Detroit native Billy West returns for new season of ‘Futurama’Written by Jason Mack | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Billy West manipulates his voice for comedic effect in cartoons like “Futurama,” but he developed his craft as a coping mechanism during an abusive childhood.
“I came from an incredibly violent household,” West said. “I was traumatized, and I lived in my own world. That’s probably where my ADD came from. I couldn’t pay attention to anything that was real.”
Growing up in Detroit as the oldest of three sons, West was physically abused by his alcoholic father. He often used comedy to comfort his mother and used characters as a means to escape.
“I made up my whole world I lived in and populated it with these entities and characters. For what, I’ll never know. There was no way you could have a future doing those kinds of things, or so people told you. They said, ‘What are you going to do? You better get with reality and cut the crap. Stop living in these parallel universes.’ I didn’t want to come back. Coming back was too painful. I didn’t want to leave. That’s kind of how I grew up.”
When he was in the sixth grade, his mother got a divorce and moved the family to Boston. West, 61, began abusing drugs and alcohol around the age of 21. He entered rehab after a series of car accidents and has been sober for nearly 28 years.
“I was always messing around with noises and voices,” West said. “I studied people. I was like an alien. I felt really disenfranchised as a kid. I used to watch others to see how to be human. Like, ‘Oh, that’s how you cry. That’s how you laugh. That’s how you get mad, and that’s how you have fun.’ I never could experience it when I was little. I had to watch others doing things. Eventually, after years of therapy, I cut through a bunch of scar tissue and managed to put all those skills that were developed, out of total survival, to good use in the future. I’m applying myself every week on Comedy Central.”
The sixth season of “Futurama” debuted June 30. West stars as Philip J. Fry, a delivery boy who was cryogenically frozen by accident on New Year’s Eve and wakes in the year 2999. West modeled Fry’s voice after himself at the age of 25.
“I put the innocence that I had into the character,” he said. “Fry is kind of oblivious. I think Fry has ADD. I know I did. I also had OCD. Nothing registered in my head. I totally lived in my own world. I think I borrowed a little bit from that.”
“Futurama” was developed by “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening. The first four seasons aired from 1999-2003 on FOX. After Comedy Central acquired its rights, the show released four direct-to-DVD films from 2007-09. The network then picked up the show for a 26-episode fifth season.
“I always felt bad after the first go-round,” West said. “I said ‘How can they take this off television? It’s too good not to be on TV.’ If one thing ends, you just keep going. You never know when you’re recording anything that it’s going to be a cultural phenomenon. When it came back, I was thrilled because it’s my favorite show.”
Like any other fan, West watches episodes for the first time when they air.
“It’s surreal hearing my voice come out of anywhere,” he said. “I have to compartmentalize and think, it’s not me who did that so I can enjoy it. I act like I had nothing to do with it so I can enjoy the episode. I loved the premiere. I thought it played great. I’m sure when the cast gets together for table reads, we’ll get a good kick out of talking about it. It’s off to a good start.”
Comedy Central apparently agrees; in March, the network ordered an additional 26-episode season to debut in 2012.
Filling in for Phil
West initially auditioned for nearly every character on “Futurama.” He was cast as Professor Farnsworth and Dr. Zoidberg, but he earned the role of Fry after early casting changes. One character he didn’t audition for was Zapp Brannigan. The character was written for Phil Hartman, but he died before recording began and West stepped into the role.
“I remember reading for it and doing sort of pompous disc jockeys I’ve worked with over the years that love their own voice,” West said. “I thought it was perfect for that character. I knew Phil Hartman, and we worked together. We spent the whole time talking about how we both had a love for radio. It ended up sounding like Phil Hartman. I thought of his pompousness when he did those kinds of characters. I put my own spin on it by exaggerating the ends of words.”
“I was always laughing,” he said. “It was so cathartic to be laughing all the time. I’d come out of there high from laughing. It really is a release.”
With West also voicing various bit characters on “Futurama” such as Richard Nixon’s head, there have been several scenes where he essentially held a conversation with himself. During these recording sessions, he seamlessly transitions between voices in real time. While he enjoys talking to himself, he prefers recording with the other actors.
“We kind of riff off each other,” he said. “Once somebody gets some silliness going and everybody piles on, that energy transfers to the script when you’re reading it. Stuff happens between the recordings that’s hilarious, too. It’s stuff nobody gets to hear. I think it’s good energy. We ad-lib all the time. They at least let us try ideas.”
