To say Billy West has had an eclectic career would be an understatement. From playing in rock bands to being a noted radio personality to doing voice work for Space Jam, Ren and Stimpy and Futurama, West has made a living off of his impressive pipes.
We recently talked to him about his career and his personal struggles. This is part one of that interview, in which he talks about playing Bugs Bunny, working with Howard Stern and creating the distinct voices of Fry, Zoidberg and Zapp Brannigan.
[You can read part two of our interview with Billy West here.]
How did you get into acting?
I started out as a musician actually. I learned to play guitar – actually, let me start with trumpet. I learned to play trumpet when I was about 10 years old. And then I sang a lot like in Glee clubs and choirs and actually I picked up my first guitar in 1961. This grubby little Stella guitar that used to hang around in the cellar. And kind of was in and out of interested. I didn’t know how to tune it, but then in I guess 1963 I got another guitar and eventually I learned how to tune it and by 66 I was starting up my first band.
And after that, I started to get better and better and I moved up the rungs in my little town and played dances and eventually nightclubs. That was my life. That’s basically what I did, made a living playing music for many years.
On stage, I used to do voices and everything, because as a kid I used to do Tourette’s voices and noises and all kinds of stuff and it just kind of popped out of me when I would be on stage with a band. Eventually when the band stuff was over, I needed to find a real job and I kind of fell into radio though a friend of mine who was installing burglar alarms for a living and he installed some stuff over at this disk jockey’s, Charles Laquidara.
He was a famous guy in Boston who had the morning show at WBCN. My friend had a cassette of me screwing around and he played it for him and the guy said, “Have him come in, call him.” So I started going in to WBCN in Boston for nothing and doing bits on the morning show and eventually it lead to a full-time job.
Then in 1989, I got out of there and I started doing cartoons. Like 1988, I did a short-lived version of Beany and Cecil, which was the old Bob Clampett thing and ABC was going to revive it, but it lasted about five or six episodes. John Kricfalusi produced those. He was given the assignment to do the show and it lasted, like I said, six episodes or something close to that.
Audio Version – Hobo Radio 253
If you want to hear Billy West do the voices of Fry, Zoidberg and Professor Farnsworth or if you simply hate reading, then you won’t want to miss the audio version of our interview. You can listen to the interview in its entirety, and hear a song by Billy West and the Grief Counselors by clicking the play button below or by subscribing to Hobo Radio on iTunes. (And you can find more audio versions of our celebrity interviews, including John DiMaggio, the voice of Bender, here.)
I decided to get out of Boston around that time, it was time to move and I made a lateral movement to our sister station in Manhattan. I knew that I wanted to get out of there and they were amenable for me to come there. That was also the station that Howard Stern was on, so that’s how I met him. I spent a great deal of time coming into his show in the mornings and organically ripping it up and not caring how far we took things. We were just pushing the bar. It was like a bunch of kids just playing all the time. That’s what I liked about that atmosphere, you know? Howard was never afraid to take chances and we would push each other.
Let’s see, in 1995 I left there because I already started doing some Nicktoons, one was Doug and one was Ren and Stimpy and you know, that got me really get going on commercials and doing and looking for other cartoon work, because I guess I was kind of suited for that. I did tons of projects after that.
I was never formally taught to act. There was not voice schools, let’s put it that way. And acting school, it never dawned on me. I took a couple of classes when I first went to New York. I went over to Stella Adlers and crammed reading volumes of material – Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw, prologue to Henry V and everything else after it. And you know I crammed as much stuff as I could and took what I needed and left. I didn’t stay very long and that was kind of where everything fell for me and I just went off on my own and started auditioning for stuff. And eventually I moved to Los Angeles after being in New York.
How did Ren and Stimpy come about? Was that just you going in cold for an audition and ending up with the part?
Oh no, what happen was I had a friend that I grew up with in Boston named Andy Paley – great musician, great producer and he knew one on the Clampetts. Ruth Clampett was the daughter and Sody was the mother; Bob Clampett produced the Beany and Cecil cartoons originally and created them.
They found John K and wanted to do them and they were going to bring it to ABC television. There were so many warring factions over that. There was Jenny Tree, head of children’s programming, with their ridiculous children’s programming that had edicts like, all of the sudden, on Josie and the Pussycats you couldn’t throw a cat in a bowl of spaghetti because they thought kids would throw their cat into a bowl of spaghetti. That old shit.
It never occurred to me to do that. Nor never did it occur to me to burn my house down if I saw it in a cartoon, you know?
Or hit someone with an anvil.
Yeah, it’s so insulting to kids because they are born learning machines and we dumb them all down and we are off to the races. But, I got asked by John K. The family, they got word to John, and they said, “We want to use this guy.”
So it was me and Maurice LaMarche. We were recording them in Vancover and I was still living in Boston and we did the episodes like five of them or something and then it was dumped. But people had started calling me at that same time, a guy name Jim Jenkins called me to be the voice of this character he created called Doug and it was a Nickelodeon show. Both of them were actually – Ren and Stimpy and Doug. But John K remembered us doing Beany and Cecil and he sent me some pictures of the Ren and Stimpy characters and I auditioned for both of them. And he wanted to use me.
