Billy West realized at a young age he could “do voices.”
“But no one made a big deal out of it. So I thought, ‘Well, that must be worthless. I’ll find another way to get attention,” says West, 69, with a laugh.
Growing up in Roslindale, he dove into music. After a semester at Berklee College of Music, West found himself in various bands, gigging the Boston scene by night, and selling guitars in a Harvard Square shop by day.
Then, one morning in 1980, his phone rang: “My friend said, ‘Hey, call up BCN, they’re having a contest. They want to see who can sound like Mel Blanc.’”
West soon found himself live on Charles Laquidara’s “The Big Mattress.” He “put on a little dog and pony show,” got some laughs, and “won a dinner somewhere.”
That BCN contest win led, eventually, to a phonebook-length resume in TV and movies. West has voiced a veritable 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.” Both Ren and Stimpy. The Honey Nut Cheerios bee. Shaggy in a Scooby-Doo movie. Popeye. He’s done “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 on Groening’s animated Netflix series “Disenchantment.” He will appear at Boston Fan Expo at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center Sept. 3-5.
We called West, now in LA, to talk Boston radio, “Doug,” and the zen of silliness.
Q. What happened after you won that BCN contest?
A. Then I got invited to the station to record a bunch of station IDs in different voices — impressions, cartoon characters, whatever was spouting 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 house. He gave Charles a tape of me. [Charles] invited me to come in; I started working part time producing “The Big Mattress.” It became 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 anymore. Between Tom and I, there was nothing we couldn’t cover as far as parody.
It was like bootcamp; that’s where I cut my teeth. I loved radio. I can’t stand it now. I loved old radio, the old days. I wanted to be a pure radio performer like my idols, Mel Blanc, Jack Benny.
Q. You left BCN in ‘89 for Howard Stern’s show.
A. It was our sister station. The guy who owned our station knew I wanted to go to New York, and made it happen. I became a member of the show eventually, doing grotesque — people in the news, politicians, celebrities, anybody.
Q. How did radio lead to TV?
A. The Stern show was a big break — that was like an electronic business card to Madison Avenue. In 1991, I auditioned for Nickelodeon’s “Doug” and “Ren & Stimpy” and got both.
Q. How did you come up with Doug’s voice?
A. One of my idols, Daws Butler, voiced the little boy on “The Jetsons,” Elroy. I was inspired by him. Doug’s voice is sort of like Elroy Jetson turned left.
Q. And you’re currently the Red M&M.
A. [uses voice] He’s sort of a candy-coated Leonardo DiCaprio.
Q. How will you come up with a voice for a character? When you looked at, say, Fry — do you look at him and say: “He would sound like this”?
A. I immediately identified with Fry. I thought: There’s one voice I’ve never done — my own. Except when I was 25 years old. [In Fry voice] “I was all whiny and nasal and complain-y. Aww man, I just broke a string! Now what the hell am I gonna do?” And that’s basically me — but much younger.
Q. You’re now on “Disenchantment” on Netflix.
A. I’m Sorcerio, King Rulo and Elfo’s father, the court jester — I get to utility infield.
Q. What’s your favorite role or show?
A. My favorite thing I ever did was “Futurama.” I have separation anxiety because, to me, that was the best thing I ever was involved with. The writing, the production, everything. The chance I got to express myself — I was very lucky.
I was meant to do these things. I can’t do anything else. That’s the honest-to-God truth. I’m on the autism spectrum — I still cannot tie my shoes correctly, or a neck-tie. I’ve always had [ADHD] except they didn’t have words for it in the old days. Meanwhile, nobody knows what’s going on in your head.
Q. Has doing voice work been helpful?
A. My only way out of trouble spots was to play. To be silly. Still, if I read the news, stories that are horrifying, that make you want to just break down and cry — I find a way to pull myself up [by] picking something stupid, and harping on it. Come up with bits to make myself laugh. Because psychologically, you could come away feeling like there’s no hope for mankind. So I will immediately look for silliness.
Interview was edited and condensed.