David X. Cohen is Executive Producer of the critically-acclaimed animated series Futurama, and also spent five years as a writer for The Simpsons. He has won four Emmy Awards and four Annie Awards. He also holds a Master’s degree in Theoretical Computer Science from UC Berkeley, as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Physics from Harvard University.
You co-developed Futurama, along with Matt Groening, and you guys wrote the pilot script together, so why don’t you tell us about how that came about, and how much of the larger story had you worked out at that point?
I was a writer at The Simpsons for five years, and four years into that, rumors started going around that Matt Groening was working on this secret science fiction project. I was very interested, of course, being the SF/science nerd on the Simpsons’ writing staff. Matt came to me and asked if I wanted to collaborate with him, and we started talking in our spare time, because we were both still working on The Simpsons, on weekends and evenings about what we might do in Futurama. A lot of it was just, “What books do we like? What movies do we like?” This went on for a year, which was too much time in retrospect; when we finally went in to FOX Network to sell the show, we had too much stuff and the meeting went on for about two hours. I think they finally said, “All right, that’s enough! We’ll take the show if you just shut up.” It ended up being a learning experience.
What were your science fiction nerd qualifications at that point?
I was mainly a science nerd; I’m an SF nerd in the sense that I like to read science fiction, but I was almost a scientist. I had two biologists as parents, I got my undergraduate degree in physics and I decided to go study computer science at UC Berkeley. I pooped out halfway through and ended up with a Master’s degree instead of a PhD and started writing comedy spec scripts. It was a torturous, circuitous route to comedy writing. I had the science side pretty well cornered at The Simpsons, until Ken Keeler showed up. He’s another writer on The Simpsons and, later, Futurama, and he has a PhD in applied math, so his credentials are a bit better than mine. But he showed up too late to get in on the development stage of Futurama, lucky for me.
I come from a family of scientists as well. My dad got into physics because he wanted to write science fiction, and he thought that would be a good background for a science fiction writer. Did your interest in science fiction play any role when you decided to go into physics?
I never really thought about that. I bet it did, but you may have just planted that idea in my head. I think that’s a really interesting thought, because it is, especially for physics, inspiring to read about space travel and intelligent stars. But I’m going to credit you with planting the seed.
Getting back to the Futurama pilot, you said that you worked out too much of it when you went into FOX; how much of the show as we know it had you worked out when you went into that initial meeting?
We had a huge number of characters; so many that some of them we did not get to during the seven seasons of the show. Matt had a couple already when he asked me to join him: Fry, Leela, Zap Brannigan, and Kif. We then created Bender and Zoidberg, but we kept going: We had Nibbler, and we even invented Pocket Pal, who was this tiny robot. He was six inches high and he was going to ride around in Fry’s pocket and explain the world of the future, because we thought that, “Oh, people are going to be so confused!” That’s one of those lessons we learned, that people don’t want a lecture on how the future works, they just want to see what’s happening. We rapidly stopped explaining things to Fry, even though he was our man in the future, from our time, we started thinking of him as another character who was just a dumb guy rather than someone who knew nothing about the future. So we never needed this little guide and, as a throw-away joke — in a literal sense — we showed the Professor in a late episode tossing little robots in the garbage and blowing them up like firecrackers, and one of them was Pocket Pal.
This is mostly a show where we interview science fiction authors and talk about science fiction books; which science fiction books in particular do you think influenced the development of Futurama?
