Sneak Peek at Futurama! Plus, Our Conversation With Billy West

By Andrew Moseman | June 11, 2010 2:32 pm
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Robot-human intermarriage. The Harlem Globetrotters performing mathematical wizardry. Hearing, “Good news, everyone!” when bad news is on the way. It means one thing: Futurama is back.

The interstellar travels of the Planet Express crew—canceled by Fox in 2003 but kept alive by syndication, straight-to-DVD movies, and the unstoppable force of geek fandom—return with 26 fresh episodes on Comedy Central, starting with a full hour on June 24 at 10PM eastern.

Here’s our conversation with voice actor Billy West. The voice behind Philip J. Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, and Zapp Brannigan on Futurama (not to mention Stimpy on Ren & Stimpy and Looney Tunes characters like Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in Space Jam) talks of the origin of the professor’s vocabulary, why Richard Nixon is the President of 31st century Earth, and whether it’s weird to talk to yourself so much.

(For spoilers about the new episodes, check out our interview with executive producer David X. Cohen, coming in two weeks.)

Discover Magazine: Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: During the hiatus, what was the turning point when you felt like this was really going to happen?

Billy West: Because, I think, the Futurama movies sold well, it gave them an indication of who was still out there. So as I’ve maintained all along, the super fans of this show kept it alive. It’s too good to go away. That’s my feeling.

DM: We’re big sci-fi nerds, and the show itself both parodies and pays homage to a lot of the past TV shows and movies. Were you a sci-fi person before you did Futurama?

BW: I used to try to tell my friends about some cool show I saw, and so I’d go to explain and I’d say, “Wait, let me just do it for you,” and I’d wind up doing a ream of characters in a scene.  So, that’s where I think a lot of artists cut their teeth, because you didn’t have any way to instantly replay anything. It was on TV, and then it was gone.  And maybe you’d see it in the re-runs, but if not, you’re out of luck, Charlie.

But, the thing about those movies: The Day the Earth Stood Still and all these things that people make fun of now were hair-raising back then. You know? To see this giant robot that was going to open up his hatch in front and disintegrate the entire planet put a lot of stuff in jeopardy. It was always the human race that was at stake with sci-fi, which is what I love. I love that much hanging in the balance. It’s a popular theme, probably more today than ever.

DM: Any other particular favorites of yours?

BW: Oh, yeah. It Conquered the World, where this craft from Venus somehow wound up in the Sierra Madre hills or wherever they filmed it. This thing that was in the spaceship hid out in a cave, and it looked like a giant cucumber or some sort of root vegetable with teeth and eyes, and it had these little vampire bats that would crawl out from underneath it and go and sting people in the neck, and they’d become his servants. Everybody wants everybody else to serve them. You will serve!

DM: Does the fact that you grew up on that stuff influence the way you do some of the characters on the show?  The professor, in particular, is a classic sci-fi mad scientist.

BW: Yeah, I would say so. My whole world was a sonic one. I mean, more than watching something, I listened to it, spectrum-analyzed it in my head. I could remember what pitch they were in and what accent. Was it Midwestern or was it Mid-Atlantic or was it Southwestern or Eskimo?  It just registered in my head for some reason. I can’t do anything else, but I can do that really well.

I would remember the lingo that some of these guys used, and I’ve dropped it here, there, and everywhere in the show. I think there was one sci-fi movie where the guy with all the answers—the mad scientist—ran out of answers, and somebody said something to him and he went, “Ah, fuff!” So the professor wound up saying, “Oh, fuff.” There was another instance where a lot of people in the 40’s: Instead of saying “robot” they would say, “What’s the big idea with the rob’t?” So I had Dr. Zoidberg, any time he refers to them he goes, “What’s with the rob’t?  Why won’t the rob’t come home?”

It’s juicy because it’s language nobody knows, and it’s a pronunciation kind of thing that nobody remembers. I’ve had a love of language since day one, and when I listen to old radio broadcasts I listen to the stuff they used to say, the detectives, or whoever. There was a whole other bunch of descriptions for things, which would be brand new today.

Next: Futurama’s vision of the future and Nixon’s return

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