Billy West: The Many (Cartoon) Voices In His Head If you've watched cartoons in the past few decades, you probably know Billy West's voice: He's played Philip J. Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg and Zapp Brannigan on Futurama, plus Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in Space Jam (and more). West explains how he comes up with his voices -- and demonstrates a few of his favorites.

Billy West: The Many (Cartoon) Voices In His Head

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

You probably don't know what our guest, Billy West, looks like but you've almost certainly heard his voice. West is a vocal artist who's done everything from classic cartoon characters to celebrity impressions, and he's now featured in the revival of the animated TV series "Futurama."

Created by Matt Groening of "The Simpsons," "Futurama" was canceled by Fox in 2003, but now it's back on Comedy Central, airing Thursday nights at nine.

Besides playing several characters in "Futurama," West has been the voices of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in the 1996 movie "Space Jam," and played both Ren and Stimpy at various points in the Nickelodeon series. West's other roles include Popeye in the recent CGI film, Zim on the Nickelodeon show "Invader Zim," and Doug Funnie on the TV show "Doug."

From 1989 to '95, he appeared regularly on "The Howard Stern Show," imitating everyone from Mia Farrow and Leona Helmsley to Maury Povich and Elton John. I spoke to Billy West earlier this week.

Well, Billy West, welcome to FRESH AIR. I thought we'd begin with a clip from the re-emergence of "Futurama," because this features some of your voices, and this is I think at just about at the very beginning of Episode One. Let's give a listen here.

(Soundbite of television program, "Futurama")

Mr. BILLY WEST (Voice Actor): (As Philip J. Fry) Professor, my Fry-fro is all frizzy.

Mr. West: (As Professor Farnsworth) Okay.

Mr. WEST: (As Fry) Well, that's all. Oh, also, I'm covered with severe burns.

Mr. WEST: (As Professor) So? What of it?

Mr. WEST: (As Fry) Well, why is those things?

Mr. WEST: (As Professor) You mean you don't remember?

Mr. WEST: (As Fry) Nope, nothing. It's like when I passed out in college except no one drew magic-marker penises on my forehead.

Mr. WEST: (As Professor) Well, I suppose it's for the best, considering the unbearable horrors you've endured. Let's never speak of it again. It all began a few days ago.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WEST: (As Professor) We were interstellar fugitives on the run from the law.

Mr. WEST: (As Captain Zapp Brannigan) Fire all weapons, and open a hailing frequency for my victory yodel.

DAVIES: And that's from "Futurama," three voices by our guest, Billy West. Zapp Brannigan was the last.

Mr. WEST: Sometimes, there's more.

DAVIES: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Mr. WEST: You know, like a lot of times, I'll be just reading character, one after the other, and sometimes, it'll be like, three or four pages that - where I'm talking to myself.

DAVIES: Are you doing that in real time, or do you do it - you tape it and do all of your characters at once?

Mr. WEST: It happens mostly in real time. Like, if there's a run within an act and there is, say, three characters involved that I do, and then there's some others that other people do, I'll just keep reading through the script, you know, one character. And then if another one pops up, I do that in real time. And we try to get a whole scene.

DAVIES: So in that case, you're going from Professor Farnsworth to Philip J. Fry to Zapp Brannigan, just one after the other.

Mr. WEST: Yes.

DAVIES: Let's talk a little bit about these characters, since some of the audience, it's been a while since some people in the audience may have heard the story. Some may not be so familiar. Let's talk a little bit about these characters, and why don't you just tell us a little bit about the character and how you came up with the voice. Philip J. Fry first.

Mr. WEST: (As Fry) Man, all this constant exposure to radiation is making me thirsty.

Mr. WEST: His voice is basically what I sounded like when I was 25, kind of plain vanilla. I had nothing special about my voice, really. And I just thought: Well, you know what, I know that character so well, and if I do this, and it is kind of what I sounded like, it's very hard to replace that character, like, with somebody else because, you know, somebody can imitate an exaggeration or more cartoony, but to try to do somebody else's sort of real voice is really tough.

DAVIES: All right, so let's talk about another one, Professor Farnsworth. Tell us about his voice and the character that he is.

Mr. WEST: (As Professor): Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth. He's a 147-year-old. He... uh, wha?

Mr. WEST: You know, he kind of zones in and out.

