Billy West: The TV Squad Interview
by Joel Keller, posted Jun 15th 2006 11:15AM
If you've watched any cartoon on TV in the last fifteen years, chances are you've heard Billy West's voice. West is one of the premier voice actors working today, and during those fifteen years, he's used his versatile voice to create new characters -- and resuurect old ones -- all over the television and movie landscape. From Shaggy to Bugs Bunny to Woody Woodpecker to the Cherios Honey Bee to the Red M&M, the 54-year old West has put his imprint on all of them. But most people know him from two classic cartoon series: On Ren & Stmpy, he did the voices of both main characters (he picked up Ren after creator John Kricfalusi was fired after the first season), and on Futurama he did the voices of Philip Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. John Zoidberg, and Zapp Brannigan, among others.
In this wide-ranging interview, conducted by phone on May 31, Billy and I talked about his history with John K., the way he went about creating some of his Futurama characters, his early-'90s role on "The Howard Stern Show", and the influx of celebrity voices in current cartoon movies (let's just say he's against it). We also went over all the Futurama Season One episodes in the 90-minute (!) interview, which you will see in my Retro Squad coverage of the show. He was even nice enough to do a Futurama / R&S -themed intro for our APB podcast, which we used to open podcast #13 last week. Needless to say, Billy West is a mensch.
Joel Keller: I don't know if your agent told you what we were doing, but what we're reviewing is older shows over the summer, and one of the shows that we're doing is Futurama.
Billy West: Oh, that's cool. That's great.
JK: We're doing The Prisoner, Buffy, Seinfeld, all that kind of stuff.
BW: Yeah, I used to like The Prisoner. I remember when it was new on television. It was the late 60s early 70s, yeah.
JK: Was that something you watched all the time? Did it influence you in any way?
BW: Not entirely. The Man from U.N.C.L.E was my favorite show.
JK: OK. Let's start with a little bit of what you're doing right now.
BW: Well, I just got finished doing the movie coming to DVD called Queer Duck, which is from Mike Reiss, he was one of the creators of The Simpsons, for getting it on TV and everything, and he decided he was going to do this project, and he called me up. I used to do webisodes for the Queer Duck webisode site, and it was extremely funny, it was a riot. So they finally decided to make a movie. And I play a character in it called Bi Polar Bear.
All of Queer Duck's friends are gay animals, like there's Openly Gator, and...
JK: So Bi Polar Bear is not only bi-polar, but bi.
BW: Yeah. (laughs)
JK: An interesting combination.
BW: The other animals are like openly gay, like there's Oscar Wildcat.
JK: I guess this is a question I should be asking at the end once you're more comfortable, but... are you doing any voice work for Futurama? Or have you been doing any in the recent past?
BW: Let's see... I'm doing a project that they want to use an announcer I did on Futurama. They want to do a special thing for Al Gore... I don't know if you saw the movie An Inconvenient Truth, but there's a clip from Futurama in it. And it's where this guy is explaining to this little girl what global warming is. And you know, it surprised me, I had no idea. I'm watching the movie last night in the movie theater and I'm (heh) laughing all over the place.
JK: So you're going to be doing that work as the announcer and...
BW: We're waiting to hear like what's going on with doing a show. I mean, it's been a strange atmosphere: are they doing a TV show or are they doing a movie? Nobody knows, and then it's this deal and that's off and then this other deal's on and then that's off...
JK: Because you've mentioned in the press in the past that you thought they were going to do a new TV show, but then you had to recant that because things changed.
JK: I know we've blogged about that, because we're big Futurama fans here, and we have a lot of readers who are Futurama fans...
JK: Yeah, a lot of us love the show.
JK: We've posted about every single little rumor that's come out, and we've always been hearing things like "This is going to be a TV movie" or "This is going to be a series".
BW: Yeah, this has been going on for quite a while. And I don't know what's going on.
JK: So you haven't gone in and done episodes and the movie?
BW: Nothing yet. I get kind of misled; I totally misunderstood something, because I was told one thing, and... who knows?
JK: Who's that (the rumors) coming from?
BW: I have no idea.
JK: So that's not coming from Matt Groening or the production company or anything.
BW: I'm not sure of anything. It's not like... When somebody's dealing with you or negotiating, you don't know who it is for real.
JK: It's just going through your agent.
BW: Yeah. Let them handle the insanity on the other end.
JK: Well, what's your view on it? Would you want to go back and revisit Futurama?
BW: I'd absolutely love to do it. I really would; I mean, it was my favorite show. Even if I did no roles on that show, I would have been a fan.
JK: Well, then, let's go back to the beginning. You had not worked for Matt Groening before on The Simpsons, right?
