Interview: Billy West (Fry) of ‘Futurama’

kimberlee rossi-fuchs goes into the future with the voice behind futurama’s lead character…

Despite his long and impressive IMDB filmography, chances are you wouldn’t be able to pick Billy West out of a lineup. If you grew up in the 90s or are a fan of animation, however, you certainly can recognize his voice. Often described as the modern day Mel Blanc, West has brought to life some of animation’s most beloved characters, voicing everyone from Ren and Stimpy to Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, and has lent his singular talents to a wide range of film, television, and radio, including Nickelodeon’s Doug and the Howard Stern Show.

Most recently, West has been busy providing the voice for lovable 25 year-old delivery boy, Phillip J. Fry (as well as Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, and Zapp Brannigan, just to name a few) on Futurama, which after a much-lamented cancellation in 2003, was resurrected on Comedy Central in 2010. As the Planet Express crew prepares to take off for the series’ seventh season on June 20th, I spoke with Billy about the show, his art, and his accomplished career. Billy made me laugh before the interview even began with his pitch-perfect imitation of the robotic voice my iPhone recorder app used to announce that our call was being recorded for the interview.

Billy West: Thank you, Miss Warbly Robot Lady! (Robotic mumbling)

Pop-Break: (Laughing) Sorry about that!

BW: That’s OK. I like it.

PB: The ability to create so many different voices is a rare gift. How did you first come to realize that you possessed it?

BW: I don’t know. I didn’t give it a lot of thought because I’ve always been like that. When I was a little kid, I just thought that everyone could do what I did. And sometimes I’d do stuff but it wouldn’t be accepted really well because I grew up in a world where everything had to be serious. Entertainment was a very tiny, small piece of people’s lives. Ninety-five percent of it was devoted to gainful employment and making a living and cutting it in school and everything like that. Now everything is entertainment and a slice of it is devoted to reality. So I was kind of a man out of my time as a child. Because I would do stuff and people would say, “Could you not do that? What’s with you? Why do you have to do those things?” And I wanted to look up at everybody and say, “I don’t know. I can’t help it.”

PB: So would you describe yourself as a class clown back then?

BW: No, not at all! I was a geek! I was a nerd! I had about one and a half friends.

PB: Well, it seems like you’re doing OK now.

BW: Yeah, but now it’s cool to be a nerd or a geek and I resent that. It sure wasn’t like fifty years ago.

PB: That’s very true. Even growing up in the 90s, it wasn’t so accepted as it is now.

BW: Oh yeah, chances are you were only the one like that within a radius of a thousand miles and so all the wise asses would come over and start circling the wagon because they saw you were vulnerable or sensitive. And the only way out was to try to make them laugh or draw something for them. I remember one time I used to get out my satire by drawing pictures of other kids. And there was one guy that was roughing me up one day and he goes, “You’re not gonna draw me, are ya?” I may!

PB: That’s great! In addition to the voices that you’re known for, you’ve also stepped in for Mel Blanc in the past and have voiced very famous, well-loved characters, such as Bugs Bunny and Popeye. How does that experience compare to voicing a character whom you’ve originated?

BW: It’s the difference between night and day, really. Those are assignments – when you have a classic character and someone gives you a role to perform that was already created and all the decisions were kinda made. You’ve got to try to stick within that and yes, you bring your skills as a mimic and an executor of performing that stuff, but when someone shows you a picture of something and something just pops out of you, that’s very satisfying. Especially if it’s something that they like.

PB: So that’s typically how you go about developing a voice for a particular character? You start with a picture and then it comes to you?

BW: Yeah you look at the drawings and you also look at the bible of the character, you know, like what are they all about? Are they quick to anger? Are they dimwitted? Are they this, that? There’s a million things to consider. Plus the shape and the weight of them. And then you can totally play against type and not have the voice sound anything like what it looks like and it can still work.

Futurama TM and (C) 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

PB: Out of all the characters that you’ve voiced, I read that you’ve said Fry is the closest to your own voice.

BW: Yes.

PB: So have you ever gotten recognized in public by your voice?

BW: Yes, I have. It definitely slips out of me occasionally, when I’m going (as Fry) “Oh man, the price of gas is going up!” Somebody will say, “Hey, do that again!” “The price of gas is going up!” And they’ll go, “Are you Billy West?”

