INTERVIEW: Futurama star Billy West thinks the series isn't really ending
You might not recognize Billy West if you passed him on the street — but you've almost certainly heard at least a dozen of his voices. Over the past 25 years, West has proven to be one of the most talented, versatile, and sought-after voice actors in the business, with credits in everything from Nickelodeon's Doug (as both Doug Funnie and Roger Klotz), The Ren & Stimpy Show (as both Ren and Stimpy), and Space Jam (as both Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd).
But since 1999, Billy West's career has been synonymous with another show, which he considers "the best thing I ever did": Futurama, on which West voices many of the show's most beloved characters, including Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, Zapp Brannigan, and series protagonist Philip J. Fry.
Futurama originally premiered on Fox. It was canceled in 2003 after four seasons. But after higher-than-expected returns for both DVD sales of the first four seasons and reruns on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, Futurama earned an unlikely resurrection — first, as a series of direct-to-DVD movies, then as an ongoing series on Comedy Central. In April, Comedy Central announced that Futurama would end yet again, with its seventh season, which premieres on Comedy Central tonight at 10 p.m. But is Futurama really coming to an end? In this (slightly edited) transcript of an interview with The Week, Billy West explains why he isn't convinced:
Do you think this is really the end of Futurama?
On Comedy Central, maybe. But my feeling is that the show's too good to not be on television, and there's a whole lot of television out there. And then some — there's the content that's not even on TV. It's on Netflix, stuff like that. I have a suspicion that somebody like that will pick up the show and continue production with it. I would feel terrible if that were the case, if this was just the end of it.
Given that Futurama has already "ended" and come back a few times, does this feel any different than those times? Like it really could be a permanent ending?
[In the past] it just kind of went out quietly in the night, and everybody was like, "What do you mean it's not on anymore?" It was just very strange, and I felt bad. I really wanted to keep doing it. But I'm hoping there won't be much time and it goes by and somebody puts it into production. [The creative team] said that they have enough material for five, six more seasons.
You've been playing these characters for 11 years. How much did you know about Fry's arc as you started your performance?
I didn't know what the big picture looked like. They had certain things in mind. They buried little things in the pilot episode that would actually become integral parts of the story line later on, when they look back to that evening in the pilot where he gets frozen. There's all these what-ifs and hidden little things that everyone was shown later.
Philip J. Fry (Futurama TM and © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)
Did you learn about those things when the audience did?
I did. If I was in the writing room every day I'd be privy to everything, but I'm just as surprised as the audience when I watch the episodes. I compartmentalize, like I had nothing to do with it, and just watch it in delight.
The series' longest-running story is the evolving romance between Fry and Leela, which was set up nearly from the start What was it like for you watching it evolve?
I don't know how they got away with it for so long, when they were just sort of window-shopping each other. But it's charming to me. There is a very good episode coming up this season called "Fry and Leela's Big Fling." […] As a matter of fact, I think the season we just recorded is the best season we ever did. It seems to have a lot of everything in it, and so concisely and cleverly. The writers are very proud. They put in everything they had into it.
Will the ending feel like a series finale, if it turns out to be?
I don't know. I'll have to experience that when it shows up on-screen. I'll have to decide if this is "to be continued" or if this is the end, case closed. I think they always leave it a little open-ended now, just in case there is another incarnation.
What would be your ideal vision for the future of Futurama going forward? You mentioned Netflix — would that be a good home for it?
It seems to be the natural order of things: The marriage of television and the internet. I think [some are] just going "No, no. There's still something there to wring out of [television] that hasn't been wrung out of it." But I don't know. All these other factions and businesses are champing at the bit to get their hands on entertainment production. That means that's the next logical move. You can't showcase the works of others forever, and sell DVDs of the works of other people. When you get into production — that really changes your whole picture and I think [Netflix is] very excited about getting into very good production.
We've talked a lot about Futurama, but your back catalogue as a voice actor is so rich: Ren & Stimpy, Doug, Space Jam… Is there any other TV show or movie you've done that you'd like to see revived?
I don't think Ren & Stimpy can come back. There was too much turbulence with that whole situation. But if Nickelodeon were to take up production of Doug again, I think a lot of people would go crazy. It's like, bikers that come up and squeeze my hand, and crush it, and go, "Hey man. Big brother. Doug was my whole life when I was a little kid." I think it would be fun to do something like that again.
What do you think Doug would be doing right now?
I don't know! I don't think they'd set him at 21. I do know that [in Doug voice] "If it wasn't for me, Billy West would be driving a truck, full-time!"
You've spoken extensively about an ongoing trend in the voice-acting world — replacing professional voice actors, like you, with marquee celebrity names. Do you think anything has changed?
No, and I don't think it will. The industry only cares about formula that appears to work. Even if it doesn't. It's better than leaving everything up to chance than letting the people who are the firebrands — the passionate ones — be the pace cars. No, it's better to have a formula, even if it doesn't work. There's no evidence that having celebrities in it puts more rear ends in the seats.
What started the shift in the industry? Why did celebrities suddenly get interested in voiceover work?
[Before] they would never, ever lend their voice to a cartoon. It was so beneath them. A lot of them didn't want to do television at all. And all of a sudden, it's "You mean I get to go in — sound exactly what I sound like — and pretty much bring who and what I am to the table, for a character they created based on me?" To me, there's no art there. It's not even an attempt. […] People say, "What is this guy bitching about? He's done everything." But the thing is, it's not for me. It's about people that are so talented that will never get a chance to work in an animated film. People try to break in, but there will be nothing left to break into if celebs have broken into the party. Don't get me wrong. There are celebrities that are great artists and are very good at voiceover, who just have a natural knack for it. But coming in, and sounding like themselves? Like, it's Brad Pitt or something? It's hardly recognizable. Why don't you just use my plumber?
Which is all the more reason for fans of professional voice acting to hope that Futurama comes back again.
The people I work with are pretty much the gold standard of the industry. When you look at who's on Futurama — there's nothing that these people cannot do. There isn't anything. They can come up with hundreds of variations on a few voices, pitch-wise, character-wise, and they really occupy that character, instead of letting who you are lead the character. It just doesn't make sense to me. A lot of people don't even know that it's pretty much the same few people covering pretty much every base on Futurama. Even walk-on characters and incidentals.
Is there anything else fans should know about the next — and hopefully not last — season of Futurama?
If you write your congressman — or the network — you can probably get it back on. It seemed to be a force of many the last time [the show was revived]. A force that couldn't be ignored. When Fox let it go, I mean, it was this huge force that they couldn't ignore. Whenever I see people, I'm like, "Thank you so much, because without you, the show would have faded off."
So the future of Futurama is in fans' hands?
I can't think of anything that isn't now, because of the internet. People can, and will, organize as a like-minded force when they want to. Something's got to come along that keeps people from flaming each other, so they say, "Hey — let's join up on this one."