David X. Cohen
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- Sarah Polley on laying her family history bare in the new documentary Stories We Tell
In the decade since it premièred, Futurama has journeyed across three networks, two formats (TV and DVD), and myriad time slots. The cult-hit show was put on ice when Fox cancelled it in 2003, but like its cryogenically frozen protagonist Philip J. Fry, it was thawed out and given new life in syndication. After anchoring Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup from 2003 to 2007, Futurama entered into an unusual agreement with Comedy Central in 2008: Four direct-to-DVD full-length movies would be cut into 16 half-hour episodes to air on the network, which would also air the original run in syndication. Then, right after the series was laid to rest in the final movie, Into The Wild Green Yonder, it was given a third (or is it fourth?) life by Comedy Central, which ordered 26 new half-hour episodes.
As Futurama’s executive producer and head writer, David X. Cohen has been there for every turn in the show’s twisted run. A former Simpsons writer who received degrees in physics and computer science from Harvard before turning to comedy writing, Cohen developed Futurama alongside Matt Groening in the late ’90s, and has shepherded the show’s humor and nerdy sensibility ever since. Cohen took time out from working on the new season to talk to The A.V. Club about what to expect from the resuscitated series. (Hint: It involves high-def nudity.)
The A.V. Club: With Futurama’s success in syndication and on DVD, it feels like the show never went away, at least from a fan perspective. Did you reach a point where you were like, “Okay, this is done, this is no longer a part of my life,” or did you always feel like the show had some life left in it?
David X. Cohen: The first time around, when we got cancelled off the Fox network, I definitely thought it was done. There was not really any clear reason for optimism at that point. We disbanded the whole operation. Everybody went off—I did a couple of other jobs for a few years. And it wasn’t a common thing—certainly then or now—for shows to come back after they were cancelled. It was really the reruns on Adult Swim that began to attract good ratings at 2 a.m. or whatever. Followed by Family Guy’s return via DVD and then back to episodes, that paved the way for us, and started to give us some optimism. So initially, I would say we really thought we were done for. [Everyone] had come to grips with moving on with their lives. Subsequent events have made us unsure of anything in this lifetime. We’ve come and gone a couple of times now, so now I don’t make predictions anymore. I’m slightly less surprised now when either the “cancellation” or the “you’re back” phone call comes in.
AVC: It’s hard to avoid comparisons to Family Guy with the cancellation-and-renewal storyline. Was having Seth MacFarlane sing the introductory song to Into The Wild Green Yonder a little wink to that?
DC: Yes. Absolutely it was. We always enjoy seeing things that seem to suggest that Seth MacFarlane and Matt Groening have periscopes trained on each other and are eager to beat each other up if they ever meet in a dark alley. [Laughs.] So it’s just a subtle jab at people who are perpetuating that. I think there’s no actual ill will over here.
AVC: Network mismanagement seemed to be a big factor contributing to the show’s initial cancellation—
DC: Yeah! We had nothing to do with it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you think that was the only factor? Or to use a really cliché phrase, was the show a little ahead of its time?
DC: I think one thing, which may have been a problem at that time, and is now a big asset for us, is that we had an audience that was, I would say, just three people or so less than Fox network needed for us to stay on the air. And yet they were extremely loyal, and the fans would really be there for every new episode. And I think they have come back now to see the show in its subsequent form. But of course since that time when we were first on the air, the TV audience has fragmented considerably, and the number of people that were fans of the show then, I think, is still the same or higher now. And yet the average rating of the top shows has dropped precipitously since then. So I think having a very loyal core of viewers that you can count on is a very valuable thing for a show now, and allows us to come back in a pretty substantial way after all these years, even if we have the same size audience that we had then.
AVC: The first episode of the new season, “Rebirth,” begins with everyone except Professor Farnsworth dead, then being brought back to life. Was that meant to untie all the loose ends that were tied up in Into The Wild Green Yonder?
DC: Yes. We are pretty aware of our nitpicky fans, and very appreciative of them. [Laughs.] As I just said, they’re the ones who have saved our necks on several occasions. So the last thing we wanted to do was to drop the continuity from the fourth of the four DVD movies we did. And that left our crew in a very perilous position, where Fry and Leela were kissing each other goodbye as they flew off into a wormhole, perhaps never to be seen again, which metaphorically represented our chances of the show coming back. [Laughs.] And then of course it did come back. So then a similar thing—we have our metaphorical rebirth of the show, which is representing the show coming back to life. And it does pick up where Into The Wild Green Yonder left off, so our fans will not be dismayed. But also, as you may have seen, the episode is actually fairly literal in terms of the “rebirthing” of the characters. So if anyone is eating dinner around the time of this and has to turn it off, I get it. They may want to put it off for a half-hour ’til after all the births have transpired.