He auditioned everybody in town and he had me listen to these tapes of like Peter Lorre and Burl Ives and Kirk Douglas, and he was always intrigued with the Larry Fine from The Three Stooges impression I did, but he couldn’t have him sound like a depressed old Jew. He had to live in the cartoon parameters, that universe. So we amped him up a lot. And that went for about five years, but they got rid of John K after the end of the second season. And Doug was still going; we did four seasons of that. And, you know, that’s how getting into the cartoons started.
With voice work, is that generally how it works – you go in for an audition and they say, “This is what I have in mind, Larry Fine but not as sad”?
Exactly, yeah. Or you build a voice out of nothing for them. You just come in cold and throw a bunch of shit at the wall and if they see the practical application they will let you know about it because they are always enthusiastic if there’s emotional resonance with what they have created and what they want to do.
I usually go in and take a look at the character; I mean take a real good look at it. I’ll hear some descriptions about where the character stands in life – Is it insecure? Is it bombastic? Is it schizophrenic? Is it sociopath? Or childlike? Or whatever the description is. And I weigh them up in my head and give them an interpretation of what I think they might be looking for.
And are the voices pretty fully formed for you at the beginning? Or are you someone who tinkers with them?
I tinker with stuff all the time. You know, every character is a work in progress. You watch the third episode of The Simpsons and you watch the 700th episode or whatever, the voices sound totally different.
Homer, especially, changed.
Yeah, that just happens . I like that because it means it’s a work in progress; kind of a living thing.
Does that just come from you doing the voice over and over again and you start picking up on things? Or what is it that causes it to change?
You know what it is? It sort of a sneaky redo because you’re discovering what the character should be. You know, what it should have been in the very beginning. And you finally hit on it and it hits the sweet spot and then you stick with that. It happens in most cartoons.
For Futurama, with you doing so many voices, did you audition for all of them? How does that work?
The audition call went out and they wanted me to come over audition at Fox for Futurama. I walked in the room and there was about 150 people in there and I saw people like Ryan Stiles and I was like, “Oh Jesus let me out of here.” All my voice pals were up for those rolls. They were bringing in Lori Petty from Tank Girl, you know a gazillion years ago.
Everybody was over there and I was excited to meet Matt Groening because I had never met him. He knew who I was and I was just like, “I know who you are too.” And they gave me pictures of the characters and described them to me a little bit and asked, “What do you think?” I read some stuff for them and I wound up getting four roles.
What made you decide to stay close to your own voice for Fry?
Because I remember myself when I was 25. I was wild, but I didn’t know how to express myself. I had all these great thoughts and everything, but I just couldn’t articulate them for some reason. They didn’t come out right and I thought that was charming for a character to have, especially an everyman. He is well meaning and everything and he is a little stupid. I thought I knew everything and I was stupid about so many things it isn’t funny. But that is what I sounded like when I was 25.
I remember I was always whining, like when I was in a band, I was like [in Fry’s voice]: “Aww, fuck I broke a string.” You know, whining like [in Fry’s voice]: “When are we going to get the equipment in here? This afternoon or tonight?” “What’s the matter with you people?” You know, I remember sounding like that.
Where did the voice for Zapp Brannigan come from?
Zapp Brannigan was an amalgam of all the big dumb announcers that I heard growing up. Some of them, I actually worked with in radio. They were still around, you know? [In a deep baritone] “Those guys who carry their balls in a wheel barrow and love, far away above anything else in this world, the sound of their own voice.” And they stretch out words longer than they should be, they swing with every pitch.
And I thought I am going to try this with Zapp Brannigan. So I took a couple of characters that I knew in radio, put them together. I cold fused them or super collided them or whatever description is apt. But Zapp was like: “Kip let them know I have made it with a woman” and just trying to sound like those old guys
How did you come up with the sound for Zoidberg?
Zoidberg was a mash up of the old British theater actor and movie actor Lou Jacobi, who talked like he had marbles in his mouth. In the movie Arthur, with Dudley Moore, Lou Jacobi is like a neighbor or somebody, but he looks at Arthur and goes, “Vhats it like to have vall that money?” He was that guy. And then I fused with a Vaudevillian comedian named George Jessel, who also had a marble mouth: “Ah, ladies and germs.”
And so, when you put the two of them together you get [in Zoidberg’s voice]: “Young lady bring me a sandwich from the dumpster and leave the maggots on it.” “Roh-bit.”
How is Futurama recorded? Do you do each part individually or is it done like a radio play?
We try to always record as an ensemble, but some people can’t be there and you just kind of skip their parts, but there is an energy that’s in the room. There is a lot of play going on and give and take. When the recording is off, we just start talking about current events and we will just start doing voices and making fun of everything under the sun and getting a mess of laughs.
