Tonight, Comedy Central's Futurama returns for another hilarious season - and at the center of one of TV's best animated series is voice-acting legend Billy West, who recently chatted with me about voicing three of the show's main characters as well as countless more in the year 3000.
Like his co-star Maurice LaMarche, West voices multiple characters on Futurama. Not only does he lend his talent to main character Philip J. Fry, he's also behind Professor Hubert Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, the insufferable Zapp Brannigan and numerous others. And like LaMarche, his Futurama roles are more recent additions to a lengthy voicing resume that stretches much farther than you know, including many beloved characters such as Doug and Roger from Nickelodeon's Doug until 1994, Ren and Stimpy from The Ren and Stimpy Show from 1991-1996 (taking over Ren in 1993), and Red the M&M from the M&M's commercials since 1996.
Among voice actors, he's one of the most prolific, and once you speak to him, it's not hard to grasp why. He's affable, funny and clearly passionate about his job, particularly his love for Futurama. "I knew in my heart that it was too good to not be on television," he said of the show, which spent four seasons on FOX before finding new life on Comedy Central in 2008.
To West, the key to Futurama's success is not necessarily its laughter (though there is plenty of that), but the show's heart. In season 7, "There's a few things that happen that are very, very heartwarming and touching," he explained, "and those are my favorites - the ones that evoke a feeling, like the one with Fry's dog [the Emmy-nominated "Jurassic Bark"]. The importance of something like that, [that] you're watching a cartoon and you became connected to it." It's something also found in tonight's season premiere, "The Bots and the Bees," which sees Bender deal with fatherhood in a surprisingly heartwrenching fashion.
That heart extends even to the show's supporting characters. "Lrrr, in all his animosity, somehow in the way Maurice [LaMarche] does it, there's still a heart underneath all that," West added. "There's something that you actually feel. These characters have the seldom-seen benevolence or compassionate side somehow, even if it's only for a second."
West's career in voice acting started in a not-all-that surprising place: with music. "I started out playing music after I got out of high school. I played the trumpet and I learned how to play guitar early on. I started being in bands, and I used to screw around with voices and singing, anything audio because my world was like a sonic world. I loved the radio; listened to the radio all the time," he told me. "My music career wasn't going to be happening any time soon, so I decided that I wanted to try out some sort of comedy. I went to a stand-up club, and tried to be funny but wasn't funny. The only time it was funny was when it was unscripted and I did voices. But that's how I got into radio, and from radio I started doing commercials and got to where I am now." He is still involved in music, having met Les Paul and played with Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.
Yet now he's done hundreds if not thousands of voices for characters we've loved. Given that we never see his face, does he get recognized the way you'd think he deserves to? "You get recognized in a different kind of way," he explained. "You get like Internet fame from YouTube and stuff like that. People [do] recognize me, especially at the conventions." Such as San Diego Comic-Con, where there will be a Futurama panel again this year.
Having done so many voices, I was naturally curious how he goes through them all without lapsing into repetition. Like the best at his craft, West's characters all sound distinct...which might be hard to keep up for a man who has so many lines on his resume. "I've recycled a few things that just seemed to suit the purpose. Some things are variations on stuff I've done," he said, adding with a laugh, "I've done hundreds of hundreds of characters. It's kind of daunting trying to remember where I was on what day and what I did.
"I definitely am conscious of trying not to do the same thing all the time," he reflected. "That's the special part of it all. I hope it's not a dying art."
Is there anything he'd like to do with Fry and the legions of other Futurama characters he's responsible for? "I wouldn't have the audacity," he told me. "These are the greatest writers in the business. A lot of them were writers on The Simpsons. I trust in their abilities."
He's even laid-back when it comes to talking about the show's one-time demise, because he's looking toward its future. "It was sort of to be expected," he said. "You deal with rejection an awful lot - you audition for things [and] you get shot down or somebody else will get the part. You don't take it personally. It has nothing to do with that. It's just the whims of people in charge and what they want to do.
"I love the show. I want people to watch the show, I really do, because you feel like you want to share it. We're laughing like crazy where it hurt. I'd love it if people tuned in and felt the same way," he said. "I think the work speaks for itself and the bonus is when people have some sort of an idea of what goes into it and who's responsible."
Futurama returns tonight at 10 PM ET/PT on Comedy Central.
(c)2012 Brittany Frederick/Digital Airwaves. Appears at Starpulse with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.