“A lot of things are insane to me, and I try to touch on it in a way that is absurd.”
STIMPY: “Hey Ren! I just picked a magic nose goblin!”
REN: “Oooh. Put it back, you fool! You eediot!”
PHILIP J. FRY: “All this exposure to radiation is making me thirsty.”
ZOIDBERG: “Are you going out? Wait for Zoidberg. Hooray! Zoidberg is popular.”
BUGS: “I got to work with Michael Jordan too, doc. The closest thing to a religious figure that we have. (Bugs laughs)”
These are just a smattering of the vast magnitude of voices that live on inside of Billy West. Voices instantly recognizable by any member of a certain generation. At any given moment, he will lay on you some Bugs Bunny or some Stimpy or some Doug. And all of a sudden, you are smiling. You are taken back to that certain time in your life, when these were not characters done by one man, but real living people. These were your friends.
As a kid growing up in the 60s, television was a big part of the culture at the time. And like most young kids of that era, West took to the shiny new object that was television. And he was absolutely hooked, as is shown in the impressions he will suddenly break out in.
CARY GRANT: “When I saw those two big beautiful boobs, my eyes popped out of my head.”
ROBERT MITCHUM: “Put down that bomb, or I’ll kill ya.”
JACK PALANCE: “You have no idea what you’ve just started, mister.”
“I was probably about 5 years old,” West remembers, “And my mom let me stay up with her and watch a show that came on, Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar. And to me, that’s the greatest stuff that ever existed. That and Jonathan Winters. Those were the main comedic influences for me. I couldn’t believe how these guys were able to do what they do and think of the things they thought of. Jonathan Winters would just throw curve balls at everybody. Throw it off on the third rail and watch what happens. I loved that spontaneity. I loved it so much.”
These people on TV become your heroes. They can’t possibly exist as physical beings. They are too large for that. They are simply larger than life. So imagine for a young Billy West (who was not so young anymore by then) when he not only got to meet his heroes, but work with them.
“I was in a Comic Con mockumentary,” West reflects, ‘I did a scene with my two boyhood idols, Jonathan Winters and Sid Caesar. In somebody’s living room, we ad-libbed a scene. And I almost had an emotional break down. These guys had such an effect on me. They made me feel like they were saving a seat for me. I got so emotional that I practically cried.”
In addition to being known for cartoons, Billy West is also known as being a voice on The Howard Stern Show from 1989 until the mid-90s. “It was kind of a hotbed of creativity,” West remembers. “Howard was brilliant and still is. He was an influence on so many people in the business. He was smart and had a lot of talent around him. He had Robin, who I loved. I loved her energy more than anything. Fred was a master of his craft with sounds and voices. And Jackie was just like having Mel Brooks sitting there writing humor. We all loved the same stuff. We all kind of came from the same place. It was like a comedy waterfall. I’d be overwhelmed by the end of the morning because of the laughing. I would be dying from laughing. I got to do some really good things that are kind of outrageous.”
While there, Billy made good use of his upbringing in all things pop culture, by debuting the classic bit that became a staple of the show: Larry Fine at Woodstock. Naturally, this all stemmed from his fascination with The Three Stooges as a kid.
“I used to watch The Three Stooges every morning before I went to school. So I had a head full of that stuff, and I had no interest in school. Zero. I don’t know what it was, but I learned most things about life through stuff like the Stooges. And I caught all the ironies. And of course the voices grew on me.
CURLY: “I’m an unsuccessful cork.”
LARRY: “Hey Moe. There’s too much tinsel on the tree.
MOE: “Oh yeah?”
Around the same time as his work on The Howard Stern Show, the voices of Billy West made up 2/3rds of the new original programming that this small channel for kids had to offer, Nickelodeon. Billy voiced the characters of Doug on Doug and Stimpy on The Ren And Stimpy Show. This being what I personally know him from growing up, to hear these voices come to life from the other end of the phone is nothing sort of surreal.
As a kid, going back to Billy’s Larry Fine impression, one of the things that always fascinated me was the voice of Stimpy and how it was, at his own admittance, a sped up Larry Fine. That’s an old trick for voice over artists. “If you mess around with those kind of things, you can come up with a new voice,’ West points out. ‘Like infuse him with someone else’s voice. And that’s what I kind of did. A lot of infusion kind of stuff. I had an undying respect for these people. You have to. You’ve got to have something to build on unless you’re a total, total freak and can just channel paranormal thoughts and voices and ideas.”
