Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters that defined their careers. The catch: They don't know beforehand what roles we'll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Journeyman voiceover actor Billy West, who found fame as the voice of first one, then both main characters on The Ren & Stimpy Show. Since kicking off his career in radio as a producer and voiceover actor in the '80s, West's roles have been varied and iconic: He's had memorable turns in everything from The Howard Stern Show to M&M; commercials and Space Jam, for which he helped revive Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. He also toiled as several characters on Matt Groening's animated show Futurama until it was prematurely canceled by Fox in 2003—though late 2007 saw the series' resurrection as a series of feature-length, direct-to-DVD movies, starting with Bender's Big Score. The second of four slated new Futurama films, the tentacle-heavy The Beast With A Billion Backs, is slated for release on June 24, and will air on Comedy Central later this year.
Doug (1991-1994)—Various characters
Billy West: [Adopts Doug voice.] A painfully shy, 11-and-a-half-year-old. This is my dog, Porkchop. [Barks.] And, oh, let's see, Patti Mayonnaise, I've got a big crush on her. Oh, and here comes the big bully of the town. [Adopts Roger Klotz voice.] Hey loser, come here, Funnie! Come here loser, vote for this! [Cruel laugh.] [Doug voice.] I guess that's it. If it wasn't for me, Billy West would probably be driving an ice-cream truck, full-time!
The A.V. Club: So he's still 11?
BW: Oh yeah, you know what? Disney made him older [for Disney's Doug], but I had nothing to do with that.
AVC: They made him older and gave him a three-quarter-sleeve baseball T-shirt.
BW: And about as much hair as I have in real life.
AVC: When Doug went to Disney, you said that's as far as that role could take you, and you jumped ship. How do you know when you've reached that point with a role?
BW: When they won't pay you any more money for it.
AVC: Was it tough voicing Doug and Quailman?
BW: Quailman was basically the same thing, but I wore my underwear inside-out for Quailman.
The Ren & Stimpy Show (1991-1996)—Various characters
AVC: Your website has a warning that if people are just there to talk about Ren & Stimpy, they can "hit the bricks." Does it irritate you to even talk about the show?
BW: No, I had people that were coming on my own website and attacking me. You know, they were like Hillary Clinton supporters? It was very ugly. And I'm sorry, I hate to say it, but it was a forum that I paid for, and these people would come on, and they were too cheap to get their own fucking forum, so they used mine as their platform for their love of [Ren & Stimpy creator] John [Kricfalusi] and all this other crap.
[John K.] wanted me to quit the job when he got fired [in 1992]. But the problem there is that I wasn't his partner. I was a hired gun.
AVC: But you were largely responsible for the show getting picked up in the first place.
BW: Well yeah, and then these people badmouth me for 10 years, like a rock in my shoe in that camp. It's a very small but active group of posters, as I've come to find out. But the thing is that I finally got to the point where, "Okay, I get you, I get it you don't like that I did what I did." But the thing was, the whole story was cockeyed. They said I put everybody out of work. No, I didn't. Everybody was going to be out of work if I didn't continue the show.
[John K.] is very talented; he used to really piss me off. But I did good work, you know? The show without me was totally unsuccessful. So if there's anybody listening out there with any doubts about what I can do for a show: Try me. The thing is, I wasn't about to stop doing a job. And he called me up, screaming at me, saying they can do the show without him, but they'll never be able to do it without me. So in other words, he was saying, "If you quit the show, you have the clout to get me back on." And I said, "You're fartin' way higher than your ass on that one, because everybody is disposable." Everybody is! I don't have that much of an ego where it's like "How dare you, you can't do something without me." Although the show did fucking do a bellyflop in a sundress. [Laughs.] Because I didn't do it.
Futurama (1999-2003, 2007-)—Various characters
AVC: Haven't you said that you made Fry's voice on Futurama so similar to your own that they could never replace you?
BW: Well, that's an attempt. Somebody's real voice is probably the hardest one that somebody could attempt. The characters are all, believe it or not, rooted in a reality of some sort. I've met and talked to people, and they're also fusions of showbiz periphery. But the best thing was, if you did your own voice and you were the star of the show—if it came to blows and they had you on the ropes and you had to leave, then they could just get someone to sound exactly like you.
But my voice is so fucking… it's like in neutral, it's plain vanilla. And my speech is terribly flawed. And it was perfect for the role of [Fry voice.] Fry, because I have fricative problems.
