Movie Article

'Toon Voice

Billy West is the new Mel Blanc

In the latest TV ads, does the red M&M candy sound different to you... and yet still vaguely familiar? That's because the new voice behind the M (taking over for Jon Lovitz and John Goodman) is Billy West, whom you've heard on such shows as "Doug" and Steven Spielberg's "Toonsylvania." One of the most animated voices in the biz, West last year received the ultimate cartoon contract: He voiced Bugs Bunny in "Space Jam." You might say that West has become the Mel Blanc of the '90s.

Bugs isn't the only well-known voice that the 46-year-old vocal artist has mimicked. He did the 1960s cartoon star "Speed Racer" in a recent Volkswagen ad, and he took over the pipes of that cranky chihuahua Ren when "Ren and Stimpy" creator John Kricfalusi left the show in 1992. (Kricfalusi originally played Ren, and West has played Stimpy the cat since the beginning of the Nickelodeon series.) "There's quite a business in [vocal] replication," says West, "because people get too old to do their voices, or someone's difficult to work with, or they want too much money."

Given his druthers, however, Los Angeles resident West would rather develop original voices than mimic established ones: "I love it when somebody puts a picture in front of me, and says, 'What do you think this would sound like?' It's more fun to be somebody who creates something." He gets his chance to invent voices in the upcoming 'toons "Catdog" (in which a cat and a dog share a body) and "Histeria!" (a series of animated history lessons).

But adult kids with radios might be more familiar with West's raunchiest creations: the racist female caller and "the Jackie puppet" (the evil alter-ego of head writer Jackie Martling) on Howard Stern's radio show. West was on Stern's show from 1993 to 1995: "While I was doing that sweet little show 'Doug,' I was doing that psycho 'Ren and Stimpy,' and the devil's work on Stern at the very same time."

For now, constant work is keeping West from his other passion: music. (He has toured as a guitarist for Roy Orbison and Brian Wilson.) But he's happy to shelve tunes for 'toons. "If you're the flavor of the month," says West, "you don't call everybody up and say, 'I'm gonna take the month off.'"

Originally posted Feb 19, 1998
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