Interview with Billy West, Futurama
For the last 10 years, the show "Futurama" told the story of Philip J. Fry, a hapless pizza delivery guy who he stumbled into a cryogenic chamber and is frozen for one thousand years.
When he wakes in the future, he realizes his parents, his girlfriend and job are long gone and he responds, "Woo hoo!"
And making a life for himself, Fry is befriended by the hedonistic robot, Bender, and Leela, a beautiful one-eyed alien warrior.
While Matt Groening, creator of the "The Simpsons", created Fry, voice actor Billy West gets the credit for bringing Fry to life.
According to West's bio on his web site, he was "born in Detroit, Michigan in 1952 and did a lot of daydreaming and blurting out surreal voices and noises."
He was described as a "self-proclaimed Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck etc.) devotee."
However, at the age of 11 in 1963, "Billy's mom and his two brothers moved to Boston, Massachusetts. He learned to play trumpet in Detroit and learned guitar growing up in Boston and started to perform with different bands for over 17 years."
However by 1978, he decided to leave "the musician's life and [try] his hand at standup comedy." And through another series of events, he ended up at the Boston radio station WBCN doing "voice things" for a morning show called "The Big Mattress" - a show which he produced.
But by 1985, West went to New York City to work with radio icon Howard Stern.
"Billy spent 1989 to 1995 voicing grotesque send-ups of the pretentious glitterati of the time and performed in the rarified air of unscripted radio comedy,"said his bio.
And soon after this, he "found himself voicing the starring roles for 'Doug' and the cult hit 'Ren and Stimpy' on Nickelodeon. And soon after this, he went to Hollywood, where in 1999 he began work on "Futurama" which "plays on the 'world's stage' somewhere everyday."
And besides Fry, West voices several other characters on "Futurama."
And with the new "Futurama" DVD, "The Wild Green Yonder," out in late February, West spent time, exclusively with CosmicBookNews, talking about "Futurama" and his...well...future.
CosmicBookNews: First of all, thanks very much for this.
We have a lot of science fiction fans at CosmicBookNews.
Billy West: Sure!
CosmicBookNews: Rumor has it, that "Into the Wild Green Yonder" is the last "Futurama" movie.
Billy West: I imagine that from a corporate standpoint - after this [movie is released], the [studio heads] will have to take a second look at things to see if they want to continue doing something in the future.
"Futurama" never stopped being popular and has been around for quite a while.
[With the release of this DVD] I think they are testing the waters to gage before they start another project. And I think well look at the history of these things, as far as sales go, they tend to sell pretty well.
CosmicBookNews: "Futurama" was canceled in 2003 by Fox, but in 2008, Comedy Central announced "Futurama's" return. And it has.
Billy West: Yeah, it had similar story with the "Family Guy."
[Note: According to the March 24, 2004 edition of "USA Today," Fox aired "The Family Guy" and canceled it in 2000 and 2002, but due to sales of the DVDs and due to syndication ratings, Fox brought the "Family Guy" back in 2005.]
CosmicBookNews: So you guys at "Futurama" must love the funs?
Billy West: Oh sure!
CosmicBookNews: I have read that some actors who played characters for a long period of time are glad to walk away from the character to go on to something new. When "Futurama" was canceled that first time, were you glad to leave Fry in the past?
Billy West: No, because it was the best show I ever did, as far I was concerned. I loved that show.
And I would have been a fan of that show if I had anything to do with it or not and it is because of the writing.
CosmicBookNews: It has that ironic and sarcastic attitude that "The Simpsons" are famous for.
Billy West: Yeah.
The writers wrote highly developed characters and highly developed stories that were great and I loved voicing them.
I think the writing was always excellent and of the highest caliber because of the type of people "Futurama" uses. Many of the creators are involved in the production world one way or the other in Hollywood such as producing supervisors or head writers on other sitcoms.
CosmicBookNews: Do the writers ever let you improvise?
Billy West: I trust the writers but they allow me to take a few passes in things in the script and sometimes they kept my contribution in or sometimes that would take what they wanted and destroy the rest.
CosmicBookNews: I have heard some show creators or writers are strict about the actors performing exactly what is on the page. But how do you know what works and does not work?
Billy West: That's why we have table reads. Some things look funny on the paper and but won't play out.
But when you are doing it around a table with people, the writers are always revising the script.
CosmicBookNews: How much of Fry's back story did the writer's give you? Like did you know what, say for instance, Fry's favorite memory was when he was 8 years old?
