Back to the “Futurama” — Billy West interview

By Jeff Pfeiffer

Scene from the new season's first episode, "Rebirth"

Never underestimate the ability of fans to influence the decisions of entertainment powers-that-be in this age of the Internet and DVD sales. They were effective enough to get new episodes of Family Guy made, and now they have scored another coup by being a major force behind the return of Matt Groening’s Futurama, which begins its sixth season June 24 on Comedy Central, after unceremoniously disappearing from FOX seven years ago (but continuing in an unofficial “season” via a series of successful direct-to-DVD movies over the years).

“[The fans] never let up,” says star Billy West, who voices Philip J. Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg and Zapp Brannigan on the animated series. “They never gave up on the show. There were all these people that just felt disenfranchised because it just got yanked.”

From what West says, fans should be in for a treat. The original voice cast – West, Katey Sagal, John DiMaggio, Phil LaMarr and Lauren Tom – is all back on board. “Everything is back exactly the way it was,” says West.

Here are some other thoughts Billy West had on the return of Futurama, and more:

What was it like reuniting with the “Futurama” cast and crew?
Billy West:
It was just like going to work again. We’ve known each other since 1999. We’re all friends. It’s just such a cool experience. I’ve often said that this is the best show I’ve ever worked on. I’m just so happy to be in the environment, for starters, and with the talented people that are around me. Even if I had nothing to do with the show I would have been a fan of it because of the writing. So, of course when they started to talk about bringing it back to television I was excited and I was hoping that everything would work out.

In addition to the voice cast, is the same creative team back?
Pretty much everybody. I think there’s a couple of new people. But the basic structure … guys who have written previous episodes, they’re all here. I’m just going to venture to say, from all the scripts that we’ve read — we’ve recorded almost 26 episodes — all the episodes we’ve done so far, they, to me, play funnier than the original series. So there’s a lot to be happy about, and it won’t disappoint.

“Futurama” has always been brilliant at commenting on our own society — including managing to get in 20th and 21st-century personalities as guest stars — even though it’s set in the year 3000. Will that continue?
There will be guest stars. There are plenty of things going on in the regard of being able to have guest stars via the “Head Museum,” like the way they can always bring back Nixon and stuff. … Society is observed, and in the future there’s a lot of hearkening back via history as to things that happened, and what we’ve learned. And a lot of times, we’ve learned nothing. It’s a great commentary. I usually hate morality plays, but if they’re hysterically funny, by all means do it.

How much ad libbing do you and the other actors do?
We get to do stuff like futurama2that, but we have to fulfill the objective of the writers to the best that we can. If you have an idea, they’re always ready to listen to it. They can always cut stuff they don’t want. At the table read every now and then somebody will throw in a zinger that wasn’t in the script, and if it got the room to laugh out loud, that means you scored and chances are they’ll leave it in the script.

Which of your “Futurama” characters do you most relate to?
I would say that the closest to my own voice is Fry, because I try to remember what I sounded like when I was 25 years old. And it was lot higher-pitched, and whiny. But I don’t have any personal favorite [voices] because I put a thousand percent into every character I do. I really don’t try to do a throwaway.

Being on a basic cable network now, as opposed to a broadcast network — will that allow “Futurama” more freedom in terms of subject matter, language, etc.?
I think that’s something that can destroy a show — having too much freedom, being able to do every single thing you want. I don’t necessarily think that’s great for the creative process, because it makes you more of a judge and jury for yourself. When you get a chance to ignore convention or standards, you can get power-drunk with that. It’s like Ren and Stimpy. When they went to do the new one, they went, “Oh, total freedom!” And what did they wind up doing? Putting arms on the Venus de Milo. Because they could. And what good is that?

As you mentioned, fans have been key in getting “Futurama” back. At the various conventions and signings you attend, how fanatical have some of the people gotten?
A guy with a whole mess of tattoos came up — I was at a signing with some of the other people from the show. And he wanted me to sign his arm. So I said “Yeah, sure, I’ll sign your arm.” So I sign his arm, then he goes to the other side of the convention. This is a big, busy convention with a million different booths, including tattoo parlor booths. And he went and he had a tattoo made out of what I had just written. Then he comes back, and you can see it vibrating [as he moved his arm]. It was pretty weird. I liked it, though. To me, that’s somebody that’s pretty committed.