If Billy West was just known for his work on Nickelodeon or on Stern, that’d be quite an achievement in itself. So many people come out to Hollywood to make it, and here this kid from Detroit, Michigan who grew up idolizing all of the people he watched on TV did it. But that was only the beginning. In 1996, he got to live out every voice actor’s dream by taking on one of the most daunting and iconic characters you could voice: Bugs Bunny, for the film Space Jam. Following that, in 1999, Billy West was cast as the lead on a new hit TV show from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Futurama. On the show, he voiced the characters of Phillip J. Fry, Prof. Harmsworth, and Dr. Zoidberg.
For someone in his position, it would be very easy to turn arrogant about the whole thing. To just become trapped within your own ego and have this ridiculously high notion about yourself and your work. But when you talk to West, you don’t feel any of that. Instead, you get the sense that this is a guy who is simply put eternally grateful and humble.
“It’s so surreal to turn on a TV and hear yourself blaring through it or radio,” he muses. “It’s very, very surreal and I have so much gratitude. I have that immigrant mentality. If you don’t do the right witty little voice that day, things will end for you. They’ll take away your house, and once you go home there will be a big hole there.”
West has also found a way to be directly connected with the fans, through the various comic con events that he sometimes still finds the time to do.
“You know what’s really surreal, and I will always feel blessed by this, is at the conventions, the comic cons, there’s like 3 and 4 year old little kids that know me from something. And then there’s old geezers like me, that are ready to punch 70 in the mouth, and go “I used to hear you on Stern.” You bridge all these generations and it’s like ‘How did it happen?’ It didn’t seem like that long ago. But time, as I’m finding out, goes by in a flash.”
Starting in 2015, West created the Billy West Podcast. It’s not your typical podcast. There are no celebrity interviews, and not so much straight talking. It’s all coming from character perspective. But it boils down to a larger picture West wishes to get across.
“I didn’t want to do anything about nostalgia or ‘Remember when??’ Because I’m a progressive, believe it or not. I wanted to get stuff in that was bothering me in real life but have it translated through this absurd situations and absurd characters. Dealing with stuff that bothers everybody.”
One of the ideas that he has for the podcast is a reflection on the times we live in, which are so crazy it’s impossible not to comment on.
“I had this idea for a show where we had this boss, the littlest C.E.O. We don’t know if he’s 30 or 7. Because he’s got this little high pitched voice and he wears Armani suits. He’s an A-hole. He gets this brilliant idea… I’m going to sit down and write it with my partner, Jim Goman… About how this is something that will make everyone happy in America, that there should be a death penalty for anybody who tampers with the elections. And then he goes out in public and starts saying it, because of course that’s too much for people to take. He’s only thinking ‘Hey, that’s only where it begins.’ It’s not about taking guns away or making people this or that. We should have elections that are not tampered with. That’s sacred to me. Democracy is sacred. It’s the way I grew up. I always thought ‘If they could stop that or threaten terrible punishment for people who do it, maybe we might be better ideologically.'”
For the first time, we are finally getting a deeper look into who Billy West truly is through this podcast, in as much as these are the things that he wishes to talk about. These are the stands that he wishes to make. And, in his true fashion, they all still manage to be funny.
“I’m just trying to make light of things. Because otherwise, I’ll cry. Every day there’s something. Like today.” The “today” that West is referring to is the Santa Fe High School shooting on May 18th, which left ten people fatally shot. So strong an impact it had on us both, that in the midst of our conversation, there was no way to not talk about it. It had to be addressed. West continues, “And it makes you want to give up. And I can’t. So the only way out for me is to try to find some humor. Not in that [tragedy] particularly, but in how we live and why things are the way they are.”
2018 is guaranteed to be a big year for Billy West, when his newest gig, on the Matt Groening show Disenchantment premieres on Netflix this fall, which is a first for him. “I think when they put a show on Netflix, they put the whole run of the show like that day. Streaming is the wild West. There’s all different rules, there’s stuff going on. There’s not a lot of rules about a lot of things.”
On top of everything else, Billy West is just a guy with a simple goal.
“I want to be remembered as someone who was very fortunate that the stuff I did made people happy,” he tells us. “That’s all I cared about. I wasn’t a very happy guy growing up. I was deprived of a lot of life out of fear and anxiety. And just to see that people would crack up at stuff that I’ve done, it filled a void in me that nothing is as valuable as that to me. So maybe it’s more of a concept than a distinct legacy. But I want to inspire others. That’s really what the legacy should be.”