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.
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.