Mr. WEST: (As Professor): Good news, everyone! Bad news.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: And, you know, he's doddering, and he's a combination of lots of different wizards and, you know, Burgess Meredith and Frank Morgan and all those kinds of things, all kind of rolled up into one.

DAVIES: Now there's Zoidberg. Tell us what Zoidberg looks like, too, 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) Yay, I'm popular.

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, Mommy? Yes, it's your son George. From the money each week?

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.

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: All right. Well, we'll try and maintain some decorum for the subject.

Mr. WEST: It's horrible that I brought that up. (Laughing)

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.

You know, I've done that with a lot of things and...

DAVIES: Can you think of another example of that?

Mr. WEST: Another example of that? The character Zapp Brannigan was based on a lot of disc jockeys I grew up, like, because I worked in radio 20 years ago.

DAVIES: Right, now, let's, for the audience, I was going to get to him next. Zapp Brannigan is...

Mr. WEST: Oh, I'm sorry.

DAVIES: He's a character in "Futurama." Just explain who he is, and then 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, who, you know, their voice sounded like the last voice of the world, but it almost became comical.

DAVIES: Like what were they like, the big dumb announcers of the old days? What do you mean?

Mr. WEST: Well, you know, 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, they would meander. And I loved that. So Zapp Brannigan was, like:

Mr. WEST: (As Brannigan) Zapp Brannigan, master of time, space and everything else in the universe, and oh yeah, winner of this year's modesty award.

DAVIES: Yeah, he is a lot of fun in this, and he reminds me of Phil Hartman somehow. I don't know, yeah.

Mr. WEST: Yes. Well, you know what it was is Phil Hartman was really supposed to do that, and they wanted him. And I met Phil Hartman before he passed, and we did talk about our - we had a commonality, which was the love of those big, dumb announcers from the old days.

DAVIES: You know, "Futurama," it was on Fox for I guess five seasons, right, and then gone from television for a long time. Did you think it would return?

Mr. WEST: Yeah, I did because it was too good to not be on television. You know, it was the most enjoyable thing I had ever been involved with, and I would've been a fan of it even if I had nothing to do with it.

DAVIES: What's special about it?

Mr. WEST: Well, the writing is what gets me. It's just very, very unusual. It turns humor kind of upside-down, and it comes out scrambled, but it's really funny. Like, somebody would say to Fry: Hey Fry, I heard beer makes you stupid. And he goes:

Mr. WEST: (As Fry) No I'm doesn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: You know, that's the stuff that knocks me on my rear end.

DAVIES: And I should tell folks that in one of these episodes, the head of President Nixon appears. I assume that's your voice?

Mr. WEST: (As President Richard Nixon's Head) Yes, it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: Yeah, he's - it's Nixon's head. He's the president of Earth in the future, 3000. He got to be president of Earth, and he would say the same kind of stuff he said back then, like:

Mr. WEST: (As Nixon's Head) Look out in front of the White House, all those filthy hippies.

Mr. WEST: You know, and I would do that werewolf kind of noise like "A-roo?" because I was a kid when Nixon was debating Kennedy on television, and we got to watch it. And on one side, here's this GQ model with that buttered-toast, perfect game-show hair, you know, and then there's this sweaty mess with jowls and a 5:00 shadow that came in at 2:00 and sweating.

You know, and so I said to my mom: Mom, it looks like he's going to turn into a werewolf, you know, because it was like Larry Talbot turning into the werewolf, you know. You know, that's what it looked like to me. So that's why I gave him that sort of thing. Everybody said why do you -why does he say a-roo? Why? Why? And I said, well, it's just a thing of my own that I threw in there.

DAVIES: You know, I want to - you've been doing voices for so long, and you have tremendous technique, and I'm wondering: How much of getting a character is technical, and how much of it is just doing that, just getting a feeling and rolling with it?

Mr. WEST: It's all of those that you just mentioned. Most of all, it's in the head. You have to have some kind of power of observation, almost like a trained observer. You watch people and study them the way an alien would. I know I always did that when I was a kid, and it's not because I was cynical and I'm looking to just figure everybody out. It was - it just came so very natural to me, and then I would - you know, it would come out of me in way or the other, whether I was singing or just so many things that would stay in my head.

I think it's also the kind of an ear a voice performer has, where they're able to hear things in real life that other people can't hear, and they grab a hold of it and then amplify it either through another character or a direct impression.

