Billy West, voice of Ren and Stimpy, Futurama, on the rough start that shaped his life

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Philip J. Fry from Futurama

Ren and Stimpy. Bugs Bunny. Philip J. Fry and Professor Hubert Farnsworth on Futurama. Sparx. Bi-Polar Bear. Popeye the Sailor Man. Woody Woodpecker. You may not think you have ever heard Billy West, but chances are on a television program, a movie, a commercial, or as Howard Stern's voice guru in the 1990's, you have heard him. West's talent for creating personalities by twisting his voice has made him one of a handful of voice actors—Hank Azaria and the late Mel Blanc come to mind—who have achieved celebrity for their talent. Indeed, West is one of the few voice actors who can impersonate Blanc in his prime, including characterizations of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and other characters from Warner Bros. cartoons.

What is the fulcrum in Mr. West's life that led him to realize a talent to shape personalities with his voice, and how did the discovery of that gift shape him? Wikinews reporter David Shankbone found that like many great comedians, West faced more sour early in life than he did sweet. The sour came from a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic father ("I could tell you the kind of night I was going to have from the sound of the key in the door or the way the car pulled up."), to his own problems with drug and alcohol use ("There is a point that you can reach in your life where you don’t want to live, but you haven’t made the decision to die.").

I’m telling you stuff that I never said to anybody...

If sin, suffering and redemption feel like the stages of an endless cycle of American existence, West's own redemption from his brutalized childhood is what helped shape his gift. He performed little bits to cheer up his cowed mother, ravaged by the fact she could not stop her husband's abuse of young West. "I was the whipping boy and she would just be reduced to tears a lot of times, and I would come in and say stuff, and I would put out little bits just to pull her out of it."

But West has also enjoyed the sweet. His career blossomed as his talent for creating entire histories behind fictional characters and creatures simply by exploring nuance in his voice landed him at the top of his craft. You may never again be able to forget that behind the voice of your favorite character, there is often an extraordinary life.

Below is David Shankbone's interview with renowned voice actor Billy West, who for the first time publicly talks about the horrors he faced in his childhood; his misguided search for answers in anger, drugs and alcohol; and the peace he has achieved as one of America's most recognizable voice actors.

The use of celebrities for voiceovers

This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.

David Shankbone: You’re known for speaking about the use of famous actors to do voice-over. What is your central problem with their use?

Billy West: My problem is that if they were judged by the same standards we were, that we have to try and get work with, they would be pretty piss poor as voice performers.

DS: What standards are those?

BW: The standards are that you have a really special voice that you can go around and do that voice and make a living that people just instantly love it. Nobody is just instantly in love with the usual suspects. Voices that we see in the cartoon movies now.

DS: Like Robin Williams?

BW: No, he's different, he understands character. I mean he understands characterization and voice changes. And so does Mike Myers and so does Eddie Murphy.

DS: Jerry Seinfeld as well in Bee Movie?

BW: No, that’s not it because he‘s doing a character that looks exactly like him and sounds exactly like him. I mean, Will Smith does characters that are drawn to look like him and sound like him. I wish I had that luxury. Nobody draws a character that looks like me and sounds like me for me to just step in and be the perfect person for the role. You know what I mean?

DS: What’s the solution? Not to do characters around stars?

BW: The thing is, I don’t have an issue with the fact that these movies are being made. If I could audition for them and I didn’t get them, I still wouldn’t have an issue with them. But this is the thing: they audition us for these movies and then they play it for the A-list people, for these celebrities, so they can strip my talents’ abilities and kind of toss them over to the celebrity just to make it look better than it would be. And I’m not a teacher. Not a paid teacher. I don’t like that stuff.
  They audition us for these movies and then they play it for the A-list people, for these celebrities, so they can strip my talents’ abilities and kind of toss them over to the celebrity just to make it look better than it would be.  

—West on laying down cartoon characters in auditions, only to have a celebrity end up doing the voice with the quirks West's voice introduced.

DS: They’ll have you come in, or someone of your caliber come in, and actually shape the voice around the character and then they’ll present it to the celebrity as the template?

BW: Yeah, and sometimes you’ll actually hear stuff that you actually thought of during the audition, because you have to really be on your toes.