BW: No. They had done a parody of Ren & Stimpy on The Simpsons; I think Phil Hartman and Hank Azaria did the voices. I thought it was hysterical.
JK: I remember one episode, way back, where there was an award show, and one of the nominees was Ren & Stimpy season two premiere. And all they showed was "clip not ready". Which I thought was funny because they were making fun of the fact that John K. (John Kricfalusi, creator of R&S) took so long to get...
BW: Well, there's a lot of things to make fun of him about. Take your pick (laughs).
JK: (laughs) That's true. What happened with that? He got fired between seasons one and two, and you were asked to do voices for both Ren and Stimpy, right?
BW: Originally, I was chosen to do both voices before the show started and then they dropped that idea, and John was going to do the character (Ren) and I was going to do Stimpy. And then he got fired after the first season, and they went out and had this huge casting call, and they remembered that "Hey, wasn't Billy supposed to do it?", and then they went and fished out my old audition tape and gave it (the part of Ren) to me. I never lobbied for it.
But when I did do it, I was met with, like, just such negativity, you know, like all the Ren & Stimpy freaks were cussing me out and calling me names, and I'm a coward and this and that. And I never said anything; I just kept quiet for all those years. And I finally had enough, and I had my own web site, and I shot-gunned everybody out of their shoes, and just finally had it.
This guy (John K.) was his own man, and he wanted me to quit so that he could be called back to the show. I mean, what if that didn't work? What happens to me? You know? I mean, this guy was using me to fight his battles, and that is not a man. No.
JK: So, he even thought that you took the opportunity.
BW: Well, they've (the fans) got to rationalize it, you know what I mean? It's like misplaced anger. With all these people, it's like, "Hey, your boy fucked up. Are you going to get mad at someone else about it?" "Sure, sure!" That's the kick at the cat, you know, that's what all Bush supporters are doing now. They're all mad, but they don't know why, and because they chose the wrong horse.
JK: Well, John K. got fired because he took so long to get the new season out.
BW: It was a bunch of things, but you know, it was non-delivery of episodes... but he did fight like hell, because they (Nickelodeon) would approve storyboards and then they'd renege on it, I mean that's what I heard.
The thing is, I wouldn't mind so much, but it seems to be his whole M.O., his calling card, you know, like six episodes and then (puts on a drawl) the thirty-aught-sixes aimed at the big Co (makes a gunshot sound).
JK: (laughs) But when they brought the show back a few years ago, John K. was part of it, but you did at least Stimpy's voice, right?
BW: No! I wanted nothing to do with that. I turned it down and they were bugging me and bugging me to do it, and I said, I wish you nothing but luck. That's all I said, then all of a sudden I'm an asshole for not doing the show. It's ridiculous. First I'm an asshole for not quitting the show then I'm an asshole for not being part of that garbage. But that was one big long stupid gay joke that no one got.
JK: That's what I heard, that's why I didn't watch the show...
BW: No, it was like... gay people like good gay jokes, I like good gay jokes because I like funny. But it better be frickin' funny, or you're dead. You've gotta commit to some kind of humor. I mean, this was just like... I don't know, like a training film or something (laughs).
JK: (laughs) "How to Be Gay"
BW: You know, how to be gay. I'm a low brow but I didn't get that new show. I didn't get this humor.
JK: So who did Stimpy on the new show?
BW: I have no idea.
JK: So you never heard the voice and figured out if they did it right?
BW: I don't know. I'm always willing to be recast if I don't dig something. No one's going to hold me hostage for anything.
JK: So you don't have any territorial-ness over your roles then?
BW: No, because the party was over before that show got off the ground, the new one. And it never even got off the ground; I think it was six episodes.
But he (John K.) called me up and yelled at me when I wouldn't quit that show. He called up everybody... Gary Owens, nicest guy in the business, (John) calls him up and he's yelling at him. It was a nightmare. The whole thing was like a rock in my shoe for so many years because there was all these little, you know, vigilantes hiding behind the electronic bushes of the Internet bothering me on my site. You know, and then they'd just run away and say I'm the most obnoxious person in the world. But they don't know me. I know John K.; he's the most obnoxious person I ever met.
JK: I just read his blog recently because our animation expert just linked to it...
BW: Oh, he's busy at it, like he's happenning.
JK: And he just sat there and ripped apart half-hour animated sitcoms, saying the art isn't there, it's all story-oriented, and it just struck me as being a bit elitist.
BW: You know what? There's nothing to say, there's nothing to announce, you know? If he passes wind he has to have a press conference. The work is the work. Do the work; don't run around all day screaming about other people's work. What does that do? There's no grace to be gained, number one. And number two, what's the point? This whole genius thing -- I know people who are geniuses; I work with them every day. It's no big deal to me. But this whole genius thing... I'm sitting there thinking, you know, you can be a genius at more than one thing, you can be a genius at failure, just as well as you can at art.