But the throat just kind of falls into line once you realize in your head what it is. You got to remember the musicality of a character that you're going to do.

In other words, like Yogi Bear, I mean, the guy who did it, he did about 120 voices in some of those shows, Daws Butler, and I think with him, he would remember the cadence, the melody of the character, like, and then fall into Yogi Bear, not just trying to dial it up on the spot.

And he would remember that the character is like: (makes sounds). Like Art Carney or something. And then he would remember, you know, to apply that cadence to this character...

Mr. WEST: (As Yogi Bear) And all of a sudden he could go into it.

DAVIES: So there's like a song that everybody carries with them, right? A melody and a cadence? Or you find that?

Mr. WEST: Yeah, I would think if I think of Zapp Brannigan, I think of (makes sounds). And the professor would be like: (makes sounds). You know, not particularly a tune but just this cadence.


DAVIES: Well, I wanted to talk about some of the other work you've done. You know, in addition to creating a lot of characters, you have re-created a lot of, you know, the famous, you know, Warner Brothers characters, the Mel Blanc characters from the '40s.

Mr. WEST: Yes.

DAVIES: How does that compare? Because I mean, there you're dealing with an expectation that people have been trained to, you know, to listen to for years and years. You got to get it exactly right.

Mr. WEST: Oh, sure. Well, like you just said, it's all about perception. Exactly right to one person is not exactly right to another person that's listening because you got to remember there was, like, four different Bugs Bunnys, depending on who directed the cartoons.

There was a real wisecracker Bugs Bunny, you know, early on in the '40s, and then as he moved towards the '50s, he got a little cuter, and he got more clever and was not so feral.

And then by the '60s, he spent most of his wildness just outsmarting Daffy with words rather than antics.

DAVIES: Okay, so what's your Bugs Bunny?

Mr. WEST: Mine was somewhere in the '50s and late '40s, and when I did "Space Jam":

Mr. WEST: (As Bugs Bunny) I got to work with the closest thing to a religious figure that we have, Doc, Michael Jordan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: (As Bugs Bunny) I got paid a million bucks, a carrot at a time.

Mr. WEST: And I also got hired to do Elmer Fudd. And recently, there was this commercial running for Geico Insurance, and it was a Mel - not Mel Blanc, Elmer Fudd coming, you know, into the cartoon woods with his shotgun, and he's, like, he does his usual, you know:

Mr. WEST: (As Elmer Fudd) Shh. Be vewy, vewy quiet. I'm hunting wabbits.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: And the director comes in, he goes: Uh, Elmer, that's rabbits.

Mr. WEST: (As Elmer) Wabbits.

Mr. WEST: No, rabbits.

Mr. WEST: (As Elmer) Wabbits.

Mr. WEST: You know, and the director gives up on him, and Elmer Fudd walks away mortified, and he goes:

Mr. WEST: (As Elmer) This diwector is starting to wub me the wong way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You also did Popeye in a film, like a couple of years ago, right?

Mr. WEST: Yeah, it was Fox. It was CGI animation, the first time they ever did that with Popeye. I thought it was pretty good. But, of course, you know, there are the die-hard Popeye people that were mortified and wanted to die because it became CGI. But nobody had a bad thing to say about my performance.

I loved Jack Mercer, and I got him. You know, I understood him. And what helped me understand that Popeye voice - it's a high voice and a low voice at the same time - because when I was a kid, we all used to try to do that, and then they all stunk. You know, it just didn't sound right.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. WEST: So one day, I see this film - it was an independent film called "Genghis Blues." And it was about this blind singer in San Francisco. He wrote a hit for Steve Miller called "Big Old Jet Airliner." His name was Paul Pena.

And he was listening to a world-band radio one night. He was blind, and he used to just go across the continents, listening to different things, and he heard this strange noise. And it was a program about Tuvan singers.

And Tuvans had a way of singing where they could do, like, one and two voices. And all of a sudden, he hears:

(Soundbite of Tuvan singing)

(Soundbite of coughing)

Mr. WEST: You know, excuse me, like Popeye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: I have to get ready for those things. But anyway, I realized: Oh my God, that's how this guy did it, maybe without realizing it, Jack Mercer. He'd be like: Yoo-hoo, Olive Oyl, I brung you some flowers.

And then the other voice would be like: Yoo-hoo, Olive Oyl, I brung you some flowers.

