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Has Animation Changed Because of a Pandemic?
June 16, 2020  | By Mike Hughes  | 1 comment

As TV scrambles to find social-distance drama, a logical option appears: What about animation?

Yes, it can work – sometimes spurred by the virus, other times just a coincidence. Consider the following…

STREAMING: Two new animated series – both planned long before the shutdown – have started on streaming networks. Central Park (new episodes each Friday on Apple TV+) has drawn raves; Crossing Swords (which released all ten episodes June 12 on Hulu) has drawn mixed reviews.

BROADCAST and CABLE: One Day at a Time (top) shut down its season after only six episodes, but created a consolation for viewers – an animated episode that its stars (plus Lin Manuel-Miranda and Gloria Estefan) voiced from home. That debuts at 9:30 p.m. ET, Tuesday on Pop and TV Land.

Fox is delaying many of its shows until mid-season, but its animated shows – Simpsons and others – seem fine for fall. The same seems true of South Park, on Comedy Central.

So the cartoon world goes on. Jobs continue … even if they aren't as much fun.

"It's always better to have an ensemble," said voice actor, Billy West. "There's an energy that gets generated through all the people. It's in the air."

He was talking by phone, which has been how he's conducted his life for months. Doing animation and commercials and such, a voice actor can easily work without leaving home. "The equipment is so terrific now," he said. "They're doing television shows off Zoom."

But that's not his preference. West, 68, happily recalls sessions with his Futurama castmates: "John DiMaggio and I would just start to riff on stuff…. On the DVD commentaries, we'd do ‘Nobody cares' to the tune of Beethoven's Fifth."

You'll find West's voice everywhere, including lots of TV worth watching (and hearing). That's led by two shows from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening: Futurama on Hulu where all seven seasons can be found, and Disenchantment, still running on Netflix.

Currently, he's in the Scoob! movie, in M&M commercials, and in Disenchantment, which releases its third season this year; in the past, he's had the lead roles in Futurama, Doug, and Ren & Stimpy. Indeed, after the first couple of years, he was Ren AND Stimpy. He's topped that; at times, he's done as many as four characters in one scene. "I do it in real time," instead of recording one at a time.

That can keep him busy.

In Futurama, he's also been Professor Farnsworth and Dr. Zoidberg; in Disenchantment, he's ranged from a hillbilly to a king, from a jester to Pops the Elf, Sorcerio, Metz, and a salesman of me-flavored water.

He can do it all but prefers it when all the other actors are packed into one room. Even as a kid, "I knew behind those voices were some crazy guys."

And in a troubled Detroit childhood, with his father and brother, that seemed appealing.

"I was an abused child," West said. "You just don't realize that's not what happens to everyone."

He retreated into his own mind and imagination. In school, "the only subjects that mattered for me were art and literature"; in life, he wobbled.

Things changed around middle-school time, he said, when his mom returned, taking West and his brother to Boston. That's where the next big change came when he was close to 30: "A friend called me up and said they were having a contest on the morning radio show, to see who can imitate Mel Blanc."

Blanc had done most of the Looney Tunes characters and more; West was a fan. He won the contest, became a regular on WCBN radio, then moved to New York (for years on The Howard Stern Show) and on to Hollywood.

Voice actors tend to have long careers, so he would meet some of the ones he'd grown up with. June Foray (who was Rocket "Rocky" J. Squirrel and Cindy Lou Who) worked into her nineties. When West first met her, he said how much he admired her. "She said, ‘Well, we were saving a seat for you.'"

It's a table filled with surprising people. West recalls his then-wife raving about the guy in Oz who played the leader of the white supremacists. "I said, ‘I work with that guy.'" It was J.K. Simmons, now an Oscar-winner (for Whiplash) and forever the yellow M&M.

West has worked with plenty of famous actors, a trend he's disagreed with. "I didn't see why you have to have celebrities do those roles that voice actors do so well."

But his reputation has grown. Entertainment Weekly called him "the new Mel Blanc"; he's done many of Blanc's characters as well as others – Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Popeye, Woody Woodpecker, and more.

Roles have been passed along.

Jon Lovitz was the red M&M before West; John Goodman was yellow before Simmons. Casey Kasem was the first Scruffy in Scooby-Doo, with West second.

In 2020's Scoob!, there is a giant cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, Simon Cowell, Will Forte, Henry Winkler, Tracy Morgan and more – including West and DiMaggio, two guys who will be happy when they can work in the same room again.

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Sean Dougherty
Great article. June Foray was just as nice to civilians like me as she was to stars like Billy West (I had lunch with her at a SPERDVAC old time radio convention once).
Jun 20, 2020   |  Reply
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