[Exclusive] I caught up with voice acting icon Billy West at this year’s Lethbridge Entertainment Expo to chat about a number of interesting items, including his departure from the Howard Stern Radio Show, his new podcast, getting the Futurama gang back together for a mystery project and what he thinks of A-Listers taking voice acting jobs away from the actual talented group of people who you can all see in John Dimaggio’s fantastic “I Know That Voice” documentary.
The Lethbridge Entertainment Expo is currently taking place November 14/15th, 2015 at the Enmax Centre in Lethbridge Alberta. Guests include Jason Mewes (Jay & Silent Bob), Billy West (Futurama), Phil LaMarr (MAD TV) and Lee Arenberg (Once Upon a Time). You can buy tickets HERE!
Check out the Billy West Podcast RIGHT HERE!
Before our chat, West put on an entertaining panel where he gave some intriguing advice along the lines of. “Don’t tell your kids to follow their dreams…. That’s stupid!” To which he further elaborated that everyone should get more realistic in their ambitions. It was hilarious, blunt and honest advice from someone who has seen it all in his many years being an entertainer.
Keven: There seems to be some unspoken deal in regards to how you left the Howard Stern show forever ago and I know you’ve sorta mentioned it, as recent as on Artie Lange’s podcast that it might have been due to you having issues with the station or even just simply a money thing – what happened during that time?
Billy: I had to leave. It would never be about me. I’d be 64 and I’d still be sitting there if I had stayed. It was a chapter of my life and you can’t relive it every day – you just have to put it to bed and start a new chapter in your life. I’m progressive, I don’t look back — I keep movin.
Keven: So there was no bad blood or anything when you departed – I know Artie mentioned that even when he left, there was this talk where Howard gives you his blessing to go and do other things?
Billy: No, no – he knew why I did it. It didn’t have to be discussed at length. I just said I wanna make a lot of money and chances of making it here Howard are slim to none and slim just left town.
Keven: Howard Stern has said before that “most” podcasts are not a legitimate form of professional entertainment, although he has said that people with a background in radio going in – definitely have an advantage but what do you say to people who can’t process podcasts as a legit entertainment medium when you yourself have one of your own right now?
Billy: Thanks to the day and age we live in everyone can do whatever they want. One day you can just say, “I’m a producer” and they can go do a movie. It’s five minutes long, but I’m a producer. I created my own music and you can do it with these programs with something that Stevie Wonder took nine months in the studio to invent is at the touch of your button. Everybody is instantly anything they wanna be. Whether it’ll be good or not is debatable.
I basically don’t care who does what. I just don’t concern myself. I do what I like to do and I don’t look at everything else and try to judge it.
Keven: You’ve said that you don’t want your podcast to just be another one of those “friends in your livingroom bullshitting with one another” formula, so how do you want to separate yours from the rest of the pack?
Billy: I can’t do that because I want to produce programming. If you’re gonna listen to it you’re gonna hear some kind of a show and not guys sitting around joking and talking about Kim Kardashian all day. Win lose or draw you don’t do something because you think others are going to like it, you do it because YOU like it.
Keven: When I first saw you, it was yourself and Jon Dimaggio at the Calgary Expo a few years ago and it came up during your panel that the idea of big name A-Listers coming in and just half-assing lines in their usual voices was how big money projects are made these days. Cameron Diaz’ name came up and you guys gave it to her pretty good.
Billy: Oh no…. I mean It’s not like I was picking on her I just couldn’t think of anyone else at the moment. Because I know that they make like $20 million for shit like that.
Keven: A few years ago at the Academy Awards remember when Chris Rock came out and said that voice acting was the easiest thing in the world?
Billy: Yeah – that’s because he doesn’t do it. He could have used his talent to talk about something more substantial than that. When a guy whose famous comes along he thinks doesn’t believe that he has to reinvent himself because it’s a cartoon and that should be able to be what and who I am and I want you guys to draw the character to look just like me… Ok, how’s that sound? That’s called bringin nothin to the table. That’s called creating nothing. They gave you a roadmap – it tells you what to say, a director tells you how he wants it delivered and you just sit there and shine like a gold brick.
