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Comic- Con brings a lot of ‘personality’ to San Diego

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

The 37th annual, four-day Comic-Con International wrapped up Sunday at the San Diego Convention Center. Officials say attendance at the country's biggest comic book and popular art convention was significantly higher than last year's total of 100,000. Vocal actor Billy West was among the panelists. For 20 years, he's given voices to illustrators' imaginations. KPBS Radio's Gil Griffin dropped by for a lesson.

I have a confession to make. I haven't always been a straight-talking radio reporter. Ever since I was a kid, I've been able to do voices. Really. I've entertained my family and friends with them. And I still love cartoons. When I hear cartoon character voices, I'm always thinking, Hey, I can do this!'

So I finally got up the nerve to go for my dream and test my skills with a master. At Comic-Con, I hooked up with Billy West. He's been the voice of characters from the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee and the Red M&M to Doctor Zoidberg and Zap Baranigan, on the hit TV series, "Futurama." Remember him from this other popular cartoon?

West: (As Stimpy) "Hey Ren? Will you button me? (As Ren) Stimpy, It's time to go to bed."

So what does this voice look like? Maybe not how you think. At
5 foot 5, West says he has the body of a 16 year old. At 55, he's a kid at heart. West may be big-time, but he was cool enough to leave his own autograph signing session to give me a free, private, half-hour voice lesson. First, he told me how he got started.

West: "It's one of those careers that chooses you, it's not like you choose it, you know it's like I couldn't help tourette-ing out voices and noises and stuff and they would say, Could you not do that?' No, I'm a kid, I cannot not do that, I have to do that."

West never stopped. He grew up poor, in Detroit and was riveted by cartoons and movies. West didn't go to college. He played in a rock band and did a few radio gigs. Almost 20 years ago, he landed the part of "Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent" on ABC TV's short-lived animated show, "Beany and Cecil." He also took acting and voice classes with industry icons Maurice La Marche and Stella Adler.

West says today, voice acting is more cutthroat than ever, as Hollywood film stars take jobs away from vocal performers.

West: "The odds are stacked against voice actors to try to get a part in an animated movie. You can't. It's like all these a-list celebrities are crashing the gates. They bring nothing to the party. you know I'm tired of seeing (in Will Smith voice), 'I'm Will Smith, I'm a palm tree, I'm Will Smith, I'm a fire hydrant.' Yeah, I know you're Will Smith, and this and that. I'm sorry, but a lot of people bring nothing but their own ego to the table."

I checked my own at West's impromptu classroom - an outdoor veranda at the San Diego Convention Center. We started by reading a disclaimer on the backs of our Comic-Con badges.

West: "If you can duplicate any kind of a noise, you can create a voice. Ok, it says, it is unlawful to duplicate or re-sell this badge.' The hell it is! I'll sign it and sell it."

Griffin: (As Yoda) "Unlawful it is to duplicate or sell this badge."

West: "Don't do that."

OK, so he wasn't buying my Yoda impression. So much for being teacher's pet.

West: "It's all about placement. Like, where are you going to start? Your voice is in neutral. You think of it like an automatic shift. And now, if you put a little more acting into it, you can figure out the subtext, like how you wanna deliver it. You wanna be threatening? Do you wanna be reminding somebody friendly, like, 'it is unlawful, don't forget.'"

Griffin: "It is unlawful to duplicate or re-sell this badge."

WEST: "So you don't sound like you anymore. You escaped the physicality that you always deal with."

A-ha! I get it! What could be more outside my own physicality than a woman in her 40s?

Griffin: (In character) "It is unlawful to duplicate this badge."

West: "Now you're doing a female-type voice, you've given it an accent - sounds slightly Booklyn."

Griffin: (Still in character) "I have a friend and she kinda talked like this, she was fromthe Midwest - and she was from Chicago."

West: "Wait a minute, you're fooling me, you're not an amateur! You're a professional and you're trying to throw me a curveball -"

Giffin (in character): "No no, I'm really not, I really wanna learn.

West: "You have talent, you can do it. I mean, believe me, go for it. If you wanna do anything like that, go do it."

Wow! He really liked it. I actually impressed a professional with an impression.

West: "That was great. I thought you were consistent in the character. You know, you've gotta sell it more. See, you were trying to prove something to me but you weren't selling it to an audience."

I ask him if he'll give me another free lesson. His face turns serious. His voice transforms him into menacing mob boss, Tony Soprano.

West (In Tony Soprano voice): "This is the last interview I'm doing with you. You're not my kinda people, you understand?"

Well at least I got a valuable lesson. and one day, I will live out my dream.

Griffin (in female character): "But for now, i'm a radio reporter. For KPBS radio. I'm Gil Griffin."


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