “Futurama”] unless you looked it up on IMDB.
He’s doing his job. That’s what the job was — it’s not to “make it” so you can be in cartoons and throw other people out of the business who really belong there. You become a celebrity so you can crash a party. Dan is up there — his face should be up there in the Mount Rushmore of voice actors. (laughter)

So the only thing that is pushed on [voice actors] is to come up with catch phrases. How about delivery? Specifically, in “Futurama,” Professor Farnsworth’s voice changed quite a bit after season one—
Every voice does! Like, if you listen to episode two of “The Simpsons” and then you go episode 800, you wouldn’t even know they’re the same characters. You know what it is? You find the character. You grow into it. And then it becomes what you were hoping to get to — I think everything starts out as a work in progress.

Would you say that, for the most part, mid-production shifts in vocal performance are due to the actors, or do you ever have to deal with external pressure from producers or writers?
No. Characters develop. They morph, they shift. That goes for just about anything — listen to an ancient episode of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and Bill Scott’s performance on Bullwinkle is different.

I’m wondering what the criteria are for what you will take on as work. Your first cartoon voiceover work was with “The New Adventures of Beany and Cecil,” a show so obscure that doesn’t even list it—
They don’t? Well, that got yanked!

Yeah, I believe eight episodes were made, and only five ever aired.
I’ve got only one episode somewhere on video.

What I noted is that for several years after the show’s demise you continued to do voice work [only] for radio. Do you feel that the show’s failure delayed your success with cartoon work, or were you simply not receiving any scripts you were interested in?
I wasn’t known anywhere. [“Beany and Cecil”] was something I fluked into because I happened to know somebody who knew someone else! But I was in Boston when I did that, and then I moved to New York.

That was in 1988, for “The Howard Stern Show,” correct?
I moved in 1989 to New York, after I finished “Beany and Cecil.” I hooked up with Howard Stern because I was [already working for] the same company — the radio station I worked at in Boston was the sister station to the one in New York. I was at WBCN in Boston, and it was WXRK in New York. I was in production, and I used to listen to the commercials that would come in that we’d put on cartridge so the on-air personalities could play them. And I sat there, and I thought, you know, I should do this, because a lot of [on-air personalities] are super, and they’re funny — but a lot of them are just anemic. I thought I could bring something [to radio].

That’s how I [ended up going] to New York — I wasn’t looking to make a killing. I didn’t have any idea how much money you could make doing voiceover. It was just something that I needed to do! It’s something that chooses you, if you know what I mean.

One aspect of your characters that has always impressed me is that not only can you create many distinct-sounding voices (Dr. Zoidberg from “Futurama” sounds nothing like Professor Farnsworth who sounds nothing like Stimpy), but you are able to give each character a character-specific vocal range that spans from whispering to maniacal laughter. Is this the result of intense goal-oriented training, or do you believe that people who possess this ability — such as you or Frank Welker, who makes inhuman noises — are simply born with a gift?
It’s a gift. I don’t try to bring too much science to it. I [compare it] to a bumblebee — how it’s supposed to be aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly because of its body weight and its wings — but it doesn’t know that. And I used to feel that way — I don’t want to know everything there is to know about this stuff, technically, because it leaves no room for magic! I like the discovery process — I don’t want to know everything. To come up with new voices, a lot of times what people will do is they’ll go through the “rolodex of show-biz periphery” — names no one has ever heard of, but they were in movies, and they were distinctive personalities, and then marry them with the attitude of another. It’s a [collision] of voices.