Keven: When my kids watch a cartoon like Mulan, I’m sitting there like “hey that dragon is the donkey from Shrek!” because it’s literally just Eddie Murphy doing Eddie Murphy. But when my kids and I are watching literally every other cartoon right now, they’re hearing you, but they’re not hearing Billy West – they have no idea because you’re actually transforming yourself into these characters.
Billy: That’s because I’m doing my job. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. You didn’t get into it to be famous. I didn’t think I’d make money I just did it because I had no choice. I was a weird kid you know.
Keven: Why do you keep doing this – it’s a hard job so why put yourself going to all these conventions – what drives you to still fight in an industry that’s changed so much?
Billy: I have the same amount of passion that I did from the day that I started. I have the same amount of energy. To go out and talk to people who supported you with their viewership and time – what are the odds of having a job like that? It’s like a billion to one. I’m super grateful – I wanna come out and talk to people. I don’t think you should come in and it’s like “I’ll only appear… if there’s 80,000 people.” That’s cause they’re there for the money. I’ve made a lot of money and there’s times where I didn’t make much money, but I was happy that I was able to do what I did and that was good enough for me. I was a musician – I never thought I was gonna do something like this.
Keven: Was Futurama too ahead of it’s time? I’m seeing so much influence on other shows now like Rick and Morty for example. They have an episode where super intelligent dogs take over the planet. Just this week I watched the episode of Futurama – cats take over the world. Do you think that the show was just a little too ahead of the curve and that’s why the network or some people didn’t get it and canned it?
Billy: That was orchestrated by Fox. It was almost like they didn’t want anybody to watch it. It was an inside thing with Matt (Groening). I think they were trying to give him a hard time because he wanted autonomy, network notes or anyone hanging around the recording sessions. And so “oh you’re gonna get punished for wanting to be so pure”. No you have to take all the pollutants, sit next to them and eat lunch with em. (laughing).
Keven: That seems to be the theme with a network like Fox, is they will cancel shows not because of low ratings but because of ulterior motives and that comes across as “evil” in some respects.
Billy: Nah, nobody’s evil – they just wanna make money and they think they’ve got a formula and they’re not gonna do otherwise. They wanted him to make another Simpsons and he said “I can’t give you another Simpsons, I can give you a new show that might become popular like that”. He was just making sense and that short circuits some people.
Keven: You’ve had the movies and I’m assuming Futurama is done, but do you foresee you getting back together with the crew like Jon (Dimaggio) and Katey (Sagal) to do a reunion eventually?
Billy: Yeah…. But not as Futurama. He (Matt Groening) was hinting around about something… He saw us one night at a screening of The Simpsons and we ran into him and he said “hey I gotta talk to you guys! We may be working together again..” So we’re thinking, he’s got it, he’s gonna bring Futurama back again but we could have all been wrong.. Something else is going on. I got a secret…
Keven: How important was it to be a part of Jon’s documentary “I Know That Voice”? – I loved seeing so many of the voice acting community finally getting some recognition and the spotlight for once.
Billy: I was so happy that he did that. So happy because people don’t realize… They think celebrities are infallible. We don’t have royalty here so we worship celebrities. Here.. Just take all my money, you’re so great and wonderful. I didn’t give a damn about celebrities. My heroes were fuckin Aaron Copland and Davinci. Sculptors, painters, musicians – those were my heroes.
Keven: Do you have a favorite episode that you look back on of Futurama that stands out the most for you?
Billy: Jurassic Bark… Because I’ve never been moved so much by something that was animated. It moved me to these weird degrees and I knew it was gonna be sad I just didn’t know how sad. I figured out why it’s because everybody knows what it’s like to bond with an animal and you want them to live forever and they don’t. And you gotta say goodbye to a lot of little friends that made you better than you were just from them being there. I wish I was half the man those cats thought I was.
