Futurama's David X. Cohen on the trials and errors of love, comedy, and science

Futurama's David X. Cohen on the trials and errors of love, comedy, and science

In 1999, Futurama, the other animated series created by Matt Groening, premièred on the Fox network amid a blaze of hype. But it soon became clear that Fox had no special love for the show and scarcely any understanding of it. By its fourth season, Futurama was scheduled in the pre-prime-time hours of Sunday night, where it was pre-empted whenever the football game ran long, which was usually. On Fox, the show wasn’t so much canceled as allowed to die on the vine. 

After being unceremoniously disentangled from Rupert Murdoch’s empire, Futurama was spun-off into four DVD movies, which were eventually broken up to form the first of three seasons on Comedy Central. This resurrection story is made all the more remarkable by the fact that, through the course of seven seasons spread out over 14 years, the show has always been the work of the same core creative team, led by co-creator, executive producer, head writer, and fearless leader David X. Cohen. With the real end of the series finally in sight, The A.V. Club spoke to Cohen about the evolution of the show, the mostly virgin terrain of sci-fi comedy, and which episodes rank among the proudest accomplishments of Team Planet Express.

The A.V. Club: When you and Matt Groening were working on your pitch for the series, you both spent a year gorging on sci-fi, and the other night, getting close to the end of the series, you did your Alien and The Thing parody—

David X. Cohen: It’s never too late to rip off a classic idea.

AVC: Throughout the series’ 14 years, were you still pulling out ideas that you’d talked about when you were in the planning stages?

DXC: Oh yeah, very much. In retrospect, some of the ideas we talked about, we threw out once the show was in progress. The most obvious one is when we set a firm rule: No time travel, no matter what. All the fans of sci-fi would always nitpick it. We thought, “We’re going to steer clear of that.” We held out until season four. Then one of our writers wrote an episode called “Roswell That Ends Well,” about the crew going back in time to Roswell, New Mexico in the ’40s, and being the UFO that supposedly crashed there. We finally caved in. We said, “It sounds fun enough to write—and we need an idea today.” Then it ended up winning the Emmy Award, and pretty much derailed us from our “no time travel” rule. We’ve done several since then, most of which are among our best and most popular episodes. 

AVC: Some of the sci-fi concepts in the later episodes get pretty intricate. Generally speaking, do you feel that you loosened your approach to the “science” in science fiction as the series went along? Or was that the result of taking it more seriously?

DXC: Both of those. We loosened up with the [genre definition of] sci-fi. We did a fantasy movie that was in the realm of Lord Of The Rings, and those kind of fantasy books that we had steered clear of. In terms of the actual science, I think we did take it more seriously as we went along. That’s actually one of the most interesting aspects of this show, I think: At the beginning, we were very nervous about how seriously to take the science, the real science. And also the science fiction, honestly. Because when you’re doing a comedy/science-fiction show the question arises: “Are we making fun of science fiction, or are we doing ‘funny science fiction?’” It’s a subtle distinction. We quickly found that to take the sci-fi story seriously worked much better, and we worked harder and harder over the years to come up with what I would say are serious sci-fi stories, and then lay the comedy on top of it, but without undercutting the sci-fi story or setting itself. 

One of the rules we had in the beginning that we stuck to a little bit better was actually written on a white board: “Science Shall Not Overrule Comedy.” We wanted as much as possible to honor real comedy and show that we knew what we were making fun of, but when push came to shove, make sure that the show was funny, and not a dry lecture. Whenever we violated the laws of physics—for example, when the ship goes faster than the speed of light—we always tried to indicate to viewers that, even though we’re violating science, we understand what it is we’re violating. For example, we did an episode where we explained that, no, they’re not going faster than the speed of light; science had readjusted the speed of light in the year 2999, or whenever. We always try to tip the fans off that we’re not violating science out of ignorance.

