An interview with the voices of Futurama

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The full cast of Futurama signed by Matt Groening

The return of the Matt Groening fan favorite has sci-fi nerds geeking out; none more than the nerds who provide the voices for the show.

Often overlooked by critics (but not by fans), Futurama has endured a fate similar to the Family Guy franchise. Brought back from the dead via DVDs and movies-turned-episodes, it finally has been given the green light on another new season of production on Comedy Central, much to the delight of voice over artists Billy West and Maurice LaMarche, who both refer to the show as the highlight of their careers. Nothing to sneeze at considering both are seasoned veterans. West voiced Stimpy from Ren & Stimpy and Buggs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in 1996's Space Jam, while LaMarche has done voices for countless children's cartoons, including The Real Ghostbusters, Animaniacs, Pinky and The Brain and over two decades as Toucan Sam.

As their careers might suggest, West is the voice of many primary characters on Futurama, including Phillip Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg and Zapp Branigan to name just a few. Maurice handles the accountable sidekick Kif Kroker, as well as countless recurring extras like Calculon, The DonBot… in fact, why don't we start the interview there.

To Maurice: I know you do Kif, but what other ancillary characters do you do?

[Maurice proceeds into an in-voice character roll call. (Press play below.)]

Do you approach your roles that are for adults differently than you do the roles that are for children?

Maurice: Well, depends. I've done cartoons that are geared for children children: Handy Manny, The Popples. I mean, those cartoons you really have to play it to the kids, where you have a sweet attitude, and you don't want to bring any edge and cynicism to it. Then you know, there are the cartoons that both kids and adults could watch. I would count for instance Pinky and the Brain as a cartoon that's geared for both, but you wouldn't call it an “adult cartoon” because there weren't any characters saying “hell” or “damn.” In those terms, I approach the characters the same way. What in me does this speak to? What aspect of my personality comes out with this character? That's the way I try to approach the character… put it on like a suit.

Were you surprised when they told you that they were going to start making new episodes of Futurama?

Billy: I was thrilled because this was my favorite show that I ever did.

M: Delighted is more the word. I've always felt that Futurama wasn't done yet. I still feel that way, I don't think we're done. I hope that Comedy Central sees fit to give us another season or two. I've always felt we're going to go 10 seasons. It's too good a show not to. And it's come back so many times because it's so darn good it can't be kept down.

B: Yeah, I mean, you can't top this. This is it, I don't know what could top this. I was so thrilled to know that is was gonna come back. And it's almost like we just kind of fell into it right exactly the same way as we left off. Everybody's family. It's incredible, we just went right back to it; to reading it, to performing it the same way. We had basically all the same people staff-wise, the entire cast that was originally on the show is still doing it.

M: Each time it looks like that's it for Futurama, I get a big-time knot in my stomach, a little bit of sadness. Then you come to a form of acceptance, I move on. Then all of a sudden I hear, 'Hey, we're coming back as movies.' 'Hey, we're back as a show.' I remember a couple years ago at Joe DiMaggio's birthday party I was hanging out with Matt Groening, and I said, 'God, I miss doing the show, so much. I think we should just have a party. Just a bunch of us, we'll pull out old scripts and we'll do a table reading every month or so of the old scripts.' [laughs] That's how much I missed being with these people, and being with Matt and doing the show. And he said, 'I don't think that's gonna be necessary, I have a strong feeling we'll be back.'

How did you get into voice over work? The common misconception is that it seems easy, or 'I could do that.'

Maurice LaMarcheM: Well let's start with the phrase 'I could do that.' [laughs] I get this, of course a lot, people are always asking me how I get into voice overs. I think most people come at it from the point of view of, “well, people tell me I have a nice voice and it seems really easy.” The truth is it's a craft like any other and unlike any other. I mean you're an actor, you have to have good acting chops. So the first thing I say to people who want to study voice acting is to go and take real acting. Study real acting, at a real scene study class and an improv class and an audition technique class. Just because there's no hair and makeup to worry about, doesn't mean you're not an actor.

