Tonight the last ever episode of Futurama airs. Unless it’s picked up by another network, of course – it happened before, it could happen again. A while ago (in issue 183) we spoke to Billy West, who voices Fry, Zoidberg, Professor Farmsworth, Zapp Brannigan and more. Billy West is awesome.
Hi Billy! Futurama’s been cancelled twice before – did you know this was coming?
I guess, from my experiences with the show, I was just always happy we were doing it when we were doing it. We’d get cancelled, but I’d just think “Well, this show’s too good to not be on TV, somebody’s got to pick it up”. Right now, we’re about to broadcast the best season of the entire run. I think somebody’s gonna go “Wait a minute, what is this?” and try to pick it up.
You voice half the main characters on the show. Can you jump straight from one voice to another?
We record it that way. If there’s four voices of mine coming up in the script, I’ll just transition in and out of them. There’s some weird stuff in there, but I have a lot of training – I’ve been doing a lot of shows for years, and on most of them I’ve done multiple voice work. In the world of radio, everything was live.
Do you find yourself slipping into voices in everyday life?
It happens periodically, depending on what the situation is. I usually try to defuse any bad situation with voices. I’ll say something that’s really on my mind in a voice, to distance myself from it but still get the point across.
As a voice actor, do you get weirdly recognized when you’re in shops? People looking at you, trying to place you?
Yeah. I get a lot of people trying to figure it out. I just think it’s funny. I never really cared about being a celebrity – they weren’t my heroes, artists were. I never had a big interest in fame, I only ever cared about the work.
When voice acting, do you move around and act stuff out?
I’m pretty stationary. I do a lot of facial expressions, and a little bit of physicality, but not much. Celebrities kind of come in and wave their arms in front of a microphone, and I say to myself “you don’t need to do that.”
Any advice for wannabe voice actors?
You have to be where people need what you do. Morning radio was how I got started. I was thrown into a morning show and had to figure out how to do things, record myself and produce stuff. Everything was hands-on, you had to splice tape, and you were up against it. I kinda liked it though. Because of the internet there’s always going to be brand-new media that’ll need voices.
Will machines ever be able to properly synthesise the human voice?
They’re getting better, but hopefully I’ll be floating around on a tropical island in an inner tube wearing a straw hat when the machines take over.
THE BEST OF WEST: HOW BILLY DOES VOICES
“Fry sounds like me at 25. I had to make a character where nobody else could sound like him. If you’re doing a character voice, there’s mimics that can figure out what you’re doing, and sound like them. If I’m doing my natural voice and just pitching it up a bit, this whiny, nasally, vanilla voice, that’s one that nobody can do. It’s hard to imitate somebody’s real voice. I didn’t want to be replaced!”
“Everything goes into consideration, coming up with a character’s voice. His name being Zoidberg, I pictured someone from Yiddish theatre, an old actor like Lou Jacobi or George Jessel. They always had kind of a marble mouth thing going on. The rest of it came from him being a lobster with stuff hanging off his face – he’d have some kind of speech impairment.”
“Phil Hartman was slated to do the role, and he was horribly murdered. They let the character go for a while, then they reprised it and let me have a go – I combined all these disc jockeys I’d worked with years ago, and they sounded like the characters Phil would do, these pompous, narcissistic characters with these giant voices like the last voices in the world.”
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON
“I love doing Nixon. It hardly sounds like Nixon. I was alive when he and Kennedy were debating in 1960 – Kennedy looked like a game show host, and Nixon was sweating with his beard was growing in. I said to my mom, “Mom, he’s going to turn into a werewolf”. That’s where that “Aroo” came from. It’s my revenge. That bastard drafted me in 1970, and now clips from Futurama play in the Nixon Museum.”
“He was described to me as a 147-year-old, doddering, forgetful combination of a wizard and a mad professor. I did a kind of Wizard Of Oz voice combined with old magicians. I physically shook when I did him to make him sound old. I think he’s very very funny. All the stuff he says becomes meme material.”