AVC: When we spoke to Matt Groening right before the final movie was released, and before it was confirmed that the series was coming back, he said of that last scene: “We painted ourselves slightly into a corner. But David Cohen is much more worried about the corner in which we painted ourselves than I am.”
DC: [Laughs.] Yeah, Matt was of the opinion that, although we should have continuity, we should get back to our setting on Earth and the Planet Express building and the characters’ daily lives as quickly as possible. And I did come around to agreeing with him on that, because being on TV every week in half-hour form, I think an important thing for us was to say, “Hey, this is the classic series that you remember from before.” So we didn’t want to get lost in the complexities of all the movies all the people may not have seen. So while we do have the continuity, part of the goal with the death and rebirth of everybody was to re-center the show in its native habitat.
AVC: The four movies were done with a much smaller writing and production staff. Is that also the case for the revived series?
DC: We’re up to kind of a medium-sized staff now. Still several writers smaller than we had when we were on Fox, but several writers more than we had for the DVDs. And that made me pretty nervous when we started this process, but it was necessary, just because we’re on cable TV now, and we had to trim the budget a little bit. So I was hoping, and it turned out that it worked, to farm out a few of the scripts to some of the other Futurama writers who are not on our full-time staff, but were available now and then to do scripts [including Lou Morton, Aaron Ehasz, and Stuart Burns]. So they have basically picked up the slack where we couldn’t handle it with our smaller staff here. So actually, several more very experienced Futurama writers were involved who just aren’t on our staff on a day-to-day basis. So overall, we got pretty lucky with that. In fact, the entire writing staff, in terms of our day-to-day who are here, is composed of people who have really worked on the show a long time, and were involved as far back as the Fox run of the show.
AVC: You’re also moving to high-def and widescreen format. Any other changes with this version of the series?
DC: Those are the main things. Also, we have gone to surround sound, so that’s good for people with their sophisticated home-theater equipment. I think it’s a little more cinematic overall, but that’s a change we made for the DVD movies. We have that machinery already in place, coming into this round. So that’s kind of a necessary change nowadays. But aside from that, I think we’re going to be pretty good continuity in terms of the tone of the show from the original run.
AVC: In the first two episodes, as with the movies, it seems like the writing staff is having fun not being beholden to network censors.
DC: [Laughs.] Notice that there were some pretty small fig leaves on Leela and Zapp in that second episode?
AVC: Yeah, that made me think of a commentary track where you guys are talking about having to make Leela’s outfit longer, or show less cleavage.
AVC: Obviously that’s not as much of a concern for you anymore.
DC: Yeah, the Comedy Central broadcast standards are definitely looser than Fox’s. So it’s become an interesting challenge for us, because we have to be our own censors a lot of the time. And for me, an important thing is that I do think it should feel like the same series as before. Just because perhaps we could show more skin and say more words, I don’t necessarily want to do so. So I like to think we may have pushed that edge a little bit—just a little bit more than we used to, but I don’t think there’s any one particular thing we couldn’t have done in the old days. And that’s very intentional. We have not greatly expanded our vocabulary, for example. So I would say on the whole, there’s just a bit more episodes that are PG-15 instead of PG-13, but nothing radical. It’s not at the South Park extreme.
AVC: Just a lot of nudity.
DC: Yeah. Nudity never hurt anybody.
AVC: The deal with the movies was kind of strange, with them later being cut up into episodes. In hindsight, how successful do you feel that was in terms of how the movies and individual episodes came out?
DC: Well, you may think if they had been one or the other, it probably it would have been better for that form, but it wouldn’t have happened at all. So you have to look at it in the grand scheme of—in order for that project to happen, we had to be able to release them on DVD and have said TV network show them. I think it was just a given. And then the question became “How can we meet that challenge?” So given that that is quite difficult, I’m pretty happy with how they turned out. But if you said, “Well, if Futurama was called upon to produce a feature movie for theaters…?” I think it would be superior. I think that would be a great idea, by the way, in case any Fox executives are reading this article. [Laughs.] But it’s certainly easier, as similarly writing the new episodes and not having to have them add up to four parts of a grander thing. So either one is much easier, and just a smoother final product if done for itself. But, you know, given that we had to write a movie with four exactly equal parts and cliffhangers in the middle, overall, I’m pretty happy with the final products.
AVC: It’s quite the feat when you think about it.
