Even if they don’t know his name, most people are familiar with the voices of Billy West. From the Red M&M to Bugs Bunny, Billy West is one of the most recognizable voice actors of all time. He has also voiced multiple characters on Futurama, which returned for its final season Wednesday on Comedy Central. I was able to interview Billy West to get his take on Futurama‘s final season, the show’s start, and how he got into voice acting.
Let me just say he’s one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people I’ve ever spoken with. A partial transcript:
[On the new episodes of Futurama]
EntertainmentTell: So we’re down to those final Futurama episodes, What can the Futurama fans expect from these last episodes?
Billy West: I think everyone’s gonna love it. Everyone I’ve worked with says this is the best season we’ve ever done. It means that everybody put their all into it you know if the season is gonna leave it’s gonna leave with a bang.
EntertainmentTell: Who are some of the guest stars this season?
Billy West: There’s going to be George Takei and Dan Castellaneta. I’m trying to think of who else is on because I never see the episodes before they’re on TV.
[On the “end” of Futurama]
EntertainmentTell:What was it like filming those last Futurama episodes?
Billy West: Recording them was I don’t know…this show’s been canceled before and every time you think you’re going to go away someone pulls you back in again. But I just have an attitude like, “old shows never die they just smell that way.”
EntertainmentTell: Well I certainly hope you guys come back with something.
Billy West: We definitely will, someone will pick it up. I’ve always felt that it’s too good a show to not be on TV, and someone will pick it up I’m sure. I mean they’d be crazy not to. And it’s my favorite cartoon that I’ve ever done, and that’s why I will really miss it, but you keep your arsenal of voices in your head just in case the phone rings and off you go again.
[On the beginning of Futurama]
EntertainmentTell: What was your initial reaction when you read the script for the first episode?
Billy West: I just loved when we first started reading it and when I was cast on the show for eventually four lead roles, I was in disbelief. I mean I knew who Matt Groening was all too well and I used to say I wish I got to work with that guy, and I wound up working with him.
EntertainmentTell: When you first started recording for the show, did you know it would be such a big success?
Billy West: Well you never know when you’re in the middle of it. You don’t know if something is becoming a cultural icon because you just have no idea and it’s the audience that decides to label if you’re lousy or good. And viewership supports that and it just became super popular but it was always a little more underground than The Simpsons. Fox promoted the hell out of Family Guy and they were leaving Futurama out of the promos and all that junk. But I always had faith in the show. I just loved the writers. It’s an honor to work with those guys.
(West then imitated Fry, Zapp Brannigan, Zoidberg and Professor Farnsworth and it was a dream come true!)
Billy West: (Professor Farnsworth’s voice) Good news everyone, bad news. Futurama is canceled.
You know it was just nothing but fun. I never had a bad day ever.
I just absolutely will miss doing [the voices] and if I ever want to hear them again I’ll watch episodes or just do them in my house.
EntertainmentTell: “There you go. A podcast or something!”
Billy West: Yeah! I’m always doing something new though. I’m working with Disney again. I worked on Jungle Junction it was 52 episodes and a preschool show, and that was on Kids Disney. And I never thought I was a Disney kind of guy I think they were a little nervous about me cause I always did screaming characters: “Uh that’s not what we’re looking for over here.” But now I’m in a thing called the 7D which is a new take on the 7 Dwarfs and I’m working on about 4 projects believe it or not that are from myself and my partner from the old Ren and Stimpy days. His name is Jim Gomez and we’ve been trying to develop stuff for quite a while and people are starting to pick up on what we put together, and I’ve got my fingers crossed ’cause believe me I could be an objective fulfillment machine for the rest of my life but there’s got to be a point where you create an objective for yourself and fulfill it and I think that’s the whole other side to this coin. I think I’ll be sitting there at 80 years old you know with an oxygen tank on under my nose; I’ll go ’til they tell me not to go in anymore.
EntertainmentTell: In your opinion, what is it that makes Futurama so special?
Billy West: The pacing, it doesn’t wait for anybody to keep up. It’s almost like British comedy.
EntertainmentTell: There’s so much to it. Your fans are so emotionally invested in the show. I cry every time I watch “Jurassic Bark.”
Billy West: Oh you know what, I can’t watch it. It affected me and here I am going hey wait a minute this is a cartoon show, and it’s evoking emotions out of me like this? I never did that in my life. I sorta knew what the story was and I remember recording all the voices for it with the others and when I saw it on TV I was like “oh no” because I think most of us are animal lovers, and if you have a dog you know that that dog would wait for you ’til the end of time; you just know it and that really drove it home. But I think in the preview for the new season there was a scene where Fry was laughing and Seymour the dog was licking his face. I think there’s something there that is to be enjoyed. But I think there’s another tearjerker that is coming up.