I’ll talk about books as well, but obviously Star Trek is a huge influence. Book-wise, there’s not much comedy science fiction that I’m aware of, but when I was a kid, I used to find books lying around my house because my mom was a voracious science fiction reader. That’s where I got my love of science fiction. I found Stanislaw Lem books, like The Star Diaries and Tales of Pirx the Pilot, and I think Mortal Engines; really strange, surreal, and funny SF short stories that had a big influence on me, especially as far as the idea that robots could be characters. Bender being the most human character on Futurama does owe a little to Stanislaw Lem. I particularly remember this one story about a planet that was entirely inhabited by robots, and these humans crash-landed on it and murderous robots are out to kill all the humans and the humans have to pretend to be robots to survive. It turns out that — spoiler alert — everybody on the planet are humans who crash-landed and are disguising themselves as robots, hiding from each other. That directly influenced Futurama; we did an episode similar to that, minus the “robots-being-humans-in-disguise.” I read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut in my graduate school days, but that’s about it for the funny science fiction. Most of the stuff I like is straight science fiction.
This naturally leads into how we do SF in Futurama, which is, as a funny SF show, is it making fun of science fiction? Or is it real science fiction with jokes in it? We weren’t sure ourselves, when we were developing the show. We didn’t have a lot of models to decide what we liked best, so we just started fooling around. We did decide pretty quickly that we weren’t going to do the real goofy version where there are spaceships that look like flying bicycles. We thought those kind of visual jokes would wear thin; if you had to see a dumb-looking ship 1,000 times, it wouldn’t be funny the 832nd. As far as the tone, we weren’t sure if people would watch if it was more serious SF, and the feedback loop is very slow in animation; we would do a show that would take a year to make, and then read comments on the internet and start writing a new show, and that’s one a year later. But we noticed that the fans were responding well to the episodes that had more science fiction in them, and if you watch the series again — which I encourage everyone to do — you’ll see we go for more serious SF stories as it goes along. The thing that was surprising to me, and the other writers I think, was that a lot of those ended up being our funnier episodes as well, and that’s what we didn’t know that we could do at first — a real science fiction story, but also a comedy or touching story. The reason it worked is that having this grand, melodramatic background for the SF story sets up this bubble of tension that you can pop with the jokes, and the jokes actually end up playing better.
It says online that, when you were trying to get this show going, FOX was particularly disturbed by the concepts of suicide booths, Dr. Zoidberg, and Bender’s anti-social behavior. Can you talk about what kind of push-back you got on putting that weird science fictional stuff into the show?
We were especially nervous about sticking science fiction into this show. The famous quote in my mind is, when we handed in the pilot or maybe the first couple scripts, they said, “Hey, we thought this was supposed to be like The Simpsons.” And Matt Groening said, “It is like The Simpsons: It’s new and original.” I think they thought it was going to be a family flying around on a sofa in space. We were trying to make it as different from The Simpsons as we could; Matt especially didn’t want to be accused of being short of ideas and ripping off his own show. So we wanted to put more SF in and different kinds of characters, young adults instead of parents and kids. We got a lot of notes in the beginning — ”Bender’s too mean,” “You’re going to a different planet every week, we want to know what Earth is like,” — so we toned it down, the biggest example being the third episode of the series called “I, Roommate.” That was conceived to placate the network, and the idea was that Fry and Bender were going to become roommates; they’re going to look for an apartment together and we’re going to find out just how people live in the future. It’s a perfectly good episode, but their reaction to that was basically, “We hate this, too!” There was a lot of feeling our way the first season.
I guess some of the stuff was too much for executives; did the general public react negatively to the suicide booths or any of that?
No. People don’t care about that kind of stuff. If peoples’ little kids are watching the show, they might be slightly outraged as defensive parents, but the problem was that they let their kid watch this PG-13 rated show in the first place. The tone is in the ballpark of material you would be exposed to on The Simpsons in terms of sex and violence, so I don’t think there was much outrage at all over suicide booths, especially since the character who really wanted to commit suicide was a machine, Bender. The idea that Bender was too mean ended up being inapplicable, because Bender ultimately sticks with his friends and people took to Bender as one of our more popular characters. We probably lost a few viewers by flying to other planets, but people who don’t like science fiction are not going to watch the show, and hopefully we got a few viewers who weren’t expecting to see as much science fiction.
How about when you have political characters, like Richard Nixon or Al Gore; do you ever get any political people being unhappy about that?
