Emily S. Whitten: Billy West at Awesome Con DC!
Looks like it is just Interview Central around here these days, folks. Because following up on last week’s column, in which I briefly recapped my Awesome Con DC experience and posted my interview with the fantastic Phil LaMarr (go read/listen if you missed it last week! Good stuff!), I now get to share with you my Awesome Con DC interview with the excellent Billy West! Hooray!
Even if you somehow haven’t heard the name Billy West, before, I almost guarantee you’ve heard his voice. Voicing everything from classic cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Woody Woodpecker, and Popeye to four of the main characters on Futurama (Philip J. Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, and Zapp Brannigan), Billy has voiced characters on a myriad of other shows as well, including title characters for Nickelodeon’s Doug and The Ren & Stimpy Show; and is also the current voice of product mascots Red the M&M and Buzz the Honey Nut Cheerios bee. Billy was also one of the voices of The Howard Stern Show from 1989 to 1995, where he did astonishing impressions of everyone from Johnny Carson and Al Michaels to an ailing Lucille Ball. (His Jay Leno is uncanny.) As a voice actor, Billy has an amazing range – going seamlessly from one character and reaction to another; and you can see some fun examples of that here. For a good time, I also recommend the Star Wars Trilogy: The Radio Play video, shot at ECCC last year and featuring Billy and a number of other talented voice actors doing the script of Star Wars in some of their iconic voices (including, for Billy, Stimpy, Fry, Farnsworth, and Zoidberg). My absolute favorite bit is when he does Porky Pig at about 45 minutes in. Seriously. You must watch it.
But quickly! Before I get lost in YouTube again: let’s get to the interview! If you want to listen to the interview (listen to it! He does Richard Nixon’s head in a jar!) you can do so here. Or, you can read the (slightly edited) transcript below!
Hello, this is Emily Whitten for ComicMix, here with Billy West at Awesome Con in DC. Billy, thank you for being here with us – and Billy is busy, so we’re doing this while he eats.
I ain’t that busy; I can talk with a mouth full of vegan sandwich.
That’s fair! So you are such an amazingly storied voice actor, etcetera…
Aww, thank you.
There’s a lot to talk about, but I’m going to try to distill it down a little bit. Let’s start with the earlier things; so – how did you decide to get into voice acting? Because I know you also are and were a musician; so what was the career path there?
Well, I remember I was like a little freak, you know? I was always running around making noises, and doing voices. Every time I wanted to play the piano – we didn’t have one, but if we were at somebody’s house – to me that was a golden opportunity. I just wanted to hear it, touch it, and make it do something; because the sonic world that I had going on in my head would dictate that I would go over there; but the thing was: I couldn’t play. And down comes the lid: “Can you not do that?” I heard that more than any other kid, probably, in the world, “Can you not do that?” And I was always trying stuff; it was peripheral and surreal; abstract stuff, but, you know.
I had a weird childhood. My house was a horror-house, and my dad was just, like, certifiable, and a drunk and a crazy; so I was growing up kind of terrified. And I was very hyper-vigilant. I could tune in to things – like I could tell you what kind of a night I was going to have by the way the car pulled up in the driveway, or the way the key went in the door. I was so in tune with people’s behaviors – you know, out of survival mode. But it also trained me, like a cop. I was becoming an observer; an extreme observer.
So from your experiences, you were able to be observant about people and how they acted and how they behaved, and so that would help you later on?
And I loved radio. Oh, I loved radio so much, because of the voices. And there were still some radio plays going on when I was a kid. There was a radio guy named Stan Freberg that had a radio show; and he had one of my favorite voice guys on it, whose name was Daws Butler, and he did a lot of the Hanna-Barbera stuff. He was a little ball of fire, this Daws Butler; and I just came to know these people. But there was no way you could know anything about show business in those days; because there was no emphasis on it. That was for “other people.” You know, “Well who?” It was like: nobody in my town. I was such a geek, I had to hunt down the only other kid who had comic books, and he lived on the other side of town. I just set my inner GPS and found him. I just walked and walked until I found him somewhere.
So what kind of comics did you read, when you and this kid were growing up?