AVC: In pretty much all the Futurama commentaries, you all talk about how hard it is to do Everyman voices, like Guard No. 2. Why are they so challenging? Because they're so disposable?
BW: It's very hard to take a character out of nothing, and put a hook on it, especially because it's only sonic. It's a sonic world, and everyone's attention is focused on that sound and that little cartoon image. You can change it. Tom [Kenny] is a master of changing it a pubic hair this way or that way, and sounding like a totally different character.
AVC: Is that the most under-sung quality of a voice actor?
BW: Yeah, it is, because you have to go and think about what the Everyman is. Like, in a black-and-white world, back in the '50s, you were either like [Loud, gruff, voice.] Charlie, the garbage man, or you were [High, nasal voice.] a guy in an office, worrying about where his coffee is. [Panicky voice.] Uh, did you get that report I sent you?
You know. Those were voices from another era. All actors used to sound different. Robert Mitchum sounded different from John Wayne, and John Wayne sounded different from Clark Gable. They were like men's voices, but they weren't Everyman, it was them. So you're trying to work around it, and it always comes out like somebody from the '40s. Tom and I just have that love for that period anyway, when things were, "Oh, shucks. Oh shucky darn!" But the Everyman of today? There could be a guy on a garbage truck that has a PhD!
AVC: What about the 30th-century Everyman?
WB: The everyman of the 30th century? I figure if I was in the 30th century, I would be just like this. Just the way I sound.
AVC: Why wouldn't it be any different?
WB: Well he's the only one from an earlier era. But the thing is, it is tough, the original question that you had. It's very tough to be Astronaut No. 3 and, "Oh, I gotta play a peanut." And they don't want cartoony, and they underline "Not!"
AVC: What's the worst note you've gotten to improve a voice like that?
BW: "Can you be funnier?" or "You've got three seconds: Make us cry."
AVC: Who's a better voice actor: Al Gore or Stephen Hawking?
BW: [Laughs.] Well, I happen to have a love of vocal reproduction devices. But my love of it is from the '50s, the '50s idea of what the future was going to be like. It was like when you went up to a computer and the computer turns on you—or the machine turns on you, and was like [Robot voice.] "I hate you. I will kill you." And so Stephen Hawking is like [Robot voice.] "I have to take a dump in zero gravity." You know, up in the spaceship? [Robot voice.] "Get the Depends." [Laughs.]
When I was a little kid, I saw a guy with one of those cancer clarinets, and I flipped out. I totally flipped out. I said to my mom, "Mom, what is that thing?" And she happened to know, too, which was the oddest thing. She said, "That's a Bell Telephone artificial larynx, for men that had their voice boxes removed because of cancer." I was like, "Wow." And I couldn't wait to get one. I didn't get one 'til I was all grown up and everything. I went to a pawnshop and I saw one, and I went in and just bought it. And I guess it worked, but it didn't work when I tried to do anything with it, because you have to have no voice box for it work. It was nothing; it was like buzzing. [Makes a rasberryish, monotone buzzing.] So I had to learn how to [make the robotic voice] without one of those things. There's different ways to explain it, I guess.
It's like when you do a sound of a ray gun, and you make your mouth go [blows a monotone raspberry]. Like that, like a bee or something? [Buzzes like a bee.] And you add a tone to it, which you can do at the very same time because the original sound is coming right from your mouth and not from your throat. It's not using your vocal cords. So if you add a voice to it while you're doing that buzz, you can control the pitch of your buzz to match the pitch of what you're saying. And it sounds like an octave. Let's see… wait a minute. [Robot voice.] "I hate being a robot." [Lower robot voice.] "I love to be a robot." [Robot voice.] "No, you don't." [Lower robot voice.] "Yes, I do." [Higher robot voice.] "Shut up, both of you." I love that monotone, creepy sound, I just do. I don't like that computers can talk perfectly normal.
Yeah, [Stephen's] a better voice actor. But I love Al Gore, man! When I met him, I said, "Man, you got gypped, Al." The guy who had to swallow it, go back to the Senate, and hear people arguing about how his election was stolen, [and] was like, "You're out of order." The last eight years were like, "What the hell? We lost our constitutional rights? What, you're being wiretapped?" And John McCain is like [John McCain voice.] "Don't call me Bush, or I'll have you wiretapped." I heard some story that [McCain] shit in someone's bathtub.
