The Sciences

Sneak Peek at Futurama! Plus, Our Conversation With Billy West

DiscoblogBy Andrew MosemanJun 11, 2010 6:32 PM

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Robot-human intermarriage. The Harlem Globetrotters performing mathematical wizardry. Hearing, "Good news, everyone!" when bad news is on the way. It means one thing: Futurama is back. The interstellar travels of the Planet Express crew—canceled by Fox in 2003 but kept alive by syndication, straight-to-DVD movies, and the unstoppable force of geek fandom—return with 26 fresh episodes on Comedy Central, starting with a full hour on June 24 at 10PM eastern. Here's our conversation with voice actor Billy West. The voice behind Philip J. Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, and Zapp Brannigan on Futurama (not to mention Stimpy on Ren & Stimpy and Looney Tunes characters like Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in Space Jam) talks of the origin of the professor's vocabulary, why Richard Nixon is the President of 31st century Earth, and whether it's weird to talk to yourself so much. (For spoilers about the new episodes, check out our interview with executive producer David X. Cohen, coming in two weeks.) Discover Magazine: Let's get the obvious out of the way first: During the hiatus, what was the turning point when you felt like this was really going to happen? Billy West:Because, I think, the Futurama movies sold well, it gave them an indication of who was still out there. So as I've maintained all along, the super fans of this show kept it alive. It's too good to go away. That's my feeling.

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DM: We're big sci-fi nerds, and the show itself both parodies and pays homage to a lot of the past TV shows and movies. Were you a sci-fi person before you did Futurama?

BW: I used to try to tell my friends about some cool show I saw, and so I’d go to explain and I’d say, “Wait, let me just do it for you,” and I’d wind up doing a ream of characters in a scene. So, that’s where I think a lot of artists cut their teeth, because you didn’t have any way to instantly replay anything. It was on TV, and then it was gone. And maybe you’d see it in the re-runs, but if not, you’re out of luck, Charlie. But, the thing about those movies: The Day the Earth Stood Still and all these things that people make fun of now were hair-raising back then. You know? To see this giant robot that was going to open up his hatch in front and disintegrate the entire planet put a lot of stuff in jeopardy. It was always the human race that was at stake with sci-fi, which is what I love. I love that much hanging in the balance. It’s a popular theme, probably more today than ever. DM: Any other particular favorites of yours? BW: Oh, yeah. It Conquered the World, where this craft from Venus somehow wound up in the Sierra Madre hills or wherever they filmed it. This thing that was in the spaceship hid out in a cave, and it looked like a giant cucumber or some sort of root vegetable with teeth and eyes, and it had these little vampire bats that would crawl out from underneath it and go and sting people in the neck, and they’d become his servants. Everybody wants everybody else to serve them. You will serve! DM: Does the fact that you grew up on that stuff influence the way you do some of the characters on the show? The professor, in particular, is a classic sci-fi mad scientist. BW: Yeah, I would say so. My whole world was a sonic one. I mean, more than watching something, I listened to it, spectrum-analyzed it in my head. I could remember what pitch they were in and what accent. Was it Midwestern or was it Mid-Atlantic or was it Southwestern or Eskimo? It just registered in my head for some reason. I can’t do anything else, but I can do that really well. I would remember the lingo that some of these guys used, and I’ve dropped it here, there, and everywhere in the show. I think there was one sci-fi movie where the guy with all the answers—the mad scientist—ran out of answers, and somebody said something to him and he went, “Ah, fuff!” So the professor wound up saying, “Oh, fuff.” There was another instance where a lot of people in the 40’s: Instead of saying "robot" they would say, “What’s the big idea with the rob’t?” So I had Dr. Zoidberg, any time he refers to them he goes, “What’s with the rob’t? Why won’t the rob’t come home?” It's juicy because it’s language nobody knows, and it’s a pronunciation kind of thing that nobody remembers. I’ve had a love of language since day one, and when I listen to old radio broadcasts I listen to the stuff they used to say, the detectives, or whoever. There was a whole other bunch of descriptions for things, which would be brand new today. Next: Futurama's vision of the future and Nixon's return

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DM: Was it your idea or the writer’s idea that "Good news, everyone," means bad news? BW: That was the writers. I was willing to come in and say, “Good news, everyone,” before he announced that they’re going to be killed. My job was to just be as chipper as I could about it.

