Animated Shorts: Back to the 'Futurama' with Billy West

Back to the Futurama with Billy West



If Billy West sounded a tad, well, drained, it soon became very apparent why.

This interview was done at 8:00 am Pacific last Friday, and Mr. West and had been celebrating until the wee hours that Thursday night. So, a note to all young journalists out to make a career out of this: Don’t ever, EVER, be the first interview the day after a party. Starbucks itself won’t have enough coffee or other stimulant to compensate for the night before.

You see, the truth is you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of animation than Billy West. That doesn’t hurt considering he’s also one of the top voice artists in the world. Normally a very fast witted and funny guy, his past history includes being the original actor to voice Ren in John K’s groundbreaking Ren & Stimpy as well as such classics as Woody Woodpecker. Yet if you ask him just who is his favorite character of all time, it has to be Phillip J. Fry, the thousand year-old loser of Matt Groening and David X Cohen’s incredible series, Futurama.

In fact, the reason why West was sounding so hung over is he was recovering from the preview party of the latest Futurama direct-to-DVD Beast With A Billion Backs, which hits the market Tuesday, June 24th.

“I think it’s absolutely fantastic that this show, which hasn’t had a regular home almost all its life, still lives,” says West. “I just feel so fortunate, you know?”

After one viewing, fans should feel fortunate that the series is still managing to shake things up in its own wonderfully subversive way. Set immediately after the previous DVD, “BWABB” kicks off with the rip in the universe that the first volume ended on. Yep, as David X Cohen warned us in an earlier interview, it’s a gateway to a parallel cosmos, one populated by a humongous system-spanning critter named Yivo (voiced by David Cross). Of course Yivo has plans for our universe. Of course, it’s up to at least one member of the Futurama cast to screw it up for everyone, too.

“They (the show’s creators) are very smart,” says West. “They don’t talk down to people. There are several layers of things going on. There’s something in it for the real sci-fi geek who loves the details, but there are also things for the casual fan who just wants a laugh.”

The jokes run the gamut from quick gags, such as “the Farmer’s Wikipedia” and St. Asimov Day, to major plot elements. In fact, one of the biggest running jokes this time is the continued on/off relationship between Fry and Leela (Katie Sagal). This time it’s her turn to feel the icy cold of Fry’s shoulder, supplied in the form of a new character named Colleen (Brittany Murphy). In fact, Bender is also going to be truly flummoxed over this new affair.

Still, when a certain aspect of Colleen’s love life is then revealed to all, it’s going to lead into the introduction of Yivo. Before you know it, Futurama enters the world of Heinlein, introducing a very, very strange creature from an even stranger land.

It isn’t long that the real core of this D2D though is the on/off relationship between Leela and Fry.

“I don’t know what it is between those two,” West admits. “I think it’s because Leela is really pretty dominant while Fry is passive-aggressive. She really is the captain of the ship and Fry just feels the need to buck her authority now and then. I have a feeling that we are moving slowly towards them getting back together again, but that isn’t happening yet. We might never know when that will be. Just look at it this way, with each movie one of the key questions will always be will they figure it out this time or will it always be a bust?”

What also becomes pretty apparent is while Fry and Leela may have their problems, that doesn’t extend to the series’ regular cast and crew.

“It was pretty much like going back to work,” says West. “We never left. It was a merry time. Maurice LaMarche and John DiMaggio are my heroes. It was a thrill to walk into a room every morning and work with a whole room of genius voice actors. Katie may only do one voice, but it’s perfect. When it comes to the voice cast, it really is a unique situation. I mean Tress MacNeille is the best.”

Actually, what’s truly impressive is just how many voices the entire cast does. Yes, Lauren Tom only does Amy and Amy’s Mom and Sagal only does Leela. On the other hand, the rest of the main cast, not forgetting Phil LaMarr and Dave Herman, do anywhere from six to as many as a dozen different characters in this project. For instance, as many fans will tell you, West not only does Fry, but also the Professor and Zoidberg.

“I’m also Zap Brannigan,” West adds. “Fry is pretty much my natural voice, although I pitch it as if I was a little younger, like when I was 25. What’s the most difficult is when I have to use my voice for characters we never did before. None of the main characters are really that difficult for me. The only other hard part is to juggle them so they all maintain their identity and make sure they don’t sound anything like the others.”

As for the future of Futurama? As that previous interview with Cohen pointed out, there are two more films in the works. The next one is called “Bender’s Game” and should be out before the holidays.

“We went in and did all four movies like one big session,” says West. “We just kept on recording and recording at a much faster pace than we did with a single TV season. If we hadn’t, with our voiceover budget, it never would have worked with the budget we were given, especially as it was such a high volume situation. I would say we were kind of put to the test. But you know? That’s when you find out what you’re made of. Right now we’re doing post-production on the last two, just those extra touches you have to do before the DVD is released. We are also doing commentary. That’s a whole other bunch of fun.”

West is also pretty busy outside of Futurama. He’s done a number of pilots and is currently waiting to see if any of them will be greenlit. He also admits he’s doing a ton of incidental and commercial work, most prominently the red M&M in the recent group of TV commercials. No matter what, one gets the impression we haven’t heard the last of Billy West. I personally wouldn’t be surprised if he’s attached to another animated series in the near future.

“One thing I have to admit is we all marvel that that the animation industry is still around in spite of the conditions of the business,” he said, “especially with all these ‘actors’ now crashing the gate wanting to be voice people.”

So don’t be surprised if we have more sessions, hung over or otherwise, in the very near future.


Bandai Entertainment and iaTV announced several Bandai anime series have been acquired for broadcast on iaTV in a new programming showcase called “The Block fueled by Bandai Entertainment.” It will air Wednesday nights from 8:00 to 11:00 p.m. pacific, and premiere August 6, 2008.

The featured series will include Hime, My Otome, Planetes, Scrapped Princess, Toward the Terra, Ghost Slayers Ayashi, Mars Daybreak, Rocket Girls and the live action series The Great Horror Family and Bloodhound.

“We are excited to be working with iaTV creating this showcase for some of our best anime series,”

said Bandai Entertainment Inc. President Ken Iyadomi.

“We to, are pleased about working with Bandai Entertainment, Inc. and look forward to doing much more together in the future, as we strive to serve America’s appetite for Asian Pop Culture,” said Adam Ware, President IA Media.

More details on “The Block fueled by Bandai Entertainment” will be released soon.

NEXT COLUMN: David X. Cohen returns to discuss the future of Futurama.

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