AVC: Well, that's gotta be true, right?
BW: [John McCain voice.] "No, of course that's not true. That's where I draw the line. I took a dump in a dead Cong's mouth once and wiped my ass with his clothes, but a tub? No, forget it."
AVC: A lot of your impromptu voices involve people taking dumps.
BW: Yes, because I think that's the funniest thing somebody could say. Yeah, I'm puerile, you know? I'm not like a high intellectual. That's the thing. I talk about Stephen Hawking trying to do that in zero gravity. I don't think that would go very well. I could only imagine, them standing by, floating around with the rolls of Bounty. You know, [Robot voice.] "The quicker picker-upper."
AVC: Your Three Stooges fascination reared its head not only in Ren & Stimpy but also in Dr. Zoidberg. How did Zoidberg's Stooges influence come about?
BW: I did a couple of different things with that Zoidberg character. I said, "You know what? I'm just going to go as far as I can." Even Zapp Brannigan sees something that startles him and goes, "Ah-eh-ah-eh!" I have to inject that everywhere. I'm like the Johnny Appleseed of Stooges.
I was so fascinated with Larry [Fine] that I couldn't tell you. To me, he was like the Keith Richards of the Stooges. [Larry voice.] "Hey, Moe, I'm on heroin again." [Moe voice.] "Go get your blood changed, you mook!" [Makes slapping noises.] [Larry voice.] "Ooh, zookums."
AVC: What's the nerdiest mistake fans of the series have pointed out to you?
BW: That's like me going to a theater and watching From Here To Eternity and saying, "That shouldn't be Burt Lancaster. It's all fucking wrong. He shouldn't be rolling around with her. It should have been Jack Palance, because then the dynamic would have been different, because he looked like a skull with hair on it." And I gotta do something about that one day. And one of the surviving producers, he's 98? I went up to him and pointed out that it was a very bad mistake. [Laughs.] I can't believe I'm going this far with this bit. But you know, it's like—what can you do?
AVC: Just take it on the chin? It comes from a sincere but really annoying place.
BW: Yes, but you know what? I always have to keep in mind that I was one of those guys. When I heard the fucking first edit in "Good Vibrations"? To me, it broke the spell. It was like, "Wow, is that sloppy." Because I was basically a sound engineer, I produced radio shows and stuff and had to splice tape in the old days. And you knew a sloppy edit when you heard it, because I had enough of them. But that stuff takes the magic out of it, if you need to know everything. Then you become omnivorous. Everything is tender, [and] as soon as you burn it up, you're on to the next.
But out of 10,000 people, there'll be one guy that comes over and goes, "Do a voice. What's the matter with Bender's arm? How come it was put on backwards and then it was on straight again?" It's like, whatever happened to, "Hi, how are you?" You know, that's one out of a zillion. But the other people, they don't care. It's part of the experience, actually.
AVC: Well, for the record: What is wrong with Bender's arm?
BW: [Laughs.] It all began in Seoul, Korea [in] Rough Draft [animation studios.]
AVC: According to the IMDB, you've portrayed Richard Nixon more than any other actor.
BW: Really? I can't believe that.
BW: I can't believe that! And the thing was, mine is probably the worst Nixon known to mankind. I remember those days when Nixon was campaigning against [John F.] Kennedy, and he looked like Java Man or Precambrian Man, whichever one is more accurate. But he did look like a caveman, and Kennedy looked like a game-show host with that buttered-toast hair. Slowly through the interview, the bottom half of Nixon's face would start getting darker and darker. His beard was growing in before our eyes, and he'd be sweating. And I said like he's like Larry Talbot, in The Wolf Man. [Lon Chaney, Jr. voice.] "Whatever happens, if you hear me yellin' and whatever it is I do, don't open that door after midnight!" And he was transforming.
So even back then when I was probably like 12 and 13 years old, I looked at him and I went to my mom, I went, [Richard Nixon voice.] "The reason why I—Aroo!" [Makes wolf noises.] Y'know, making wolf noises.
AVC: Is Futurama pretty much over after the fourth DVD is released?
BW: Then the question is, do they keep making DVDs and making them into episodes, or does someone want to pay for a TV series? To me, there's no difference. I'm happy because it's working and it's there and everybody likes it. There's nothing better than that, you know? I've said this a million times, but even if I had nothing to do with the show, I would have been a fan because of the writing.