You know, they're like an octave apart. And then all of a sudden, together, it would be like:

Mr. WEST: (As Popeye) Yoo-hoo, Olive Oyl, I brung you some flowers.

DAVIES: Vocal artist Billy West. He'll be back for more fun in the second half of the show. Here's a scene from a recent episode of "Futurama," in which starship captain Zapp Brannigan is summoned by the preserved and reanimated head of Richard Nixon, both characters played by Billy West. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of television program, "Futurama")

Mr. WEST: (As Zapp) Mr. President, what the hell?

Mr. WEST: (As Nixon's Head) At ease, Brannigan. What you're about to see is highly classified. Rapelicus(ph), hit the thingie.

At O-zero-hundred hours, Planet X3 was attacked by a mysterious death sphere.

Mr. WEST: (As Zapp) Magnify that death sphere. Why is it still blurry?

Mr. MAURICE LaMARCHE (As Kip Kroker) That's all the resolution we have. Making it bigger doesn't make it clearer.

Mr. WEST: (As Zapp) It does on "CSI: Miami."

Mr. WEST: (As Nixon's Head) They fought back with advanced military hardware, but it was like shooting BBs at Bebe Rebozo.

Mr. WEST: (As Zapp) That poor, brave hardware.

Mr. WEST: (As Nixon's Head) The sphere then fired some kind of hellish blackout ray. It erased that planet like 18 minutes of incriminating tape.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Mr. WEST: (As Zapp) Oh, I just wish I understood why, why I should care.

Mr. WEST: (As Nixon's Head) Because the death sphere is now on course for Earth. A-roo!


DAVIES: You know, it's hard to believe that it's been I think 15 years since you were on "The Howard Stern Show." You were a regular for several years and I remember you on that show, and a lot of people do.

Mr. WEST: Wow.

DAVIES: And I thought we could listen to just a little bit of this. One of the things you...

Mr. WEST: Oh, god, this is going to polarize people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Well, we'll see what people think. I mean one of the things you would do, you did a lot of voices, and sometimes you would do a celebrity who was actually being interviewed on the show while he was on the show and say things that the celebrity would never say.

Mr. WEST: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: And I thought we'd just listen to a little of this. This is when they were beginning an interview with George Takei, who was Mr. Sulu from "Star Trek," the Japanese-American actor.

Mr. WEST: Yeah.

DAVIES: And in this particular case, they're dialing him up. He's not in the studio. He's I guess hooked up by satellite and you're in the studio with Howard Stern and his others, all prepared to do the George Takei voice as he does. Let's just listen to how this gets started.

(Soundbite of "The Howard Stern Show")

Mr. HOWARD STERN (Host, "The Howard Stern Show"): Hello?

Mr. GEORGE TAKEI (Actor): Hello.

Mr. STERN: Ah, George, my old friend.

Mr. TAKEI: Hello. How are you, Howard?

(Soundbite of "Star Trek" sound effect)

Mr. STERN: Can you hear me okay?

Mr. TAKEI: I hear you fine. I've been listening in on you all this time with all the buzz and beeps and squeaks. What are you doing there?

Mr. STERN: Hey, by the way, I have George Takei, Jr. here. Say hello, George.

Mr. WEST: (as George Takei) Warp factor two, Captain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: (as George Takei) Yeah. All those beeps and squeaks. Yeah.

Mr. TAKEI: And who is that?

Mr. STERN: That is your long lost brother.

Mr. TAKEI: My long lost brother.

Mr. WEST: (as George Takei) Yeah. Remember me?

Mr. TAKEI: You know, the next "Star Trek" movie, "Star Trek: Generations," about the next generation, they've got my daughter working on the helm.

Ms. ROBIN QUIVERS (Co-host, "The Howard Stern Show"): Does she have a deep voice?

Mr. TAKEI: I didn't know about her.

Mr. WEST: (as George Takei) Yeah.

Mr. TAKEI: Someone just told me.

Mr. WEST: (as George Takei) I'm sick of rice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: (as George Takei) Yes.

Mr. STERN: Hey George, you know, it's funny...

Ms. QUIVERS: So you're not in the new movie.

Mr. TAKEI: No, I'm not. My daughter is.

Mr. STERN: Hey George?

Mr. TAKEI: Yes.

Mr. WEST: (as George Takei) Yes.