Billy West: Sometimes they give you a lot like that and the characters history and how he got from where he was he and to where he was going.
And with Fry, you have to consider a lot of different things about him. He was kind of a loser and his life really had no forward direction or momentum. With him coming from Earth of the past and him ending up in the future because of the cryogenics, he was a fish out of water.
If you take someone from one situation and thrust them in another and see how they manage that always makes good stories.
CosmicBookNews: Besides Fry, you do the voices of Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg and Zapp Brannigan and you do a multitude of characters on there...
Billy West: Lucky me.
How do you approach what the character will sound like? For instance, Fry is basically a geek and Zapp Brannigan is a Buster Crabbe/William Shatner mix.
Billy West: Yeah. Of course you try to come up with some kind of vehicle that brings the ideas from the paper the best way you think. It is because of this, I always have to have the writing in mind.
Voice wise, I just have my [internal] satellite wide open and wait for something to hit me.
[When I first get a character] some times you are inspired, but sometimes you don't know where to start.
But maybe after a little deliberation you can figure it out and base the voice on what the character looks like. Also, based on the writing, you have to understand what their emotional temperature is and you have another million factors that go into it as well.
It is almost like what a [stage or film] actor studies trying to figure out how to play the character. For voicing, sometimes you use what dimensions the character is and either play to or against the size type. For instance, you take a big giant character and voice him with a tiny voice.
CosmicBookNews: And what did you choose for Fry?
Billy West: The thing with Fry is I wanted him to be the closest to my very own voice when I was 25 years-old and I sort of remember it. It helps that I had tapes of me back then and my voice was kinda high pitched.
CosmicBookNews: As an actor do you enjoy the emotional spectrums of playing different characters?
Such as one character you may play is happy and the next maybe sad and morose.
Billy West: Oh yeah! It's great fun!
And basically you get into all this emotional stuff and, as an actor, you want the satisfaction of being able to express yourself. And also I enjoy being able to express the feelings of these characters because it gives me the satisfaction that I was able to burst out and not hold back.
CosmicBookNews: I have to ask the old cliche, do you have a favorite character to play?
Billy West: That is a tough one.
I can't pick a favorite because I have always thrown myself into each voice giving a 100 percent effort. I did nothing that was throw away as far as I am concerned. And because of this attitude, I really enjoyed playing them all equally, I mean you really develop a love for them
CosmicBookNews: Essentially, it seems that when you play Fry and the Professor, they are almost the same person but at different points in life.
Billy West: You know the professor kind of goes in and out and that's what keeps him very interesting. Professor Farnsworth will get all leadership conscious and decide to rally everyone and about to make the strongest point and suddenly he goes quiet.
I love playing that, it is such a beautiful imbalance.
It's panic time for the characters as they are in a tough situation and the Professor will get all of these ideas on how to fix the situation.
He'll say, "We're gonna do this and do that!"
And a moment later, he'll walk out the door with a blank expression on his face. Or he'll say something like, "Do I know where I can get a hot dog now?"
And that kind of stuff that makes me laugh.
CosmicBookNews: "Futurama" has had some amazing guest stars. But I'd like to single out former Vice President Al Gore.
In the 2000 election, he could have been President of the United States. I have heard that behind the scenes he is really a down to earth guy. What was he like?
Billy West: Oh I really liked that he guest starred. When I sat down and I talked with him the first thing I said was, "You got gypped!" because I really felt bad and angry for him.
CosmicBookNews: And on the show, Vice President Gore was alive a thousand years in the future and was made emperor of the moon.
Billy West: True, and well that's up there. The moon is really up there
Speaking of the future, what is next for you?
Billy West: Well, I recorded a few pilots and I don't know how far they will go.
And I was in a movie that is coming out soon called "Demoted" .
CosmicBookNews: So is being on camera a new venture for you?
Billy West: You know I never wanted to be in movies and to tell the truth there's nothing about me that said "You gotta get into movies!"
I was really hesitant to do it and I have done a couple of other things on camera in the past.
But I had to audition for this and I got it and I had a couple of parts with David Cross ("Mr. Show," "Scarey Movie 2") and Sean Astin ("The Lord of the Rings," "Goonies") in it.
They were funny and sharp as they come.
CosmicBookNews: Billy, thanks so much for your time! We look forward to seeing what you are doing next!
Billy West: Thank you!
For more information about Billy West, visit www.billywest.com and for more information about "Futurama" visit www.comedycentral.com/futurama.
Also special thanks to Glenn Schwartz for his assistance in helping us set up the interview with Mr. West.