To The Onion

Interview : Animation issue

Billy West

Interviewed by Kyle Ryan
June 14th, 2005

Billy West comes from the old school of voiceover acting—he pre-dates the celebrity-voiceover focus that began dominating animated films in the 1990s. That trend has made it difficult for West and others like him to get work in big films, in spite of his lengthy history in the business. Although he worked elsewhere (on the Howard Stern show, for instance), West really found fame as the voices of Ren and Stimpy on The Ren & Stimpy Show. By the time it ended in 1996, West had become a sought-after voiceover actor, doing Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in the 1996 film Space Jam, and appearing on King Of The Hill, as well as a wide assortment of children's cartoons. In 1999, he became the voice of Philip Fry (plus Dr. Zoidberg, Professor Farnsworth, and several other characters) on Matt Groening's animated show Futurama, which toiled on Fox for four years before getting canceled in 2003. But like Family Guy, Futurama may not be completely dead. Recently, West talked with The A.V. Club about the show's future, the scourge of celebrity voiceovers, and his vocal immortality.

The Onion: At what point did you realize Futurama wasn't going to make it?

Billy West: When they'd say, "Seven o'clock, Futurama. At 8 o'clock, The Simpsons. At 8:30, Malcolm In The Middle. Remember, it all begins at 8 on Fox!" [Laughs.] That's about the size of it. Matt had total autonomy, pretty much. They let him do what he wanted to do, and the show was becoming a success. People were finding it, and Fox kept trying to hide it because they couldn't have control over it. How are you going to explain to the media world, "It's a success, obviously, because we had nothing to do with it. We didn't put our seal of death on it."

O: Couldn't they have said they were simply repeating the Simpsons formula—letting Groening doing his thing?

BW: No, not really, because people are pains in the ass. You know, if you created a show, and it became a huge, huge cultural phenomenon, you could have an idea for another show, and everybody would be lining up to lick your ass. Then, when you tell them what you want to do, "Okay, here's my idea: I want to do a show about people in space, you know, like in the year 3000. But they're not space, they're on Earth, and it's a delivery boy who winds up cryogenically frozen in the future." And people just look at you with that face of no breaks and a smile, going "But we want another Simpsons." You can't have another Simpsons; there already is a Simpsons!

O: Do you think Futurama failed mostly because of where it was in the schedule?

BW: Yeah, and it wasn't promoed. You have to do those things. If you're a network or the powers that be, you can decide what makes it and what doesn't. The Futurama episodes weren't released—they escaped.

O: There had always been rumors that executives at Fox didn't like Groening, so they were burying Futurama.

BW: I wasn't in the room when these things went on, but there was some kind of trouble going on. Now they're talking about doing a Futurama movie to DVD, and then a second and a third, so there's life after death.

O: Obviously, Family Guy's postmortem success made them look stupid, because they canceled the show twice before reviving it again.

BW: They never realized when they put out those DVDs of the shows that people were going to go nuts over them, so it was about-face—a bunch of people chasing around to get to the very spot where lightning just struck. Fox was really pleased with the sales of the Futurama DVDs. They're really happy with it, so they're talking about a budget for it. Yeah, and I'm thrilled to death. I'd rather be doing it than not doing it. That was my favorite show. I loved that show.

O: You've said that Fry on Futurama and Stimpy on Ren & Stimpy were your favorite roles. They were the most high-profile, but what else about Futurama makes it special?

BW: It had more layers than an onion. These writers meant business. There was a level for everybody. Your major could be celestial mechanics, and there'd be celestial-mechanics jokes.

O: Since Space Jam, you've done a lot of work with Looney Tunes. Do you still feel the weight of the characters' legacies, or have you been able to focus on it just as a job?

BW: I wish what they would do with these characters was something that would put some real weight on me to rise to the challenge. Every time they try to revive the Looney Tunes characters, they always say, "This time it's going to be different! We're putting the teeth back in those characters! Nobody's gonna tell us what we can write and what we can't write!" And they always fucking blow it! It's like they got their chance, and boom, Looney Tunes: Back In Action.

O: So you don't feel pressure?

BW: No, not really. I mean, they farm out that work. There's, like, two or three guys that do most of it. I never made my life about that. In other words, I didn't base my identity on that stuff, because it's not really yours. You're a day-player; that thing is only yours while you're talking it. When you leave, that's it. A lot of guys make the mistake of wanting to be identified with those characters, and it's a heartbreak when they just move on and get someone else for the job. I've always said that you can't be the new Mel Blanc by doing Mel Blanc's voice. You're going to be the new Mel Blanc by doing original voices and varying them up and giving them all kinds of life and identity and history and all the other things it takes to round out a real solid character.