So do those things, because you have to be able to read the copy as though they're just occurring to you, not as though you're reading copy. And you know, you may have a nice voice, but sometimes interesting is more important. Nice voice can sometimes put you to sleep, [in soothing voice] “oh he's got such a nice voice, it's so soothing. Talk a little more, I'm going to take a nap.” You have to have a voice that [snap] immediately grabs the attention, you have to listen to it. That's the other side of it.

Billy West of Futurama

B: When I was growing up, my world was a sonic world. I grew up in the '50s, so I listened to radio all the time. All the different people that would be on and all the voice stuff, you know… I would fool around with it. I'd be in school and I'd do voices and stuff. I thought it was just something everybody can do. Then later on, come to find out, no, not everyone can do that.

I played in a band, later on in the '80s, and when I was on stage I would start screwing around with voices and routines. You know, if an amp broke or a string broke, I would just screw around to kill time, and people would like the voices that were flying out in these impromptu routines. Eventually I was done with that band and I was just getting into radio, and it was tailor-made to take all that stuff I was doing and go to radio and work at a morning show in Boston.

What was the name of your band?

B: One band was called the Rogues, and one was called the Shut Downs, named after the Beach Boys song.

Being on cable now, will the show get a little more risqué?

B: Maybe a little bit, but if you aim for that stuff it seems contrived. It's got to remain natural, and situations have to evolve in that writing room. But there's some really cool stories involved with the romantic aspect of Zapp Branigan and Leela again. She gets trapped with him on a planet, this paradise planet, and they're like Adam and Eve.

M: I would say 5% more risque. We're not going to be a dirty show by any means, but there's a little bit, where I went, 'Hey! Oh yeah, we're on cable now.' I think you might see about three centimeters more of Zapp's butt cheek, but other than that no.

Do you have a favorite Futurama character that you've done?

B: I get asked that and I'm always coming up short for an answer, because I put so much into every damn one of them. I really do. I deliberate, and I think long and hard before I go to say, 'Ok, this is what I'm going to do.' Because each character is fun, there's all these different flavors of fun in my situation on the show. There's so much fun to be had in every persona they allow me to do. It's like kids, you know, how you going to pick?

M: I love Kif, and he's unfolded quite a bit as the show's come along. He kinda of started out as a one note character, just the sigh and the rolling of the eyes. Like somebody stuck in a bad marriage. Little by little, he became this really lovely character who's vulnerable and gentle, yet he's got this heroic side to him. Like in “Where the Buggalo Roam” he saves the day. He's got a lovely relationship with Amy — although that relationship gets tested this season. I won't go into detail. And then, Lrrr has been fun. Just this big bombastic king of a planet who bosses everyone around and thinks nothing of vaporizing people, yet in a strange way he's got this weird politeness code. Lrrr's got a great story line coming up, he goes to ComiCon and nobody notices.

Speaking of ComiCon, what kind of people recognize you, and do you notice a difference between how the adults and children receive you?

B: It's all ages. It's people of all ages. There are women who love the show, and guys who are crazy about it, cause there's so many characters to choose and identify with. Children are very very shocked. They hear a sound or a voice and they know, they know what's up. They can't believe it.

M: When kids find out I'm the voice of Toucan Sam they go a little crazy. That's the most recognizable thing I do, strangely enough, a little 28-second commercial. I can be at a BBQ or something like that, and people will bring their little ones up and go, “He's all your favorite cartoon characters.” And then they'll say, “Do the brain.” [laughs] And I'll do the brain and they'll be looking at me with question marks over their heads. But break out the Toucan Sam, and they're like, “Awwwwwwww!”

I've been doing Tucan Sam since 1987, I've been doing it almost as long as Paul Freese the original voice. He did it from '64 to his death in 1987. But I'm really just doing a dead-on of what he did, so I've continued the character. You can look at old commercials on YouTube of Paul's, his a little deeper, a little more rounder sounding. But sometime in the next year or so, God willing they keep me on, I'll actually surpass his record.

