Voice of a Generation: 'Futurama's' Billy West

July 13, 2010

Good news, everyone! The nerdiest show on TV is back on the hippest basic cable network. After being dumped by Fox in 2003 and gaining a new audience via reruns on Adult Swim, Comedy Central has begun airing 26 new episodes of “Simpsons” mogul Matt Groening’s other opus, “Futurama.” It’s also good news for Billy West, who does most of the show’s male voices plus the occasional M&M ad and GEICO ad.

West credits the newer fans and “original supporters” for keeping the show alive. “And now there’ll be a whole new generation of people watching Comedy Central that never saw ‘Futurama’ [on Fox].” But isn’t it annoying to be on Comedy Central after the “Simpsons” and “Futurama” paved the way for the Animation Domination of Seth MacFarlane? “Yeah well, it’s the scout that takes the arrows, remember … it’s the guy that cuts through the brambles.”

Despite — or likely because of — his veteran status and massive voice resume, West takes a fairly stoic and humble approach to his myriad jobs: The word “journeyman” crops up frequently, as does an implicit understanding of his good fortune.

What about voicing a ‘toon legend like Elmer Fudd, though? “I love that character and I had to study what the hell was with that voice?! And I just wanted to do it justice, so, like, Arthur Q. Bryan somewhere out in space would be proud,” he laughs. So you don’t treat that job the same as doing an M&M voice? “You have to, though,” he explains. “Because I have to believe all these [characters] are real. I knew Bugs Bunny wasn’t real even when I was a kid, but I wanted to buy the illusion. I wanted to have my belief suspended.”

That’s not hard to do for “Futurama” slacker/hero Philip J. Fry, whose voice is deliberately similar to West’s own. “He was easy to identify with, because I was just this rudderless boat. At 25 I was either in a band or not in a band. I didn’t go to college so I don’t know how to do anything, so I’d be washing dishes or walloping pots at a nursing home. And drinking a lot and playing music.” (Unlike Fry, West never did deliver pizza.)

Not surprisingly, Professor Farnsworth sounds a lot like an older Fry. “A lot can happen to a person’s voice, and he’s 147,” says West. “All I knew was that he had no meat on him, and he farted dust. He was sort of doddering and cranky, like a voice you’d give a wizard. [As Farnsworth] “Oh, my, yes; it’s magic!” Clueless crustacean Dr. Zoidberg is partly based on “the vaudeville star George Jessel, who had a marble-mouth. And I was fascinated by the actor Lou Jacobi, who had a marble-mouth, too, but he was [switches to Zoidberg] more rabbinical. ‘Hey lady, bring me a sandwich from the Dumpster. And leave the maggots on it!’”

Prior to “Futurama,” West’s most recognizable role was probably as Stimpy on Nickelodeon’s not-for-kids cartoon “Ren and Stimpy.” “That voice was a permutation of Larry Fine from the Three Stooges.” [Series creator] John Kricfalusi said to “energy him up a little bit and make him child-like, and so that Larry voice turned into [as Stimpy] ‘Happy Happy Joy Joy!’” “I was a total Stooge worshipper,” he admits, “and I try to put a little Three Stooges into anything I do, whether it’s a snore or frightened sound or laugh. And Dr. Zoidberg, the woob-woob-woob noises that he does are from the 1930s Stooges.”

Speaking of the 1930s, it’s hard to talk about prolific voice actors without thinking of the old master. “They started playing the old Warner Bros. cartoons on TV, and I was very aware of Mel Blanc. What struck me is I would watch a cartoon and hear about 20 voices, and then I’d see three names in the credits. And I’d think, ‘What kind of people are these?’ And I lived long enough to become one of them.”

“I met him once” at a show at Clark University, he continues. “I happened to catch it in the paper and sped off to Worcester, Mass. And there he was! You know that painting where Man is reaching up with his index finger and God’s reaching down with his index finger? That’s what it was like.”

Back to the future though. Doesn’t it seem that Fry’s become more mature and intelligent over the last few seasons? “He’s still got a chip missing somewhere,” West says slowly. “He’s a man-boy, responds like an adolescent to things. He has this youthful energy as if he were 16 even though he’s 25 — well, 27 now.” Is that a challenge for a voice actor who’s almost 60? “Yeah, I read that occasionally,” he laughs. [Switches to Fry] “They all said I couldn’t do it, but I proved them!”

» Futurama airs on Comedy Central Thursdays at 10 p.m.

Written by Express contributor Paul Stelter
Photo courtesy Comedy Central

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