DM: Was it your idea or the writer’s idea that “Good news, everyone,” means bad news?
BW: That was the writers. I was willing to come in and say, “Good news, everyone,” before he announced that they’re going to be killed. My job was to just be as chipper as I could about it.
DM: What do you make of the Futurama vision of the future? Do you think it’s a more realistic or apt version of the future, since instead of a Utopian future that’s sleek and works perfectly, you have a lot of the same problems that we have today?
BW: Yes, I think it’s an amalgam of different envisioned futures. There’s definitely the Rocky Jones sci-fi TV show, the helmets and gravity boots and things that make you forget and devices like spaghetti strainers that stole your mind. It was like that on Lost In Space. They’d have a Xerox machine chasing somebody dressed in tin foil, But I loved the big dials and the big knobs and I couldn’t get enough of that stuff when I was a kid. The future they envisioned is my favorite version of what the future was supposed to be, the 40’s and early 50’s version of it, which Futurama touches on quite a bit.
But, to hold a show together in this day and age, you’ve got to give people immediate cultural references. You could revisit Leonardo Da Vinci, or you could revisit Harry Truman, or any of the presidents, or any of the rappers that exist. And you could make all kinds of – they’d be prehistoric references according to the bible of the show, but to us, it’s like, it just happened. I like the way they mixed that in there.
Also, I love the idea, just like Star Trek, that most planets have breathable air, which is impossible. There are a few here and there that sort of replicate the chemical makeup of Earth, but [on the show] every planet you don’t, like, step out of the ship and freeze to death or disintegrate because of the sun. It’s just great. Except when someone comes to attack you.
DM: So, does being animated make it easier to get away with stuff like that? Or is there a cadre of Futurama fans who write in to say, “That’s not scientifically correct.”
BW: Oh, yeah, you’re always going to have that. I mean, we make fun of the old movies for things just like that. It’s like, in Plan Nine from Outer Space—that’s the ultimate example of everything being wrong. These aliens had zippered flies and spit-shined shoes and perfectly pressed pants and they talked like 19th century villains or something. And you had to believe that.
It’s so easy to make fun of, and the show does it to varying degrees. But the real science heads are sitting there laughing and pointing, because they want to call everybody on everything. And believe me, [the writers] love it over there. They are all science heads, mathematicians, and science majors, and a few of them are from Harvard. Not only do they write a mean joke, but they can back it up with science. People will debate them, but they love it. It keeps them honest.
DM: Changing subjects for a moment: You’re Nixon, too, right?
DM: Why Nixon? When we saved everybody’s heads in jars, why is evil President Nixon the one who comes out and runs and becomes president of Earth?
BW: Because it took so much to dislodge him. So, being true to who and what Nixon is, it wouldn’t matter what century he was in, he would have to get aggressive and try to take something over. And plus, without even realizing it, he made himself villainous with his shifty eyes and that permanent five o’clock shadow. That’s how Kennedy became president. It was the first televised presidential stuff, and they’d look at Kennedy, who looked like a game-show host with that buttered toast hair, and then Nixon, who looked like Benicio Del Toro in The Wolfman. That’s where that came from. I was saying, it’s like he’s turning into the Wolfman—the more the day goes on he gets five o’clock shadow at 2:00 p.m. And I said, it’s like he’s turning into a werewolf. “Whatever happens behind that door, don’t let me out.” (Billy howls). That’s where that “Ah-roo” stuff comes from. I just threw it in, and the writers were, like, “Why? Why? Why? Why is it so funny?” They were going nutty trying to figure it out. “Ah-roo!”
I have to bring something to the table. I always wanted to be something more than an impressionist. In my heart of hearts, I always wanted someone to show me a picture of something and say, “What would you do?” You try to create something. Nixon is just so easy to find things to play off of.
DM: You tried out for almost every part on Futurama when you first auditioned, right?
BW: I did. I tried out for Bender—everybody, pretty much, except for the ladies. I went in and tried to make Bender sound like a construction worker. But Johnny D. [John DiMaggio] came in and nailed it. He did it like Requiem for a Heavyweight, like a drunk prize fighter. “I wanna shot at the champ!” “You are the champ.” “Oh.”
I wound up doing that [construction worker] voice as one of the old-time announcers on Futurama. [It was like] one my heroes, his name was Jackson Beck, and he was the voice of Bluto for decades in all of the Popeye cartoons. He was a big radio star in the ‘30s. You know who he is. Remember those commercials when you were growing up, like Thompson’s Water Seal? He would go, (mimics announcer’s voice) “Thompson’s Water Seal,” or “Vashon Puff Pie.” “At Little Caesar’s, you can get a crazy eight topping.” You know? I loved the guy, and he was an unbelievably great performer.
Next: Billy West on talking to himself professionally