DS: Are you paid for that?

BW: Not really. Only a couple gigs did I ever get paid to scratch a movie for a celebrity that was going to do it. The stuff that goes on at auditions is despicable.

DS: Are there legal remedies that you could pursue for that?

BW: No. I gotta prove it. I used to bring a tape recorder around with me, but still, it’s like trying to fight city hall. It is what it is. But that’s my real issue with it is that this is an Area 51 for experienced voice-over people who do create characters and not just do who and what they are. It takes away from the creative process.

DS: There was a similar issue involved with Crispin Glover. They had taken a likeness of one of his earlier roles. I think it was Robert Zemeckis Then they tried to pass it off later as him and he sued them for doing that. Are you familiar with that situation?

BW: It only means anything to me if he won.

DS: He did.

BW: Oh, he did! That’s very similar. But the thing is, if you could prove that. You can’t prove that somebody deliberately took the stuff and tossed it off to some person that’s acting. But it’s a dirty business and I won’t do it anymore. I never really quite got what it’s all about. It’s to show up and to sound exactly like the character and to read it, yet you’re doing it the way that you would do it. It’s not good business as far as I’m concerned. It’s not my part of town.

DS: Has your speaking out on this issue hurt you in any way?

BW: In what way?

DS: In your career?

BW: No.

DS: There’s no reaction against it from the studios or from the ….?

BW: No they don’t give a shit which voice-over person is in the alleyways beating the piss out of the other one to get a gig. I mean, they don’t care. They really don’t.

Iconic characters and choosing projects

DS: You discussed in an interview issues about the weight of the character’s legacies, such as Pop-Eye or Bugs Bunny. You had said that every time they do one of these they say, 'this time it’s going to be different. We’re putting the teeth back in those characters. Nobody is going to tell us what we can’t write and what we can write.' And you said they always blow it. How do they blow it?

West starred (as Bugs Bunny) opposite Michael Jordan in Space Jam.
BW: They pander. Slowly they take away the aspects of what made those characters who and what they were. In other words, cartoons contained sometimes gratuitous violence with the squash and stretch animation. Sometimes it was gratuitous. But that was only an aspect of the cartoon. When you start stripping away those things that made it a full dimension character, you’re going to have Xeroxes of it in every way including creativity. The worst mistake Warner Brothers ever did was make all these characters friends, because then you took away the dynamic. Elmer wanted to kill Bugs Bunny. There was no question in anybody’s mind. Sylvester wanted to kill Tweetie. There was no question in anyone’s mind, unless you wanted to say, “He just wanted to eat him. He didn’t want to kill him.” Go figure that out. There was danger involved, and some life truths involved. When you’re telling the truth, you’re really dealing with comedy. If you don’t have the truth on your side, then comedy can’t spring from it, unless you have some weird hydroponic garden that doesn’t need any of the standard things that it takes to grow something.

DS: How do you choose a project, or does the project choose you?

BW: It works both ways. I get offers for stuff. If it looks like a good offer, I’ll take it. I’m not a snob. I love working, and every now and then somebody will say, “Why did you do that?” You know what? It’s none of your business. All I owe you is a good performance.

DS: Where do you think voice acting is going? It doesn’t seem like it’s ever an art that’s going to lose its place, but do you see it diminishing? Is it on a downturn? Is it on an upturn? Is it idling?

BW: What they’re doing slowly is they’re going to have to turn the celebrities and actors into cartoons, slowly but surely, because it’s the look that people are seduced by. It’s almost as if they like watching animation more than they do live action because of all the farms of kids being fostered to love computer-generated images. If you don’t do this, if you don’t start turning all of the celebrities into cartoons, we’ll lose our star system. It’s better to have their likenesses with their voices rather than trying to act out something that sprung from someone’s imagination that needed a concerted effort to give it a voice, a look. These characters are actors, they look like themselves, but they’re doing it with cartoon and computer processing. This is where it’s going.

DS: With computer animated voices?

BW: No, no, no. The stars will never go away. Let’s start there. If they have to become cartoons they will, because it’s a trend in the industry that these kinds of movies make more money than the regular ones do, for the most part. And they have no use for people that can create any kind of a character that’s shaped to whatever you want. That’s not useful in this case.