DC: Yeah, I’m not saying they’re perfect. And I’m not saying that every episode stands completely on its own. But overall, I still think they are pretty entertaining.
AVC: Did you have to readapt to writing episodically after writing these longer arcs for the movies? Was it a relief to get back to what you know?
DC: I think it was definitely a relief. The movies really, really were more work in terms of just trying to cram everything in and serving the two masters. Here, I think if we have one good science-fiction idea and one good take on what the characters’ opinions are within that idea, we’ve got an episode. So it’s actually a lot more natural to work on these. And, you know, having done 72 of them before the movies, I think it was recently enough that that’s still more the ingrained process for us.
AVC: Now that the show is back, where do the movies fit in, in terms of the whole series? Should they be read as season five?
DC: As for the actual production numbers and everything that Fox has assigned, it’s season five. So that seems as good a place as any to put it. We’re calling this season six. If we don’t call the movies season five, we’re going to have season four and season six, and it’s going to be a mess. So I think we’ll just call it season five, and season five consisted of four DVDs. [Laughs.] So be it. I don’t know any law that says every season has to be exactly the same format, like a show shifting from 30 minutes to 60 minutes. That must have happened at some point, right? I don’t know. Maybe not. Maybe we’re breaking more new ground here.
AVC: The fan reaction to the movies was a little mixed. Do you think they were hindered by high expectations?
DC: I would say ultimately, anyone who was not pleased with the DVDs—in addition to the fact that I’m going to beat them up if I ever run into them in a dark alley—I think is going to stay only loving the half-hour version. And that is a more natural format, as we were discussing, than writing a movie that has to be divided up, so I can’t argue with that logic. For the movies, you know, we had to try to give them a little more movie-like feel, and perhaps some longer visual sequences, and things that were a little out of the rhythm of the normal show, so you wouldn’t go crazy from hyperactivity syndrome for sitting through the equivalent of four straight episodes. The pacing is a little different for the longer movies. So I understand it didn’t feel exactly like the original show. But when they’re good, they’re good, so you know, what can I say? [Laughs.] I don’t want to try to defend every line there. I thought they were good, but not perfect. I think the people who prefer the original episodes should be doubly happy that we’re back in that form, because again, I think we’re going to deliver a lot of our best half-hour episodes that we’ve ever done.
AVC: The original voice cast is all back, though that wasn’t certain for a while.
DC: Yes. A lot of nervous fans still seem unsure about that. And we reassure them, every member of the cast is back.
AVC: If things hadn’t worked out the way they had, do you think the show would still be back without them?
DC: I hate to think about it. [Laughs.] But it certainly would have been an unpleasant chore for me to try to replace the people, because we really have a top voice cast on this show. To replace Billy West alone probably would have taken about seven people, so you could imagine the headache it would have been to try to put it together. Even if you assume you could get seven people who could perfectly do the voices and do the acting within those voices, the scope of the process would become so much bigger and more complicated. Fox had already started the process, and we were writing scripts under the assumption it would work out, so I hesitate to think you could have seen David Cohen playing Bender. But thank God you don’t have to see that.
AVC: As the show evolved, did the voice performances have any effect on the writing?
DC: Yes. It’s a very long feedback loop, though, because of obvious reasons. [Laughs.] About a year after we write a script and see it, we go, “Oh yeah, that works well.” So, you know, Dr. Zoidberg gradually started making more Three Stooges noises, and people’s catchphrases catch on or don’t, depending on whether they seem to work the first time. [Laughs.] And also, the voices themselves change, which is part of, I think, the actors seeing and hearing their own performances over a feedback loop of one or more years. So it was always shocking to me when I’d go back and watch the episodes from the first season and hear the voices. Many of the voices sounded pretty different, especially Bender, I’d say. Bender and the Professor. And I remember when I wrote for The Simpsons, thinking, “Oh, the early episodes of The Simpsons, all of the voices sounded a little different.” And they kind of changed and got better over the years. And when I started Futurama, we went, “Oh, these voices are great. There’ll be no need to change these voices.” But it’s beyond your control, because the actors just zero in on what works. And the voices get a little better and just evolve beyond the control of human intervention. [Laughs.] But I do think it’s just the tendency, because on both The Simpsons and Futurama, the voices get better and better. And more original. I think at first, the actors tend to be inspired by other performances or impressions that they’re doing. And then the character becomes just a real person to them.
AVC: Yeah, Billy West’s work as The Head Of Richard Nixon has become its whole own thing.