I also loved the holophoner episode because it had so much heart. He’s writing the sky with musical notes about how much he loves her and she missed it.
(Staffer Mark mentioned his favorite episode was the Slurm Factory while Troy chimed in that the episode where Nixon gives everyone $300 stood out for him. I personally enjoyed the series finale where everything freezes in time only to start all over again because it was a perfectly twisted send-off)
Keven: I’m sure you’ve run into a lot of assholes at these conventions but who are some of the nicest people you’ve met unexpectedly?
Billy: Nah, I love Brendan (Hunter). Brent Spiner was an impressively nice man – a gentleman. I usually like everybody that I run into.
Keven: No snobs or anything that you’ve had to avoid?
Billy: Not really because I don’t give any value to it. Big deal – I’m a performer too. People say I’m a genius but if you’re running around saying you’re a genius it’s not up to you to decide that, it’s up to the audience to decide whether you blow or you’re good. I’m not impressed by celebrity, it just doesn’t mean very much to me.
Keven: I’m gonna throw it to this guy right here (Troy) – he had a Space Jam themed room when he was a kid and he’s been dying to know about that time in your life?
Billy: (Puts on his Bugs Bunny voice) Well I got to work with Michael Jordan doc, the closest thing to a religious figure that we have (laughing)
Keven: Would you like to be a part of the new Space Jam that they’re thinking of doing with Lebron James?
Billy: Nah because they’ll get some new actor or flavour of the month and try to cram him in there as Bugs. Everything’s gotta be celebrity and they’ll even have the audacity to destroy a classic work for the sake of having people that are hot and put asses in the seats to go see them. I don’t care either way.
Keven: Channing Tatum is Daffy Duck.
Billy: Yeah, right. It’s almost there. They found out that movies that make the most money are CGI animated movies and now — they can’t see the celebrities… And they said we’re not gonna give up our precious star system just because it’s animated, we’re gonna put every one of these fuckers to work and make people go to the theater because they know it’s them. Where’s the art in that?
Keven: It’s sad because you can do those classic voices better than anyone else can.
Billy: Well I always try to bring a 1000% to anything that was offered to me and I feel bad if I don’t. I have a really high standard. Sometimes too high.
Troy: Was it difficult to do the Bugs Bunny Rap for the soundtrack?
Billy: Nah it was great fun. That record when quintuple platinum. It sold so many records. One day I went down to my mailbox and I opened it up and I almost fell over and smashed my head because I couldn’t believe how much money it was.
Keven: I know that I saw Space Jam in theatres a bunch of times growing up, so it’s not shocking to see how well that thing did over time.
Billy: It was great, the second one – I don’t know. I know there’s talk about Ren & Stimpy and trying to put together a feature. Again – we’ll see.
Keven: Wouldn’t it be blasphemous to do that and not involve you?
Billy: If they wanna see me — I will show up. If not? BFD. My values are placed in more solid ideologies rather than stuff like that. It’s nice to be working and I’ll audition for anything – I’m not arrogant. It’s always a chance to act — it’s a challenge. You always gotta keep testing yourself to find out what you’re made of these days.
Mark: In your panel you spoke about the age of radio. Does that compare to podcasting now or how is it different?
Billy: Not really because there was a lot of discipline. in those shows – they were all scripted. Even the greatest comedians – they were putting on a show. You didn’t hear people with no direction and who just surrounded themselves with friends. Podcast has to outgrow that thing where everything is too easy to do – there’s no value system unless someone decides to create some form of entertainment and put it on a podcast.
There’s only a few people that are so good at having guests in that world – like Chris Hardwick – guy’s brilliant. He lets you talk about what you wanna talk about, he asks good questions and he’s not trying to be a bigshot – it’s really relaxing to go in and talk to him. When Jonny and I go in there we just go nutty – it’s like anarchy. I think I’m gonna be on there in December to promote my podcast. How cool is that though — I don’t wanna talk to two dumb disc jockeys in every city.
Top Photo Credit By Keven Skinner