Silly stuff; we read the Marvel stuff – I didn’t mean that that was silly – [Marvel and] DC comics were not silly, they were exciting. But, like, Gold Key Comics were silly; there was The Fly, which was Archie Comics, and he was their superhero – and he fell by the wayside because the other machines were a little more happening and powerful. But I had the original issues of some really important comic books. I had secret origins of like, Batman and all of those. They came out around 1960; 1959, maybe 1961.
Do you still have them?
No. No, it went up my nose, heh.
Back in the day?
Well, do you still follow comics these days?
I try to. I like the revamps of stuff they’re doing. Because there’s so much time that has gone by, that these characters have been around, and eventually they’ve got to morph. You know, they’re not going to get older on us, even though they can dance in and out of timeframes, to show old Superman, like where he wound up.
Yeah; they did that, of course.
Yeah! And there are so many comic books that it’s tough to keep track of them.
Do you watch the movies?
I try to go to movies, yeah, when I can. I’m writing a lot, and I stay up late, late into the evening.
Oh, okay, what are you writing right now?
There are a couple of projects that I’ve got going with my partner that I worked with on Ren & Stimpy. His name is Jim Gomez; and we’ve put together five fully developed shows, most of them animated. We’re pitching them around town, and we’ll see what happens. I love doing what I’m doing – you know, I can be an objective fulfillment machine for the rest of my life – but at some point I do want to create or own something, and give myself the objective.
I think all creators feel that way – it just makes sense.
Yeah – I mean, but I will still always go and work for somebody else, probably doing voice-over.
Now you said that you love radio, and you’ve been on the radio – and I know when I was growing up, I heard you on K-Rock; so tell me, what was that experience like? I mean, I used to listen to that in the morning, when I was getting ready for school…
Didn’t you feel like there was subterfuge involved with that? Like you couldn’t just let everybody hear that.
Yeeeaaah; don’t tell my parents, okay? They didn’t like that show; they didn’t like Howard Stern. I had to be subtle about it.
Of course not. Of course not; but the people who listened to it got it. They understood that everything was silly. It was all about being totally silly in the face of the most horrific subjects.
And pushing boundaries.
Yes, pushing boundaries. It was very organic. We didn’t play records. And Howard was a great ringmaster; he knew, okay, when something’s enough. We’d beat it so far, that’s fine, let’s go to commercial and we’ll start something else. He’d always keep things moving.
And how did you end up working there? I know you’d worked in radio before that.
I was in radio in Boston, and I wasn’t a disc jockey. I was very creative, and showcasing the works of others for a living didn’t turn me on; because I would always feel like a curator in a museum. But these disc jockeys were really pompous about playing records, and it’s like, “Dude, you didn’t create the statues; you just dust them.” And I used to get reamed for having that type of attitude. It’s like, “You’re not allowed to unmask these icons,” and it’s like, “Screw you. You don’t do anything.” I was always surly because there was so much phoniness that used to drive me crazy. My heroes were the artists, not people who were famous for some cottage industry reason – like disc jockeys or TV show hosts. They’re not creating anything. So my heroes were never celebrities. It was always artists. And if they happened to be a celebrity that was a byproduct of their great artistic talent.
Right. So being on a show like The Howard Stern Show, where you got to interact and do your own thing, that was what you were looking for.
That was very appealing to me. And you had to be ready for anything.
So did that help you prepare in large part for the voice acting? And were you also doing voice acting some when you were on the show, or did that come later?
Well I’d already been doing voice acting in Boston, on the radio, and then when I went to New York there was just more of an opportunity to open up and to push myself to see what I was capable of. Plus, I had one of the funniest people in the universe lobbing in little lines here and there for me. But people said, “Ah, Jackie wrote everything for you.” Hey, yeah, sure: let me just talk straight, in a character, for seven minutes. A guy can’t write every bit of dialogue that you say for seven minutes. He can put in ideas, and you integrate them into your conversation. I mean, he did it for Howard all the time. But Howard was very generous; I mean, that’s like loaning somebody a nuclear weapon, that he would let Jackie Martling facilitate me.
