Many people are still figuring out this notion of social-distance entertainment.
Then there’s Billy West. As a voice actor (including “Futurama,” show here), he’s worked both ways – alone or, preferably, with a crowd.
“It’s always better to have an ensemble,” West said. “There’s an energy that gets generated through all the people. It’s in the air.”
He was talking by phone … which is what he’s been doing lately. A voice actor can work without leaving home. “The equipment is so terrific now,” he said. “They’re doing television shows off Zoom.”
But that’s not his preference. West, 68, talks happily about sessions with his “Futurama” castmates: “John DiMaggio and I would just start to riff on stuff …. On the DVD commentaries, we’d do ‘Nobody cares’ to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth.” (Their characters are shown here — DiMaggio’s Bender, West’s Philip J.Fry and Katey Sagal’s Leela.)
You’ll find West’s voice everywhere. Currently, he’s in the “Scoob” movie, M&M commercials and Netflix’s “Disenchantment.” He’s had the lead roles in “Futurama,” “Doug” and “Ren & Stimpy.”
Yes, after the first coupe years he was Ren AND Stimpy. He’s topped that; at times, he’s done four characters in one scene. “I do it in real time,” instead of recording one at a time.
But the most fun, he says, is when he’s with other actors. Even as a kid, “I knew behind those voices were some crazy guys.” And in a troubled Detroit childhood with his father, that seemed appealing.
“I was an abused child,” West sad. “You just don’t realize that’s not what happens to everyone.”
He retreated into his own mind and imagination. In school, “the only subjects that mattered for me were art and literature”; in life, he wobbled.
Things changed, he said, when his mom returned, taking West and his brother to Boston. That’s where the next big change came much later, when he was close to 30: “A friend of mine called me up and said they were having a contest on the morning radio show, to seen who can imitate Mel Blanc.”
Blanc had been the voice master, doing most of the characters for Looney Tunes, some of the ones for Hanna-Barbera and radio ones for Jack Benney and George Burns and more. West was a fan.
He won the contest, became a regular on WCBN radio, then moved to New York (for years on “The Howard Stern Show”) and on to Hollywood.
Voice actors tend to have long careers, so West would meet some of the ones he’d grown up with. June Foray (who was Rocky J. Squirrel and Cindy Lou Who) worked into her 90s. When West first met her, he said how much he admired her. “She said, ‘Well, we were saving a seat for you.’”
It’s a table filled with surprising people. West recalls his then-wife raving about the guy in “Oz” who played the leader of the white supremacists. “I said, ‘I work with that guy.’” It was J.K. Simmons, now an Oscar-winner (for “Whiplash”) and forever the yellow M&M.
West has worked with plenty of famous actors … a trend he’s not always happy with. “I didn’t see why you have to have celebrities do those roles that voice actors do so well.”
But his reputation has grown. Entertainment Weekly called him “the new Mel Blanc”; he’s done many of Blanc’s characters and others – Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Popeye, Woody Woodpecker and more.
Roles have been passed along. Jon Lovitz was the red M&M before West; John Goodman was yellow before Simmons. Casey Kasem was the first Scruffy in “Scooby-Doo,” with West second.
In “Scoob,” Will Forte has the role, in a giant cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, Simon Cowell, Henry Winkler, Tracy Morgan and more … including West and DiMaggio, two guys who will be kind of happy when they can reduce the social-distance and start riffing again.
– “Scoob” came out May 15 on video-on-demand sites; West is Muttley.
– “Futurama” is on Hulu; West is Philip J. Frey, Professor Farnsworth, Zapp Brannigan and more.
– “Disenchantment” has its first two seasons on Netflix, with the third season coming this year. West is Sorcerio, Mertz, the Jester and Pops the Elf.
– Other roles have ranged from Ren and Stimpy to Buzz in the Honey Nut Cheerios commercials