EntertainmentTell: “Oh no!”
Billy West: Yeah you gotta get one more in, and Fry and Leela get closer than they’ve ever been. They go on vacation together and it goes terribly wrong. Leela’s just fed up with everything. They’ve been trying to get together for 11 years. That’s quite a whirlwind courtship (laughs).
[On his start in the business:]
EntertainmentTell: You have voiced the Red M&M, the Honeybee, and characters on countless TV shows, so what’s it like hearing your voice everywhere?
Billy West: It’s surreal. It’s very surreal. I have to compartmentalize because If I really start listening with real scrutiny to the work I’ve done I’ll go “oh I could have done that better.” You know cause you never stop being critical of yourself and eventually you just free up and you go forth and you do by doing. And you go, “that’s that, everyone’s happy, everyone went home and it is what it is and it’s up to the audience to decide what it really is.” The aim is always to get people to laugh.
EntertainmentTell: Do you get recognized on the street for your voice?
Billy West: No, thank God. Not because I’m tired of anything. I’ll do voices for anyone who knows my voice and says, “Are you Billy West?” And I’ll be like “Who wants to know?” and I’ll go yeah I am how you doing. And he’ll say “oh man those voices,” and I know he wants me to do them and I’ll do them but I never had any sense of entitlement I considered myself to be very fortunate, very lucky and when I was given a chance, whether it was by chance or hard work, I always tried to deliver a thousand percent and that’s all I cared about. I didn’t care about celebrity I didn’t even dream you could make money doing stupid voices like you did in school and all of a sudden it’s the job that everyone in the world seems to want. And we’re trying to keep it cool. Celebrities weren’t my heroes growing up, artists were my heroes because I was a musician, I painted, you know I think I was some sort of a Renaissance man in a weird way.
EntertainmentTell: So, who were your inspirations growing up?
Billy West: Let’s see, comedically, it would have to be those Warner Brothers cartoons and again with comedy, The Three Stooges. And this all went on while I was growing up. Some of those ancient Warner Brothers cartoons were only like 10 or 15 years old when I saw them. But I heard all these voices and then I would see the credits when I was able to read and I would see two names and it would flip me out. I said, “Who are these whacked out people? I know they’ve got to be back there responsible somehow. There’s got to be a human.” And I grew up to be one of them but inspirations for comedy were Sid Caesar, he was a TV Comedy pioneer; I idolized the guy since I was like 5 or 6 years old. And then Jonathan Winters was in there and I’ve either met or got to work with most of my heroes. You know Mel Blanc, June Foray, Daws Butler…they’re icons to me and they were showing us the way and how dare I not just go crazy with anything I get my hands on and just do it. It doesn’t pay to play it small, you should just be proud to go out there and play it big cause you’ll never inspire anyone else and I think that’s more important than anything. It’s the inspiration that gets passed on.
EntertainmentTell: Well then what would your advice be for the next generation of voice actors that look up to you?
Billy West: Well there’s always new media being created that people haven’t glommed onto yet, and they have to come out with pure talent to get people excited. And those are places where voice-overs can go. There’s a lot of schools now. There were no signposts when I was growing up. It wasn’t like the voice thing knocked on the door and dragged me to Hollywood over the state line before I was old enough. It’s not like that at all. I never dreamed I would be doing this. I mean I could do freak voices and noises but I never thought you could make a living. And I guess the reason why I was attracted to those people in the first place is because I have [the same] energy. You know that’s the rule of the universe, so it didn’t really surprise me after a while. Why did I love these people so much? Because they were so talented that you could describe something to them and they’d fill in all the blanks. You’ve got to know a lot about people to sound believable as a character. There’s got to be some shred of truth in it. Otherwise, it isn’t worth doing.
EntertainmentTell: How did you get your start in the industry?
Billy West: I played in bands for years. I had my first band in 1966 and over the years into the 70s you’d break a string or a tube would blow up in an amplifier and somebody had to do something or people would leave, so I would grab the mic and start throwing stuff against the wall. And people enjoyed it. I think sometimes they even enjoyed it more than the music. But then I realized in 1978 or 79, there was a whole new wave of music coming in and I was just unable to participate in it because I might have been a little older but for some reason I hung it up after 1981 or ’82. I got into radio. That’s where any voice person that can do stuff should go. Go to the local radio station, and ask (beg if you have to) to have a meeting with the program director because you come in like, “I think I can bring something to the morning show, you know, the morning show always needs whacky voice guys and impressionists.” That’s how I started. You bring a demo around, whether it was a professional demo or you just had a cassette in your back pocket back then. This was FM radio and things were really starting to change. And everything was kinda free form and so we were allowed to do comedy and write commercials and put comedy in it.