Back to the Futurama
You can’t keep a good show down – especially if it has a huge, enthusiastic fan base and a cable channel happy to give it a new, first-run lease on life. That’s the moral of the story behind the return of Futurama, Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s loving, animated send-up of every ‘world of tomorrow’ sci-fi trope ever imagined. (The show’s name itself is borrowed from General Motors’ 1939 World’s Fair pavilion that offered a peek into the unimaginable tomorrow of 1959.)
The victim of Fox Broadcasting’s not-so-benign neglect (the result of Groening and Cohen’s disinterest in the network’s ‘helpful’ creative suggestions) and endless NFL football pre-emptions, Futurama vanished from Fox’s airwaves in 2003. Billy West, the voice of several of the show’s core characters including hapless delivery boy Philip J. Fry recalls a twist-the-knife Fox promo for their Sunday animation lineup near the end of its run: “‘It’s a Fox night of pure fun entertainment,’” he paraphrases. “Then they’d say ‘6:30, Futurama; at 7pm an all-new episode of The Simpsons, followed by back-to-back episodes of The Simpson, and at 9pm, Family Guy… remember, the fun begins at 7.’”
Futurama reruns were already appearing on Adult Swim (the same launching pad for Family Guy’s revival) that not only kept the series from falling off the map, but together with Family Guy were attracting plenty of youthful eyeballs to the channel. “We were getting big ratings, to the point that we were beating the [late night] talk shows in our target demographic,” recalls Cohen, who executive-produces Futurama along with its creator Matt Groening. (For those who might be curious, Cohen’s middle initial is neither an homage to Malcolm X, The X Files or the X-Men, but the result of having to differentiate himself from several other David Cohens who had preceded him into the Writers Guild.)
Gangbuster sales of the show’s newly released DVD box sets in 2005 were likewise far from shabby; Comedy Central saw the future, and its name was Futurama. As part of its deal with 20th Century Fox Television, the series’ producer (a corporate sibling of Fox Broadcasting, only with better taste) to acquire the show’s reruns, the channel helped finance a quartet of direct-to-DVD Futurama features that would eventually air on Comedy Central in the form of 16 new episodes.
Bender’s Big Score, the first of the four features was released in November 2007; on December 31 Adult Swim said goodbye to the series with a run-‘em-to-death Futurama marathon; on January 2nd Comedy Central began showing the reruns, and in March Bender’s Big Score aired as a four-part Futurama miniseries.
It didn’t take Billy West long to get his Fry groove back. “I kind of had to start riffing again, tweak it to get it to the point where everyone was happy with it.” When I comment that the Comedy Central Fry sounds identical to the Fox Fry, West responds, a mite testily “yeah but the nitpickers say ‘he doesn’t sound the same’ for a while, then they’ll get off me and on someone else – ‘he doesn’t sound the same, she doesn’t sound the same…’”
The remaining DVD movies (Beast with a Billion Backs, Bender’s Game and Into the Wild Green Yonder) followed Big Score into Comedy Central’s Futurama rotation, and now constitute the show’s first post-Fox and overall 5th season. In mid-2009 the channel and 20th Century Fox announced a sixth season of 26 new episodes to be broadcast Comedy Central-style in two separate 13-episode runs, the second of which is now airing.
But wait, there’s more: this past March Futurama was renewed for a seventh season of an additional 26 episodes, with “Season 7-A” running next year and “7-B” in 2013. Comedy Central can now boast 68 episodes of Futurama under its belt (actually, 42 under its belt and 26 more in the kitchen) – almost a tie with the 72 broadcast on Fox.