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TERRY GROSS, host:

You may not know what Billy West looks like, but you've probably heard his voice. He is a vocal artist who has done everything from classic cartoon character to dead on celebrity impressions. For several years he appeared regularly on "The Howard Stern Show." Billy West created several of the voices for Matt Groening animated comedy series "Futurama."

When FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke with West, they began with one of the more exotic "Futurama" characters whose voice Billy West created.

DAVE DAVIES: Now there's Zoidberg. Tell us what Zoidberg looks like, and give us his voice.

Mr. WEST: Zoidberg is sort of a fleshy sort of orange color, and he has a lot of, like, tentacle things hanging from his mouth. That is his mouth. And he's a crustacean, and he's got claws, and he wears, like, almost doctor whites or, you know, intern whites for clothes, and he wears sandals for some reason.

And he's poor, and he's a doctor. That's what I love the best about him, he's poor. You know, he's always like, you know:

Mr. WEST: (as Dr. Zoidberg) Zoidberg could eat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: (As Zoidberg) Hurrah, I'm popular.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: That voice, you know...

DAVIES: Yeah, where did that voice come from?

Mr. WEST: (as Zoidberg) Somebody, bring me a sandwich from the dumpster, and leave the maggots on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: It's a combination of a couple of people in show business that I always found really funny and interesting, and they were what I used to describe as marble-mouth guys.

DAVIES: And who were they? Can you tell us?

Mr. WEST: One was from vaudeville. I don't know if anybody remembers the word vaudeville or what it actually means, but it was theater. And there was a performer back in those days named George Jessel.

DAVIES: Of course.

Mr. WEST: And he was the Toastmaster General of the United States, and he would always have, you know, appropriate toasts for every occasion. I don't know how that makes you famous or anything, but he had kind of a marble mouth. And he used to do a routine onstage, like, talking to his mother, you know, from show business. He's out on the road, and he's, like:

Mr. WEST: (as George Jessel) Hello, Mama? Yes, it's your son George. From the money each week?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. WEST: You know, like in other words, who? And the other guy was an actor by the name of Lou Jacobi. He was in the movie "Arthur." And he said - well, he's in tons of movies, but he's in the movie "Arthur," and he said to Arthur:

Mr. WEST: (as Lou Jacobi) What's it like having all that money?

Mr. WEST: And he was in - you know, he was in "The Diary of Anne Frank," and I thought it was so impactive and so horrendous and everything, but the casting, they cast Ed Wynn as the head of the household. And then they hired Lou Jacobi to play the Uncle Butty(ph), and they're going through this horrible thing, trying to hide from Nazis and Uncle Butty was, like, taking more than his share of the little bit of rations they had. So Ed Wynn had to yell at him.

But they're two comic actors, and I used to sort of snicker, and I'm going to smack myself, and I go no, you know, this is crazy. You can't - just look at the horrible story this is. But he'd be, like:

Mr. WEST: (As Ed Wynn) Here all along, we thought it was the rats, Butty, and it was you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: And he'd go:

Mr. WEST: (as Lou Jacobi) I stole from the children. I'm sorry that I stole from the children.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: You know, and it just - I'm sorry, but the next time you watch it, please don't laugh on my account.

DAVIES: Do you combine voices a lot to get something that you like? I mean, do you...

Mr. WEST: Oh, sure...

DAVIES: Are you like somebody in the laboratory just putting, you know, I don't know, Jackie Gleason and, you know, whoever together?

Mr. WEST: Yes, those are great things. Doing impressions is one thing, but it's not like you bring a whole lot to it except your skill for mimicry. But if you take certain aspects, like different people in show-biz periphery, and you fuse them together, you come up with these amalgams of characters, and they kind of take on their own life.

The character Zapp Brannigan was based on a lot of disc jockeys I grew up with, like, because I worked in radio 20 years ago.

DAVIES: Right, now, let's, for the audience, Zapp Brannigan is...

Mr. WEST: Oh, I'm sorry.

DAVIES: He's a character in "Futurama." Just explain who he is, and then where we can hear that voice, yeah.

Mr. WEST: Oh sure. Zapp Brannigan is a character on "Futurama." He's a starship captain, and it would be like if William Shatner ran the Enterprise and not, you know, James T. Kirk. And he has that kind of pompousness.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. WEST: And he's got a voice that, you know, I listened to disc jockeys. I used to work with them. I mean, some of them were the old-days guys that were phasing out. And they carried their temerity in a wheelbarrow, and they loved, far and away above everything else in the world, the sound of their own voice.

And they'd be like, you know: Coming to the Worcester Center...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: You know, they would never let it go. It had to have this Hamburger Helper in it, you know, just because they wanted to swing with every pitch and fill the air with their sound.

All right, in about five minutes, it's coming up on 8:00, and five minutes after eight, it'll be 5:08 on old-time radio (unintelligible), you know.

Those kind of guys were part of it, and then I loved the big dumb announcers from the old days, too. The old guys that were on the radio would come in and go: Friends, you know what you and I need, really need? A good cup of coffee. And that's where Kava comes in. It's got no caffeine. You know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Some of the other characters we just got to go over. Larry Fine, the Three Stooges member that everybody forgets...

Mr. WEST: Yes.

DAVIES: ...you did a lot with Larry Fine.

Mr. WEST: Well, I just thought he was so deliciously peripheral, and the little that he did used to blow me away. He was the stooge in the middle. He really didn't have a whole lot to say. It was Mo and Curly always doing a number on each other and Larry would be in the corner. But every now and then he'd go, be careful, Mo. You know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: What's the matter with this Christmas tree? Hey Mo, you put too much tinsel on the Christmas tree. No, I didn't. It's just the stupid stuff that he said. Hey Mo, I peed on my shoe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: Hey Mo, I broke your Pesach dishes. Why, you idiot. This is the meat. This is the dairy.

(Soundbite of crashing sound)

Mr. WEST: Zakumf.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Vocal artist Billy West spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies last July.

Our week-long series featuring some of our most entertaining interviews of the year continues tomorrow.

You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "Comedy Tonight")

Mr. ZERO MOSTEL (Actor): (as Pseudolus) (Singing) Something familiar, something peculiar...

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR we continue our look back at some of the most entertaining interviews of the year with Stephen Sondheim.

Also one of our most popular interviews of the year, Matt Richtel talks about how our digital devices are entertaining and in forming us but also distracting us in driving us crazy.

Join us.

(Soundbite of song, "Comedy Tonight")

Mr. MOSTEL: (as Pseudolus) (Singing) ...lovers, liars and clowns. Old situations, new complications. Nothing...

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