Yes, we do. Richard Nixon is a great example; for those listening who don’t watch Futurama, Nixon’s head, which is preserved in a jar of liquid — as many famous people’s heads are in the future — is President of the World. The reason we did that was because we thought Richard Nixon is a great cartoon character in real life and makes an easy transition. I remember Matt Groening saying, “If you had told me in the ’70s that I was going to be able to make fun of Richard Nixon thirty years later, I would’ve been so happy.” It was one of those things that we thought would be a quick joke and that we’d do once or twice, but it ended up being a recurring thing. Early in the show, the network got a letter from the Richard Nixon Library or Estate, saying they weren’t pleased with his portrayal, and would we consider not doing it. There’s no legal reason we couldn’t do it, because Presidents are fair game as public figures, which seems to be well established in US law. But we didn’t stop. The strange thing was — we didn’t really do this consciously — but Nixon became less evil as it went along, and was more of a practical tyrant who had to put up with difficult aliens and annoying people. Perhaps that helped, or perhaps they just got used to it, but a few years later we got another letter asking for us to provide some materials, because they were going to do an exhibit about Nixon in popular culture and they wanted to include Futurama.
Al Gore, being on the other end of the spectrum, got mostly positive feedback. Each person has their own reaction; our audience probably leans in the direction of pro-science and anti-putting-carbon-dioxide-in-the-atmosphere, so it wasn’t that controversial. Al Gore was amazing; it was surprising that he agreed to be on the show the first time, because he was still the sitting Vice President. People may not remember the first time he appeared on the show as the head of the Super Nerd Squad that was trying to stop the universe from collapsing. I think he wanted to improve his public persona and show that he had a sense of humor, and he did. When you’re in the room with him, he’s charismatic and a very funny guy, and I was impressed by his willingness to scream and make a fool out of himself. As a result, we invited him back and he became one of our most frequently recurring side characters.
A big reason that we wanted to get you on the show, now specifically, is because this book just came out called The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secret by Simon Singh, and they interviewed you for that and you’re going around with Singh talking about the book. You want to tell us about what you and Simon have been doing together?
When we first started sticking math jokes in the background of The Simpsons — which is the subject of the book — the jokes were not intended for a mass audience; we had empty space in the background and we thought, “We’ve already written this scene, but we can still stick another joke in the background!” It’s something you can do in cartoons, and the few people at the time who had good VCRs could freeze the tape and see what we put there. Having come recently from computer science, I put a few math jokes in, thinking that my old friends would appreciate it, and a few of the other science and math writers did similar things. We didn’t plan for more than about eight people to see these jokes. Enter the internet right around this time, the mid ’90s, and we notice people are discussing them. That’s when I became aware of this phenomenon with The Simpsons, and later Futurama, where there’s an opportunity to put in jokes that very few people will get, but the people that do are so amazed that they’re a fan for life after. You might only add twelve fans at a time, but they become hardcore. Futurama especially had an audience composed of that kind of fan, that later saved our neck when we were canceled repeatedly. So it’s been very surreal to me that more and more people have latched on to these math jokes and it got to the point that this well-known science writer, Simon Singh from England, wrote this book. I’m doing interviews about math that I haven’t thought about in twenty years, and we’re going around doing some talks. We were at Moogfest, an electronic music festival in North Carolina, a few months ago, and I’m going to be in London at the London Science Museum in a week and a half with Simon Singh and Al Jean, who’s the head writer for The Simpsons, talking again about these science and math jokes. Al Jean was also a math major in college; it’s strange that there was this locus of science and math people on The Simpsons and Futurama.
Are there any of those math jokes from Futurama that you’re particularly proud of and want to give as an example of the kind of things you do in the show?