That energy translates into what you’re about to do for real, the reason you were there, and I hold them all in high esteem, you just don’t know. It’s like going to school. I learn something every day from my friends, my peers.
And do they let you guys play around? Is there room to ad-lib during the recordings?
It’s pretty strict to the script because they work that so hard and deliberately and want it to be as perfect as they can get it. Every now and then, somebody will have an idea and you’ll just hold your hand up like school and say, “I have an idea if you want to try it.” They welcome it and if it’s good they’ll put it in and if it’s not, [it ends up on] the cutting room floor.
What is it like having real-time conversations with yourself in the various character voices? Is it difficult to keep track of mentally or are you good at being able to switch from one voice to the next as you read through the script?
I could do it pretty naturally because I love puppets. I used to make puppets out of nothing when I was a kid and I used to do the voices for them and do these little made up shows on the spot for my friends or in my house for myself or whatever. I loved characters and I loved disappearing in them. I loved committing to them. So doing them back to back was a good challenge and it kept me on my toes.
Ren and Stimpy, I’d do one character and then maybe go through the script as another and maybe three others. But Doug was done as an ensemble and I did everything in real time, back and forth from Roger Klotz, the bully kid, to Doug, who was a sweet kid. Futurama is ensemble, which means in real time, so I’ve gone four pages in a row talking to myself.
Have you ever done the wrong voice?
Yes, it happened once about six or seven years ago and the room stopped dead. We were doing the table read and there was a giant audience in there – all the people who worked on the show and invited guests – to watch us do the table read. One time I blanked out and a voice came out of me that was a different character than it should have been. Everything stopped dead though. It was like, “What?”
And I said, “This is how it starts, I guess. I just hope I go quietly in my sleep tonight.”
With Futurama, what was it like having your show canceled and then brought back first for those direct-to-DVD movies and then as a regular series on Comedy Central?
It was wonderful. It’s the best show I’ve ever done, in my opinion. A lot of others on the show feel the same way. It’s the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done and I have a lot of respect for everybody on every level that does this show. We all contribute. We all are part of the orchestra of it all.
Getting canceled was like “Wow, really?” because I couldn’t see my friends anymore. When they brought it back, I thought, “This is great. We’ll just start up again.” But it was kind of a schizophrenic thing there for a while. Are we doing it or are we not doing it? Are we going to be characters or not be characters? That kind of feeling. But I thought it was wonderful when we did go back to do it and kept doing it.
I have to thank all of the fans though for bringing that show back. It was the fans that did it. It was this giant force that the network couldn’t ignore.
Why do you think it took a while for the show to find it’s audience? Why did it get canceled the first time?
There was a mysterious style of promoting the show. [Laughs.] Like, they’d say, “Tonight on Fox, 7 pm Futurama, followed by an all-new Malcolm in the Middle and followed by a brand-new episode of The Simpsons.” Then, they’d say, “Remember, the fun begins at 7:30.”
It seems like a lot of people didn’t even know the show existed until the DVDs came out.
There are people who are still discovering that the show is on, like it’s a brand new thing to them. Which is great because now enough time has gone by that I go to these conventions and some giant, burly guy will come up with a big giant handshake and say [in a deep baritone], “How you doing?”
And I’ll say, “Hey, how are you, sir?”
And he’ll say [in a deep baritone], “I just want to thank you for when I was a kid.”
I love hearing that. I’m totally touched to my soul when somebody says that. I’m nothing but filled with gratitude. But it’s freaking me out because the time goes by so damn fast.
Do you get recognized by your voice?
A lot of times, yeah. I’m kind of glad. I love doing what I do. To tell you the truth, I never thought about being a celebrity. I just didn’t. I was so passionate about what I did, I just wanted to bring something to the table so badly. But the idea of being famous was foreign to me because when I was growing up, my heroes were artist, not celebrities. To this day, when they use celebrities in animated features, it’s like, “Wait a minute. This is crazy.”
We always would go in and they’d say, “We’ve got this bar of lead on the table, can you turn it to gold for us before you leave?”
“Yeah, sure. Zing!” And then leave.
Then, when celebrities come in and they say, “We’ve got this bar of lead on the table, can you turn it to gold before we leave?”
They say, “Yeah, where’s my $20 million?” and they leave and it’s still a bar of lead. There’s no alchemy. There’s no magic that seems to take place.
And I go, “Where is the freaking art?”
That always seemed like such a bizarre decision to make. Kids don’t care about celebrities. They aren’t going to want to see an animated film just because Brad Pitt is doing the voice of the main character. You would think they’d want to get the most talented person for the job instead of getting name recognition, since what kids are going to remember is whether or not they liked the animated character.
The networks don’t want variables. They don’t want to have things they have to worry about like finding the right voice and “Did we make a mistake?” and “Aesthetically, how is this going to go over?” They want to skip that process. They couldn’t co-opt that as much as they wanted to. They need a formula. Everybody has to have a formula. So they say, “Putting celebrities in your movie equals success.” Except that it doesn’t always equal success. It can be a total gutterball.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy.