Of course, the news this summer that Futurama — cancelled just a few seasons after the animated sci-fi comedy premiered on Fox in 1999 — will return with 13 new episodes on Comedy Central in a couple of years was greeted with great joy in the sci-fi/cartoon/general nerd community. The resurrection of a beloved cult favorite (such as Family Guy last year) is always a happy media moment. But then, Futurama never really died in the first place. For those who can’t wait until 2008, the show is easily available via DVD and Cartoon Network reruns.
Futurama originated in the same corner of creator Matt Groening’s brain as The Simpsons, and like its predecessor was distinguished by extremely smart (if lowbrow) writing from the beginning. Take one of my favorite bits, in which former pizza-delivery-boy Fry, transported cryogenically to the 31st-century, tries out the Professor’s newly invented smelloscope — it allows you to smell distant planets — while responsible, one-eyed spaceship captain Leela looks on.
Fry: “As long as you don’t make me smell Uranus.”
Leela: “I don’t get it.”
Professor: “I’m sorry, Fry, but astronomers renamed that planet in 2020 to stop that stupid joke once and for all.”
Fry: “Oh. What’s it called now?”
Every 12-year-old boy thinks he could write a joke like that — and maybe so, once he got an advanced science degree — but the truth is that Futurama springs from some very fine minds indeed. Even the most vulgar jokes are set in a richly inventive world informed by a science geek’s frame of reference.
Showrunner David X. Cohen, plucked by creator Groening from The Simpsons to be Futurama’s co-executive producer, graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in computer science. Cohen was known on The Simpsons as “the science guy;” he wrote the episodes where Lisa finds a weird skeleton, and Bart raises bird’s eggs that hatch into lizards.
“My original plan in life was to be a famous scientist,” Cohen recalled, when I interviewed him about his career. He worked for a year at the Harvard Robotics Lab before turning his comedy writing hobby (which he’d indulged at the Harvard Lampoon) into a career.
Did his experience at the Robotics lab help with the character of Bender the robot?
“Not really,” says Cohen. “Our approach on the show is robots are a lot like people. We often try with Bender to purposely have you not think he’s a robot.” So clanking sound effects are removed if the character’s being especially emotional, for instance.
What about when Bender falls asleep standing up in the closet?
“Is that human or robot activity?” Cohen mused. “Homer could probably fall asleep in the closet.” Bender had an especially human moment in a Valentine’s Day special episode, falling in love with the spaceship’s newly upgraded voice (played by Sigourney Weaver.)
Futurama never lacked for guest stars. Al Gore (whose daughter Kristin was one of the show’s writers) appeared repeatedly, and a special May sweeps episode featured most of the cast of the original Star Trek. But the show tweaked its core fans as much as it catered to them.
“Eternity with nerds. It’s the Pasadena Star Trek convention all over again,” remarked an animated Nichelle Nichols, who originally guest starred on Futurama as Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, in one Futurama episode.
In any case, Cohen told me around the time of the show’s debut that “I’m not the most advanced degree at Futurama. We have two people with Ph.D.s, one in applied math, and one in chemistry.”
Like Rocky and Bullwinkle, which children enjoyed but didn’t necessarily get, the great achievement of the best animated TV comedy is that morons can enjoy it along with the Mensa set. But what does the future hold for primetime animation? (Besides being periodically cancelled and then revived, that is.)
I still remember Matt Groening’s prediction, which he made at the Fox press conference for Futurama.
“The Simpsons will still be on in the year 3000,” Groening said. “But the fans on the Internet are complaining that the last 500 episodes haven’t been as good.”
— Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.