Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Billy West Channelled A Surprising Nickelodeon Character For Zapp Brannigan's 'Futurama' Voice

You may not recognize Billy West's face, but you've heard his voice. A former in-house comedian and impressionist on the radio airwaves for The Howard Stern Show, West and his voice work is especially precious to children of the 90s, gracing Nicktoons, Disney toons, and Looney Tunes alike. Some of his most beloved work is in Nickelodeon's The Ren & Stimpy Show, voicing Stimpy at first then voicing both of the titular characters, and Matt Groening's animated sci-fi sitcom series Futurama, as an array of toon characters including protagonist Philip J. Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Doctor Zoidberg, and the hilariously vapid Zapp Brannigan.

The most insufferable and incompetent 25-Star General (of the Democratic Order Of Planets (D.O.O.P.)) in the universe, Brannigan is said on the show to be responsible for such feats as his "bloody triumph over the pacifists of the Gandhi Nebula" and "single-handedly defeating the retirees of the Assisted Living Nebula." With smarmy delivery, Zapp oozes blowhard artifice in every line uttered, making a habit of mispronouncing common words like and adding unnecessary inflating syllables (adieu becomes "ah-dyooo-uh"), whilst making the life of his ever-suffering lieutenant, Kif Kroker, a living hell.

He is, in short, the worst kind of person, leagues away from one of the characters influencing West's vocal portrayal of Brannigan.

Speaking with CBR, West explains how he pulls from a variety of sources to create a variety of characters.

"I always kind of thought it was my job to make characters sonically different and try to keep them seamless. There are instances where you can't escape the dynamics of your own voice but that's if you're using it in a certain way. There are voices that I do that sound sort of like me, like Fry and Doug but I'm using a particular placement in my throat. And then there are other characters that no one would be able to relate, like the fact that Zapp Brannigan is Doug Funnie."

Doug Funnie is its title character of Doug, Nickelodeon's beloved '90s animated series about a kid (along with his faithful dog, Porkchop) navigating the peaks and pitfalls of adolescence in his fictional town of Bluffington. Throughout its run, Doug's steadfast morals and lively imagination were equally matched by a quivering sense of impostor syndrome, making everything he said sound slightly meek. Listening to old clips of both Doug and Futurama seems to confirm West's revelation: Zapp Brannigan's voice is, in part, what an adult Doug Funnie might sound like if he had a trust fund and failed upwards his whole life.

The other parts? The most obvious inspiration for Brannigan came from another little sci-fi gem, Star Trek, with Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) providing some of the swagger. Other infusions come from the actor once-cast as Brannigan, Phil Hartman (Newsradio), who the character was originally written for and whose tragic death prompted showrunners to recast the role with West. Hartman's smooth tone, which can best be heard in Groening's animated series The Simpsons as Hollywood has-been Troy McClure, found its way into West's iteration of Brannigan, as did the slick-talking "Greaseman," radio personality Doug Tracht.

An IGN interview divulges that West had originally come to an audition call for all roles on Futurama among hundreds of actors, including Whose Line Is It Anyway? improv king Ryan Stiles (Two and a Half Men). Because the role of Zapp was, at the time, exclusively for Hartman, West merely read for Fry, foul-mouthed robot Bender, and Professor Farnsworth, eventually getting the call from his agent that he landed two roles on the series (in addition to Fry) as Dr. Zoidberg and Farnsworth. It was his sonic representation of intergalactic failure Brannigan, though, that brought the series some of its most hilarious moments.

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Original source: /Film.

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