Various commercials (1995-)—"Red M&M;"
AVC: How is your take different from Jon Lovitz's on Red?
BW: I'm just doing my version of the spawn of David Letterman and Craig Kilborn. Today's modern man. [Stuffed-up, sleazy voice.] "Oh, yeah, that's about as clear as Neutrogena, I'd say." He reminds me of that, but he doesn't intellectualize. I'm there to clear shelves. You're a salesman.
We were auditioning, and they narrowed it down to me and a couple of other geezers. I was in the running. That was something to think about back then. "Wow, you're going to be an American icon that doesn't melt in your hand, or it will in your mouth." Or whatever they said. [Laughs.] LOL.
But I remember I went out to Hollywood 'cause they wanted to record a few test commercials. There was this very well-dressed man sitting in first class, kinda kitty-cornered away from me, and he had a fedora on and a scarf. [J.K. Simmons] denies this, but I know it was him. I don't know why he would deny it. [J.K. Simmons voice.] "That's not me."
You know the show Oz? Well, I was separated from my wife, and when I went home one time she said, "Have you seen Oz?" And I said, "No, I haven't." So she said, "Sit down." And she knew what was coming up, and she pointed, "Watch this guy, watch this motherfucker. Those are not acting choices. They are not—he's doing something very familiar and very real to him." You know, Schillinger, the worst guy in the prison. [J.K. Simmons voice.] "I've changed, Beecher." She said, "Look at this motherfucker, he's the real deal." And I started snickering, and I go, "I know him. That's the Yellow M&M.;"
When I get to see him, he's only doing voice acting, but believe it or not, he's taking me to school most of the time. Even though it seems like nothing much: [J.K. Simmons voice.] "Uh, Red…" It's the way you riff in the booth before you actually record anything.
Honey Nut Cheerios commercials (1990-1997)—"Buzz"
BW: That was one of my high-pitched genderless voices that were so big at the time. [Laughs.]
AVC: When did that fall out of favor?
BW: It never really did. The original guy that did it was Arnold Stang, who was a movie actor.
AVC: Is there ever a sense of "selling out" by doing commercial work in your field?
BW: [Deep Spanish accent.] Oh, no, no, no, man. You're not selling out. You're buying in. Who cares? The world is filled with talented derelicts: unknown genius' proverb.
AVC: What kind of voices can you not do?
BW: I guess the category there would be accents. I'm not an aficionado.
Crank Yankers (2002)—Various characters
BW: Oh, that was kind of hit-and-run. But I knew Jimmy [Kimmel] and Adam [Carolla]. They're both amazingly funny and great guys.
AVC: How seasoned are you with crank calls?
BW: You know what it is? If everyone else is doing something, I have little or no interest in it. If you're known as this guy who can do any kind of sound or voice or whatever, somebody will go, "Do you do Christopher Walken?" "No." "Well, why not?" "Because everybody else in the world does it." My carpenter does Christopher Walken. Give me one good Beatrice Arthur impression. [Bea Arthur voice.] "I'm gonna wrap my legs around your throat like a cheap turban, Blanche and Maude. Ma!" [Laughs.] But the whole thing, the Jack Nicholson thing, I always liked off-the-nose choices.
Space Jam (1996)—Various characters
AVC: Supposedly Mel Blanc was allergic to carrots.
BW: Yes, it is true. Yeah, can you imagine that? I don't know. All the best work was done before any of us were born. Let's put it that way.
Space Jam was weird because everybody has their own perception of what Bugs Bunny should sound like. Everybody. Somebody would just stick their head in the door and say, "He sounds too Jewish." Or, "He's too tough, he's off-putting. You gotta seduce kids, not scare them out the door."
AVC: How was rapping as Bugs Bunny?
BW: I had to kind of get by with singing a little out of half-beat, and stuff. That's the cool part about rap, is some guys sing on the half-beat, or come in, like, staggered. It's almost like when you've got the ball and you appear to suspend yourself in midair. They fuck with time, rappers. They fuck with time. You'd say to yourself, "That's damn impossible to say that sentence in that way in that amount of time." But then you find out it's, [Deep voice.] "A double hip-hop-hoppy-hippy…" [Imitates record being manipulated on a turntable while rapping.] Yeah, I got a liberal education. A white guy, rapping as Bugs Bunny, on a quintuple-platinum album.