JK: Ok, on to happier topics... Futurama. How did Matt Groening know about you and your work?
BW: Well, when I went to the Futurama auditions, I was gonna audition for just about every character. And I went in and I did Fry and I did my impression of what the Professor would sound like and I did Zoidberg, and I tried to do the robot (Bender), but, you know it just wasn't the right thing. It didn't sound right to me and I'm sure they realized it right away. But I got all these characters, except for the robot and Fry. And they had cast for Fry and Leela, and then they changed the casting and then they offered me the job. But I already had the Professor and Zoidberg and Zapp Brannigan.
JK: That was interesting, because Fry sounds as close to your voice as almost any voice I've heard you do. So I thought, well, I thought that was the first part you got. Then the Professor came from that because he was a relative of Fry's, that sort of thing. It was kind of interesting that it went the other way around.
BW: I did it on purpose. The other characters are so cartoony and broad, that they can get anybody that's any good to come in and just replicate them. But it's very hard for someone to come in and imitate somebody's real voice.
JK: What was the idea when you created Fry? Did you just want to do the voice of the average Joe?
BW: You know, I've kind of drawn from my own experiences with characters, because I wanna bring something to the table besides the voice. The attitude, I got right away what he was all about.
JK: Did they have the script for the first episode ready before you went in for the audition?
BW: They had pieces of dialogue. And once I got into it and got that part of the show, I began to see what he was all about. And I loved the writing; the writing had more layers than an onion.
JK: Where do you see the differences between Futurama and The Simpsons?
BW: These characters are together all the time but they're not a family; they're distinctive, well-crafted people. There's no kids and a grandfather and this and that, it's just them, and they're relating to each other every single day like that. And on The Simpsons, I think they go outside the box and they have interfaces with a lot more people. Sometimes in Futurama it's a whole... I'm not sure; I know there's differences, like uh... I don't know, what's the word... Like flow, the type of writing.
JK: I've always been under the impression that it was more story-oriented, like the early seasons of The Simpsons.
BW: Yeah, Futurama, they crafted stories very well. And we had to read them on Tuesdays, you know, read the run through with all the actors doing the parts and then they'd record it. And then the writers would bring it back to the office and listen to it and see what played and what didn't and what could be even better, and they do it up until record time, you know, they'll be changing something.
JK: So the whole cast got together and did table reads?
BW: Oh yeah. Well, they treated it like a sitcom because it was in prime time.
JK: Would you record together?
BW: Yeah, a lot of times we would. You know, like, sometimes the whole cast would be there. I like that better than doing all my stuff by myself and then leaving.
JK: That's surprising, because when you listen to the interviews to the voices from The Simpsons, it seems like they're all leading separate lives; they come in, do their part and collect their paycheck.
BW: I think that's basically what it is. You know, you'd be surprised; I grew up in a world thinking that Kirk was friends with all those actors, 'cause you want to believe that so badly because the thing becomes sacred to you. But when you find out the truth, it's like, thank God you figured it out when you were older, because you could handle it.
JK: But it surprises me to hear that all of you got together to do table reads and recordings because the impression I always got was that it was one person in a booth, alone, and then it gets spliced together with everybody else's voices.
BW: Well a lot of times you have to do it that way. You know, where somebody has to come in by themselves and do their thing, because people get busy, they travel, they go do other projects.
JK: But you said you prefer doing it in a group.
BW: Ensembles, yeah, because it's like, the more lives there are, the more thoughts are whirling around and that's the grist for the mill of creativity. You're only capable of so much, but sometimes somebody will do or say something that inspires you and raises the bar. I mean, when somebody comes in on all cylinders and is scoring, there's no resentment or jealousy or something like that. It makes you want to get on the top of your toes and be on the top of your game. You just want it to be as good as it can be.
JK: Does this kind of system allow for some ad-libbing and that kind of thing? Because I know in the pilot episode you ad-libbed something that made it in to the episode.
BW: I'm trying to remember what was improv and what wasn't. Gosh, I can't remember which ones just flew out... they'll use whatever you have, and if they don't, it doesn't make it in.
JK: But at what stage does that happen? During rehearsal or recording?
BW: After you do what the writers kind of ask you to do, and then they have everything to choose from. And then David Cohen (head writer and executive producer) will say to me, "Do you have any idea what you want to do? Just whatever you feel like." I'll give it a try and sometimes it works and sometimes it just doesn't.
JK: In the recording stage.