And now when you were doing all of this, I know you also played guitar and had a band, and you’ve played guitar with Roy Orbison, Brian Wilson…
Oh, I opened up for a lot of famous guys that I knew growing up, like Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry, The Four Seasons, and Jan and Dean… And later on in life I actually got to play with Brian Wilson.
When was that happening, in comparison to the radio and the voice acting?
Radio just started happening as I was phasing out of playing music.
Okay, so that came a little bit before?
Yes, and then after a moratorium, when I did pick up again, in the future, as the years went by, I wound up playing with one of my idols, which was Brian Wilson.
So what was it like playing with Brian Wilson?
It was so strange; because the first time I played with him, we were at a little hall in Santa Monica, by the beach; and it was me and The Cars guitar player – Elliot Easton – and we were playing with Brian, and then a friend of mine was playing bass. We put together a little band; but I mean, I knew every note of the whole catalogue, I knew every harmony, I knew every chord change, because I was so into The Beach Boys. The Beatles and Jeff Beck; the English stuff was good. But The Beach Boys were our band. And it was like a dream, you know, just playing with Brian Wilson.
And then next thing, we’re at Lincoln Center. And then we played David Letterman. And it was crazy, I mean I’m playing these songs with Brian Wilson; and I still can’t get over it. You know, he did all those hot rod songs – girls, and cars, and fun – and we did 409 onstage, and he was singing 409, which is the old hot rod song, and in the chorus, “Nothing can catch her, nothing can touch my 409, 409,” I started going (hot rod revving noises), and he looked over with this happy, astonished smile, like a little child. He’s like: “What’s going on? But I love this, whatever you’re doing over there.”
Oh, that’s fantastic. So now obviously your voice acting is a large part of your career, and Futurama is a huge part of that – and you developed Philip Fry, well Philip J. Fry, if I’m doing the whole name —
— Well that’s because most cartoon characters’ middle initial is J. Rocket J. Squirrel; Homer J. Simpson; Stimpson J. Cat.
Yes. So when you were developing that character; you’ve said that Fry is similar to you at twenty-five; so when they had you in auditioning for Futurama, did they ask you to develop that character; did you come in saying “this is something I have,” or what?
They showed me the pictures when I went in, and there was some dialogue they wanted me to read; and…you know what it’s like – something, you look at it and it just gives you an impression, and depending on your experience, or your talent, or your intuition, you’re hoping that you’ll come up with what they’re looking for. And all of them were pretty much very close to what I gave them. They described Fry, and I said, “You know what? I don’t do this very often, but I’m going to just use my own voice, like when I was twenty-five.” I remember, I was very whinyyy, and complainyyy, and I just know I had a plain vanilla voice. I had no idea I had this wild animal in my throat somewhere; this big clumsy beast that could do anything. You know, I really didn’t know back in those days. Because I was singing and playing. But I would go in and do voices on stage like when we blew up an amp, or a string snapped, or whatever. Out of embarrassment, I would just keep going and entertaining. Might not have been the music or anything, but people loved it. Launching into characters that I would make up, and imitate, or whatever.
Right. And now, on Futurama, you do a lot of the voices. How did that come about?
They would just keep showing me pictures, and I auditioned for everybody, including Bender. I played him as a construction worker, and John DiMaggio came in and mopped the floor with that audition. He played him as kind of a punch-drunk fighter.
Yes, Bender is a great voice.
Oh, it’s beautiful. And it developed into what it is. In the beginning, none of us sounded like who we were. I mean, that’s who we thought we were, at the time, but voices morph. You listen to an episode #10 from The Simpsons, and you listen to the 200th episode, and it’s like, “Huh?” Well, Homer Simpson was like (voice impression), and then later on he developed all of these other facets that make the character so interesting and believable.
Yes. Now in Futurama, or your other roles, what are your favorite characters to play or have played? And what were the most difficult?
I love doing all the characters, and I love them equally; so I can’t pick out a favorite. Because I just try to bring so much imagination to it. I was always trying to do something nobody had done, and that served me well. I didn’t want to mimic people. I could do it – I’ve held up franchises. I did four years of Woody Woodpecker; and Popeye…the works, you know? But you only make your mark for real if you start creating and it catches on. And you have faith that you’re just as good as those impressions that you relied on; that were your little power base.
