Futurama coming back atcha

Matt Groening (left), David Cohen, and Bender the robot at Groening’s studio.
Photo: Sian Kennedy

David X. Cohen is watching a short animation clip on a computer monitor. It’s a tight shot of two robots’ pelvises. They thrust their cube-shaped midsections together and swap a DVD from one of their disc drives to the other. This, Cohen explains, is footage of a sci-fi stage show, a suggestive all-robot version of Cirque du Soleil. “Nothing makes me happier than a scene with no living being in it,” he says.

Cohen has another reason to be happy. The segment he’s watching is from Futurama, the show that he codeveloped back in 1999 with Simpsons creator Matt Groening. (Cohen wrote and produced some of the animated sitcom’s most popular episodes.) With that pedigree, Futurama seemed like a can’t-fail proposition, but it was canceled five years ago. This footage, however, is new: Futurama is back in production, and the unexpected return is as curious as the story of its abrupt cancellation.

Set in the year 3000, Futurama‘s interstellar sci-fi future isn’t a shiny utopia like The Jetsons or a dark dystopia like Blade Runner. It’s a time that seems wonderful or awful depending on how you look at it — just like the present. “On The Jetsons, there’s a machine that ties your tie for you,” Cohen says. “On Futurama, there’d be a machine that tied your tie, but it would malfunction and start strangling you.”

Those kinds of macabre twists would be Futurama‘s undoing. Fox was expecting something familiar, The Simpsons in space. Executives certainly were not prepared for the bizarre contours of Groening and Cohen’s brave new world. “The network’s attitude quickly went from tremendous excitement to great fear,” Groening says. “They were very troubled by the suicide booth. They didn’t like the ‘All-Tentacle Massage’ parlor.”

Futurama premiered to strong ratings, but as the show was shuffled around the schedule, viewership slipped. Every season, the renewal notice came late — so late that there wasn’t always time to deliver a full slate of episodes. After the fourth season, the people working on the show waited and waited for a renewal notice until they eventually assumed — correctly — that it wasn’t going to come. “We didn’t get to finish the way we would’ve liked,” Cohen says.

Futurama was never a mass market success — it never generated universally known catchphrases like “Don’t have a cow, man” or a movie that grossed half a billion dollars. It just attracted a niche of enthusiastic devotees. But in the modern media landscape, a hardcore niche of fans can be all you need.

Futurama was killed, but like some B-movie cyborg it refused to stay dead. The fans watched the 72 episodes religiously in syndication and shelled out $170 to get the entire run on DVD. So, in 2005, Fox green-lighted 16 new episodes. Cohen and Groening have reassembled many of the hundreds of writers, animators, and voice artists who’d gone on to other projects to create four DVDs of new material, including sexy robot stage shows. The first DVD hits stores on November 27, and the features will then be divided into half-hour episodes when the entire run of the series begins airing on Comedy Central next year.

At last, Futurama is getting a fifth season.

Star Trek had a token alien crew member. Futurama‘s crew includes an alien, a mutant, and a robot.
Image: Matt Groening; Futurama TM and 2007 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Matt Groening’s studio in Santa Monica, California, is where Futurama is written and where Groening draws his comic strip, Life in Hell, which has been a newspaper fixture for nearly three decades. It’s also where Groening keeps his music collection. There’s an entire room stacked floor to ceiling with LPs, CDs, and tapes, everything from Swiss yodels to Balinese gamelan. It’s a sunny afternoon in late September, and Groening’s a day late delivering the latest installment of Life in Hell. “When I’m procrastinating, I come in here and file a few dozen records,” he says.

Groening, 53, is an omnivorous mediaphile, and it shows in his work. The Simpsons began as a straightforward parody of the conventions of domestic sitcoms but quickly turned into a nonstop barrage of pop culture references and allusions. For Futurama, Groening drew upon a childhood shaped by Isaac Asimov stories and the colorful covers of pulp magazines. (There’s a stack of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures from the 1950s on a shelf near a few of his Emmy statuettes.)

Groening shows me another media archive housed nearby in the studio: a wall full of sci-fi paperbacks. He points to some that he and Cohen studied while working on their show. Arthur C. Clarke! Alfred Bester! Stanislaw Lem! Rudy Rucker! Kurt Vonnegut!

Taken from Wired