Interview: Billy West - The voice of Futurama, Ren & Stimpy and Doug
As series six of Futurama is released on DVD, we talk to Billy West, star of Matt Groening's animated space comedy
As the first project from Matt Groening after his worldwide ultra-mega hit The Simpsons, there was a lot riding on Futurama. A similarly animated comedy, it's a sci-fi adventure concerning the lives and loves of a band of misfits at the Planet Express intergalactic delivery service. 'I was never ever comparing it to The Simpsons. I always thought what we were doing was such beautiful work and it was different from The Simpsons and I was very proud of that,' explains Billy West who voices three of the show's lead characters: Philip J Fry a pizza delivery boy who was accidently cryogenically frozen back in 1999 only to be defrosted one thousand years in the future; Dr Zoidberg an inept alien-crustacean doctor and Professor Farnsworth an ancient scientific genius (as well as arrogant idiotic starship captain Zapp Branigan). In person West is much more low key and considered than the persona you might associate with a guy who makes weird and wonderful voices for a living. 'They showed me pictures of the characters and I had to make some judgement calls and try and formulate something they might like. They liked what I did so we developed it a little further and the next thing I know I was doing four main characters.'
Cartoons take months to complete and the vocal talent is at the core of the entire process. 'It comes in immediately after the scripts have been written, then the animators go to work and build the cartoon around the voice performers,' explains West. He plays so many characters he often ends up having conversations with himself while recording. 'I have no problem with that, it's kind of what I was born to do,' says West. 'It's the rewards of a misspent youth, I had no interest in school, I really didn't, I just built this little world that I lived in.' Finding his niche on radio West worked with shock jock Howard Stern for six years. He then started doing voices for the classic Looney Tunes characters and can be heard doing Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and more. He's often described as the natural successor to Mel Blanc who came up with the original voices. 'I really appreciate it but I've always thought that you can't be the next Mel Blanc by doing Mel Blanc voices, you have to do your own and luckily I've been able to do both.' This was followed by Ren & Stimpy, Doug and then Futurama. 'They were casting for the show and they wanted to have a look at me so I came and auditioned. I was so flattered that Matt Groening knew who I was and knew my work.'
Even with Futurama's diverse cast of characters -- aliens, humans, robots and mad scientists -- at heart it is still a sitcom. 'I guess that was the direction we were heading whether we knew it or not,' says West. 'Everyone's from a dysfunctional family. It's a dysfunctional world but hopefully you can have a laugh or two and not take things so seriously now and then.' Much like The Simpsons there's a satirical streak running through Futurama, this is a future where there are suicide booths on street corners and celebrity's heads are kept alive in jars on museum shelves while the writers never shy away from complex sci-fi concepts such as time travel anomalies, parallel universes or fourth dimensional space whales.
Unfortunately Futurama hasn't been the instant success of its yellow brethren and after four seasons Fox dropped the show, Comedy Central picked it up but after a further three seasons it's again facing cancellation. However Matt Groening loves it so much he really doesn't want to let his space-age sitcom disappear into the void. 'I know we have another season to air and that's it, but you never know who might intervene,' says West. 'I know they've been pitching to online networks that are becoming viable, lucrative and important now people are actually watching.'
Futurama Season 6 is out on Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment Blu-ray and DVD, Mon 24 Jun.