Right, well because they were starting out once, and they made up those voices, and so why not you? And so what was the most difficult voice to do?
I don’t know; I know that I had become fearless; totally fearless. I’m not afraid of anything, and I’m willing to try anything. I’m willing to fail. I was like that in comedy clubs. Because it didn’t make sense to me – why should I memorize twelve minutes worth of material and then go out and pretend every night that I’d just thought of it? I needed stakes. I needed real things at stake like dying or bombing [on stage]. I really did, and I wasn’t afraid to.
Did you do a lot of stand-up?
Not a lot. A little bit, and then I got into radio, and that was it. Stand-up is very, very hard. There are guys that are just so, so amazing at it and everything. But my forte was not stage performance, doing stand-up. My forte was radio; and that was a bigger playground. You could dodge in and out of characters, and you didn’t even have to have written material; you could ad-lib while you’ve got these crazy voices going back and forth.
In your voice work, how much do they want you to or let you ad-lib?
They want to get what they want to get; ideally, what they had in mind. And then after you do that and they’re happy with it, they ask you if you thought of anything, or you want to add or bring something; and a lot of times I would, and a lot of times it made it in. A lot of it just winds up – they want more rather than less. Because that way they have options; they can play with stuff they didn’t think would work and all of a sudden, oh my God, it works beautifully.
Right. Because sometimes improvisation is the best part of life.
Yeah; but it’s also this constant wonderment of discovery – whether something’s going to work or not. That’s exploration. It’s like, you try to control every aspect of everything as much as you can, but when serendipitous things happen, like, “What was that thing you just did?” “Oh, you mean this?” and they’d say, “Yeah, what if he just goes right into that?”
Like when I did Nixon – I’m old enough to remember when Nixon was running for President, and John F. Kennedy, and they did the debate on TV. And I was astonished at how perfect Kennedy looked – like a game show host, with his perfect teeth, and his buttered-toast hair. He was made for TV. Nixon was made for wanted posters. He looked like a stolen car. And he was (in character) “shifty-eyed, and he was nervous and…ar-rar-rar.” And he was sweating. While the interview was continuing, he was getting worse, and his beard was coming in; you could practically see the bottom half of his face get darker and darker. And I said to my mom, “Mom, he’s going to turn into a werewolf!” Because I loved horror movies, like with Lon Chaney slowly turning into the werewolf. Nixon was kind of almost there – lycanthropic. So he was just doing his thing, and I said, “That’s awful; he’s almost unwatchable.”
And then years later, I get the chance to do Nixon, as a head in a jar, and I would say something like, (in character) “You filthy hippies, get off the grass outside this White House,” and then all of a sudden I would go: (werewolf noises). Like I was changing. You know, just replacing words with noises and stuff.
Hah, wow. I know it’s hard work, but it just sounds like so much fun.
Well, you gotta keep coming up with new bags of tricks, and keep expanding them and everything. That’s how you keep working.
Now you were saying earlier that you have essentially had conversations with yourself. Some examples of that are Farnsworth introducing Fry to Zoidberg [in Futurama], and then Doug and his arch-nemesis. How do you deal with that; how does that work in your head? Because that seems to be even a double challenge over consistently trying to sound a certain way.
It’s like I had my boot camp training in Boston doing consecutive voices. Because I got a job as a producer; and there’s no producer school you can go to. I had to learn how to splice tape, and I had to learn how to write and create my own characters and bits; and then put it together so it could be air-able; with sound effects, and music, and everything. I didn’t quite know what I was doing, but I just did it.
And it works for you!
Yeah, I mean, I’m very strange in that way; like I still, to this day, can’t tie my shoes properly, I just can’t. And a necktie, I have problems with. I can’t do anything practical; but if you ask me to do something only like, four or five other people in the world can do, I have no problem.
So now as a voice actor, what’s the experience of celebrity? How do you experience that as someone who’s mostly known by different voices, so someone might not actually know, talking to you, that yours was the voice they’ve heard on shows?
