So. You had some brilliant, whacky, and insightful questions for Futurama star Billy West last week. Today we have his brilliant, whacky, and insightful answers. Thanks go to long-time Slashdot reader Kevin Day for arranging the interview, but the real thanks goes to Billy, who was so excited about doing this that he and I ended up talking about Slashdot via cell phone -- and he caught me while I was at a local lumberyard, thinking about plywood, not Slashdot or Futurama. I wish I'd recorded the conversation. It was totally surreal. But reading Billy's answers -- and using your imagination -- will give you a good idea of what it was like. :)
1) Question number plz99
Who are some of your favorite voice actors to work with, obviously not limited to just the Futurama cast, and what are your favorite moments or stories with them?
Billy: I love the group of voice actors I'm privileged to work with every day. I don't give a shit what ANYONE says -- these people are all trained actors. The best I've ever seen. I will get back to the question after this not so brief announcement. Celebrities are not superlatives in our field of expertise. If celebrities that are schnoring in on our field started out trying to do what we do and were held to the standards we started out upholding, a great many of them would've never made it. It's easy for a celebrity to audition for a character who looks and sounds just like him or her. Now the studio creates characters based upon who they had in mind for the role in the first place, like a rigged fight. There is no magic, no transformation or sonic alchemy, no voices we've never heard before and no chance for most journeymen who are voice artisans to work in animated features. The general consensus is "Why?" Kids and adults pay no mind to whether Brad Pitt, David Schwimmer or Spade or Will Smith is blessing the project with their "magic" talent. For the characters they play, it could be my brother in law or the plumber. It is what it is and it will never change. This is because the folks in question know that every other huge movie is now a CGI movie. It eliminates the need for on-camera performers including stars and celebrities. Being a star or celeb does not equal the God-given gifts of those in the real craft. I'm waiting for the professional athletes to "eminent domain" us. But in general, I enjoy and respect these folks at the work they do best.
Now, back to our originally scheduled question!
All of the VO's (the usual subjects) I get to play with ARE my favorites. Every day one of us raises the bar and inspires everyone else, I think. I don't ever want to stop learning or getting better. I learn every day from all my peers. Women and men. Their unique and perfectly defined voice characterizations leave me in amazement. Most can do impressions if they are called upon to perform sound-a-likes, craft original characters with upwards of hundreds of personalities and sounds. Don't forget about killer instincts. I witness it everyday.
When I was doing Futurama we'd be recording and it was so hard to continue once because John Di Maggio couldn't stop bursting out into laugher every half hour or so. He'd get hung up on something wickedly funny from the script and it would set him off. Matt G. and David X enjoyed it even when I plunged in and started my nonsense riffing. We had to be shushed repeatedly. Then all in the room would start up at some point later when the "call-back to the joke fever" set in. It was so funny to see John in the corner of the room with his bead buried in a pillow so his thunderous guffawing couldn't be heard! Too many stories to mention...
2) Re:Question number plz99
This leads to a bigger question: does Billy actually get to work with his castmates? Especially on an ensamble show like the Simpsons, its extremely common to have voice actors record their bits at different studios or at different times of day.
When the cast of the Simpsons did "Inside the Actors Studio" a couple of years ago, they joked that that was one of the few times in the run of the series that the cast was all in the same room together at the same time. --
Billy: In a cartoon show we work with almost all the actors and sometimes the whole cast would be present. There are exceptions when people have other work or time constraints that keep them from being at the session. Sometimes they will work with one or two actors to play scenes off each other and sometimes a performer records solo.
I have a question. If all the Simpsons could show up for the "Actors Studio" with no problem, why couldn't they......... I'm just being silly.
by Black Parrot
Leela or Amy?
Billy: Leela. She has more sweater meat than Amy. Uh..I think. That was Fry not me!
4) Hank vs. Billy
In a cage match of you vs. Hank Azaria, who would win? How about your characters vs. Hank's characters? What if it was in jello instead of a cage?
Billy: I know that would be FUN! Can you imagine me and Hank in a cage pissing circles around each other with voices? Yeow!
5) New Series: Writers
We've heard a lot about the original voice actors who are returning to Futurama. This is great, and I believe it is absolutely essential to the success of the new season. However, what about the other staff? Are the writers of the Fox episodes returning for the new season? Is there anyone who isn't coming back to the show who you'll miss?
Thanks! Can't wait for the new season!! Can I be cryogenically frozen until 2008?
Billy: Outside of the voices, I don't know if ALL the writers and artists are on board, but I'm guessing most of them are.
Greetings from the year 3000. It still sucks! BTW you can be cryogenically frozen. Walt Disney was. They trot him out every year for "Disney on Ice."
How you you (not your employers) feel about consumers downloading episodes of Futurama and watching them on their personal computers or portable media player of choice?
In particular, I mean those that pay for cable TV, but don't enjoy being bombarded with ads interupting the shows every 5 minutes, and find major network schedules highly restrictive.