Discovering his talent

DS: Do you remember a time in your life when you started recognizing your talent for being able to shape your voice into memorable characters?

BW: I never really noticed. It was just so natural to me. What I used to do was hide it because no one would say anything. When somebody’s mind got blown around you, they just resented you or would find a reason to not like you. What happened was, I grew up thinking that everybody could do it, but that they were just too cool to do it.
Two protesters arguing outside Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia. Both protesters had voices that stood out; press the audio link below to hear them.
Audio file of these two people above arguing.
Audio: David Shankbone.

DS: You had a talent that seemed very trite to you, but very few other people could do it and you didn't recognize that?

BW: Yeah. I didn’t even think that it was something that was gifted upon me. I mean I never thought of it like that. I thought everybody was exactly the same. And then I would hear that nobody was doing the kinds of thing that I did and I began to feel weird and I retreated for various reasons. If I showed up at a softball game I started calling the plays like an old-time sportscaster. You would think people would like that. But it would be met with, 'Who do you think you are?'

DS: You would feel a compulsion to do the plays in a voice?

BW: Yes. And I definitely wanted to get approval. Every kid wants that. But I would do those things because I heard the radio and I would listen to what people actually had to say. I just had my own approach to everything. Every little town weirdo like me grows up to come to the Mecca of weirdos, which is Hollywood.

DS: I’m not a voice actor, but there’s times I’ll hear a person say a phrase. I covered the Iranian president speaking at Colombia for Wikinews and I watched these dueling ideologues who were normal citizens. One of them was this large black woman with a Bible yelling at this secular Jewish guy. I recorded these voices. She had one of those voices that I just couldn’t get out of my head. She just kept going, “You’re evil. You’re going to burn in Hell.” I found myself saying it aloud over and over and over again because her voice and what she said made such an impression on me that I wanted to imitate it. There was such a history behind that voice. She probably could have just said, “Buy Tide detergent,” and I would still be saying it over and over and over again.

BW: Sure. That’s what I mean about some people having naturally quirky voices. You’ve heard people in your life, like you meet a girl, a full-grown woman, who goes [in high pitched squeal], “I wanted to ask you.” And you go, 'Drop the act. Is this a put-on?' And I go, “Shit, you should be doing cartoons!”

"It was a horror chamber where I grew up"

DS: Is how you developed your talent when you were younger based upon imitating others? You would hear things that would leave impressions on you and you would want to imitate them? But why would you want to imitate them?

BW: Because I had no role models. My dad was a certifiable psycho and he made my life a living hell and it was a horror chamber where I grew up and when I grew up. The guy used to beat the daylights out of me left and right, for any random reason. He was a raving alchie. I grew up with him making fun of me. I was forced to retreat into a world where I couldn’t get hurt or beat up or anything like that.
  [My father] used to beat the daylights out of me left and right, for any random reason. He was a raving alchie. I grew up with him making fun of me. I was forced to retreat into a world where I couldn’t get hurt or beat up or anything like that.  

—Billy West on beginning to do voices

DS: It was escapism ...?

BW: Well yeah. You gotta understand, it was like I was a little kid. I’m not a magical being. My dad tried to kill me about fifteen times.

DS: So when you would escape into those voices, you felt a sense of safety?

BW: Yes. 'Cause I was surrounded by things that wouldn’t be a threat to me.

DS: And things that you could control through your own voice.

BW: Yes.

DS: Whereas you couldn’t control what an alcoholic authority figure was going to do.

BW: I was like an alien; I was an observation unit, trying to study the human condition, not consciously, but because I had to. I could tell you the kind of night I was going to have from the sound of the key in the door or the way the car pulled up. I was hyper vigilant. So all I was, was this unit from space that had nothing but data gathering and sensory equipment.

DS: What was your dad’s reaction to your doing voices?