JK: A friend of mine wanted me to ask you about a line in an episode -- not a Season One episode, but a good one -- where Leela and Fry walk around Old New York and Fry gets up and screams "Howard Stern is overrated!" (Note: the episode is "Luck of the Fryish", from 2001) Did that come from the writers knowing your history or did it come from you?
BW: No, it was neither. It was just that Fry lived in New York and in his time Howard Stern was on the air but you couldn't say anything about him because he'd spend every day and night telling people to follow you around and give you shit. So Fry figured, it's the year 3000, I guess it must be safe to say something like that.
JK: So they didn't write that thinking that, "Billy was on the show, so it's kind of an inside joke"?
BW: No, they knew I was there, they know everything about what I did. But I heard it construed that way and I had to laugh. No, the joke was that it was safe to say something negative about him by the year 3000.
JK: We'll talk more about Stern later, because I've been a fan of his for like 17 years. When people used to say that the show hasn't been the same since you left, I used to disagree a bit, because that didn't give people like (former head writer) Jackie Martling enough credit. But now, that I think about it, the time you were on *was* the best era of the show. I listen to Howard on satellite and he's great, but...
BW: But if they could do what I did, why aren't they doing it? I think my absence made more resonance than my presence (laughs).
JK: Yeah, because they still talk about you on the show and play your stuff...
BW: Oh, I know all too well. I haven't heard the show in like 10 years.
JK: Well, we'll get back to it later. Let's talk more Futurama. To me, it's one of the few pilots I've seen that came fairly close to what the rest of the series would be like when it hit its stride.
BW: Yes, plus there were little hidden jokes in there that weren't meant to be revealed until later on. And then if you did go back to that first episode, you can see a little shadow of something that they were talking about in a later episode. Like the shadow of Nibbler in the background behind the cryogenic chamber in the pilot episode, and no one could catch it. Meanwhile it was Nibbler who was involved with him (Fry) ending up in the cryogenic chamber. You see the shadow in the background, then it comes out later as they explore time travel or something. There was all kind of hidden rewards for people that paid close-enough attention. Like the special language that was all over the place.
JK: The funniest thing that I didn't catch until I watched the episode the second time around with the commentary on is when everyone's in planet express and are partially surrounded, Bender shits a brick!
BW: Yeah right (laughs). It's such a literal joke. Someday people won't understand what that means. There are sayings from the '40s that were hot like that and everyone perfectly understood them and everything, then idioms begin to dissolve and lose their meanings. Like if you said, "That's putting the cart before the horse", kids would just look at you, like, "Right, OK."
JK: Or "He doesn't know shit from Shinola"
BW: Yeah, Shinola. I mean, how can anyone today know what Shinola is? I mean I do because I'm 54 years old.
JK: Well, I like the fact that those references are in the show.
BW: You know what? It's like when I was a kid there were references that I didn't get from stuff that came two decades before I was born.
JK: Like Warner Brothers cartoons.
BW: Exactly! Like (in Bugs Bunny's voice) "Singin' sword! Big deal!" And it was like the expression "big deal" didn't exist until that cartoon. It was just something they came up with: "big deal".
JK: So I've been going back and watching these episodes on DVD... you know, I never really watch it on Adult Swim, so I have to go back to the DVDs to refresh my memory about them.
BW: There's a whole mess of them I never saw. I get pretty busy sometimes.
JK: Which seasons? Like the later seasons?
BW: Yeah, like the later seasons. I missed a lot of stuff. I wouldn't mind staying up and watching them on Adult Swim. But I have copies of stuff, and every now and then I'll throw it on and I'll feel all good because it just looks so good and holds up so beautifully.
JK: One of the things they mentioned during the first episode is how much the voices changed. Fry didn't sound much different. But the Professor's changed a lot, because in the first episode you did a really exaggerated old man voice, which you had cut down a lot even by episode two.
BW: Well, I altered it because I felt like he was kind of too rickety and I wanted to make him a little more likeable, because he was a little too doddering.
JK: Well, if you want to do it, what did the voice first sound like?
BW: More like the Wizard of Oz. (in exaggerated Professor voice) "Eh, pay no attention to those men behind the curtain." I cut down on that wobbliness, because it was too ponderous, to borrow a rant from Casey Kasem.
JK: Was that the only voice that you changed or did you change others as you went along?
BW: Fry was much lighter in the pilot in the beginning, and then I rounded him out. I just was just trying to go for more reality in those cartoon characters. Even though they were cartoony, I wanted them to have their roots in some sort of believable reality.
JK: Did Zapp Brannigan change much? Because I saw the first episode he was in and it sounded pretty much like how he sounded later.