Have you yourself ever gotten starstruck around anyone?
My idols were usually musicians. I met Les Paul. He was one of my heroes. He’s just this little guy that was such a brilliant genius of his time — and he outlived his time. I also met one of my other guitar idols, Jeff Beck. I was starstruck with that one. My knees were knocking. And believe me, I ain’t afraid of anything or anybody in this world, but when I met him I was humbled out to zero. I’ve met like big celebrities, but I don’t know. It didn’t do anything for me like when I meet a personal hero, like a voice person or a musician. I met Mel Blanc years ago. It was mind-blowing, because this guy had been one of my heroes since I was probably 5 years old. I didn’t know that he was my hero, I was just knocked on my ass by his work. My world was a sonic one; I loved making noises and doing voices and eventually I got my hands on a trumpet to express myself better. I tried drawing, art, and I only got so far. But the guitar was the real expression for me. And I realized after years of playing onstage that I would screw around with noises, and do voices and screw around in that situation, and people loved it. So when I lost my spandex license in 1978 [laughs] I was able to think about doing voiceovers.

“Futurama” is a rare show that is being restarted after cancellation. Do you have any TV shows you would like to see brought back from cancellation?
I really don’t watch television much. I watch BBC News, and I also watch animal shows, nature shows. They’re so honest. I feel at ease, [and] don’t feel like I’m being screwed with.

I stopped watching television like in the ’80s, because occasionally when I did watch TV I said, “They’re recycling junk from 30 years earlier.” I was never that wrapped up with any television show except in the ’60s. That’s when I did all my TV watching. I never saw Dallas, I never saw Dynasty. I was too busy out kicking ass on the road, playing these honkey tonks. I don’t want to become a pile of current cultural references. You gotta know this one, and that one, and Snooki  — how does anyone have room in their head to follow the peccadillos of the average person in these shows? These are people I couldn’t wait to get away from in high school. Now they’re back and they’re stars? Their lives were supposed to end after high school. Mine began. No, not going to be that way. Everybody’s going to have some entree into show business, as long as you’re willing to make a fool out of yourself. To me, that has nothing to do with art. Artists are willing to make fools of themselves to express themselves, because there’s a rhyme and a reason and a structure, because they’ve created a character. These people are just characters in and of themselves. Like characters in search of a script. I guess if people like it, great. Since life imitates art, if the art goes down the drain, and it’s at a low level or the bar is on the ground, the audiences tend to go there too.

In all honesty, every now and then I’ll catch a newer show, and I’ll see maybe an episode of it. And television has come really far — I’m talking about scripted, episodic televison. Comedies tend to be a little smarmy for me, too self-aware. It’s so funny; I flew to Rochester the other day and it was a really bumpy flight, and they were showing four episodes of The Office. You know how the camera’s all over the place, and [has] these awkward zoom in and quick turns to another character and back. It’s like that fidgety camera. Well, if you’re on a bumpy flight, the show stands absolutely still. It cancels out like all the nonsense angles and close-ups! I watched it. That’s the only time I get to see anything is on an airplane. But I’m happy to be a contributor to the industry.

So you don’t DVR anything?
I’m not such a gadget guy. I wish I was. I think it comes with being within a certain age window. They always say older people are less prone to have a proclivity for gadgetry. I remember when the ATM first came out, older people were like, “No. You get your money on Friday at 5:00 in the afternoon. Anything after that, you’re screwed for the weekend!” You know? “You won’t have any money.” That was the honest-to-God truth. We take everything for granted. I’m fully aware of what things are able to do. There are other things I have no idea how far you can go, yet I’ve seen it applied and I secretly wish I could sit down and master these things. You’d think I would because I always dealt with electronic equipment because I was a musician, and I had gadgets and pedals and amplifiers. I understood that stuff. I guess maybe if I applied it I’d be doing okay.

If you could actually see the year 3000, what would you want to see there?
I would wrack my mind to think about what on earth it would be like and how I’d react to it. All I know is that there’s good progress and bad progress. But it’s still progress. And hopefully the good will beat the bad to the punch.

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