We actually had quite a good representation of science on our writing staff. Three Ph.Ds—Ken Keeler, Jeff Westbrook, and Bill Odenkirk—worked extensively on the writing staff of Futurama. We did one episode in our modern era of the show, on Comedy Central, where Ken Keeler wrote a mathematical theorem, for our brain-switching episode, “The Prisoner Of Benda.” A question arose: “Could this machine that could switch people’s brains—but not switch them back—get everybody’s brains back into their respective bodies, if it kept switching them through intermediaries?” It was actually not clear to us, when we first thought about this device, that it was possible. Ken proved the theorem, which we actually flashed onscreen, for one second, so as not to distract the people who weren’t interested, but to show the people who were interested what was going on. I feel super proud of that. When you think what did we do in the history of Futurama that you would never seen on any other show, that’s always at the head of the list.

AVC: What about balancing comedy and emotion? The “Game Of Tones” ending with the final scene between Fry and his mother is very moving, and as the series winds down, there’s been more and more of a focus on the romantic relationship between Fry and Leela. 

DXC: [The Fry-Leela relationship] was one of those things, like the sci-fi, that we didn’t take as seriously at the beginning. Okay, Fry is going to be an idiot who’s always trying to win Leela. We didn’t necessarily think he was going to succeed in those early days. Another thing we learned, in the long feedback loop of writing and animating the show, then waiting a year to find out what the fans think, is that the fans cared very much about the Fry-Leela interaction. If we did a sloppy job on that, they were upset. People wanted the emotion to play like real human emotions. That’s something that Matt Groening always stresses. The rule we try to stick to is that all the characters on Futurama have real, understandable human reactions to what’s going on around them, and that has to apply even to characters that aren’t human, like robots and monsters. We’re always afraid that the audience will check out if the emotions are incomprehensible. With Fry and Leela, we’ve made a conscious effort to have Fry gradually grow and become less of an idiot over the years, because it makes the relationship more possible. And his attempts to win Leela have sort of grown in the effort they require. We let him succeed, sometimes, in his efforts to improve himself.

For the first couple of seasons, we never attempted any episodes that would move the viewers to tears at all. That wasn’t on our radar at all. And then in the third season on Fox, we decided to try what I would say is a very high-degree-of-difficulty episode [“The Luck Of The Fryrish”], where Fry started finding out stuff about his brother, who he’d left behind in the year 2000. And it ended up having a very touching ending. Ultimately, that proved to be a fan favorite. So I was very proud of that episode. We’d worked so hard on it, and it paid off. On average, about once a year, we try to go all out for the moving, touching ending of an episode, and I feel like when those succeed, you get bonus points for being able to pull that off in a cartoon. This year, since we knew there was a chance we were getting to the real end of the end, we doubled it up.  I think we have a couple of real moving moments in this last batch, including the one you mentioned, with Fry’s mom, and in the finale. I was secretly hiding in my kitchen, watching my wife watching [“Game Of Tones”] for the first time. I saw her reach for the box of tissues at the end, and was like, “Yes!”

AVC: There’s no way to overpraise the voice-acting on the show. Do the actors get excited about having a scene like that to sink their teeth into?

DXC: Those scenes are the most difficult and are where you find you have to do the most takes. I also find it very useful to get the actors all in the same room, at the same time, which is not always done in animation. For the scenes between Fry and Leela in the final episode, for example, Katey Sagal was very busy, because she’s shooting Sons Of Anarchy at the same time she’s recording Futurama. So, we recorded some of the really deep scenes between Fry and Leela individually and tried to piece it together, and I finally just went, “You know what? This isn’t going to work. We’ve got to do this right.” We redid many of those scenes entirely in the studio when both of them were available to be together. The emotional stuff is very difficult in a cartoon, and those scenes often require the most work.

AVC: It sounds as if there was an element of trial-and-error to the evolution of the series.