Sort of like how Stimpy’s voice was inspired by Larry Fine [of “The Three Stooges”]. You applied that timbre, or “style of talking” and put it with a new personality.
Yeah, [Larry’s voice] was much lower, and slow, when he was speaking. Stimpy was like a child; he couldn’t wait to shout out whatever he was thinking. Larry wasn’t like that — Curly was like that! I knew everything about the other characters — they had really clearly defined roles, Moe and Curly, or Moe and Shemp. But Larry would be sitting there chewing up scenery most of the time. And the little bit he did say became super interesting to me, and then I began to think that he was the glue that held the other two elements together. He was like the Keith Richards of the Stooges. (In Larry Fine’s voice) “Hey Moe, I’m on heroin again!” (laughter)

I remember the first time I saw “Futurama” I nearly jumped out of my seat, because I thought Zapp Brannigan’s voice was Phil Hartman’s, and I thought he must have recorded some lines before he passed away. I later learned it was you performing, and I thought it was one of the most outstanding impersonations I’d ever heard.
I knew [Phil Hartman]. He was a really, really funny, genuine, and generous guy. He called me before I left New York — I’d be leaving the Stern show, and I’d hear the gate to Hell clang shut behind me as I left the belly of the beast out to Westchester — one day I called my wife and she said, “You’ll never guess who I was just talking to about you for like an hour — Phil Hartman!” I thought, a-ha ha, I know enough guys who can pull off an elaborate joke like that. But he left his number, and I called him up and he said, “I just wanted to tell you that I’m a big fan.” And I said, “I kind of know who you are, too! You [took] the spark plugs to that car on ‘Saturday Night Live’ when you left.” And he said, “Well, everyone’s gotta move on,” but he told me, “If you ever move to Hollywood, give me a call — I’ll help you get acclimated to what’s up.”

I finally did move to Hollywood. I thought [his offer] was so damn nice — he was so secure as a performer, he wasn’t trying to prove anything. We shared this love of big dumb announcers. You know, those guys, [to whom] the sound of their own voice is more important than anything else in the entire world? [They love their voices] almost enough to not give birth to [the words] — like when a gospel singer makes eight-syllable words out of two-syllable words: (singing) “I loooooooooove Jeeee-suuuuuuuuus!” Big dumb announcers remind me of that because they can never quite give birth to a word and let go of it, because it’s so precious to them: (in an announcer voice) “Coming sooooon, to the Worcester Centrummmmm-ah!” (laughter) That became my hook on that voice. At first, I didn’t realize I was sounding like what Phil Hartman would do [with performing Brannigan’s voice] but I leaned into it and said, you know what, I’m going to make it a tribute to him. But it was based on the big dumb announcers. Like with Zapp Brannigan (in Brannigan’s voice), “All guys on the radio once sounded like this, yeahhh!” I’ve heard them! I thought that was so pompous… You only have a vocal to convey what kind of screwiness lies beneath the character.

What are your limitations as an actor? Do personal morals, or personal scrutiny in regard to script quality come into play?
I’m in a business of 90 percent unemployment. Your job is looking for work, so everything looks like work to me. It’s not like I could be too successful and say, “I don’t wanna do that” — that happens very rarely. I’m a journeyman. Sometimes you get the coolest job in the world, and other times you don’t. It’s all part of the craft.

It must be frustrating to get shit on by the people you support. I read in another interview that at the premier of Space Jam you and the other voice actors were told to go sit in a little theater. You’re the ones who bring life to these [movies]. It’s not Michael Jordan — he’s the face.
There’s that stupid old studio thing, though — never letting the audience know who does the characters, and not treating them very well. Like we’re the redheaded bastard stepchildren of the industry. You know, the woman in that interview you’re talking about, she told my friend Bob Bergen (the voice of Porky Pig), “[The red-carpet premier] is for the actors.” Really? And what do you do for a living? You say stupid shit on the phone to people — at least I make people laugh! I hate that kind of ignorance. Meanwhile, I know actors who can piss circles around any living actor — and they do it with their voice.

Who are some of your favorite fellow voice actors to work with? Are there any great voice actors you feel go unnoticed?
The list is getting bigger! There are people like Carlos Alazraqui, Tress MacNeille, Jeff Bennett, Maurice LaMarche, Jimmy Cummings, Dee Bradley Baker, Tom Kenny — and luckily for me, these people are all my friends!

