LAist Interview: Voice Actor Billy West from 'Futurama,' 'Ren & Stimpy,' & More
You've been listening to Billy West's characterizations for almost 25 years in animated series and movies including "Doug," "The Ren and Stimpy Show," Space Jam, "CatDog," "The New Woody Woodpecker Show," "Olive, the Other Reindeer," "Futurama," "Crank Yankers," and "The Looney Tunes Show" (which just recently began broadcasting on the Cartoon Network on Tuesdays at 8pm). [Speaking of "Doug," the cartoon was brought up during an extended segment in last night's "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon".] West also had a several year tenure on Howard Stern's radio show. This is the man who brought Philip J. Fry of "Futurama," and Stimpy the cat of "Ren and Stimpy," and countless other characters to life - there is no way that any American with the power of hearing hasn't heard West's voice some time over the past quarter century. West is not simply someone who speaks into a microphone - he brings an artist's drawing to life through the creation of a unique voice for a character that had only been written on paper.Over the past decade or so, we've seen a lot of animated shows and films take a television or film actor and have them read lines into a microphone resulting in an experience where the viewer ends up thinking more about hearing George Clooney/James Gandolfini/etc. than they do about the characters and action on the screen. Think about it, Stimpy's voice belongs to Stimpy and it can't be identified with any red carpet walking Hollywood entity and that's what makes West so special. We had a great time speaking with West about how he got started and his process in creating these characters. Please read our interview below and stay tuned for our Channel Zero podcast with him.
Tomorrow night, Billy West is teaming up with comedian and fellow voice actor, Tom Kenny, who has played the title role of "SpongeBob SquarePants" for the last 12 years in addition to many other characters for "An Evening of 1000 Voices with Billy West and Tom Kenny" at Track 16, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Bldg C-1 in Santa Monica as part of the L!ve Talks Los Angeles series.
LAist: I've been a big fan of yours since I first heard you do Stimpy on the "Ren and Stimpy" show back in the early '90s. I think it was on Sunday mornings.
Billy West: Ah yes, Sunday mornings, people used to have parties to watch the show.
LAist: I loved that show!
Billy West: I really enjoyed it, it was rule breaking and ground breaking. It set the template for a lot of shows after that.
LAist: I think that without "Ren and Stimpy" you wouldn't have Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network. There were definitely these surreal and bizarre moments not meant for kids [in "Ren and Stimpy"].
Billy West: Completely, but there were disclaimers back then saying it was for adults but that just fuels the fires for kids to want to watch it.
LAist: In the history of cartoons though, before they were put on Saturday morning TV, when they were shown in theaters 60 years ago, weren't they meant for adults?
Billy West: Yes, but they really weren't meant for anything - they were put up on the screen when you were supposed to go get your popcorn and sodas. It's so funny that some of the classic cartoons outdid, in artistic interest, the movies they opened up for. Some of the cartoons became more important than the movies that they opened up for.
LAist: Oh sure, when I consider some of my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons, like the operatic ones for example, they were epic.
Billy West: They went to great pains and detail and they were all done not too far from where I'm sitting right now, over at Warner Brothers in the lot there.
LAist: That's one of the things that's fun about visiting that lot, is that there's a lot of Looney Tunes iconography on all of the sets [and sound stages]. Speaking of Looney Tunes, aren't you part of this relaunch?
Billy West: Ah yes, the only thing I did in this batch was an interstitial where Elmer Fudd is singing like Barry White and another bit where I'm doing Elmer Fudd in between a couple of the cartoons.
LAist: I'd also like to find out a bit more about your show with Tom Kenny.
Billy West: Yes, it will be part of the L!ve Talks.
LAist: You aren't just a personality talking into a microphone for a character - you kind of immerse yourself, you make your voice into the character, and that's a big difference.
Billy West: Tom invents stuff left and right and I get to tailor-make these characters for the writers and the producers. They entrust you, it all comes down to the final performance. It's a great responsibility, although it's a heavy one. Tom is so amazing, there is no end to the kind of stuff he can pull out. I always know that I'm in good company when I work these guys.
LAist: Have you done projects with Tom?
Billy West: We haven't done a show together in a long long time. The last time we did something was "Toonsylvania"," in a part of that called "B-Movie." There was a leatherneck kind of guy, an air ace and Tom played him and I played his sidekick and the guy's name was Jersey. And he would just, he would say "I'm goin' down to the store, hey." These Jersey guys would put "hey" at the end of every sentence. [In character] "Should we load up more ammunition, hey?"
LAist: [Laughs] Can you tell me how you prepare to get into a character? What does it take? When you go into the studio, is there something you are visualizing, do you go through some kind of exercises before you start recording?
Billy West: No, I just try to be in tune with the writers, the artists, and the producers and feel out what they are looking for. They give me some background on the character and I see the drawing. I then wonder, do I play against type? Do I play it silly or do I play it straight? It's a series of judgement calls. It's mostly about instinct.
LAist: Does it help you at all to see artwork of the character?
