Back to the Futurama
Talking about that belt, it needed to be tightened a notch or so: basic cable budgets, or at least Comedy Central’s, aren’t quite in the same league as Fox Broadcasting. For one thing, “we only have seven writers on staff now, versus the 12 or 13 we had when we were on Fox,” says Cohen, admitting that several of them defected to The Simpsons. The occasional freelancer will join in on the fun, contributing an episode outline and working with the staff in turning it into a full-fledged script. (Everyone in the room might pitch in, but the person who comes up with the outline gets the onscreen writing credit.)
The show’s running time has been tightened up as well: Comedy Central Futurama episodes are only 21:35, almost a minute less than the ones that aired on Fox. It’s meant sacrificing a gag here or a digression there, but most disappointing to show’s hardcore fans (such as me), a briefer opening title sequence lacking the vintage cartoon clip that normally ends the titles! One would think a second or so of running time wouldn’t make that much of a difference… but that’s show business.
Another budget- and time-saving measure: according to Cohen, “we don’t do a layout reel anymore” to guide Rough Draft Studios’ overseas animators. Instead, the animation studio creates a “very tight storyboard reel” to serve the same purpose. “Previously, the characters could be off-model, we’d show a background in the first panel and leave it out after that… now every storyboard panel is fully detailed.”
During our conversation Cohen casually reveals his geekiness with an offhand comment about the lack of necessity to include “a green-skinned alien dancing girl” to entertain the viewers. It’s a reference to a scene in the original Star Trek pilot that doesn’t need to be explained to a fellow geek, and a reflection of the numerous riffs on sci-fi tropes that salt Futurama episodes.
It might not be those references that have drawn a rabidly loyal fan base to the show; Cohen and West are unstinting in crediting those fans for the show’s return. (West also “thank[s] the universe for the continuation of something I love so much personally.”)
In some ways Futurama’s following is not unlike the one that convinced NBC to keep Star Trek on air for a third season back in the 1960s; it might be the appealingly human characters (even the alien ones) populating the show, the intriguing, well-constructed plots or the attractive blend of 2D and CGI animation. But those Star Trek gags (“it’s a type-M planet, so it should at least have Roddenberries to eat”) – well, they can’t hurt.
And as for the future of Futurama? Cohen wouldn’t mind tackling a full-length theatrically released version of the show, but West has a much more intriguing, immersive idea: “I’d love to see a Futurama ride at Universal Studios, which is right up the street from my house. It’s a natural – aliens, rocket ships, space travel. I bet it would be a damn good ride. I’ll put that out there – it might resonate.”
Joe Strike has written about animation for AWN, New York Daily News, Newsday and New York Press He is currently teaching Mass Communications at New York's St. John's University and hosting "Interview With An Animator" at Pratt Institute.