Billy: I was always poor, but I was pretty much raised to try to pay for everything that I wanted and don't recall ever conscientiously wanting something for nothing. Of course, it depends on an individual's situation. We're all in the same boat no matter what happens. We all wish on the same stars. I do know that a lot of advantages in technology are spurred forward as an answer to a company's perceived infringement on their product. Then there's another advance to make the former technology obsolete and on and on. But you will ALWAYS have to buy SOMETHING no matter how you feel about it. Unless you're just a dyed in the wool crook. I always hope everyone finds their happiness in a way that hurts no one. Thanks for your question.
Do/did you ever get to work with the writers on material, or improvise something on your own that makes it into the show? It seems like separating the inherent humor of many of the voices (Zoidberg comes to mind) and the way they speak, and the written material itself, would be hard.
Billy: I don't work as a writer along with the writers on the show. But I do offer ad-libs or different ways of talking for the characters. That's easy for me to do. I just want to bring as much to the table as possible. We all do.
8) The Web
You're one of the few actors I know of with a web site that includes the actor's involvement. How important do you think this has been in your career and continued fame? Do you think this will become important for all successful actors to have?
How important do you feel the internet has been in the success of Futurama? I know there are tons of references to fan postings and web sites on the Futurama DVDs. Do you think Futurama episodes online contributed to the continuing success of Futurama after it was cancelled? I'm sure there are plenty of people who weren't significantly exposed to Futurama until the episodes began making their way online...
Billy: I wanted to be able to talk to everyone that was into what I do. My guests are very smart, not war-like or malcontents, they're funny and imaginative and great people in general. I post all the time. I have never posted on anyone else's website ever. My page is where I say what I want to say. Every now and then a sniper from the Internet's grassy knoll breezes in, barges onto my site, takes a dump on the carpet and runs. "Just because."
I hate to say it, but it's mostly a very FEW 1st, 2nd or 3rd time posters. They show up with a full metal jacket of either a Howard Stern agenda or a Ren and Stimpy agenda. This tiny group of people harasses me about the Stern show and the time I spent there. It began 13 years ago and ended 10 years ago. I'm all done there. Most folks from the Stern groups thank me for making them laugh back then, and for that I am forever grateful to them. All I did for ten years was explain over and over why I left. Same thing with a very FEW but active spastic dogs with an R&S boner that came on basically to pick a fight with me.
I won't take any shit from anyone, but they would also attack my guests trying to get to me. I was very upset over that aberrant behavior. I can tell an innocent post from a loaded one. What do you think I am? Iggorrrent?
As far as the return of Futurama, I think it had everything to do with the Internet and the voluminous amount of fans around the world. That and the DVD sales. It was because of you all that the show is back!
Thank you for the question.
9) Futurama Flavored Humor
What exercises (if any) do you use to warm up your voice when you perform? Is it just something you're naturally good at or do you go through daily techniques and practicing like a musician or singer?
Billy: I never had any vocal training. I guess I was just a freak. I did things then the same way as I do now. With cosmic abandon. Think I share this with a lot of other VO's. I just found myself in the church chorus and in public school it was the glee club and school plays. I don't think a lot about it. It's in the head mostly and you try like the devil to replicate the sound that originates there. The voice somehow always finds new places to go to accommodate your ideas. There was a time when it was a little difficult to do the blood-curdling screams and those high pitched "genderless" voices. So I went to the best guy in the biz. Gary Catonah is a "voice-builder" who showed me the very precise vocal exercises to build up the little-used muscles around the throat. It was like a miracle! I wound up even better vocally than I'd ever seen before!
Little known fact: I did an entire season of Futurama with one vocal chord because the other one had constricted up into itself. I think it was collateral damage from a nasty, nasty flu I had caught. I saw a doctor and squared it away but it took a long time.
10) Your projects
I saw something a few months back about a project you were trying to get off the ground called "Billy Bastard - Amateur Human Being." It sounded like a great premise and promised me something better than most television. Any updates? Air dates? General info?
Billy: Billy Bastard was what I was 21 years ago when I was cross-addicted to alcohol and cocaine. A very volatile mix.
I would wind up in the most bizarre situations and have NO recollection for the most part of what had gone down. I was a fierce rock n' roller and had just gotten into radio in Boston. I've been clean for 21 years now, but I had written down stuff that happened. It was tragic until I read it to a friend here and there. They would break up with laughter. To me it wasn't funny, but they reminded me that if it all happened to someone else -- I would be in hysterics as well.
I guess "Seinfeld" was pitched 100 times before someone saw a diamond on the floor and had the sense to pick it up.
A few people have seen the 11 minute pilot, but we couldn't work anything out so far. We'll keep pitching it until we meet the right folks for this.
Myself, Jim Gomez, Bill Wray and Dave Guppel believe in it strongly and I think it's really funny. My VO friends, the incomparable Jim Cumings, the mighty voice of Moe La Marche, and the facile and talented lightning in a bottle Rob Paulsen were so gracious to add their magic to this show.
I will always post relevant bulletins as to where we are with the project. I won't hold a press conference if I get a great meeting with someone.
11) Leave it at the beep
What's the message on your answering machine?
Billy: Ocean's 11...uh, I mean chapter 11--no!
I left witty little voices on my machine, but I would come home to 16 hang ups. Callers checking in and out just to hear the message and end the call. Nowadays it's just "Hi. Please leave a message" in a deep friendly disarming voice.
Thanks for making this fun for me, guys,