BW: Did he change? Um, I don't know, I try to keep it pretty consistent. Phil Hartman was supposed to do that character, and I was imitating Phil Hartman. I knew Phil Hartman; when I came to work with him on some commercials and stuff out here in Hollywood, we both had this real fascination and love for these big, old-time dumb announcers. You know, the guys who have their balls in a wheelbarrow and think that every word is so precious that it's hard to give birth to it, like everything comes out in four syllables instead of one. Guys who think far and away that of everything else in this universe, he loves his voice. So that's what was going on with him. He's modeled after a couple of big dumb announcers I knew.
Fry was named after Phil. Phillip Fry.
JK: I will say, maybe because of my upbringing, that my favorite character is Zoidberg.
BW: Oh, yeah (laughs). (As Zoidberg) "You know what planet I'm from? Jewwww-piter!"
JK: (laughs) How do you a voice like that?
BW: It's all about placement. With that voice, I saw that picture and he had all this cool meat hanging off his face and I thought, well, obviously it would get in the way of his speaking. So I just remembered back through the periphery of incidental characters in movies, and there was a couple... well, one was Lou Jacobi. He would always say (In deep Zoidberg-like voice) "I do this because I carrrre about youuuu.. and youuu and youuu." He was an old Yiddish theater actor. And there was this guy in vaudeville named George Jessel, (in a higher but similar voice) and he was another marblemouth. (maintaining voice) And he would say "Hello mamma? Yes it your son George! From the money each week?"
I was into fusion; I learned that even if you do a piss-poor imitation of somebody, it's a voice you've never heard, because it's your impression. I'm more into essence. I have my own little comedy guidelines, I guess, that I've always gone by.
JK: The reason why I like Zoidberg -- and maybe I have to go back and check this on the DVDs -- but did Matt and David purposely write Zoidberg as a Jewish shellfish, like he's not kosher?
BW: There's so many jokes in there, I'm not sure which ones were happenstance and which ones were planned. But they didn't have a voice for him; I came along with that voice, and they dug it. I mean, "Zoidberg"... do I need to know anything else? No!
JK: (laughing) I'd point that out to other fans of the show: "He's a Jewish shellfish!"
BW: A Jewish shellfish. (as Zoidberg) "A Lobsterman!"
JK: And I'm thinking, "Those guys are geniuses!" Because you have to know something about Kosher law to get it. It's so subtle.
BW: The most ridiculous thing of all is that this is somebody that would be living in the '50s. Like someone who was a second generation immigrant, you know, coming from Russia ore something, and yet he's in the year 3000 and he's from another planet.
JK: He sounds like he just came down from the Catskills or something.
BW: Nobody else sounds like him on his planet. So it's almost like a parallel universe in a way.
(As Zoidberg) "I just flew in from the Middle East, and boy, do I falafel." (I laugh)
You can do anything as long as you have a good solid character to deliver stuff in.
JK: Oh, and the writing too...they write him with that reverse speech.
BW: Oh yeah, that's beautiful. But I began to add a lot of that kind of stuff on my own, because I remember when I was a kid in Boston, and every Saturday, I loved to take the bus and the train and go into town and just walk around because it was so exciting when I was 14. The biggest retail stores were downtown and one of these places had a bargain basement sale every Saturday morning. And the trains would just pull up under the ground and the entrance to the basement would be right there. And all these women would just come flying through the door like a herd of buffalo and I'd just swept through the door, and I'm down in the basement and I'd start looking at things. And I saw this girl walk by and I was looking at her and I smashed into a pole; my arms were around it like I was hugging it. And this woman walked by and said (like an old Jewish woman) "With it you're going steady?" (laughs)
So I loved throwing that kind of stuff in. I have a love of language and configurations of language.
JK: You did the voice of Nixon, didn't you, in a couple of episodes. I know there's one where Nixon's head runs for President (Note: A Season Two episode called "A Head in the Polls")... Had you ever done Nixon before?
BW: Not really, but I lived through that age where all the impressionists did Nixon and stuff. And I loved doing voices and impressions and stuff, but I was always trying to create my own characters too. I mean, obviously I've been hired to hold up franchises.
JK: Like Bugs, and ...
BW: Bugs and Elmer Fudd, and all that stuff. Woody Woodpecker I did. Gosh, I mean, I've done so much. I did Shaggy in one of the Scooby-Doo movies.
JK: You came close to Casey Kasem's voice when you did that.
BW: I actually worked with him. There was this thing where he was a staunch vegetarian and he didn't like the idea that the two of them (Shaggy and Scooby) always have to go for hot dogs and hamburgers. (As Casey Kasem) "Why can't they go out for veggie snacks? Why don't they eat something made of vegetables?"
