Billy West Put A Monstrous Spin On The Voice Of Futurama's Nixon

Anyone who has seen Richard Nixon on Matt Groening's and David X. Cohen's "Futurama" — or, more correctly, seen Nixon's head in a jar of fluid on "Futurama" — might have noted that voice actor Billy West gave the president a strange vocal quirk. Every so often, Nixon — in the mythology of the show, the president of Earth in the year 3000 — lets forth with a very gentle "haroo." This is not an interjection Nixon was known for, nor is it a reference to anything in particular that Nixon did in real life. It was merely a nonsense word that West invented. One might be able to extrapolate that Nixon — quite a jowly man — might have a cheek-flapping noise he made on the rare occasions he needed to shake his head vigorously, but surely West's "haroo" had an origin more sophisticated than that. 

When it came time to cast Nixon, West was asked to casually audition. He explained that his natural voice — clear and of a higher register — hardly matched the deep, bag-mouthed rasp of Nixon. But then he recalled his first experience with the former president.

As it turns out, the "haroo" noise was derived from a very distinct memory West had of Nixon. As many TV historians have noted, the televised 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates were likely a turning point in the election, depicting Kennedy as camera-ready and confident, whereas Nixon was unshaven, unkempt, and not very telegenic. It was watching the Kennedy/Nixon debates on television that gave a young West (who was born in 1952) an abiding image of Nixon. The hair, scary politician — to West's eyes — was definitely a werewolf. 

He's turning into a werewolf

At the 2015 Anime Midwest convention in Rosemont, Illinois, West took to the stage to talk about his various roles on "Futurama" — west also plays Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, and numerous others — and to share his true feelings about Nixon. It turns out that West was not a fan of the late president, and recalls with no small amount of bitterness that it was Nixon that attempted to draft West into the Vietnam War. Or, in his curt words, "The bastard drafted me in 1970." West was early in the draft, so there was no way to avoid service. Luckily, West was classified 4-F — unfit for military service — because of his hypertension and, he says "I had the flattest feet that a human could have, you know? It would suck the floors as I walked by." 

West's recollection of the 1960 debates is clear, and he, like many, responded positively to Kennedy's handsome visage and confidence in front of cameras. He also responded negatively to Nixon's shadowy, glum demeanor and unusual facial hair. West said: 

"[Nixon] was on TV debating Kennedy back then and, you know, Kennedy was the first president who was made for television. This is the first televised presidential debate. Kennedy looked like a game show host, you know? The ultra-bright smile, gleam in his eye and buttered-toast hair. You know, perfect! And Nixon looked like he crawled out of a spider hole in Iraq. He was just so sweaty, and ... his five o'clock shadow [was] coming in too early. He was transforming right in front of us as he was speaking on television."

Transforming? Into what?

Werewolf Nixon

The Kennedy/Nixon debates aired in September of 1960, when West was eight years old. He saw the scary Nixon and yelled to his mother. That panic, West said, he parlayed directly into his performance of Nixon. On stage, West began howling:

"And I said to my mom, we were watching this, I said, 'Mom! He's gonna turn into a werewolf!' That's what I really think, 'He's gonna turn into a werewolf right before our eyes!' And she laughed you know, but as I saw it, it was just [Nixon impression] 'Well the reason I wanna be, uhhh, president of this country is because.... Bahroo... Haroooo!'"

Thus the infamous Nixon "haroo" became part of "Futurama" lore.

Indeed, in the "Futurama" episode "Decision 3012" (June 27, 2012), Nixon is running for reelection against one of the cleanest, most honest politicians imaginable. Nixon is stymied by his inability to dig up dirt on his opponent (with the help of the robot Bender, played by John DiMaggio). When Nixon learns that his opponent's middle name is Zaxxar, he concludes that he is secretly a space alien immigrant and that he'll need to produce his Earth Certificate. The story was, one might intuit, topical for 2012. So pleased is Nixon at the prospect of being devious that he screams that he might be having "a jowl movement," before letting loose with a full-throated werewolf howl. West's suspicions as an eight-year-old were finally realized in 2012.