The highlight of Futurama math is now known as the Futurama Theorem. The writer of the episode was Ken Keeler, who I mentioned earlier has a PhD in applied math, and has two Master’s degrees, one in applied math and one in electrical engineering. The idea was that the characters were all going to switch brains with this brain-switching machine, a standard science fiction and cartoon idea, and we thought, “How can we make this a little more interesting?” We came up with this complication where it’s a one-way brain-switching machine; if Fry and Leela switch brains, those two characters cannot correct their brain placement. So we thought, “If a lot of the characters get their brains mixed up, can they all keep trading brains around in a circle or something until they get their brains back?” We were just trying to make the plot more complicated, but we realized we had accidently created this math problem, and we started talking about it, thinking it would be obvious. But it wasn’t clear whether they could all get their brains back or not. Ken comes in the next morning with a stack of papers and he had proven that, no matter how mixed up peoples’ brains are, if you bring in two new people who have not had their brains switched then everyone can always get their original brains back, including those two new people. I was very excited about this, because you rarely get to see science, let alone math, be the hero. I really wanted to feature that more than we usually do — in the background — so we presented the problem, it was the key element of the plot, and at the climactic moment of the episode, we flashed the entire proof of the theorem on screen. All credit to Ken Keeler.
In Simon’s book, he points out that in the specific situation presented in the show, they could have sorted it out without adding two new people into the mix. Did you know that at the time?
We had two characters who, by the nature of the particular switches they had done, could be used as those two “extra” bodies. As the script went along, we did some rewriting and, originally, there were a few more brain switches and it was going to be more complicated, but you only have twenty-one and a half minutes to work with, and we had to simplify things. We did not realize that, by the time we had cut a couple of switches, it could be sorted out more simply. That doesn’t really affect the outcome; the proof is still the proof. We didn’t say you couldn’t switch them back without using the two extra heroes, we just said that you could switch them with the two extras. So for any nitpickers, there you go; I’ve out-nitpicked you.
I’m best familiar with Simon Singh because he was involved in this giant libel suit that’s been going on for years now. While you’ve been hanging out with him, have you talked about that, or have you been following that situation at all?
I’m no expert on it, but I know he wrote a book called Trick or Treatment, about chiropractors particularly, but alternative medicine in general, and laying out the science, or lack of science, behind it. This led to a giant libel suit in the UK, and after years of crushing legal work and court appearances, Singh won the case; he defended himself by showing that he was citing actual science. This became such a big thing in England that there was reform of the libel laws, so he did become a major figure there in a way he didn’t want to. Hopefully it’s a victory for science.
Looking over the list of episodes, you’re credited as the head writer for the whole show. But in addition to the pilot, there are four other episodes that you’re credited as the writer on, and then you have two short bits in the “Anthology of Interest” episodes. Can you talk about why you wrote the scripts for those?
Let me say a bit about the writing credit, on The Simpsons and Futurama and almost all American sitcoms: Never give the credited writer too much credit or blame, because these are group efforts. It’s almost a rotating basis, who gets their name on the script. Whoever it says it was written by did write the first draft, but in the natural process of doing these shows, we then put the script up on a screen in a room full of writers and comb over it for a week or two, looking at every line, every word. The great majority of the script changes at that point. Even the stories themselves are often generated by a group discussion. The same goes for episodes where I am the credited writer, the only difference being that if I propose the subject for an episode, I will then approve it, whereas if some other writer proposes an idea, I may or may not approve it. The reason I’m credited on certain episodes is that I had an idea when I happened to have the time to write the script.
One is the first X-mas episode. In the future, Christmas has become known as X-mas due to the constant use of the shortened form, and this evil Santa Claus character comes and punishes the naughty and, due to a software error, he thinks everybody is naughty, so he strafes the Earth with machine gun fire from his sleigh every year. I wrote that because it is one of the many stories that Matt Groening and I discussed in the early days before we pitched the show to FOX.