It was like he wanted to leave because of that, and they looked around to replace him, and now he's back. And I got involved with that show, and I played his cousin who sounded pretty much just like him. So it was me and Casey Kasem together. It's on the new Scooby-Doo.
JK: What I find interesting is that the whole theme of Futurama is that it's neither a complete utopia nor a dystopia. They even mentioned that during the commentary.
BW: No, they wanted it to be flawed, thoroughly flawed. Sorta like the Seinfeld thing; all those characters were severely flawed.
JK: Right, no hugging, no learning. (Billy laughs) That's what they say on Seinfeld; "No hugging, no learning."
JK: That seems to be a vision of the future that was mostly in books and maybe only recently on TV, because now you're seeing Battlestar Galactica and Firefly and shows like that where they don't show the future as being all silvery space suits and white tiling.
BW: Well, you know what though, is like Matt Groening I'm sure... he probably loved those 1940s and '50s ideas of what the future would be. You know what I mean, with the toy rocket ships and anti-gravity boots and all that stuff.
JK: But he wanted to mix that with a more realistic view of the world.
BW: Yeah, the way people really are.
JK: And the ingenious idea was to put the head museum in, because now he can make the pop culture references to the 20th and 21st centuries.
BW: I know; it was just a brilliant idea.
JK: What are some of your favorite guest star experiences?
BW: I did meet Shatner and Nimoy when they acted together. And usually they like the actors to keep their dialogue separate. In other words, no overlapping because they need control of the overlaps. They let these guys just do it and they were overlapping each other, but the performance was just so great between them, they just said, "Leave it, it's fine." They came right to life. That was the most astonishing thing about it; they resumed that whole dynamic as if not a day had gone by. So I'd have to say at day's end that Shatner is a real pro.
JK: Is Shatner really like how they say, that's he's a big, larger-than-life blustery kind of a guy?
BW: Well... (thinks) I had an experience with him. People were trying to get him to do Futurama, and somebody said that I should call him, because I'd been on the Stern show and everything. And I called over; they gave me his number, because they'd been trying to get him and he was just like not available. So I get his person on the phone, and I said, "Well, I was told to call Bill and speak to him about doing an episode of Futurama." And she said, "Well, I'll have him get back to you." And the girl calls back a little while later and she goes, "I have Mr. Shatner on the line for you." And I get on and I don't take any chance to think about what I'm about to do, I just blam-o, I went into it.
And I said "MIS-ter Shatner", and he said (in realistic Shatner voice) "MIS-ter West". And I said "I know this is kind of out of the blue but there's this show that I'm involved with, Futurama, it's pretty popular and the stories are beautiful and everything, and they want to do something with you, but it's not particularly about Star Trek, and it's askew, and the writers love you, there's not going to be any secret covert sabotage (or sabatage or anything like that [a Stern reference])."
And he said to me (as Shatner) "I know, but did you... read the script?" And all of a sudden I think to myself, he's asking me that because he didn't. And he wants me to tell him what the script is! And of course, I had to tell him, but I know what he was up to. (as Shatner) "Did you... read the script?" "Yeah, here, let me tell you about it."
And he goes "But it's Shatner playing Shatner, not Shatner playing James T. Kirk." And I said "yeah, they want to keep it to your real life and one of the incarnations you were best known for", and he says "Well, I'll think about it... I'll think about it." And the next thing you know, he was there, and Leonard was there.
JK: Well, let me ask you a few questions about Howard and I'll let you go. You were on Opie & Anthony not too long ago and you were talking about this. From what I understood, you were on the show from like '90 to '93 or so, right?
BW: I think it was '91 to '95. But I was in and out of the place in the beginning; I worked in production at the station, and then they started calling me to come in and stuff and they started calling me at home, you know, and it was fun because I'd never really done that kind of radio before, like balls out, take no prisoners.
JK: But you were only there part-time, right?
BW: Yeah. I was doing Ren & Stimpy in Hollywood and I was going back and forth across the country every week.
JK: So how much of the stuff that you came up with was you and how much of it was Jackie Martling?
BW: Let's see, well the insane journeys that I'd go off on, where I was just wailing about something, that stuff just flew out of me. Jackie was great at providing the button for the bit. He was great at the million-dollar line that seals it.
JK: And the funny thing is, he's providing you the lines for the puppet that's making fun of him. And I don't think people realized that.
BW: Yes. That was so Twilight Zone-y; it really was, I mean it was right out of the Twilight Zone, where a person's image is tormenting himself and he's providing the fodder for the venom. To me, that was high art. I just said, "This is it, I can't top this."
JK: And he'd just scribble stuff and give it to you, give it to Howard....