Paul Freese as Toucan Sam

Maurice LaMarche as Toucan Sam

To Billy: When you're in the studio and you have to talk to yourself via your characters, is it natural to go back and forth with yourself?

B: It's very natural because I had a radio background, and I also did cartoons when I was starting out where I was doing more than one character. And for pages they'd be talking to each other and I had to do it in real time. I mean, somebody will do their line, I'll do my line, then there could be six pages of three different characters I do talking to each other.

To Billy: You've done Mel Blanc characters, I'm wondering — I guess our characters would be Homer Simpson or something like that — but do you think 50 years in the future there will be different sounding Homers or Barts?

B: You know, I've never thought about that, I don't think anyone has. Because we haven't lived long enough to have made that transition. I remember when the famous voice people starting dying and you have to hold up the franchise so you would have to get someone new to come in, and I was part of that stuff. But I don't know, everything is so fast forward. If the Simpsons are so timeless and classic, it could go on forever and outlive everybody who created it and did the voices on it. As long as the studio owns it, they could always come back at some point and go, “Let's get this going again.” I mean, they had to do that with Looney Tunes and everything else … Woody Woodpecker.

To Maurice: You were Alec Baldwin in Team America, was it weird to do a living character?

M: You know what's really strange? This morning you ask me this question, and last night I had a dream I bumped into Stephen Baldwin, who I do actually know in real life, and asked him, 'Is Alec mad? Does your brother hate me for doing him in Team America?' And he said, “You know, he is kinda pissed off actually.” But yeah, it was a little strange. I had heard Alec wanted to play himself in Team America, but the guys were like, “you know what, if he sees this script and how rough it is on him and some of his actor pals, he's going to go for a cease and desist.” So they decided to go for an impression. I don't know how they figured out I could do a good Alec Baldwin, cause I actually have never done it before. Actually Alec Baldwin and I are only four days apart as far as our birth.

To Billy: Have you done a real living person? Anyone alive?

B: I have done some presidents that are dead. I do Nixon, he's dead. [laughs] A lot of times though, there'll be a real person they'll ask Mo to do it. Mo is really good at that.

To Billy: When you're doing someone like Nixon–that's a pretty well known voice–is that something you address differently?

[Billy West explains the source of his Richard Nixon impersonation. (Press play below)]

To Billy: The episode where Nixon wants to blow up robot planet, that one also had Al Gore in that as well, correct?

B: Yeah, I mean, yeah, Al Gore does Al Gore. How much cooler than that is it to have a celebrity that is like… It's better to have Stephen Hawking than someone like Roseanne Barr or something. I'm sure if Jonas Salk was alive he would've been a great voice.

Do you have a favorite episode of Futurama in general?

M: I love the “Luck of the Fryish” and “Jurassic Bark” — they're just about everybody's favorite episodes. They're the tear-jerker episodes. I've always felt the more emotional core this show had, the better it got. I think in our first couple of seasons, the writing was a little cynical and edgy, and as we've allowed ourselves to become more sentimental and caring, the show's just gotten better. We've got an episode coming up, it's about the Professor invents a time machine, but it can only go into the future. And the consequences to that are both heartbreaking and hilarious, as they try to somehow get back to their time. I think that's our Emmy episode. I won't go any further than that, but that's my favorite episode of this new current crop.

To Billy: Being this is predominantly a music magazine, what song would Fry want to listen to right now?

B: Fry would probably dig up a 3000-year old song like “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks.

To Billy: And you? Is that your taste as well?

B: No. [laughs] I would want to hear, “Ha Ha Said The Clown” by Manfred Mann. The Yardbirds had a version, but the version I like best is Manfred Mann's version.

To Billy: One more thing before we end, can I get a Zoidberg?

[Billy West as Dr. Zoidberg. (Press play below)]