PB: I’ve also read that you dabbled in stand-up in the past.

BW: Yeah, a long time ago.

PB: What was your comedy style like and does it influence the way you develop a character?

BW: I was basically trying to play characters in stand up. I got to tell you something, I didn’t really have a point of view back then, because I was messed up. I was a guy who had just played with all kinds of bands my whole life and then all of a sudden, I was out of that scene and I needed to try something else. So when I went to go do comedy, I was still messed up, like drinking and drugging. It was that time – the 80s, late 70s – you know, all that stuff. So I really didn’t have a point of view that I could present to people. What I could do was perform characters and what they might say as I profiled them. Nobody told me you’re supposed to have an act. I just used to go up and throw shit against the wall and some of it would stick and some of it wouldn’t. But I’ll tell you one thing, the second I started doing voices, that’s when people lit up. They were like, “Oh, he’s not up here for nothing.” o I got into radio after that. And that’s where I could really dig in and be appreciated in a different way because radio had thousands of listeners. You know, and it was a sonic medium, you couldn’t see us, so everything was about voice and how performed or how you talked or sang.

PB: You mentioned that you were in bands before. Are you able to imitate anyone else while singing, or is just pretty much something you can do while speaking, through characters?

BW: I learned to sing almost exactly the same way as a singer who sang a song that impressed me. So I really didn’t develop a personal style. It was easy for me to pick a Roy Orbinson song and sing it exactly like the record, or somebody else, like the Beatles or anybody. And I used to play that kind of stuff in bands, you know, cover tunes and all that and I was good at it. One time, I was in a band that played original songs and they were going over, so it was a different feeling altogether, when you were doing what came out of you naturally.

PB: I’ve also read that you’ve been vocal in the past against the use of famous actors in lieu of voice-over artists, since it’s sort of a disadvantage because the celebrity can take advantage of an already existing personality to sidestep the character-building work that a professional voice over artist would bring to the table.

BW: You know, they already draw the character to resemble the person that they’ve speculated is going to play it. And that’s ass-backward. It should be the other way around. A skilled professional that does many, many voices and can create them in a second, they look at the picture and then they interpret it, so they change. You know, if I just went into everything I did and did my own voice, I’d be bringing nothing special to the table. But they hire people like me and all my friends that I worked with, the multiple voice people and the ones that can create anything, they hire you to come in and they show you a lead bar on the table and they say, “Can you turn it to gold?” And that’s our job, to make it transform like in alchemy. You leave the room and there’s some gold there. And we make our living that way, by transforming something into something great. But if you’re a celebrity and you just do what you do and that’s your thing, they leave the room and the bar is still lead. There was no alchemy, there was no magic.

And you know, people say, “Why are you bitching? Of all people! What are you worried about?” And truth is, and it’s me being totally honest, I don’t care about me. I mean, I made a mark and I still like to work and do everything, but I worry about this nineteen year-old girl or guy, a firebrand that could do all kinds of voices. Are they going to be invalidated after they spend all this time perfecting it and making it into an art – and it is an art – to have it just blown away by the celebrity thing? I know it’s not going to change, no matter what I say it ain’t gonna change. But I do have to tell you something, when I was growing up, celebrities weren’t my hearings. Not at all. My heroes were artists, you know what I mean? Like Da Vinci and Mozart and Aaron Copeland – composers. It was works of art that were my heroes.

Futurama TM and (C) 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

PB: Right – not so much fame or celebrity.

BW: No I don’t just fall into line because someone’s a celebrity. That’s just horseshit, you know. But that’s the closest that our country has ever had to royalty, so it’s almost like the same treatment. That and the Kennedys. That’s the closest we ever got to royalty. And now Kim Kardashian, the queen of America suddenly.

PB: Well, on that tip, you certainly have a great chemistry now, but what were your initial feelings when Katey Segal, someone who possesses an instantly recognizable voice, was cast as Leela? And have there been any guest stars that you’ve either really liked or really hated working with for some of the reasons you mentioned?

BW: I liked a lot of the guest stars because a lot of them tried like hell to be bigger than life as far as their voice went. Katey, believe it or not, her voice to me is such a rich, beautiful voice. She’s a musician. She can sing, she can sing her ass off. I went to see her one time and she sang some stuff and I was practically crying, I was moved by it. And that doesn’t happen to me every old day. It just doesn’t. She blew me away. And I’m a musician, so I get the musicality in the voice that she does as the character Leela. It just seems to fit so perfectly.