Well, celebrities were never my heroes. Never. To this day, I don’t give a dismal damn, really, whether Kim’s having problems with her pregnancy, or whatever. It’s like, “Fuck you.” You know what? Anybody who can fart the national anthem can become a celebrity. Any stupid-looking bald guy can throw on an earring and a goatee and a leather jacket, and now he’s Pawn Stars. And they pose these guys like rappers, like album covers; they’re all big, bad, and bald – and they’re basically lucky imbeciles, because show business ain’t what it was anymore, now it’s supposed to be “reality.” These guys just have to be who and what they are. And then they learn how to act; because they go, “I like this ride very much;” and they know it’s going to be over, and they want to stay in that business. They don’t want to go back to oblivion.
Yes. So how do you interact with fans? And do some people just know your whole oeuvre? What is that experience like?
There’s people that know more about me than I do. Because I can’t remember every little fiddle-faddle, you know? But I’m just grateful; I’m so grateful – I mean, what are the odds that there would be people in this world that would put aside time in their life to know what you do, and to follow it? It’s mind-blowing to me; it’s surreal – and it still is, to this day.
Well that’s a great and very humble attitude.
Well, I mean, I know. I know the drill, I know the deal. You have to somehow connect in one way or another with people who admire you; and hopefully you’ll keep up the same standard of work that turned them on in the first place. So I always try to – whatever new thing comes along, I just try to come in like gangbusters; you know, get some attention. Like, I like to turn tables over, bash chairs. You know, when I first went to New York I was like a Terminator. I got all skinny because I knew I was going to be walking everywhere, and auditioning; and I used to listen to bagpipe music.
Yeah, because I’m half Irish; and when I hear bagpipe music, it makes this Celtic side of me boil, and prepares you to go into battle. I’d be galvanized, like I was marching into a glen with my compatriots, and we’re all going to get stabbed and shot; but it’s okay, because we’re doing it for the right reason. And I used to listen to all these bagpipes, going up 2nd Avenue, 3rd Avenue, to work, and I would get to the audition, and I’d feel like a Terminator.
Like you were ready. That’s fantastic. Speaking of getting ready for new things; what are you working on currently that we should be looking forward to?
I’m doing some kids’ stuff. I never used to get hired by Disney; because I wasn’t their kind of guy, you know what I mean? The stuff I did was very Gothic and dark-ish, like screaming and yelling and very dramatic. But I got this show called The 7D; and I’m playing Bashful, because the 7D are the seven dwarves. (Singing) “We’re The Seven D,” and they get a beautiful, cute song and everything. And I love it; I love it to pieces.
And is that out now, or coming out?
It’s coming out. And I was doing some voice work for Avengers Assemble. There’s a character called Rocket Raccoon. So I’m doing him. (In character) “Yeah, he’s got kind of like a Joe Pesci. And like, Steve Buscemi.” “Blood has been spilled, Jerry. I’m through fuckin’ around wit’ you, Jerry.” But somehow he has that voice. I thought it would be perfect to just tweak it; and it’s not a dead-on impression – I could care less about that. What it is, is: “Is it funny? Is it interesting? Does it fit?” I did a bunch of hours of recording the other day. And then I have my projects going. That keeps me busy because I’m always writing. I stay up all hours and stuff, but it’s a labor of love, so you feel energized somehow.
Yeah! Well I hope that we see some of that from you soon.
I hope you do, too.
And thank you so much for this interview.
• • • • •
Nope, it was totally my pleasure, Billy. You’re delightful.
Big thanks to Billy West for the interview, and big thanks to the ever-helpful Kevin O’Shea, producer for Made of Fail Productions, for cleaning up the audio file for me. (And as ever, check out the Made of Fail podcasts for fun geek-tastic discussions, in which I have actually appeared a couple of times.)
That’s all for now, and until next week, when I’ll be sharing my interview with the talented cartoonist Nick Galifianakis, Servo Lectio!
TUESDAY AFTERNOON: Michael Davis
WEDNESDAY MORNING: Mike Gold