Billy West: Oh yes, it's almost everything! You can get some ideas from the expression on the face, you get some clues about what the character should be. Hopefully after a few tries you get to where the creators are going "Yes! That's where we want this to go."
LAist: Have you worked on a project where there's been a collaborative experience where you've made adjustments and the artwork has been adjusted as well?
Billy West: That doesn't happen all the time. We're directed, we kind of know where everybody should be - excited or withdrawn, or whatever emotion should be playing. We have been filmed by animators so that they could get a look at our expressions and then thrown those into the characters. On "Ren and Stimpy" they used to come in and film me. I had these crow's feet, well now they're ostrich feet at this point, and they would draw that stuff. My eyes were always purple because I was exhausted, that whole red eye "good bye, good night" look. They would draw my discoloration of the lids, because I was so in need of sleep.
LAist: There would be those horrific close-ups of the characters.
Billy West: Yes, those gross close-up oil paintings.
LAist: Did you do the horse too [on "Ren and Stimpy"]?
Billy West: No that wasn't me.
LAist: I had always wondered who did the horse as well as Powdered Toast Man.
Billy West: Powdered Toast Man was Gary Owens. He was someone that I admired, he did tons of TV and radio, his voice is so well known. He had this superhero type voice. Mr. Horse, John Kricfalusi played Mr. Horse, he also played Ren for the first season and a half.
LAist: I used to be able to find clips of "Ren and Stimpy" on YouTube but they're all gone now.
Billy West: Yeah, take that stuff off of there.
LAist: Other than this Looney Tunes relaunch, what else are you doing right now?
Billy West: I've been working on a series for Disney called "Jungle Junction." It's for real little kids but I'm told they love it.
LAist: I wanted to ask about your beginnings in Boston, there was that big comedy boom there in the late '80s when you were getting started.
Billy West: I knew a lot of those guys but I was in radio. I did production in radio but I also produced bits, comedy bits, and voiced them. I just cranked them out, me and this other guy Tom Sandman. We were given permission to be very creative and the station had clients that wanted commercials made for them. It was a great experience, we were so busy, and we were prolific. We could just do anything we wanted and that can't be a bad thing. In radio, I just don't know what to listen to in radio anymore. I listen to talk radio when I do listen.
LAist: Do you listen to [Howard] Stern?
Billy West: I haven't listened to him since I left the show. I left in '95 I think.
LAist: I haven't listened to him regularly on satellite yet, on Sirius.
Billy West: My only connection to Sirius is that I was one of the original shareholders.
LAist: Would you say that there's still a strong connection between comedy and radio? Do you still have some favorites in comedy that you keep up with?
Billy West: Oh sure, and I think we were groundbreaking at Stern. I had to leave Boston to go to New York to do that. It was no holds barred there. We just went for it, we played rough in there, including me. It was like "no prisoners!"
LAist: I know (comedian) Greg Fitzsimmons was on Stern a couple weeks ago and he had to prepare himself for the "free for all" as he put it, and "you've got to hold on."
Billy West: If [Stern] sees you going for prepared material, he will mess you up, he won't let you talk. He just wanted things to happen. A lot of comedians would come in and just want to do part of their act or routine - and Stern would start throwing Chinese stars verbally. A lot of the characters that I came up with in there was facilitated by Jackie Martling, to a certain degree. He was Howard's gag writer. He would give Howard the Magic Button after Howard was in a holding pattern and Jackie would nail it down. Howard was generous enough to loan me Jackie which was like loaning someone a nuclear weapon to help write and flesh out some of the characters I was doing. It was funny funny funny. A lot of it was rough, but a lot of people perceived it as making radio really special. "Forget about 'Saturday Night Live' - listen to Stern!"
LAist: That must've been a great time. And I think that this night you are doing with Tom Kenny sounds like a good time too.
Billy West: We're going to come in jazzed up for this. We're going to have a great time, I just know.
LAist: Have you talked with him about what you are going to do?
Billy West: Well, it never works out like you think, so we're just going to see how it goes.
LAist: I used to see him perform regularly as comedian but he would often go off into these characterizations which is what he does now. He was amazing on the stage.
Billy West: Before I worked with him I caught him on something and I remembered him which is saying something because you'd catch 18 comedians at a time. Most of them you couldn't remember but I remember seeing Tom and being so impressed and knocked out by him.
LAist: He could just get this voice up in your head - you would look at the speaker where the sound was coming from and then look at him and not believe that the voice was coming from him.
Billy West: I know, that' the exciting part of this. No actor can give you that, no celebrity can give you that. The whole idea is to come in and take a lead bar and turn it into gold before you leave the room. It's supposed to be alchemy. The celebrities come in, change nothing, and leave with a whole pile of money but no magic was performed. My heroes were not celebrities, my heroes were always artists.
Tomorrow Night, Tuesday, May 11, at 8pm: "An Evening of 1000 Voices with Billy West and Tom Kenny" at Track 16, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Bldg C-1 in Santa Monica as part of the L!ve Talks Los Angeles series.