DXC: Yeah. Early on, we were sort of fishing around for the tone of the show. In the beginning, it was much lighter, and as it went along and the crazy time travel proved to be one of our most popular episodes, we just embraced it. Comedy sci-fi is a very thin genre; there’s not a lot of it you can point to. There wasn’t a lot of experimentation done to find out what works, at least that I’m aware of. There’s Spaceballs, there’s some funny sci-fi things that I like, like Stanislaw Lem, who has written some hilarious stuff. But I don’t know of a lot of comedy sci-fi. So we were experimenting, and just honoring the sci-fi proved to be our most successful path.

AVC: Do you feel like there are any clear differences between the episodes you did for Fox and ones for Comedy Central?

DXC: The differences are mainly technical, because Futurama happened to come along at a time in history when you’ve moved through a rapid evolution of the television medium. We’ve switched from standard definition to high definition, and widescreen, and surround sound, since we were on for the first time. So the new episodes are, technically, far superior. And if you put them side-by-side, your eye just rockets over to the new episodes, because they look so much better. In terms of the tone of the show, we tried very, very hard to not change it that much, because having been off the air for a while, we knew the number one thing we were at risk of was disappointing the fans. “Oh, it came back, but it’s not the same show.” That’s the criticism we knew we were open to as soon as we came back. So we worked very hard to get back a writing staff that was almost entirely veterans of the original run, to get back the same animators, the same cast. Now, the show did evolve over the years—I think entirely for the better.

AVC: “Game Of Tones,” revisits the very first episode from 1999 when Fry was accidentally cryogenically frozen. Did you do that partly so you could re-animate all these scenes and make them look a little better?

DXC: You know, we’ve done that in something like four episodes now, where we’ve revisited the moment where Fry got frozen. And each time, we say, “We want to match it up with what we did the first time.” And the animators say, “Well, let’s make it look a little bit better!” You can’t help but bump it up a notch. That’s always the challenge for the animators: Remember those designs that have been sitting in a drawer for 13 years? But now it’s in high-definition. That’s a particular challenge we put on our animators about once every two seasons.

AVC: Do you feel as if, this time, you’ve finally gotten to end the show on your own terms?

DXC: Yes. And, you know, other times, when we’ve written the episode, thinking that it’s the end, I’ve always thought, “If only we could have gone a few more seasons, we could have had a long and successful run, and we could have done everything we wanted to do.” But it always felt a little bit as if we were getting cut off at the knees, even though we had an episode that I thought worked well as a finale. This time, I can feel like we made it. Over the course of 14 years, we did seven seasons, 140 episodes, if you count the DVD movies. If someone came up to you when the series was starting and said, “What if I told you your series will run seven seasons, 140 episodes,” I think you’d say, “Sign me up!”  

AVC: How many times did you think you’d made the final episode?

DXC: Four times. Four times we’ve written an episode thinking there was a high likelihood that it was the last one ever. And I’ll just mention that Ken Keeler has written all four of those episodes. I don’t know if I would call it a tradition, but every time we think it’s our last episode, I assign the script to Ken Keeler. I tell him, you’ve had the most experience writing series finales of anyone. 

AVC: Now that you’ve brought it in to port, is there, mixed in with the crippling sense of grief that the fans feel, any feeling of relief?

DXC: [Laughs.]Absolutely. You know, when we’re working on the show, it is grueling. We work 12 months a year. Most live-action shows get the summer off, but with animated shows, at least with the degree of animation we’re doing, whenever you finish one show, there are several episodes you thought you were done with, that come banging at the door, demanding attention, that are in various stages of animation. There’s an episode from three months ago, that’s in what we call the “animatic stage,” and we need to rewrite it and get it to the right length. Or another will come in that’s two minutes too long for TV, so that’s an emergency. It never really slows down. Between the movies and the last four years of Comedy Central, it’s been about six years of hard work with no real break. So it’s not that bad for the spirit to get canceled once in a while. You don’t want to get canceled every year, but once in a while it can be rejuvenating.

Filed Under: TV, Futurama

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