I’ve heard Dave Herman is considered one of the most underrated voice actors, too.
You know what, he is! When you do a character that’s established and you get to do it every week, you don’t have to think about reinventing it. But if you’re the utility guy, the go-to guy — and I’ve been that a number of times — where you’ve got to come up with a voice for “Astronaut #3” and “Peanut #1,” or a lion, or a construction worker — you’ve got to fish around! And you can’t use the same voices. To me, that’s harder, and he does it great, and he’s one of the only guys who could get a laugh out of one word. His sense of comedy is amazing.

I was wondering if we could discuss the politics that were involved with the cancellation and, now, the comeback of “Futurama” [due to debut on Comedy Central in January 2008]. Unlike “Family Guy,” which was brought back to Fox because of outstanding DVD sales, “Futurama” got picked up by an entirely different network. It seems that Fox has done nothing but suppress the success of “Futurama,” despite the great fan base it has accrued.
It’s network thinking. In this town, they see a golden goose, and the eggs aren’t enough, and then they begin to go, “I wonder what it tastes like.” And they kill it. That’s what they do. They undo things to try to reintegrate; causing a problem just to fix a problem — it’s much like the government in the establishment now. But there was friction, and I think it got to be too much, and it was mutually agreed that “Futurama” would go to a different network.

When do you begin working on the new season?
I’ve already recorded four episodes. They were done in a week because we had to do them pretty quickly for the DVD that will be coming out.

The “Futurama” movie, right?
Yes. I believe they’re going to take those episodes, chop them up and add them to the other nine or 10 episodes.

I think on Comedy Central’s website it said it will be a 13-episode schedule.
Yeah, that’s how it’s going to be done. I’m going to be recording the other shows later on, and they’re going to try to get the work done a little faster than we used to — I mean, we used to get together once a week. We’d have a table-reading on Wednesday, and we’d record on Thursday.

When I interviewed Ian MacKaye, he likened recording music in a studio to being in a laboratory. I’m wondering if the same feeling applies to voice acting. For instance, if you read interviews with the people who [provide] voices for “The Simpsons,” they often say that they never see the other [actors] — they record one at a time, its spliced together, and they’re out of there. With “Futurama,” is it more of a collaborative effort?
Yes, I’m with the cast a lot of the time. Occasionally, you’ll come in and do a scene and somebody won’t be there, but most of the time it’s the ensemble.

And you guys get to play off of each other, which gives it more of a lively, spontaneous feel.
Well, yeah, these are all funny people. [We] come in in the morning, and we start riffing on what is in the news that day. It will all be the kind of jokes that you hear on Jay Leno that night, about things that are going on in the world. It loosens everybody up so that they’re in a playful mood.

Do you have any other specific warm-ups or preparations you do before performing? Like, do you gargle saltwater or eat certain meals?
No, I don’t believe in any of that crap. [Preparing], for me, is just screwing around and riffing with the others.

You’ve stated that “Futurama” was your favorite program to work on. What makes a show an ideal setting for you to work in? The writing, the voices you get to perform, co-workers, animators?
I liked [“Futurama”] because the writing was fantastic — I was a fan of Matt Groening — and I got to play these cool characters. And the other reason I liked it was because I wasn’t affected by any tension. Some places you work, there will be some ongoing nonsense that you can’t escape, and it affects you.

Inter-cast tension?
Yeah, stuff like that, but everybody [involved with “Futurama”] likes each other, everybody works together.

I loved the dialogue, and I loved the writers and the way they do things. I’m always ready to respond when someone [asks me] if I have any ideas [for the show] — I’ll try it, but I’ve got nothing but good material to work with.