PB: I love your work on Futurama and was thrilled when the show returned to the air after seven years. Were you surprised to be coming back?

BW: Not exactly because when it got cancelled, I said, “I just know in my heart of hearts that this show is too good to not be on TV.” And I said, “Something’s gotta happen with it.” And I missed it. I’m thrilled to be doing it again and so thrilled the same people were back in the same room together. We’ve all come to know each other so well. And it’s enjoyable.

PB: You can tell. When there were talks about a contract dispute, I couldn’t imagine the show without the cast you currently have.

BW: Somebody always can. (Laughs)

PB: Has your experience at Comedy Central been different from your experience at Fox?

BW: Not much. Not much, really. Everybody is still trying to do the absolute best work and beyond that they can offer. I’ve noticed no difference in that regard. Everybody is still trying to keep the bar high in the air.

PB: Is there more freedom on cable than on network TV?

BW: There might be a little more in different regards, because one is network and one is cable. There’s always been some little differences. But I’m very, very happy and just so pleased to see the episodes.

PB: It’s been great. It picked up right where it left off. And that brings me to another questions I have for you, was it difficult to get back into the rhythm of the characters after such a long break?

BW: Not really. Not really because it was like second nature, we had been together for so long. And I really missed seeing those people and seeing the producers and directors. To me, I’ve never had a bad experience. Whether it’s a table read, or whether it’s a recording session, whether it’s a promo-ing, going out with other people and being on stage at Comic-Con, I’ve never had a bad experience.

PB: Well, now that you’ve mentioned Comic-Con, that brings me to my next question. Futurama is such an intelligent show, perhaps a bit more nerdy than the Simpsons, with all its math and sci-fi references. Would you say your fan base is as fervently nerdy as theirs and have you had any run-ins with Comic Book Guy type fans?

BW: Not so weird, I mean, kind of what I expect. One time, there was a kid and he was wearing a weird jacket and he had buttons all over it, like little pins, a “Hey, I’m Wacky” kinda thing. I was speaking in front of a bunch of people and this guy wanted to ask a question and he goes, (Nerd voice) “If Powdered Toast Man got into a fight with the Joker, who would win?” And I was like, Jesus, why does he gotta ask that? I have no idea. And I said, “Well, you know what, I really don’t know, but do you draw?”

(Nerd voice) “Yeah.” “Do you write dialogue?” (Nerd voice) “Yeah.” “So why don’t you sit down and just make the outcome that you want happen?” (Angry nerd voice) “But I want YOU to tell me!” It was like if you broke his fantasy about how this interaction would go, if you broke his fantasy of how it’s supposed to go, they short circuit. (Laughs) (Nerd voice) “No, you’re not supposed to say that!”

PB: But for the most part, you’d say everyone’s pretty normal?

BW: That’s the extreme. Most people that come up are the nicest people in the world, just saying the kindest things. I swear to you, that’s the bulk of it, that’s the majority of my experience. It kind of makes me feel weird, but kind of cool in a way that there’ll be 20 year-old girls coming over and you can feel their heart beating out of their chest when you’re posing in a picture with them. (Girl voice) “I’m like so nervous and like, I’m um, like.” It’s just adorable.

PB: Alright, well that brings me to my last question. What’s in store for the Planet Express crew this season? Are you voicing any new characters?

BW: There’s some incidentals that are thrown in. There’s some that they’ve brought back that were little appearances here and there over the years. I filled in for a couple of voices, but they’re not famous characters, they’re incidental characters that pop in and out. Every now and then, they’ll throw a little guy at me or something. They’ll say “What do you got for this?,” and we’ll just come up with it on the spot. You know, people who aren’t totally essential to the plot, but they just happen to come in and have something to say or whatever.

PB: Well, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me. I really enjoyed it. I’m a big fan of yours and I’m really looking forward to the season premiere.

BW: Thanks so much.

Futurama returns to Comedy Central for its seventh season premiere on Wednesday, June 20 at 10 pm with back-to-back new episodes, “The Bots and the Bees” and “A Farewell to Arms.”