Mr. STERN: Stop it because I'll never get through this interview.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: (as George Takei) I'm A.C. Takei. A.C.

Mr. STERN: All right. Take it easy.

Mr. WEST: (as George Takei) O.J.

Mr. STERN: All right. Stop it.

DAVIES: And that's our guest Billy West from his old days on "The Howard Stern Show." Bring back some memories?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: Yes. It just went by so fast. It was like a blur, you know, because nothing was scripted. It was pretty much organic. And I was facilitated by a writer that was there in the room, a stand-up comedian named Jackie Martling, who was brilliant, you know, writing stuff for Howard. And Howard was gracious enough to loan me that nuclear weapon when I was doing characters, with Jackie facilitating. But, yeah, whatever was going on, you'd work off of it, you know?

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: 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. Hey Mo, I broke your Pesach dishes. Why, you idiot. This is the meat. This is the dairy. (makes crashing sound) Zakumf!

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You've done so many voices over the years, and people generally don't know what you look like. I mean I don't know what Mel Blanc looked like, really. Does that visual anonymity appeal to you? I mean do you feel like you don't quite get your due?

Mr. WEST: Yeah.


Mr. WEST: No. I mean I - I don't worry about that. You know, as long as I can apply my craft, I'm happy. I have no more of an agenda than somebody who wants to bring something to the table. You know, I mean it's just, I'm closer to being an artist because I was always that. Even when I was coming through school I was a loner and I used to study music and listen to it and play it and play it, and I was in bands. And it was more about I just wanted to do something cool.

DAVIES: You know, I wanted just to come back to your childhood again a bit. I don't know how much you want to talk about this, but you know, I've read that you had a tough childhood.

Mr. WEST: Yeah.

DAVIES: I mean, your dad was abusive in your early years, right?

Mr. WEST: Yes.

DAVIES: And did you do voices back then? Was it a way of escaping or helping, you know, boost your mom's spirits?

Mr. WEST: Well, yes, I did, my mom particularly. But the problem here was - is my dad was an overgrown kid - you know, alcoholic, abusive, kind of crazy, really. And he had talent. He could do voices and dialects and he could sit down at a piano, having never played one and start playing. And whenever I would try to do something like that, I'd get laughed out the door, you know, so it was kind of a real traumatic thing to go through, was, you know, like trying to...

DAVIES: You mean he could do it but he didn't want you doing it?

Mr. WEST: Well, it wasn't like he wanted me doing it. He would be dismissive, you know, or make it like it was nothing. And I grew up thinking all the things I could do was nothing, like a parlor trick. You know, I never had a sense of entitlement about it. I used to kind of keep it hid like an appendix scar. And then when I was 21, I started drinking and I began to have a real childhood then, and I busted loose with all the stuff that I was able to do.

DAVIES: And you eventually overcame that.

Mr. WEST: Oh, yeah. I was in, you know, bands, it was kind of part and parcel to that situation that you would be drinking and doing drugs and everything. But 26 years ago I just stopped everything and it's been fine and I've been lucky enough to get the kind of work that I get.

DAVIES: You said that when you were little and you would do these things which, and you clearly had a gift, but it was dismissed and you didn't - it wasn't valued. When did that change? When did you see it as something that, you know, that had value?

Mr. WEST: Well, my mom always thought that I had something special and she would keep reminding me of it, because I didn't fit in in the towny world we lived in. I couldn't play sports. I was not anti-social; I was just kind of smarter. But my mom did encourage stuff for the most part. And, you know, like when I was a little kid, we went to lunch and we were sitting in some cafeteria. It might have been like a soda fountain or some little cafeteria, and I heard this noise coming from the corner of the room, this like... (makes buzzing noise) ...and I was going out of my mind. I had to find out what it was. And it was a guy who had a Bell telephone artificial larynx. And I asked my mom - mom, what is that? And she said he's got like a voice box - an electronic voice box. Why? Because he probably had cancer and he had his voice box removed. And the sound haunted me. And you know, so when I was a little kid, I felt it was my duly deputized duty to find a way to reproduce stuff like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Well, Billy West, thanks so much.

Mr. WEST: Thank you for having me on. I really appreciate it.

DAVIES: Vocal artist Billy West does several characters on "Futurama," which airs on Comedy Central Thursday nights at 9:00. You can hear Billy do an expanded FRESH AIR intro and see three scenes from "Futurama" at our website, - that's .org.

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