BW: It didn’t register on the radar because, number one, I wasn’t really doing it in the time I spent with him. The other thing was that he was a frustrated talent. He could sit down at the piano and just start playing it, having no lessons or training. He could do dialogs and he could do voices. He was very funny, you know, among his friends and all that. He was also a musician, a drummer. And I became a musician except I wasn’t a drummer, I was a guitar player. The thing is, he could never make it pay. All he had was a string of jobs. Driving a beer truck then driving a soda pop truck then driving an ice cream truck. You know what I mean? Like a Ralph Kramden kind of thing.

DS: Where was your mom during all this?

BW: She was trying to make a household and trying to keep the place as sane as she possibly could.

West moves to Boston after his parents divorce

DS: It doesn’t sound like she was very successful.

BW: She had to leave him. She came into the sixth grade one day. I saw my mother at school and I was mortified like any other kid would be. She talked to the teacher and they went out in the hall. My mom came and I went with her to the airport. It was like going on a trip. We got out of Detroit, Michigan and we were on a plane to Boston. Me and my two brothers. One was a baby and the other one was like, gosh, he had to be seven or six because I was about eleven. This was back in 1963.

DS: When did you come to a realization that your voice was something that you wanted to turn into a career?

  I’d go out and kick the shit out of some little cat or something, just like you know, smack it... In a weird way, in a weird permutation of the whole situation, to me that was supposed to be love. Cause why would your parent hit you, hurt you? Why? It never makes sense to a kid. And they all used to say, 'It’s because I care about you.' But I got over that stuff and what I did was start to hurt myself.  

—West on abusing animals to deal with his own abuse

BW: It never was a realization. I started playing trumpet in grade school when I was ten years old and I liked the idea of going on stage and playing. And I was in a couple of plays in school and I really liked that world. I felt totally at home with it cause you had to be ready for anything and you had to be vigilant and you had to be on your toes, which actors need as skill and survival tools. So it was the perfect place for me to be. It’s not like I was a hollow, empty vessel. I had plenty of things percolating inside and all that, but I needed to be where I to be where I felt good and I never fit in with other kids. I only had, like, two friends, maybe one, who was, “You like that comic book too?” You know, that kind of stuff. Getting called faygot by any random goon.

DS: Did you say fay or faggot?

BW: No, it’s faggot, but they would pronounce it fay-got, you know, in Boston. Faygot. What are you, faygot? What are you, queer?

DS: Do you think that’s had any lasting effect on you?

BW: Well, I can now get crazy without being angry or raging because I know how to do it. Everything you do has to come from something real. You have to tap into something. Otherwise, there’s nothing to grab hold of if you’re a watcher or a listener or whatever. There’s nothing for you there. It’s no fun for the audience.

DS: They say that all great comedians typically have extraordinary tragedy in their lives, and they develop their humor as a response to it.

BW: Yes, but I developed mine a lot of the times to comfort my mom. Because she saw the way I was being treated. Not so much my brothers, but I was the whipping boy and she would just be reduced to tears a lot of times, and I would come in and say stuff, and I would put out little bits just to pull her out of it.

DS: Even though you were hurting, it would hurt you to see her hurting over you.

BW: Yes. And you know, I could take a beating. I finally learned how to just galvanize myself where you just totally like disassociate and your body can sit there and get smacked around and punched or whatever and your mind is a million miles away.

DS: What made you the whipping boy?

BW: Well my dad was very very angry. He was abused as a child and he lived in a matriarchal situation with his mother and her sister and then her mother and there were all these big German …. I don’t know, like real staunch [people], angry and punishment-inclined. He liked to dish out punishment ….

DS: What would make you the one that he would unleash that upon as opposed to your brothers?

BW: Because I could do little things that he seemed to be threatened by.

DS: Like what?

BW: I could draw. He was an artist. I could pick up a pen and start drawing immediately. He was a musician, a drummer. Then, I learned to play guitar when I was ten years old. He didn’t sit right with any of these things. Plus, he was very jealous of me because my mother loved me more than him.
Ren Hoek from Ren and Stimpy.

DS: An oedipal issue?

BW: Well, yeah, but it happened from Day One. He resented eventually the fact that I was born 'cause I took away his mommy.

DS: What is your relationship with your brothers like? Did they see this going on? Did they feel bad for you?

BW: Only my other brother. He's dead now. He bore witness to an awful lot of stuff and he, himself, was the brunt of an awful lot of stuff that I teased him and bothered him, 'cause it trickled down.