Fry and Stimpy are two of your favorite characters you’ve performed — do you have any favorite scenes or episodes?
The last episode [of “Futurama”]. That really got to me. And the dog episode, too [“Jurassic Bark”]. I mean, I like the crazy stuff — like the episode with Fry’s grandfather Enos, in Area 51 [“Roswell That Ends Well”]. There were some really funny lines in that episode, and the funniest were when Fry was eating with Enos, and Enos just stops him and says to Fry (in Enos’s voice): “Hey Fry, did you ever get the feelin’ you was only goin’ out with women ‘cause you’re s’posed to?” And Fry goes, “Whaaaaat?!” (laughter)

I like the language that they come up with. I think one of my favorite lines from the show was when some character says to Fry, “Hey Fry, I hear beer makes you stupid,” and he goes (in Fry’s voice), “No I’m doesn’t!” (laughter)

It seems that today, it’s more about what you say, and back in Mel Blanc’s time, it was how you said it. Do you feel it is possible for voice actors today to leave an indelible legacy, like Blanc? And if so, what would you like yours to be?
I like my work to speak for itself. People that run around calling themselves “genius” are so full of shit. It’s not up to you how you’re going to go down in history — the audience defines who and what you are. Everyone else is supposed to write that stuff. I hope that my work speaks for itself, and that it’s considered entertaining and funny — most of the stuff I’ve ever done has been comedy. I have that feeling that some of these things are going to become post-modern art, like classics.

Living in the “DVD age” will help prolong that legacy. In 50 years, people aren’t going to have saved their Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey “Newlyweds” DVDs. But things like “Futurama” and “Ren and Stimpy” and even ‘80s shows like “He-Man” are already considered collectors items.
And they’re standing the test of time — half of the movies that come out are in one eye and out the other. Here today, gone later today. And they wind up on TNT, or you’ll go on a plane and there will be some Jimmy Fallon movie playing: “Yes, on this flight we’ll be showing Jimmy Fallon in—” and I’m like, “There’s a bomb on the plane!” (laughter)

In an interview with The Onion AV Club [6/14/05] you mentioned, regarding the movie and voice business, “I hope I’m not coming off bitter about…the business. I’ll hang in, but I’m going to change my hat. I have to be a producer now.” I read recently that you were in the process of shopping Billy Bastard around, and I was wondering what your status is with that? Any other projects you are interested in working on in a producer role?
Well, we were doing some CG stuff in Australia, and there was a BBC guy down there who happened to catch the trailer, and he wanted to know what it was. He got all nutty over it. He went back to the BBC [with it], and we’re pursuing that stuff. But people here are too afraid of everything — everybody who saw that trailer went nuts over it, and they were having all these meetings, and then all of a sudden… I think if you go to “Asshole School” they teach you how to say, if you’re in a meeting, “Why should we like this guy? He’s irredeemable.” Oh, and Beavis and Butthead are redeemable? The “South Park” kids? Come on. To me, everybody went to Asshole School and says asshole things.

It’s frustrating because if you’re striking out all over town…I mean, this situation isn’t particular to me, it’s a very common thing as people peddle and peddle. Do you know how many times “Seinfeld” was pitched? About a hundred times. When they put it on, they were like, “this better work!” They didn’t have faith in it — I don’t think they understood the comedy. And then it becomes this huge show that was an afterthought to them. They had a hit because they weren’t paying attention to it — that’s how “The Simpsons” got to be a hit. Those “great thinkers,” they’re not paying attention to it. They’ll pay attention to “The Tracey Ullman Show,” but this little subversive cartoon became the biggest hit.

The same thing can happen in many situations, music, comics. Nirvana came out of nowhere. “The Boondocks” got huge and not many people saw that coming. It doesn’t surprise me that the same thing can apply to television.
Well, you’ve got to just be allowed to do your thing! That’s where you’re going to get your best product — and the artist always has a better idea of how to do something than a producer does, or the “money people.” If you’re going to take the trouble to do something, why not just go all the way first class? Why don’t you try to encourage talent? I guess the wheel keeps turning.

Click here for an interview with voice actor Frank Welker


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