Ren & Stimpy & Doug & …
West is experienced in providing multiple voices thanks to his days as both main characters and various other roles on Nickelodeon’s “The Ren & Stimpy Show.”
“That was so much screaming and yelling,” he said. “You could burn out on one character and not be able to do the other one. Both of them would gang up on you unless you did them one at a time. That was a tough one. I used to come out of there with no voice.”
He also provided the title character on Nickelodeon’s “Doug.”
“I really enjoyed doing that show,” he said. “It was a really sweet show. I put a lot of myself into that character. I used to daydream all the time when I was in school. Occasionally I’ll see a Quailman costume at Comi-Con. It’s really heartwarming to see. I was the same way growing up in the ’50s, but we didn’t really have that freedom of expression. I tried like hell though to make costumes and superhero stuff.”
His two shows premiered in 1991 and aired on Sundays along with “Rugrats” as the original Nicktoons. The trio formed somewhat of a cartoon dynasty for Nickelodeon.
“It was exciting, because they were taking on the other networks as far as children’s programming,” West said. “That’s quite a bold venture, but they managed to do it. They gave the other networks a black eye and made their children’s programming look like garbage. Disney went nuts and was spectrum analyzing Nickelodeon. The other networks just gave up on Saturday mornings. They didn’t want to do animation anymore. The other networks were ripping out their hair.”
West got to participate in another cartoon dynasty when he voiced Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in the 1996 film “Space Jam” alongside Michael Jordan. He’s also voiced other iconic characters such as Shaggy, Woody Woodpecker and Popeye.
“They are not characters I created,” West said. “The best work was done before any of us were born. I’m always glad for the opportunity to do a franchise character. Before I had a chance to formulate any characters of my own, I was being taken to school every morning by watching the old Warner Bros. stuff and all the other cartoons. I watched like a little sponge. I was such a student of animation.”
Two of West’s heroes in voice acting are Jack Mercer and Jackson Beck, who voiced Popeye and Bluto, respectively. He met Beck in New York City while working together on a Fruit Roll-Ups commercial.
“I sat there working with him and felt somehow special I got to be in the same room with someone like that,” he said. “The guy was a titan. Here was this big beautiful voice of this guy I’d heard for so many years. I heard that voice my entire life. I was working with this mighty old lion. It was really intimidating. He enjoyed it and was a total pro. I went home so thrilled.”
West has lent his voice to several other commercials, including playing the role of the Red M&M since 1996.
“It’s an American icon, and it’s kind of a wise-guy, smart-alecky voice,” he said. “People like the red and yellow characters enough where we’ve been doing it for a long time. They put so much into the commercials. It’s the world’s most popular candy, so it’s exciting for me to do it.”
While voice acting might sound like an easy job, West emphasized the complexity of the craft and is outspoken against the trend of handing roles to inexperienced celebrities.
“People think you just show up and talk, garbage like that,” West said. “It’s not like that at all. There is so much more to it. You have to be able to convey and evoke emotions just with certain nuances in your voice. I don’t have the luxury of doing my own voice for everything. You can get it down as an actor. They aren’t going to change their voice much for roles. In voice acting, you do have to get rid of yourself all together.”
West would like to keep celebrities away from his profession, and he is happy to reciprocate by staying out of their spotlight.
“I kind of like it how I don’t get any attention,” he said. “The work speaks for itself. I don’t need to be a celebrity. Celebrities aren’t my heroes. Artists are my heroes. If everybody is a celebrity, then nobody is. There are too many celebrities for almost no reason at all. To even think of myself like that is an absurdist notion.”
He is content to stand behind the face of Fry at 10 p.m. Thursdays on Comedy Central. If he ever retires from acting, West might still put his voice to good use. He used to play guitar and sing in a band called Billy West and The Grief Counselors.
“It’s very hard to get guys my age to come out and play,” he said. “They’re all married and have kids. Some of them have grandchildren. I have a room full of guitars and I just play. I’d love to get into a situation with some other players. I love playing music and singing.”
Tags: Billy West, Bugs Bunny, Comedy Central, Doug, Futurama, Jack Mercer, Jackson Beck, M&Ms, Matt Groening, Michael Jordan, Nickelodeon, Phil Hartman, Popeye, Ren & Stimpy, Rugrats, Shaggy, Space Jam, The SImpsons, Woody Woodpecker