How West dealt with his father's abuse

DS: You said your father was a victim of abuse himself and that pattern often repeats. How did you stop that pattern? Was it through your voice work?

BW: No, not really. I had a mean streak. But I’m such a dyed-in-the-wool animal lover. I’ve always had pets. I would be so filled with anger and rage that on my way to school, it was literally a “kick at the cat” as they used to say. You’re angry and you don’t know where to direct it. You’ll kick a wall that has wet paint on it. That’ll teach them. And hurt yourself doing it. I’d go out and kick the shit out of some little cat or something, just like you know, smack it. You know, go over and go to pet it, then whack it because that’s all I knew. In a weird way, in a weird permutation of the whole situation, to me that was supposed to be love. Cause why would your parent hit you, hurt you? Why? It never makes sense to a kid. And they all used to say, “It’s because I care about you.” But I got over that stuff and what I did was start to hurt myself.

DS: How so?

BW: I started drinking and doing drugs when I was about 21. I was playing in a band and it was all part of the picture, you know. It could be rosy for you. You couldn’t survive anywhere else, but in a band you were like golden. I used to punch walls, cause ruckuses and get into fights wherever I went. You know, throw things at people.

Rehabilitation and sobriety

DS: How did you stop the fights and the drugs?

BW: I had to go to rehab. I had a job in radio. I stopped playing music. I tried to do some standup comedy, but I don’t have the discipline for it. I used to just go out there and not care if I died or lived or whatever. You know, I’d just say stuff. I was always searching. I just couldn’t go up there and do twelve minutes and pretend like I’d just thought of it, you know, for three years.

DS: Are you still sober?

BW: Oh yeah. I’ve been sober for 22 years. But I had to go into rehab. I had a series of car accidents. I almost got killed one night but I just walked away from it chuckling, smashed.
  I got away with this kind of behavior and it was awful because I was terrorizing people. Not during the day. At night. And stories. There would always be stories and then it would make the papers.  

—West on his wilder days.

DS: Were you at a point where you didn’t necessarily want to die, but you just didn’t care if you lived?

BW: That’s pretty much it, yeah. You put your finger on it. There is a point that you can reach in your life where you don’t want to live but you haven’t made the decision to die.

DS: Whatever happens happens.

BW: Yeah. You let the wind blow you around. I have a zillion stories. I should write a book. These are stories that you think, 'No, that couldn’t be true. That couldn’t possibly be true.' I was in radio around the same time too. I went back to playing music in the early eighties after a hiatus. I started playing again with a couple of people and I was also working radio but I was in a constant blackout. And people said I was good on the radio. I don’t know what I did or said. I just used to come in there and turn the place upside down. I was too good to fire. But they didn’t know what to do with me, you know. I’d come in in the middle of a night—

DS: And that would almost egg you on?

BW: No, no. It wasn’t that. They wouldn’t just grab me and throw me up against a wall and say, “Listen, you little fuck, you’re going to rehab.” I got away with this kind of behavior and it was awful because I was terrorizing people. Not during the day. At night. And stories. There would always be stories and then it would make the papers. You know, that kind of stuff. I finally cracked up a car and I was in for non-payment of rent and the judge says, 'I don’t care about this non-payment of rent thing, but you’re doing a week in Charles Street Jail for this DWI that you never answered for.' This was before the advent of computers. Now, they press a button and it spits out everything. But back then, you could screw up in one town and then go to another town and do exactly the same thing and they could never put them together because everything was on paper.

DS: Now it’s all electronic.

BW: But I wasn’t proud of that. That was the lowest point of my life. But I’ve been sober for longer than I was a user. Twenty-two years.

Is West glad he experienced addiction?

DS: Are you in some way glad that you went through the drug and alcohol abuse?

BW: I could ask you the same thing and I don't mean to pull a "Donald Rumsfeld," interviewing myself. But I could ask you the same thing. Are you glad? Because if you are where you are and it seems okay, then you had to have gone through those things for you to be the total sum of your experiences which led you to the very spot and the very phone you’re talking on. You know what I mean? And so it’s almost like no matter what you did, if you finally get yourself together and you mean well and things are going okay, it’s like, 'Well, it had to be that way.' The universe obviously had to teach me something.
Stimpy from Ren and Stimpy.