I wrote one called “The Why of Fry” that filled us in on the backstory about Nibbler and Fry and Nibbler’s grand plans for the universe. Nibbler is this creature who appears to be a dumb alien pet but is actually from this super-powerful alien race who are never respected because they’re so cute. Again, that was an idea we discussed early on, so I felt I should write it. So I guess there was a good reason for me to write them, now that I’m going through it. A couple of the later ones we did for Comedy Central, those were more of the thing I was saying before: I had time.
Could you talk about the “Anthology of Interest” segments that you wrote? Even by the standards of Futurama, these are pretty geeky.
These episodes are ones where we do three mini-stories instead of one big story; this is the formula for The Simpsons Halloween episodes. In Futurama, we say, “What if ___?”, and it’s some alternate version of the future. In one, which I wrote, Fry asks the question, “What if I had never come to the future?” and we see that, because he was supposed to go into the future and the future changed, there is an instability in the space-time continuum, and the universe is going to collapse. We then show Al Gore leading this team of super nerds consisting of him; Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons; Nichelle Nichols, from the original Star Trek; Deep Blue, the chess-playing computer; and Stephen Hawking, who also appeared three times on Futurama. I was a big D&D player, to nobody’s surprise.
On a basic logistical level, what is it like trying to get all those people together to do the voices for one ten-minute segment?
Luckily with a cartoon, you can get these people separately. With our regular cast, we would try to get them in the same room because I always thought the dialogue sounded more natural. With these guest stars, it’s usually impossible; they often don’t live in Los Angeles or even in the United States in some cases. The logistics for this one were crazy; to get Al Gore, we had to fly to Washington, DC and record him in the Vice Presidential residence, which is a secure compound, and it was super cool. Stephen Hawking was at Caltech at the time, and we thought he could email his dialogue, since he uses an electronic voice anyway. But he said he wanted the experience of being a guest on the show, which was amazing, so we went to his house in Pasadena. As both a science fiction guy and a former physics major, that was one of the highlights for me.
How about “The Raiders of the Lost Arcade”?
These particular “Anthology of Interest” episodes I wrote because they are things I was especially interested in; I’m gradually taking back everything I said before about it being chance. The “what if” scenario was Fry asking, “What if life were more like a video game?” I got to use things from videogames of the 1980s, which was my era, back when you would spend your quarters in the arcade. And I spent many quarters. We had a Space Invaders-style invasion of Earth; Lrrr was commanding this force and giving orders such as, “Move left! Drop down! Reverse direction!” There were cameos from ’80s games like Q*bert, Berzerk — for any Berzerk fans out there, “Got the humanoid, got the intruder!” — and we were trying to recreate them without literally using them. It was a challenge for our sound effects guy; for a lot of them, there’s no clean recording possible because the sound effects are overlapping.
Can you put any video game character in the cartoon, or do you have to worry about any intellectual property sort of stuff?
We make designs that are closely based on the thing we want to parody, then send it off to FOX for legal review, and we end up with something, hopefully, that gives you the clear idea of what we’re talking about but which is still distinct. It’s always a back and forth process, and lots of lawyers looking at everything.
We had a couple of listener questions; Justin L. Tabor asks, “How did they manage to maintain such great continuity?” Did you have any kind of bible to keep the facts straight from one episode to the next?
We often consult fan wiki pages, where they have compiled all the appearances of various characters, and make sure we have not done what we’re going to do. There are many fans that have a better memory of the show than us. Patric Verrone — who is the only writer other than me who worked on every episode, including all of the DVDs — would keep a little page for each episode we had ever done with a picture and a list of guest stars and the air date. We would arrange these on the upper edge of the wall around the room and while we were pitching out new ideas, we’d always be pointing to things and going, “It has to be different from episode 408 over there.” Over the years, you would get used to where everything was and you’d start pointing without looking. After Comedy Central picked us up, there would’ve been ninety-eight episodes wrapped very neatly around the walls, and then when they renewed us again for twenty-six episodes, Patric printed them out and shaved them down so that 124 could fit in the same spot.