BW: But see, the thing is he could do that with anybody, but it (the humor) depended on who was comedically performing. I just made it my business to make everything work, mo matter what it was.
JK: And that's a unique experience there, instead of going into a studio and reading off a script you were making it up as you went along...
BW: That's what the whole show was, riffing. There was nothing scripted.
JK: Was that harder for you to do coming in?
BW: Yeah, because I didn't know what the parameters were. I came from Boston, then all of a sudden, they're ripping it up over here at this station, the stakes were high, and I just had to learn how to fit in.
JK: Like Marge Schott; everybody loved that one.
BW: Well that was based on... I grew up in Boston, and it was a hotbed of racism years and years ago, and I heard that woman's voice wherever I went. Honest to God, I'd hear that voice everywhere, in my church, at my jobs. And I started doing it one day and Howard just never forgot it, and one time this Marge Schott just starts acting up and shooting off at the mouth and he said, "Why don't you do that voice?"
JK: And it's funny, but Schott isn't from Boston and doesn't sound anything like that.
BW: But the thing is, who cares? She needed to be funny.
JK: Yeah, and no one knows what she sounds like, so...
BW: No. I know what she sounded like: (froggy) "She sounded like thiiiis". Well, how funny is that? You always have the license, and you get a pass on doing comedy.
JK: You're doing these kind of risqué bits, like the "David Dinkins School of Speech" and bits like that... (I try to do the deep voice from that bit) "I had the mouth full of the buffalo balls."
BW: (laughs) Yeah, right. What did he say? What was it?
JK: (doing the voice again) "I used to sound like I had the mouth full of the buffalo balls."
BW: Yeah, I wrote that!
JK: That's one of my favorite lines. (Billy laughs)
BW: Yeah, well I was doing a squeegee guy. And most people would get it. Some white guy would always call up, defending the African-American community like they can't have anything to say for themselves. (as a hippie) "New York's supposed to be this beautiful, like, mosaic, and like, you're ripping away at the, like, grout of, like, the tile." And I said, "Aaaah, shaddap." Like that to him. "Go back to bed, Cracker." And then this black guy calls up after him and says (loud black voice) "I know that's Billy West! I knnnowww that's Billy West!"
JK: And he's probably laughing his ass off.
BW: He was laughing his ass off!
JK: So now you do that stuff and then you have to go into a studio and be the Cheerios honey bee...
BW: Yeah or a dog.... On Nickelodeon...
JK: (laughs) Right. How do you compartmentalize that in your head?
BW: I had a journeyman mentality, you know, with whatever I knew I was gonna go do. I was like a carpenter, I brought the right tools. You show up with the preparation and the psyche.
JK: So when you left the show, it was really the matter that you wanted to go full time but Howard couldn't do it didn't have the money?
BW: No it wasn't that... well, a little of it was. I wanted a raise, was all I wanted. And they were not gonna give me a raise, and I'm hanging around and hanging around, and I decided to leave, because I don't have a victim mentality. I can't make somebody give me a raise, I just can't. So I said, "I'm not staying here." I don't know where I'm going -- for the first time in like twenty years I didn't know where I was going. I had always been in radio, like in Boston... same work, but the stakes were higher doing it in New York. And it takes a lot of money to live in New York.
JK: So that's when you moved to California and started doing voiceovers, right?
BW: Yeah. I mean, it's something that I probably should have done ten years earlier.
JK: But do you think you picked up jobs based on your work on Howard's show?
BW: Yeah, it was quite an electronic business card. But I had to sign off on everything. I mean when they play those endless best-ofs, which is basically the best of whatever I did, there's no money in that. I signed off on everything. No residuals, there's nothing that takes care of you in radio. It was just a page in my book, you know?
JK: But the negotiations were with the station, not Howard, right? Because he's always saying "I'm not the one paying anyone", right?
BW: I can't tell you. I honestly don't know. I can't see ... how there wasn't shared knowledge. But it doesn't matter to me. It's just that's the way they want to be. It's none of my business what anybody plans for me or thinks about me. I remain healthy in that way and I just up and left.
JK: So it was just a job and they didn't give you wanted so you left, so it's no big deal?
BW: Yeah. That's all. The insanity of people driving me shithouse on my website... "You've gotta go back!" and I'm like, "You've got to stick your head in a railroad shack and take a nap!" (disgusted) You know, telling me what to do.
Because I had people kind of ordering me (to go back), you know, like "You don't know what's good for ya. Oh, where did he go after he quit Howard, to do a bunch of cartoons?" And I used to say "I've got news for you, sonny; everyone in Hollywood wishes they could do what I do. Every actor in Hollywood, even the hottest ones, wants to do what I do for a living."