DS: Do you believe in a higher power?

BW: Yes I do. I don’t know what it is. I just think its some higher form of energy and some sort of being, but I can’t embody it in my mind. But I know I have a one to one, kind of a spiritual connection to whatever that is. See I was raised, I had Catholicism shoved down my throat. I was an altar boy. I knew the mass in Latin.

DS: Me too.

BW: Really?

DS: I didn’t know the mass in Latin, but I was an altar boy and I had Catholicism shoved down my face, but I’m 33, so Vatican II had happened.

BW: Yeah, and then you get "Father PreCum" trying to give you a massage and shit like that.

DS: The priest at my church got a nun pregnant and my mother, who was the president of the PTA at my Catholic grade school, helped deliver the baby and keep the whole thing hidden.

BW: Really?

DS: Yeah. And he’s still the priest.

BW: I think it’s probably a guy masquerading as a nun, if you’re talking about priests.

West on his career

DS: Where do you see yourself now in your career?

BW: Exactly where I want to be. You know, I feel bad for kids who want to be voice-overs. They will always be needed. I always encourage them. They’re always going to need what you offer. And you can make a living if you’re really good. But there’s only so far you can go now. Before, the sky was the limit. There wasn’t these rigged fights standing in your way. 'Cause right now, it’s like a rigged fight. You can still audition and get great satisfaction on the job as a voiceover. And that’s all I ever really wanted to be.
But I did aspire to do animations that required voice work. And I’ve done some of it and then this trend set in. And believe me we don’t get the kind of money those people get for doing voices. It’s rather odd to me. At some point I realized many years ago—I was a teenager in the sixties, protesting with the long hair, running around with the hippies—I realized when I looked at all the guys we were supposed to hate so much and resent, I kind of analyzed what complacency was, and they seemed complacent to me. They reached a point in their lives where they felt good about themselves and just cause a bunch of kids come along that were popping drugs and accusing you of this and that and being the man and everything, you think your feelings states are never going to change. And I used to say they’re complacent. But the thing is that everybody that’s born pretty much has to reach that point where they’re looking down the barrel of their own complacency. You gotta like do a little gear shifting.

DS: At what point was that for you?

BW: When I stopped drinking, of course. But I couldn’t play music in the way I wanted to play it anymore. I would have been like a parody of myself. So that didn’t seem truthful to me. Trying to do comedy seemed truthful to me, but then, like I told you before, I didn’t have the discipline to do stand-up. That term wasn’t popular much before the seventies. Then you started hearing these stand-up comics. When I was a kid and when I was a teenager, doing comedy meant you were interrupting somebody’s dinner in a restaurant. There was no comedy clubs per se. But the turning point—it’s called survival. It’s like being a cockroach. You evolve or die. When I was kid I thought everybody was like me and all these people I hang with are going to be running the country and I couldn’t have been more wrong.

West on politics

[continued from previous section]

DS: Well they are. It’s just things have changed.

BW: I’m way older than a lot of these guys by the way, that are out there. But to me they look like old men with bad breath and dandruff.

DS: Who are you talking about?

BW: Republicans.

DS: Yeah.

BW: You know, the guys that are running things. They don’t look like people that came from my generation at all. I’m as old as Karl Rove, or any of those idiots and it’s like, 'Where did you come from?' It’s still the same old geezers that hide behind religion and family values, and then they’re messing with guys in men’s rooms and scandal prone because that’s sort of what the party is famous for. I hated those guys and I didn’t grow up to be one. But then I watch all these people from my generation just suddenly morph into that and I’m still in a state of shock. Where did these Donna Reeds and these little Breck girls, St. Pauli girls that are filled with Republican ideology come from? It’s like they’re young. What is this, you know.

DS: It’s confusing because you look at somebody like Dick Cheney, who has this lesbian daughter, who’s in a gay marriage [Poe and Cheney have not entered into a formal union - ed] and now has a baby with her partner, and you just don’t know how the situation exists. It’s hard to comprehend. That Mary Cheney exists in the Republican party, and that she seems to be fine with that existence and even works for it.