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DM: What do you make of the Futurama vision of the future? Do you think it’s a more realistic or apt version of the future, since instead of a Utopian future that's sleek and works perfectly, you have a lot of the same problems that we have today?

BW: Yes, I think it’s an amalgam of different envisioned futures. There’s definitely the Rocky Jones sci-fi TV show, the helmets and gravity boots and things that make you forget and devices like spaghetti strainers that stole your mind. It was like that on Lost In Space. They’d have a Xerox machine chasing somebody dressed in tin foil, But I loved the big dials and the big knobs and I couldn’t get enough of that stuff when I was a kid. The future they envisioned is my favorite version of what the future was supposed to be, the 40’s and early 50’s version of it, which Futurama touches on quite a bit. But, to hold a show together in this day and age, you’ve got to give people immediate cultural references. You could revisit Leonardo Da Vinci, or you could revisit Harry Truman, or any of the presidents, or any of the rappers that exist. And you could make all kinds of – they’d be prehistoric references according to the bible of the show, but to us, it’s like, it just happened. I like the way they mixed that in there. Also, I love the idea, just like Star Trek, that most planets have breathable air, which is impossible. There are a few here and there that sort of replicate the chemical makeup of Earth, but [on the show] every planet you don’t, like, step out of the ship and freeze to death or disintegrate because of the sun. It’s just great. Except when someone comes to attack you.

DM: So, does being animated make it easier to get away with stuff like that? Or is there a cadre of Futurama fans who write in to say, “That’s not scientifically correct."

BW: Oh, yeah, you’re always going to have that. I mean, we make fun of the old movies for things just like that. It’s like, in Plan Nine from Outer Space—that’s the ultimate example of everything being wrong. These aliens had zippered flies and spit-shined shoes and perfectly pressed pants and they talked like 19th century villains or something. And you had to believe that. It's so easy to make fun of, and the show does it to varying degrees. But the real science heads are sitting there laughing and pointing, because they want to call everybody on everything. And believe me, [the writers] love it over there. They are all science heads, mathematicians, and science majors, and a few of them are from Harvard. Not only do they write a mean joke, but they can back it up with science. People will debate them, but they love it. It keeps them honest. DM: Changing subjects for a moment: You’re Nixon, too, right? BW: Yes.

BW: Because it took so much to dislodge him. So, being true to who and what Nixon is, it wouldn’t matter what century he was in, he would have to get aggressive and try to take something over. And plus, without even realizing it, he made himself villainous with his shifty eyes and that permanent five o’clock shadow. That’s how Kennedy became president. It was the first televised presidential stuff, and they’d look at Kennedy, who looked like a game-show host with that buttered toast hair, and then Nixon, who looked like Benicio Del Toro in The Wolfman. That’s where that came from. I was saying, it’s like he’s turning into the Wolfman—the more the day goes on he gets five o’clock shadow at 2:00 p.m. And I said, it’s like he’s turning into a werewolf. "Whatever happens behind that door, don’t let me out." (Billy howls). That’s where that “Ah-roo” stuff comes from. I just threw it in, and the writers were, like, “Why? Why? Why? Why is it so funny?” They were going nutty trying to figure it out. "Ah-roo!" I have to bring something to the table. I always wanted to be something more than an impressionist. In my heart of hearts, I always wanted someone to show me a picture of something and say, “What would you do?” You try to create something. Nixon is just so easy to find things to play off of. DM: You tried out for almost every part on Futurama when you first auditioned, right? BW: I did. I tried out for Bender—everybody, pretty much, except for the ladies. I went in and tried to make Bender sound like a construction worker. But Johnny D. [John DiMaggio] came in and nailed it. He did it like Requiem for a Heavyweight, like a drunk prize fighter. “I wanna shot at the champ!” “You are the champ.” “Oh.” I wound up doing that [construction worker] voice as one of the old-time announcers on Futurama. [It was like] one my heroes, his name was Jackson Beck, and he was the voice of Bluto for decades in all of the Popeye cartoons. He was a big radio star in the ‘30s. You know who he is. Remember those commercials when you were growing up, like Thompson’s Water Seal? He would go, (mimics announcer’s voice) “Thompson’s Water Seal,” or “Vashon Puff Pie.” “At Little Caesar’s, you can get a crazy eight topping.” You know? I loved the guy, and he was an unbelievably great performer. Next: Billy West on talking to himself professionally

DM: Why Nixon? When we saved everybody’s heads in jars, why is evil President Nixon the one who comes out and runs and becomes president of Earth?