JK: That's why you see all those CGI cartoons with the big stars on them...
BW: I know, and most of those voices just plain out and out suck. There's very little voice talent in all those people except for those people who totally understand what characters really are.
JK: I find it distracting, you know, you don't get lost in the character.
BW: It's not distracting to me, but it's like, "Hey, that sounds like my brother." Why don't they just get my brother? Why don't they get my plumber? You know...
JK: Well, I find it distracting because you want to hear the voice and the character and you want to incorporate them as one in your brain...
BW: Yeah, but they've got this scam going where they'll invent a character and they'll make it in the image and likeness and attitude of the person they think they're gonna get to star in the movie.
JK: Well, that worked out well for Robin Williams, but other than that...
BW: Yeah, but the thing is if you do a character that way then there's no magic, there's no transformation, it's the actor bringing his own ego to the table, no matter what he plays. If it's Will Smith (says it "Schmith", with kind of a Will Smithian voice), and he's an alien, or I'm Will Schmith and I'm a vigilante, or I'm Will Schmith and I'm a car thief, or whatever, it's like he's always Will Schmith (laughs).
JK: Or David Spade playing a llama.
BW: Yeah, this whiny, catty little man. I mean, what else do you expect?
JK: But when I'm watching it, I'm not thinking he's a llama with this weird voice, I'm thinking it's David Spade.
BW: (doing Spade) "Hey, babe, dry up."
BW: I wish I could do that. I wish I was born with one stupid voice and I was a celebrity. It would be a whole lot easier.
JK: But they do the one movie and they have to go back to doing their normal stuff.
BW: Yeah, but the whole thing is that they've never dropped the trend even though there's no evidence that a movie makes any more money by putting celebrities in it. There's not a shred or scintilla of evidence.
JK: The only movie I've seen recently that incorporates celebrity voices well is The Incredibles. Like when you watch it, you listen to the character of the mom and don't sit there thinking that it's Holly Hunter doing the voice.
BW: Because Holly Hunter isn't on everyone's tongue, you know? If it's Ben Affleck and people like that, there isn't much to look for, but Holly Hunter was very talented and she's underexposed nowadays, so it was refreshing not to hear Cameron Diaz or some nonsense like that.
JK: Maybe playing another llama.
BW: Or playing herself!
JK: Like this new Pixar movie has Paul Newman and Larry the Cable Guy in it.
BW: Well, see they're all smart, they're reading the writing on the wall that the only movies that are doing any kind of business are the CGI movies, which basically replaces actors. So they're not going to just sit back and just have voice people do major films, and Hollywood can't allow that to happen because there wouldn't be any celebrity system.
JK: And to them it's easy, because they don't have to wear any makeup or make sure that they're in shape or anything.
BW: I know, and it kills me when I watch Entertainment Tonight and they're like "We caught up with Halle Berry" or somebody like that, and talking about how hard it actually is. And I just want to ... you know... I don't know... take a lamp and throw it at the TV set (laughs). How dare you say that. It's hard, and I'm one of the guys who can really, really do it. And to me, some assignments are difficult, but if you know what you're doing, it's not work and it's not a struggle. To someone else it'd be hard work because they don't know what they're doing.
JK: And also you're going in and doing a voice as opposed to them just going in and talking.
BW: I know, but see, I've given up on all that. That's the trend, and I feel like what I did for a living has been invalidated. So I can't sit around and worry about that for the rest of my life, so I'm producing something.
JK: Oh, what are you producing?
BW: I've got a project I'm trying to sell called Billy Bastard: Amateur Human Being. It's about a guy who I used to be (laughs) before I sobered up, including all the atrocious things I did. It's funny, though, there's some live action in it too. He's a puppet.
JK: There's not enough puppet stuff out there. Are there puppets and humans or just puppets?
BW: So far it's only puppets and one human, a guy named Officer Steve who brackets every episode in his police office with his uniform on, you know, "What you're about to see is an example of someone you don't ever, ever want to resemble." You know, like the disclaimer. And at the end, no matter what happens with this guy, the officer can go "See what happens? See what happens when you fuck around like that? This is what can happen to you."
We did a pilot. The trailer's on my website, I think. I think it's still there.
JK: Are you shopping it to networks?
BW: Yeah, I'm going over to Fox; I don't know, maybe we'll talk to Cartoon Network. It's not as easy as you think, because there's so much politics. You can say the wrong thing and have no idea that you said it that ruffles some little dickhead's feathers, then, it's over (chuckles). All I know is that's the beauty of being an adult at my age. I don't have to explain shit to anybody and I don't have to be scared of anybody. (chuckles) That's all. That's all there is to it.