BW: I know, it’s almost like it shouldn’t be possible, yet it is. And these guys are thumping their chests about it. I don’t go for that. It’s like saying you don’t approve of who and what your daughter is by birth. I’ll never understand that. And, again, Cheney is only like six or seven years older than me. You know what I mean? Like where the f did this shit come from?

Billy West on modern American society

DS: Has the Iraq War affected you much as a person?

BW: Yeah, totally. I watched the whole Vietnam thing go down and it’s the exact same thing. You think we would learn, but we don’t because the proof of that is there’s Holocaust deniers to something that happened a couple years before I was born, that there was extermination. Now there’s people that aren’t sure whether that happened or not, no matter how many shoes are piled up and down in Washington, D.C..

DS: Teach the controversy. Make it appear there are two sides to every fact.

BW: Yeah, but there ain't two sides to science. And when you start banning science and real knowledge, then you’re in George Orwell land. The pretense of it all really bothers me. I hate sitting there, talking to a guy that’s looking me right in the eye, and he’s lying to me. I hate when adults play pretend. I hate it more than anything. The only time I want to play pretend is when I can play like a child and not make it into an ideology. I know I go way off the subject, but I have a lot to say and a lot of people say, as far as the animation and the celebrities and all that, you know, I’m not so outspoken. Maybe not everybody talks about it, but what am I going to do? It’s the truth.
Dr. Farnsworth on Futurama.

DS: Do you think we live in a fear-based society now?

BW: It’s no secret to anybody, unless you fell off a potato truck somewhere. Back-street America.

DS: What is the reasoning behind questions like, 'Aren’t you afraid of saying such-and-such thing?'

BW: Because the person is usually fear-driven himself and totally understands the consequences of telling the truth. You don’t get rewarded for it, let’s put it that way.

DS: Are you optimistic?

BW: I’m optimistic about my own life and things changing for the better. I don’t pin my existence on the industry. I really don’t. Some people, without their fame, they would just roll up into a ball and bounce away and I’m like a reluctant famer, if you know what I mean. Celebrity means nothing to me. The word means nothing to me. I don’t know if I said this. I probably already did because I’ve been talking so long. But if you fart the national anthem you can be a celebrity. It’s bloodless. It’s artless. It’s Godless. But, fuck, that’s what people want. And the idea that the word celebrity and the word diva has been watered down into any girl with a belly button now and some gold chain around her neck can be a diva. It doesn’t matter why they call the great talents divas, you know women in the theater. It’s a pass-fail society. It’s like, in my opinion, the guy that can fart the national anthem and is famous is totally equal to someone else who actually has talent and worked their ass off and became famous for having a gift. But it can be debated. It’s like you’re saying there’s good art and bad art. Then there’s like, well define art. It’s endless. It’s infinite.

DS: And you think that they are equal?

BW: No, of course not.

DS: You’re saying in today’s culture they are equal?

BW: Both can be famous. That’s not the kind of fame that I would want and the other kind of fame is a certain flavor of misery too because there’s a trade-off that you lose your personal life. I spent enough time in the fantasy world. I don’t watch reality shows. These are the kind of people I couldn’t wait to get away from in high school and I’m going to chronicle their stupid adventures, you know? I don’t live there. I don’t watch television.

DS: I don’t have cable, so I know how you feel.

BW: Yeah, but even if I had cable, satellite, everything, I don’t watch television. I surround myself with things that edify me, not because it’s there. I’m an information freak. I’m a news freak. But it’s got to be truthful news and that’s why I’ll go to the BBC News on the Internet. There’s less pressure with the truth teller over there.

DS: It’s amazing when you hear the BBC interview British politicians. We find it shocking that they’ll say things like “Aren’t you essentially lying when you say that?”

BW: But that was the Fourth Estate. That was the idea that you owe your readers. You’ve been entrusted to deliver news to them and even if it’s an editorial or an interview, the idea is to get as much true information so people can decide for themselves. I don’t care if the interviewer’s biased. If I get enough information, I have a chance to be biased or not.

DS: That's an argument on Wikipedia: people make the argument, 'let's present the information out there and let the reader decide.