Ted Hand asks, “Should aspiring writers go into math instead of humanities?”
It couldn’t hurt. I don’t know anyone who wanted to be a writer who was held back by not studying writing. There are very few qualifications to becoming a TV writer. It’s amazing the variety of backgrounds we have; people who have PhDs and people who kind of made it through high school and became stand-up comedians. If you like writing, and stick to it, you can become a writer, so you might as well learn something more useful for a fallback career.
How did you end up with so many science people on that show? Did you specifically recruit them?
For Futurama, it makes sense. It’s a science fiction show; I purposely hired people who were science/SF types. When we get the science wrong, we know it. Now, on The Simpsons, it’s hard to explain. Al Jean, who I mentioned was one of the head writers early on, was a math major and his writing partner at the time, Mike Reiss, had always been very interested in math and puzzles. I think they hired other people who enjoyed that kind of stuff, too. At the time I was hired, David Mirkin was the head writer; he was an engineer previously, and Ken Keeler showed up later with a PhD in math. I think of it like a crystal seed, one or two people who like math and hire people with similar sensibilities and it gets magnified. Luckily, I got to know some of those people and got to use them on Futurama.
Say we have a lot of science fiction fans listening to this show and some of them might want to write for Futurama the next time it gets revived. What would the process be?
The same as any other sitcom — it’s virtually impossible. It requires a strange combination of dogged persistence and tremendous good luck. Once you get your first job, if you do a good job, it becomes more of a regular career where you have credentials. It’s the same, I’m sure, for acting and directing and all these things where things just have to fall into place. In my case, I was writing a lot of spec scripts, which are sample scripts, when I was in graduate school. I wrote samples for Seinfeld and The Simpsons and things that were popular at that time and sent them to everybody I could think of. I knew a couple of people who had become TV writers, which is a huge advantage; you have to work any angle you can to get someone to read your material. Someone I knew got my material to the head writer of David Letterman’s show — Late Night, at that time — and they almost hired me. Right about that time, Mike Judge created Beavis and Butthead, and they were airing the first episode on MTV and it was a sensation. He went on David Letterman as a guest, and afterwards he was talking to the head writer about how they had ordered a bunch of episodes and he needed really cheap writers who were funny right away. And the guy handed him my stuff, and Mike hired me.
I have another listener question from Chuck Floading. He says, “Many episodes seem to revolve around some crazy thing invented by Professor Farnsworth; a true plot device. When writing an episode, did the writers come up with a Professor Farnsworth invention first and let the story flow from that? Or does the story idea come first and the invention second?”
A lot of times we’ll have the invention, but we won’t be able to think of a story to use it in, and this plays to the heart of what makes a good script and story: A lot of times people have a good device, but they don’t have the character story that goes with it. Some examples: the Professor’s time machine that only goes into the future. That was an idea Matt Groening suggested but, for a long time, we didn’t have a story. It has to have a theme; it has to have a beginning, middle, and end, and some human emotion. We eventually came up with this story where Fry is in the time machine and Leela is left behind; he had finally professed his love and then they’re separated by billions of years. It ended up being one of our best episodes, and one of those which has a good SF story and a touching, emotional story at the same time. We couldn’t write it until both of those things came together. I think that often the form of the physical invention came first. We’d stick that up on the board and someone later comes up with a character take on it. Another example we used in our finale episode, which was quite similar in its mechanism: a push-button that rewinds time ten seconds. Again, we had that idea for a while, and made it into a story by combining it with another story we had gotten stuck on where time froze.
I loved the finale, and that push-button that rewinds time ten seconds and Fry ends up falling off the building and he can’t rewind time enough.
An interesting thing about time travel is that it’s very good for emotional stories, even time travel of ten seconds, because there are concepts in life of, “Oh if only I could do that again; if only I could have that one second back, how would my life be different?” It lets you play into key moments in peoples’ lives. By a similar token, the long-distance time travel lets you do this thing where you’re separated from the person you love or your parents. The whole set-up of Futurama is that Fry is a thousand years ahead of his family and people he’ll never see again; the one-way nature of time is just so connected to the joy and tragedy of real life.
