Home Cartoon characters Before Billy West was Fry in ‘Futurama’ … he entered a radio show contest in Boston

Before Billy West was Fry in ‘Futurama’ … he entered a radio show contest in Boston

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Growing up in Roslindale, he immersed himself in music. After a semester at Berklee College of Music, West found himself in various bands, performing on the Boston stage at night and selling guitars in a Harvard Square store by day.

Then one morning in 1980, his phone rang, “My friend said, ‘Hey, call BCN, they’re having a contest. They want to see who can look like Mel Blanc.

West quickly found himself live on “The Big Mattress” by Charles Laquidara. He “put on a little dog and pony show”, had a laugh and “won a dinner somewhere”.

This BCN competition victory ultimately led to a year-round resume for television and film. West voiced a true Who’s Who of animated characters: Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg and Zapp Brannigan in Matt Groening’s “Futurama”. Doug Funny (and his nemesis Roger) in Nickelodeon’s “Doug”. Ren and Stimpy. Honey Bee Cheerios with Walnuts. Shaggy in a Scooby-Doo movie. Popeye. He did “Adventure Time”, “The Spongebob Movie”, “The Looney Tunes Show”… (We’ll stop there.)

West is currently the voice of the Red M&M and various characters in Groening’s Netflix animated series “Disenchantment”. It will appear at the Boston Fan Expo at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center from September 3-5.

We called West, now in LA, to talk about Boston Radio, “Doug” and the Zen of Silliness.

Q. What happened after you won this BCN competition?

A. Then I was invited to the station to record a bunch of station IDs with different voices – prints, cartoon characters, whatever came out of me at the time. They were happy. Then I left.

A few months later, a friend of mine was installing burglar alarms; he installed one at Charles Laquidara’s. He gave Charles a tape of me. [Charles] invited me to enter; I started working part time on the production of “The Big Mattress”. It has become a full time. I worked in production for years with Tom Sandman.

It was FM radio at its best. You won’t hear anything like that again. Between Tom and me there was nothing we couldn’t cover as much as the parody.

It was like a training camp; that’s where I cut my teeth. I loved the radio. I can’t take it now. I loved the old radio, the good old days. I wanted to be a pure radio performer like my idols, Mel Blanc, Jack Benny.

Q. You left BCN in ’89 for the Howard Stern show.

A. It was our sister station. The guy who owned our station knew I wanted to go to New York, and he did. I eventually became a member of the show, doing the grotesque – people in the news, politicians, celebrities, anyone.

Q. How did radio lead to television?

A. The Stern Show was a big break – it was like an electronic business card on Madison Avenue. In 1991, I auditioned for Nickelodeon’s “Doug” and “Ren & Stimpy” and got both.

Q. How did you find Doug’s voice?

A. One of my idols, Daws Butler, voiced the little boy in “The Jetsons”, Elroy. I was inspired by him. Doug’s voice is a bit like Elroy Jetson turned left.

Q. And you are currently the Red M&M.

A. [uses voice] He’s sort of a candy-wrapped Leonardo DiCaprio.

Q. How are you going to find a voice for a character? When you looked at, say, Fry, do you look at it and say, “It would sound like that”?

A. I immediately identified with Fry. I thought: there’s a voice I’ve never done, mine. Except when I was 25. [In Fry voice] “I was all whiny and nasal and plaintive. Aww man, I just broke a string! Now what am I going to do? And that’s basically me – but much younger.

Q. You are now on “Disenchantment” on Netflix.

A. I am Sorcerio, the father of King Rulo and Elfo, the court jester.

Q. What is your favorite role or show?

A. My favorite thing I ever did was “Futurama”. I have separation anxiety because for me it was the best thing I have ever been part of. The writing, the production, everything. The chance I had to express myself – I was very lucky.

I was supposed to do these things. I can’t do anything else. This is honest truth to God. I’m on the autism spectrum – still can’t tie my shoes properly, or a tie. I’ve always had [ADHD] except they had no words for it in the good old days. Meanwhile, no one knows what’s going on in your head.

Q. Was the voice work helpful?

A. My only way out of hot spots was to play. To be an idiot. Yet if I read the news, horrible stories, that make you want to crack and cry – I find a way to get up [by] pick something stupid and repeat it. Come up with pieces to make me laugh. Because psychologically, you might feel like there is no hope for humanity. So I will immediately look for the silliness.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Lauren Daley can be reached at [email protected]. She tweet @ laurendaley1.



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