AVC: Is there any territoriality or attachment for you, voicing iconic characters like Bugs Bunny?
BW: No, because I didn't create it. You know what I mean? I can't get mad because I'm the third-best Bugs Bunny in the world.
The Howard Stern Show (1989-1995)—Various characters
BW: It was exciting, because there was nothing like it. When I came around, he was starting to get played in other cities on other stations. He was syndicating. And this show was like—when that show came to town, all the other radio stations had to duck and cover, because they couldn't go where he was going. He built that up; he learned how to dance right up close to the line. So close that it's like, "Whoa!" But that's very masterful, to be able to do that. Now there's so many watered-down versions of his show, and his humor, and the vernacular from the show. Other stations, it's commonplace to talk like he did. He kind of taught everybody how to talk, brash. He would just Tourette out his thoughts, and I thought that was the greatest thing in the world.
Comic Book: The Movie (2004)—"Leo Matuzik"
AVC: You're one of many in your field who's outspoken against screen actors invading the voiceover-actor turf. Did you have any qualms about live-action acting, then?
BW: I knew that one day I would wake up in an America that didn't give a fuck about voiceover artists, which is slowly coming true. Well, in Hollywood it is. To the average person—I talked to a kid in Starbucks today. Can't you tell? [Puts lips together, wags fingers up and down on them.] So, I went in earlier, and he came out and he didn't know who I was, and my brother introduced me to him. I said, "Do you care if Cameron Diaz is doing a voice? Or Brad Pitt?" And he goes, "Fuck, no. Nobody cares." I said, "Well, Hollywood thinks they have a formula."
Meanwhile, the movie doesn't do any more business than it would if you had used artisans, so the thing could live forever, instead of the life of some celebrity's career. And to me, there was always a difference between being an artist and a celebrity anyway. Oooh, burn!
AVC: Which one are you?
BW: Please don't tell anybody. I'll tell you off the interview… No, celebrity doesn't mean shit to me. You can be a celebrity because you can burp the National Anthem. You can be a celebrity because you had more cellulite in an episode of Who's Got The Crumb Cake? Celebrity doesn't mean anything. The only ones it seems to be a business for or who make anything out of it are the tabloids. Celebrity this, celebrity that, celebrity secrets.
I consider myself to be flawed, but I made it work. I'm not perfect. Anybody who thinks they are is whacked-out. I think it's good to have that fire in your belly to lead you to where that point actually is, because one person's perfect is another person's abysmal. So you be the judge and jury of that. I did speak out about celebrities because I thought it was appalling. I thought that if the cartoon became popular, it was only going to last as long as the career of the people who are in it. They didn't make up timeless voices. They used their own. They brought nothing to the table, in other words. There was no alchemy. That's why a cartoon was so alluring, was that a human being went into a place and created this supernatural sound, or whatever sound it was supposed to be that was totally unlike their own, and did it in multiples. That was alchemy, in that situation. Something would actually transform into something else. And now, if you're [Will Smith voice.] "Will Smif and I'm a fish, and I'm Will Smif and I'm a taxi-cab driver."
I'm not angry. Everybody thinks I'm so angry because I have a point of view. They're expecting me to just be all Smucker's Jam.
AVC: Who's everybody?
BW: I read, "The guy's really bitter. He's bitter about Stern and he's bitter about Ren & Stimpy." And it's like "No, I'm not."
AVC: Who's saying this?
BW: People send me stuff. You know what it is; they think they're doing me a favor by sending me stuff they read about me. It's like, "Oh, God, do I have to go through this again?" You have to explain to everybody all over again why you left the Stern show, why you did this and that. "Oh, you said this before, but now you say this, ah!"
The only thing I have to say to people like that is, try being the hero of your own world one day. Don't spend your life thinking about what somebody did or if they failed at this or if they did great at that or they got caught with a monkey, in a bathtub, having sex. You should at one point become the hero of your own world. It's like there's too much of that, everybody wasting their precious time on this earth, sitting there with their heart beating and their blood pumping and their mind synapsing—and they're all busy with somebody else. To me, that's a negative. That's in the negative column. So it's kind of laughable. But everybody's got a bully pulpit now, and everybody's mad. I don't blame people for being angry and frustrated about everything. I'm 56 years old, but I'm not pulling my pants up to my tits. I take deep breaths of air when I enter a room and celebrate the fact that I'm alive.