We mentioned that was the series finale, but it was actually the fourth series finale that you guys have done. This is something I think is really frustrating, that you can have a show that is massively popular among science fiction fans — like Futurama, the original Star Trek, Firefly, Farscape, etc. — and it gets canceled. From your perspective as a TV show creator, why is it so hard for science fiction shows to stay on the air?
For live-action shows, there’s the issue of budget, and that impacted the original Star Trek a lot and forced them to do all their western episodes and everything with existing sets. The SF fan base is very dedicated but is not necessarily enough to keep a network show on the air. Animated shows are often more expensive at the beginning, and less expensive later on; there’s a lot of start-up costs and many employees animating, but you usually don’t end up with the actors making $400,000 an episode, The Simpsons being a notable exception. At the same time, you have the difficulties of a cartoon: “Are people going to buy into this world?” In Futurama, we always ended up with this audience that was exactly on the cut-off point between the network keeping it on the air or not, and we were in suspense every year. We ended up writing what we thought, at the time, was going to be our finale episode — four times. It became an in-joke that we would always have Ken Keeler write the last episode. When you start to get a lot of experience writing your “last episode ever,” you know something’s gone horribly wrong.
Most of these shows, when they get canceled, there’s a fan campaign to try to save them; when Farscape was canceled, I saw somebody say that by the time the show actually gets canceled, or by the time you as a fan hear about that, it’s too late. Really, if you care about a science fiction show, you should be organizing a campaign before, because you should just assume it’s going to be canceled. What do you think of that from the point of view as a show runner?
That’s basically true. With animation, when they cancel the show, the machine shuts down and by the time they start it up it’s going to take another year to get your first show on the air. Unless you’re South Park; then it takes six days. Then there’s the second question of what fans can do that actually influences networks, and it comes down to watching the show and buying the DVDs or downloading the video. These fan campaigns end up being publicity, and ratings go up and sales go up, and that’s what the network notices. In rarer cases, the network president is a fan of the show and stands up for it. In the cases of Family Guy and Futurama, the network head actively banished us to reruns on cable TV and Adult Swim on Cartoon Network in the middle of the night, back in the mid-2000s. Then the ratings started going up and were beating the late-night talk shows, and FOX was very surprised. Part of it was that the shows were on a regular schedule every night, whereas they had both been on Sundays and overrun by football games on FOX. Ultimately, it was the practical matters of the viewership.
So if people want more Futurama, they should buy the DVDs?
Our fans don’t owe us any more at this point; they’ve helped us more than the fans of any other show. I can’t thank them enough. We’ve come back three times, once in the form of the DVD movies, then in the form of Comedy Central, and again in the form of Comedy Central’s second order. I feel like I owe all our fans a free DVD. If they want to buy it, they should, but thanks to them we had a long run that I feel proud of, whereas when we were canceled the first time, I felt like we were cut off just when we were getting to understand what we were doing.
Do you want to talk about The Simpsons/Futurama crossover that’s coming up?
I’m excited; this also falls into the category of “coming back to life,” but in a new form — more of a reincarnation. The origin of the Simpso-rama episode that’s going to be out this fall is that Futurama was canceled, we all went about our lives, and then Al Jean, The Simpson’s head writer, called me up and asked what I thought about a crossover. It sounded great to me, but I was immediately nervous because there is a long history of crossover tension on The Simpsons, dating back twenty years. The animated show The Critic, starring Jon Lovitz and created by Simpsons’ writers Al Jean and Mike Reiss, was produced by Gracie Films, which also produces The Simpsons, and they did a crossover episode. Matt Groening felt the design styles of the two shows were completely different and that it would take away from the reality of the show. So he was very opposed to that, but it got pushed through against his objections. Cut back to the present, and I said, “Whatever Matt thinks, that’s what I think.” As it turns out, Matt was on board; since he drew all the characters, he thought the styles could go together. I suggested that Al have Stewart Burns write the episode; he was a long-time writer on Futurama before he went over to The Simpsons. I got to weigh in with suggestions at the early stage of the outline, and again recently with a rough cut of the show. It’s exciting to see these two things together, which I would not have expected a few years ago, and they worked really hard to get all of the major Futurama characters and a bunch of minor characters, such as Hedonism Bot. It’s officially a Simpsons episode, but more Futurama in tone.