O: The Looney Tunes characters were created in a completely different world. Now it almost seems like most of their legacy is in merchandising. How can they be relevant now?

BW: I don't know; it's like, the images sell. People just see the image, and it's automatic. It's like, for all the years that have passed, every generation of kids is a customer farm, you know what I mean? [Laughs.]

O: You've said you have to bring a little bit of yourself to voiceover acting, but without letting people know who you are.

BW: No, just a little bit of your own sensibility, so that somehow, somebody can identify with it if it appears too abstract for them.

O: But that's the complete antithesis to how animation is now. Celebrities are the characters. They're expected to put themselves in the role. Even before CGI movies, you had Robin Williams in Aladdin.

BW: Robin Williams understands sonic performances. He understands what it's like to change your voice up. He understands what it's like to have theatre of the mind—and with your little strip of vocal cords, you're going to create heavens and hells and universes and populations of people, which is the whole idea that a voice person has in their head. It's like, "Whatever it is, I'll be it." But the voice people can physically escape the sound of their own voice. We do multiple voices. We used to save producers' asses, because they'd hire you and say, "Well, we were going to get six people, but we can't afford it. Can you do this, this, and this?" And you'd do them, and they'd be perfectly happy, and they'd save a bundle of dough. Now, it's the exact opposite. The minute they mention a CGI film, they're already looking to see what Renée Zellweger is doing. They're already looking to see what Billy Crystal is doing. This doesn't make sense, to do what they do—spend zillions on visuals, and then have this totally fucking flat-lining voice track. You know, "Hey, I'm Will Smith, I'm a clam! I'm Will Smith, I'm a kangaroo!" All you bring to the performance is your own ego. They're just being themselves. Let's put it this way: Cameron Diaz is the highest paid voice actress in history: $20 million for Shrek. Why? Because she has a 9-foot mouth? That works somewhere else, but not on tape! [Laughs.] It's like what the hell is that all about?

O: So are you totally out of the loop on big-budget films?

BW: Well, we still audition for them if they call us, but we know it's a joke. What's really insidious is, they love to have the A-team come in and read for them and create characters for them and read their copy, and then you never hear from them again. Then you see the person who has the job saying things that came direct from your own ideology, like if I'm ad-libbing, and I use a word from the Midwest because I grew up in Detroit. You know, it's like "What the fuck? What am I, a copywriter now? How come I don't get residual checks?" They take your riffs, they take your little noises that you do, and they go tell this schlub celebrity, "This is what we want; this is what we're looking for. Hear what he's doing?" And then that guy's gotta sweat bullets trying to sparkle some life into his bland-o voice... I hope I'm not coming off cocky or bitter about the swing in the business. I'll hang in, but I'm going to change my hat. I have to be a producer now.

O: Could you ever foresee a swing back in the other direction, with voiceover people taking over?

BW: I don't know. I could almost see it, but there's something else on a higher level going on. Like I'm thinking they're only trying to save money—every production guy in my life, every company that was going to do something, there's never any money... I'm thinking to myself, "Why would they pay four stars over $20 million apiece to do voices in a movie?" I mean, they'd save a fortune if they used voice people, and the magic would be back in those characters.

O: But they obviously think they'll make way more money because the celebrities will draw people.

BW: It's "Oh well, we can use those stars on their bankable star power to promote the cartoon and do Access Hollywood interviews." You know, it's like they treat us like we're not actors. I went to the première of Space Jam at [Grauman's] Chinese Theatre—big première, red carpet, everything. Me and the voice people got invited to the little theatre; there's two of them there, the big Chinese theatre, and then there was a smaller one next to it. We weren't invited to the big place, and so my friend Bob Bergen, who does Porky Pig an awful lot, called them up and said, "Hey, what gives? We're featured in this movie." She said, "Oh you mean the party at the big Chinese theatre? Oh, that's for the actors." I'd like to find out what little cement-head said that.

O: What did Bergen say?

BW: He kicked and screamed about it. We had to settle for the little theatre. But the other theatre was filled with the regular pile of gloms—you know, celebrities that you see everywhere. They gotta be the first to see something, even if it's before me. It's not just for the actors; you can't fill a theatre with actors that were in Space Jam. You know, it's for the Hollywood cognoscenti, and stardom is the only thing that means anything. We deify these people like they can do special, extraordinary things, and they can't. But their voices are not immortal, and they never will be. I don't care what anybody says. I'll outlast everybody. I'll be around until 120, and I'll prove it! [Laughs.] Those voices won't stick in anybody's craw.

Other Articles in Animation issue:

Matt Maiellaro & Dave Willis
Battle of the Cartoon Bands