DC: Yeah. Actually, that’s a good example of a kind of thing where the entire character appeared just as a joke, really, in the first episode of the series. [Laughs.] And we weren’t necessarily planning to see a lot of Richard Nixon down the line, yet Richard Nixon being basically a real-life cartoon character lent himself so naturally to being a character on the show that he just got sucked up into it, and now he’s in every third or fourth episode.
AVC: One of the things that led to the show’s success in syndication is that it’s very rewatchable. Do you still watch the reruns when they’re on?
DC: I rarely intentionally watch them, because you know, I’ve seen every episode 50 times probably, in their production process, and when it premières, I don’t usually watch them. But now it’s basically to the point where I see them when I am flipping channels, and it actually just happens to be on when I’m flipping. And even to this day, that is a jarring and exciting moment for me, when I go “Wait a second! I’m watching TV, and something I did is on TV!” It still seems like a miracle to me. To be watching Colbert Report and then Futurama comes on, it just seems like magic is happening, so I usually then get sucked in and watch a little of it. And it’s actually very enjoyable now, because we’re just getting to the point where my failing memory is allowing me to enjoy some jokes as if they’re fresh. [Laughs.] But then I do note the change in voices, and those kind of things. But overall, I still feel good about the show at this point. It’s reassuring, I guess I would say, when I see it and I go, “Oh, this is still holding up.” I guess we’re kind of lucky in a way that our subject matter does not date itself as readily as either a show set in the present, you know, which becomes not the present, or just a live-action show generally, where hairstyles change, or those kind of things. You know, you watch a Seinfeld episode that seemed cutting-edge, and now the hair seems 20 years old or whatever. So we’re kind of fortunate that it’s not dating itself as readily as it would otherwise.
AVC: Futurama has a devoted, obsessively nerdy fan base, and the writers definitely seem to encourage and reward that with things like alien languages and freeze-frame gags.
DC: Absolutely. It’s the ultimate compliment to call our fans nerdy. In my opinion.
AVC: Do the writers get a kick out of being a little obscure and exclusive with these things? Or is it more like, “Oh, man, I wish more people got this joke”?
DC: [Laughs.] It depends how proud of ourselves we are. We’re even hitting some new areas of nerdiness this year. By the way, because we just finished this episode, I’m gonna mention it: This won’t even be on until 2011, but we just finished an episode that takes place with a lot of the presidents’ heads in the head museum, and it involves some time-travel to the times of those heads. So we got to work in a lot of real nerdy history stuff for the first time. We like to pride ourselves, I think, on spreading the nerdiness around, as we did with physics and math and computer science in the past. We’re now expanding to include some of the humanities this year. So nerds of all stripes will be heavily rewarded for nitpicking this year.
AVC: So more time-travel, huh?
DC: A little bit more. You know, when Matt Groening and I were originally talking about the show 12 years ago, or whatever it was at this point, one thing we said was, “Okay, one rule is NO time-travel.” Because whenever you have a time-travel episode, it’s a big logical mess, you know, and you can’t make it work. So then we let down our guard a bit in the original run, and we ended up winning the Emmy award with that episode [“Roswell That Ends Well”]. So it sort of encouraged us to keep violating that rule. I think it’s just been part of a general trend that if something is a good sci-fi area, we should not rule it out as fodder for Futurama. I think we found that as long as the characters are having an interesting, relatable human story in the context of the crazy science fiction, that we actually have a lot of liberty to do some crazy science-fiction stories.
AVC: That’s kind of the basic rule of science fiction. You have to have good characters.
DC: Yeah. You gotta believe something that’s going on. So if you don’t believe the time machine, you can still believe that Fry is sad that he misses his dog, or whatever. [Laughs.]
AVC: The Futurama writing staff is a notably well-educated bunch. Do you ever feel guilty for pursuing comedy instead of more so-called noble pursuits?
DC: I don’t necessarily feel guilty, but rest assured I do feel bad sometimes. [Laughs.] I feel sad, I guess I would say. Now we’re getting into deep, deep philosophy here. Philosophical questions. It really comes down to, there’s not enough time in the human lifetime to do everything you want to do, I think. I had a big struggle in my own life to decide if I wanted to write stupid cartoons or pursue worthwhile science. So obviously the stupid cartoons won out in this lifetime. [Laughs.] But you know, I spent a lot of my life around scientists, including my own parents, who are both biologists. So I certainly have the highest respect for science, and certainly feel that on the whole, it’s much more important than what I do now, but not necessarily more enjoyable for me personally. It’s a tough decision to make, if you would do something important, or something that you enjoy more, that keeps your attention for 14 hours a day. So that’s a tough one. But I always wish I could have another lifetime to try still being a scientist.