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DM: Being multiple principal characters, is it weird to talk to yourself? BW: I never looked at it that way. I think of it as, like, the rewards of a misspent youth. I used to go around and create dialog. Walking through the woods I would have one character talking to the other, and whatever I could pull out of my ass, it would just happen. And it was like automatic writing, except that I could put them away. I could compartmentalize them, but back in those days I was a drunk and addicted—you know, cocaine and alcoholic. So, I was always on, and it must’ve driven people crazy. It must’ve driven people nutty. Like, “Jesus Christ! You know what? Bad news, he’s coming over tonight.” But, it doesn’t seem strange at all to me. I like it, because it really keeps you on your toes. You have to be really conscious of the differences between one and the other, and you try like hell to not make them bleed over each other. DM: Do voice people ever get like rock bands that have one hit and never want to play that hit anymore? Do you ever get tired of doing a particular voice? BW: No. No, I never get tired of it. I do it all the time, when someone wants to hear it. And I’m damned lucky. I mean, what are the odds? These people that did this before I was born were all in my gallery of heroes growing up. When I’d look at the credits of the cartoon and I’d see all these names—I know I heard 20 people, and I see three people doing voices. It hit me in the head. That’s what’s so crazy about this, is I know there’s really nutty people behind the scenes here, but magical people. DM: Is it hard if you go years without needing to use a particular character? Or can you just pull that back immediately? BW: Yeah, I can. I think most guys that do what I do, and ladies that do what I do, can do it, because you don’t try to remember the voice itself. You try to remember the musicality of the character. And then everything else kind of falls into place. Like, say it was Yogi Bear. He’d be, like, “Booboo, I’m going to the store. Yay!” He cadence, musically – ‘cause I was a musician for years – would be, like (sings the cadence). You grab that and everything else just falls into place. Do they have highs and lows, or are they monotone? It gives you the clue right away, the key to open it back up.

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BW: Yeah, I had a whiny, annoying voice like that. I remember exactly what it sounded like. Midwestern accent with a slight Boston accent in it. I was a mutt. I thought that that would be the best idea: to do the every-man, which Fry has turned out to be. There are so many people that can relate to him, and I wasn’t even aware how many people related to this guy’s troubles or joys. I really didn’t know. You have no idea what you’re doing when you’re doing it, as far as public perception. You just keep doing it every day and you hope that something emotionally resonates with people. DM: How much of that improv gets into the show, or how much would you say compared to what’s written on the page? How much freedom are you allowed by the producers? BW: They enjoy it. They like it, but you can’t throw everybody off the focus of the original idea. Most of it they can cut out, and if there’s something worth saving they’ll put it in. I was making jokes one day and the writers were around, and I said something about, “Oh, man, I went to this Chinese restaurant and I got food poisoning. It happened in New York. The Board of Health would put up a sign and then the marks would get lower.” And I said, “You can’t get lower than, like, a D. And the place is still open. They should just put a sign in the window, ‘Sorry, we’re open.’” And [the writers] used it on the Planet Express building one day. DM: You said you guys are doing 26 episodes; is it just "one season and then we’ll see what’s up"? BW: Yeah, we’re almost done recording them, and that’s incredible. I mean, here we were just coming back together, and believe me, no one missed a beat. It was just like going back to do the old show. I mean, it’s so funny when you read in the blogs, “What of Billy West? He’s 58 years old. How can he possibly do Fry?” (Laughs) DM: What do you think for how long you might be doing this again in the second blast? BW: I think we’ll probably do as many years as we had off, for starters. I don’t see why not. I mean, people – it’s weird when something went off the air at a certain point and people every day are still fighting over it or discussing it or having fun with it or conceiving their own episodes. I mean, that’s real participation. So, everybody felt included in this, so that they can be included, ‘cause there are all kinds of signals to the faithful throughout the show; little symbols and little binary codes. And the people that know what that’s all about get little “thank you” notes from the creators. Check back for our interview with executive producer David X. Cohen, coming in two weeks! Related Content: DISCOVER: The Science and the Fiction, a gallery of the best and worst science at the movies Bad Astronomy: The Futurama Is Almost Presentama Bad Astronomy: Sneak Peak: Bender's Game Discoblog: The Science of Star Trek

DM: Well, Fry is basically a young you, right?

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