BS: Yeah, but if a lot of times the information is totally incorrect to begin with.

DS: Exactly,and it can be difficult to decide what to believe when reasonable minds can differ, but I think it's very problematic to ever argue "just let the reader decide." I don't know if Wikipedia is the place for that fight, but in the news media, that is the place for the fight. I interviewed Gay Talese, who quoted Norman Mailer who said the media is like a donkey, and you must feed the donkey every day; the donkey will eat anything: garbage, tin cans, slop. And report on whatever they are fed.

Billy West on telling it like it is

DS: Are your voices an attempt to understand reality?

BW: Well yeah. All I was presented with was life as it was deconstructing and disintegrating. And I had to pick up whatever pieces I had off the floor and try to put it together in a way that made sense to me. I don’t know if I’m making myself all that clear.
  I really love what I do and I don’t want people to think I’m sitting here angry all the time. I’m absolutely happy and I like what my life has become. But I still will start feeling weird if somebody asks me a question and I can’t tell the truth about it. I’m just telling it like it is.  

—Billy West

DS: No you are.

BW: Yeah, I’m telling you stuff that I never said to anybody.

DS: Well it’s good.

BW: You’re like the Barbara Walters of your generation. And I’m not going to protect an image I don’t really have. Nobody wants to hear what I really think about politics. I totally understand it. It’s like, every night is opening night if you’re a performer. Okay that’s done. Now what? I mean if everyone had to answer that standard in their job. "Now what are you going to do?" Because I don’t get told what to do. I audition for everything because if you want to work you’ve got to audition. Some people call me out of the blue and say, 'We just want you,' which is very nice and I worked really hard for that status. But I still audition for everything. There’s a show coming up called Rahan and there’s a 26 episode commitment on that. I’ll be starting that soon. I can’t tell you much about it because I’ve only read the auditions, the lines I was supposed to do. And the other thing is Futurama is going to keep me busy for awhile even though all the voice-over work is done. There’s lots of projects that are related to it. And I’m still doing the M&Ms. I really love what I do and I don’t want people to think I’m sitting here angry all the time. I’m absolutely happy and I like what my life has become. But I still will start feeling weird if somebody asks me a question and I can’t tell the truth about it. I’m just telling it like it is.

DS: That's perfect. I will send you a link to the interview when it is published.

BW: That would be fine. I’d appreciate it. There's so much wrong on Wikipedia, like that I got booted off the Stern show. I feel a lot of dehumanized lie dispensers get a hold of these things and just make it so. Believe me, there’s this very small but very active group of posters that want to keep dancing in the pet cemetery with animal corpses.

DS: It doesn’t say anything negative about the Stern show. It just mentions the characters that you did and that you were on there. And the only thing it says is that “Billy has since claimed that he left the Stern show because WXRK management refused to give him a sufficient pay raise.”

BW: Yeah. That’s the real reason. That’s cool. They finally got that in there. For a while there it was like, He was going to be Invader Zim, but he didn’t make the cut. He wasn’t Invader Zim and somebody else was. That’s so stupid to me. Rick Horowitz was a friend of mine. He was better at it than I was. That’s a fact of life. Instead of printing what I didn’t do. I mean, there should be a link to the list of voice credits, if you can find one. You know a complete one.

DS: There’s a link to your official web site on there. And there’s also a link to Voicechasers database and a link to Internet Movie database and a link to an interview with you on CNBC.

BW: Oh. The Donny Deutsch interview. That was weird too. I mean I really love Donny Deutsch, but he kept asking, 'What it’s like making all of this money?' Because that’s what the show is. It’s about finance or something. I mean, I know the guy. I actually used to work for him because he had Deutsch Advertising, when I was doing commercials. But he had to keep the money thing going because that’s the channel basically. His show was about that and I was embarrassed. I mean, now that you’ve got millions because we know that you’re working. I’m in the same boat you are Donny. As far as your house goes, you want what’s yours and what touches yours to avoid encroachment. And it’s never enough because fate keeps throwing stuff at you and nobody knows what it’s like to pay a seven figure tax, in quarters over a year. You wind up about the same except that you have more stuff than most people.


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