INTERVIEW: Billy West reveals how THE HOWARD STERN SHOW led to voicing Bugs Bunny in SPACE JAM
For decades Billy West has remained an unequivocal superstar of the voiceover industry, using his inimitable talent to provide the vocals for beloved characters including Fry from Futurama, the titular protagonist in Nickelodeon’s Doug, and countless others. In 1998, Entertainment Weekly even dubbed West “the new Mel Blanc.” Thus it came as no surprise when West was tapped to voice Bugs Bunny, one of Blanc’s signature animated characters, in the 1996 film Space Jam.
West has portrayed Bugs off and on over the years, and without a doubt he has left his mark on the Looney Tunes franchise. Just before Space Jam: A New Legacy arrives in theaters, and in time for the original film’s 25th anniversary, Warner Bros. is celebrating the original Space Jam by releasing the classic on Ultra HD Blu-ray Combo Pack and Digital.
The Beat had a chance to chat with West about his time voicing the “wascally wabbit,” as well as adapting to the changes in the voiceover industry.
Taimur Dar: You’ve obviously voiced Bugs Bunny in various projects, but looking at your credits I believe Space Jam was your first time voicing the character, or at least the earliest that was released. Was it indeed your first time voicing Bugs Bunny?
Billy West: I believe it was. I was working in radio in New York. This was after I had done Ren & Stimpy and Doug. I was working on The Howard Stern Show and Ivan Reitman was producing his film Private Parts. Ivan was also getting ready to cast for Space Jam. He got a load of me in the studio and asked if I would audition and I said, “Yeah.” So he gave me the parts of Bugs and Elmer [Fudd].
Dar: From previous interviews I know you grew up a huge fan of legendary voice performer Mel Blanc. As someone who admires and respects Blanc as much as you do, was there any pressure or intimidation to take on such an iconic role?
West: There was a natural pressure involved with trying to fill those shoes, which you can’t do. It would take 3-4 people, if that. I was just conscientious of it. I was very focused and I wanted to do the absolute best I could at replicating the character. I enjoy replicating characters but to be honest I would rather create characters for projects. But I still will do classic and legacy characters.
Dar: Cartoons inevitably change over time and that’s definitely true for Bugs Bunny. If you look at him in a cartoon like “Elmer’s Pet Rabbit”, he’s completely different than the Bugs Bunny we know today. Is there a particular era of Bugs Bunny that is the quintessential version of the character for you?
West: I think probably the late ’40s and early ’50s. Those are the ones I think I enjoy the best. I like the old crazy ones. That’s my own personal taste. The kind of Bugs they were looking for in the original Space Jam movie was probably something of that era. I tried to give the director what he wanted [and] do right by everybody really! [Laughs]
Dar: Space Jam is a property that’s only grown more popular with nostalgia, hence why they’re making a new movie. I loved it as a kid but it’s so hard to imagine such a weird movie getting made. Do you remember what your thoughts and feelings were about the film at the time, and have they changed?
West: I’m a journeyman so anytime I have a job or I have to work I go in and just try to give 1000% no matter what it is. Sometimes you don’t always get the edgy or the cool project. It’s all of equal importance to me because that’s what the craft is made of.
But this was cool. It was the first time I had done Bugs. My feeling at the time was, “Yeah, it’s probably going to be successful because Michael Jordan is in it.” Of all the shows I’ve done, when you’re in the middle of something that becomes a cultural phenomenon, you have no idea what’s going on or something like that is happening. It’s just, keep your face forward and keep plowing ahead. Then when you come out of it, take a look around and see what people think of it.
Dar: One person who definitely wears his love of Space Jam on his sleeve is Eric Bauza, who’s been voicing various Looney Tunes characters in different projects including the new Space Jam: A New Legacy, and has taken on the voice of Bugs Bunny in the current Looney Tunes Cartoons. He’s cited you as a huge influence so I’m just curious to know if you two have met?
West: Oh yeah! I love the guy! He’s a phenomenon. He has a brilliant career and he will have a brilliant career going forward. He’s just got it! My hats off to an artist who’s just that versatile.
If there wasn’t an original “Space Jam” film, the current cast & crew wouldn’t be working on this re-imaging. I was in high school when the 1st was in theaters. I never in a million years would think I’d be a part of something like this! Thank you Billy! Much Respect 🙏🏻
— Eric Bauza (@bauzilla) April 3, 2021
Dar: You primarily voice Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd for Looney Tunes, but have you ever auditioned or voiced other Looney Tunes characters?
West: There was one series of Looney Tunes cartoons, but I don’t think they were ever shown. I did Porky Pig. There was a movie with The Rock and it was called [Journey 2: The] Mysterious Island. Warner Bros. put together some special 3D Looney Tunes shorts to show in front of the movie. They did one, Daffy’s Rhapsody [sung to the tune of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2]. It was Mel Blanc but it wasn’t a cartoon though. It was just the soundtrack and they built a whole cartoon out of it. Originally Elmer Fudd was not on the recording but they created a scenario where Elmer was part of this thing chasing Daffy throughout the whole opera. I was honored. Here I was acting with Mel Blanc even though he’s long gone. This was something that didn’t exist and now it does.
Dar: I’m sure that must have been a blast.
West: I can die a happy man!
Dar: You’ve been in the voiceover industry for a number of decades and it’s undoubtedly changed since you first began. I’m guessing when you began pretty much everyone recorded in the studios, but now technology like digital audio workstation software has advanced enough that recording at home remotely is possible and now necessary during the pandemic. How has it been for you as a veteran adapting to the changes in the voiceover industry?
West: Things are really different. For the past year I’ve worked remotely. It’s very strange because you’re not with any performers. You’re just by yourself. I love working ensemble with other people. The other thing is that you’ve got to get it right. The sounds and everything else have to be what they’re looking for technically.
The only other change is sometimes they hire people to do cartoon voices based on how many followers they have on Twitter or Facebook. I can sort of understand it but I always thought the art was reserved for people who know how to create it. Just because you have a zillion followers doesn’t mean you’re suited for doing cartoon voices.
Dar: It definitely reminds me of something Game of Thrones actress Sophie Turner said in an interview about winning a role over a “far better” actress for a project because she had a “big social-media following.”
West: She probably has talent too.
Dar: Oh yeah, of course.
West: I’m talking about somebody who sits in their bedroom and has a million followers because they can fart the National Anthem. I don’t think that should be an instant bridge to the arts but who am I to say! Maybe I’m out of it and I don’t understand how things go today.
Dar: As far as the technology like Source-Connect though, has that been an easy transition?
West: No, it’s murder on me! I’m on the autism spectrum and I always had problems with mechanical things. I never could put together anything. It’s hard for me to follow directions. Anytime I touched anything that was mechanical it would wind up broken or rendered useless. I left the engineering to my brother.
Dar: I can definitely relate. Billy, it’s been a huge pleasure talking with you!
West: [Bugs Bunny voice] As a final word! [Imitates kiss]. Bye!
Space Jam is available now on Ultra HD Blu-ray Combo Pack and Digital.