In Futurama, you present this whole world of the future; is there anything you guys came up with for the show that you think might actually come true in the future?
There’s a few advertising things I imagine could come true, such as advertising in your dreams and projecting advertisements on the moon. Someone threatened to do that recently, and people were up in arms, but it turned out to be a publicity stunt. We have the tube transport system that shoots people around in clear tubes, and Elon Musk proposed the same a couple years ago. That could be done, if we put our national resources behind it.
How about on the social side? I re-watched all your episodes and there’s the line Professor Farnsworth has, “We’ve abandoned your primitive notions of decency,” and he’s naked for most of the episode. Is there anything along those lines you think might happen? Will we all become nudists in the future?
Did you notice that when Futurama went to Comedy Central, we had a lot more nudism references? The very first DVD movie, they go to the nudist home world, and the head evil alien was named “Nudar.” The looser broadcast standards of Comedy Central came into play there. I’m a nudist now; luckily this is an audio interview. No, I don’t have any strong feelings about nudism, honestly.
It’s great for laughs, but the idea that when you reach a sufficiently advanced age, and you’re not in good health anymore, that you might just plug yourself into a virtual reality environment for the rest of your existence — that seems to me like something that could happen.
I’ve tried out the Oculus Rift, I’m proud to say, and I do think that would be a good idea. For people who have mobility problems, you could put on the headset and go visit places in real time.
I wanted to mention this earlier: You mentioned reading Stanislaw Lem, and I was curious if you had read his book The Cyberiad, because that seems to have a strong Futurama vibe.
I believe I read it back in high school, but honestly my memory is very poor.
It’s one thing I think you should check out, because it’s about these two robots who are inventors, and they’re always trying to out invent each other.
Okay, yes, I’ve read it.
And there’s the part where one of them invents a poetry-writing machine, and the other one is trying to break the machine by giving it impossible poems to write. So he says, “Write a love poem about tensor calculus” and the machine does it, and the poem is actually in the book and it’s hilarious and really well done.
And you’re reading it in translation, also, which is amazing.
Michael Kandel translated it from Polish; I assume he had to basically write something completely different, because I don’t see how you could possibly translate something like that.
There’s so much wordplay in those stories, and I always wondered what I was losing from the original. I’m sure I subconsciously stole whatever you’re reminding me of now, so maybe I better not look at it.
Finally, what are you up to these days? Are there any other projects, or anything else, that you want to mention?
I’m writing down all of my “three a.m. ideas”; there’s about one good one out of every eighty. I have a couple ideas for screenplays, which I have never tried, so I may move in that direction.
If people want to keep up with you, do you have a website or anything?
I don’t do any of that stuff, which is embarrassing for a computer science guy, I guess. I haven’t bothered too much because Comedy Central has been running the Futurama Facebook page for years now, which has twenty-five million followers, so whenever we wanted to do stuff for Futurama, it would go on there. But I may need to branch out soon.
If people keep their eye on the Futurama Facebook page, will that keep them up to date on you?
Yeah. They’re reasonably nice to me; if I start something new, they’ll probably throw a good word my way.
I’m really looking forward to whatever you work on next; I was a big Futurama fan from the very beginning, and I’m really excited I got a chance to talk to you.
Likewise; thank you very much. And again, I’m honored to be among the guests of this show, many of whom have inspired me.
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