It seems it’s just impossible to kill either an animated or sci-fi TV series. The list includes the likes of Star Trek, Family Guy, Battlestar Galactica, Ren & Stimpy, Doctor Who and in a strange way Star Wars (which has been both live action and animated). Just when some tasteless media exec thinks he or she has stomped them out of existence, the shows pop up somewhere else…with a bigger and stronger fan base than ever.
If anyone knows this, it’s David X. Cohen, who shares creator credits with Matt Groening (The Simpsons) on Futurama. The show has regenerated, for something like the third time, and will take off with two of 26 new episodes on Thursday, June 24th at 10:00 p.m. on Comedy Central.
“I think it has a lot to do with the fans of both those worlds,” Cohen agrees over the phone. “They are very dedicated to both sci-fi and animation. They love all the hidden little details and inside jokes we put in. They also love the long-term soap epic of the series, for lack of better words.
“We got pretty much everybody back. We were really lucky in getting the entire cast back. Every writer working on Futurama can trace themselves back to the original Fox run. Our original animation studio, Rough Draft, is also back as is our original composer, Chris Tyng, is too. The only real change is we actually made some improvements. On the DVDs we switched to High Definition, and all our new episodes are also all in HD. Now we’ve also added Surround Sound.”
The current plan is to divide the 26 episodes into two groups of 13, starting with a two-episode debut, entitled “Rebirth” and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela.”
“That’s the basic plan,” concurs Cohen. “Actually, we are going to do a set of twelve episodes over 11 consecutive weeks. Then we will have a holiday special, which will feature the record-breaking fourth appearance of Al Gore along with Robot Santa. That one is actually a three-part special containing three mini-stories. Each one will concern itself with the main holidays of the future, X-Mas, Quanzaa and Robonica…the holiday Bender made up just so he can get out of work. Coolio will make his third appearance there.”
One has to admit that even for a space fantasy, the tale of the crew of the Planetary Express delivery service has truly been a very long and strange one. No one knows this better than Cohen.
“We’re on Comedy Central right now,” says Cohen. “Fox is still the producer. I think one of the things was waiting for those two to figure out what was the most advantageous for both of them. I don’t know all the details but I understand it was a little bit tricky. Now we have two masters, although I have to admit both have been pretty benevolent ones.
“It seems kind of surreal. I mean to fans it may seem so sudden, like we’re off the air one day then on the air the next. For us, at the production office, we’ve been working on the season for a solid year at this point, day and night.
“So, for me, the shock was actually a year ago when I got the phone call saying not only were we doing new episodes but 26 of them. That was the largest order we ever had. If you go back to that time, all I can say it then I was very shocked, very surprised and very pleased. We knew it wasn’t completely out of no where because of our DVDs and the movies. I mean we all were kind of sitting by the phone anticipating it. I think I would have been more surprised if we hadn’t been.”
This is particularly incredible as Futurama is one of those series where every new episode builds on a previous one. When Cohen and Groening actually thought up the show, they had it planned out for years to come.
“Many episodes were essentially written ten years ago,” says Cohen. “We were just waiting for them to come out. I’m kidding really. Actually, the master plan essentially was to insure that certain key things were eventually put in. I think a lot of it came from feedback we got on the early days. Also, over time we learned what kind of episodes worked the best and what didn’t.
“As an example, in the pilot episode we had something called the career chip. We thought initially the future would be a very regimented life where everyone’s career was imposed upon them. We rapidly realized that cut down a lot of story possibilities. Maybe we’d want Fry to be a policeman. So the career chip was quickly discovered not to be that useful.
“Another example would be Amy and Hermes. Initially they were minor characters, but we did have plans to expand upon them. If you notice, just about every one of our characters start out simple, then we start to write about them.
“In fact, Dr. Zoidberg is probably the best example,” says Cohen. “When we created him he was just a bad doctor who doesn’t know a thing about human anatomy. Then we started to get feedback on him, and so we started giving him more and more pathetic traits. It seemed the more negative traits we gave him, the more enjoyable he became. What I can tell you is over the next few years we are going to explore the background of Dr. Zoidberg even more. We’re even going to learn why the Professor has kept Zoidberg around, even though he’s totally incompetent.”
Zoidberg isn’t the only character who we are going to see more of. If anything, Cohen promises because this is the largest order of Futurama episodes ever, he and his crew of writers will get to expand on some long-time recurring roles he wouldn’t have before.
“We’re going to have plenty of Morbo this year,” he promises. “The fourth episode in particular will have a good amount of him in there. Mom is back, too. The great thing is with an order of 26 episodes, not only will you get a chance to see just about every character that has been in the show, but we also will get to expand on some of the characters, too. I mean Amy, Zoidberg and Hermes will all have their share of episodes expanding on their backgrounds.”
Cohen credits a lot of this freedom to create to his voice cast which has stayed the same basic eight actors since the series started back in 1999.
“Our voice cast is truly unbelievable,” he crows. “I would say they’ve actually gotten better during our layoff. Obviously, they have done a lot of interesting things in that time and have not only honed their craft but have come back with such enthusiasm that it’s just awesome. It has really inspired them, and you can’t believe the level of performances we’re getting out of them.
“What many people don’t realize is we only have eight actors. Yes, Katey Sagal only does Leela and Lauren Tom only does mainly Amy and a few other voices. But Billy West does about 100 voices and they are all very distinct. Then John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarche, Phil LaMarr and Dave Herman all also do a ton of voices. Then to round it off we have Tress MacNeille, who does all the other women. She’s just as big a heavy lifter as the guys.”
Where the cast’s versatility really pays off though is when Cohen and his crew decide to take Futurama to places it’s never been before, especially if there are new characters tied to it.
“Normally we just write the character however we think is appropriate without thinking much about who is going to play the part,” he said. “Usually, after that, it really doesn’t matter. These guys are so versatile one of them will be able to do it. All we have to do is show up with the script and ask which one of those guys wants to do a certain kind of voice.
“Yes, there are some things that the actors specialize in. Usually, when it comes to a character like Robot God, we hand it to Billy who can really rumble with those kinds of things. I think it’s just a matter of which vocal chord he wants to choose. If you wanted a real gruff voice, then Maurice LaMarche is great at those. John is great at tough guy voices while Phil is a great impressionist. One time he just did an impersonation of Billy Krystal that made us automatically decide that Krystal should be one of our regular heads.
“When we run through the script it really does feel like you’re in a room with 100 people in it. I mean four different voices will come out of Billy West’s mouth for four different lines. What’s even more amazing is he can do them like he’s just having a normal conversation.”
In the meantime, production of the episodes is going along smoothly. Cohen admitted his team had only four more episodes to finish scripting at the time of the interview. On the other side, he and just finished ADR work on a bunch of others. This doesn’t mean he’s not going to take it easy during the summer. Another thing the Futurama cast and crew love to do is hit the summer conventions.
“We did a Star Trek convention once,” he admits. “I think we should do more of those because I also think we do the science fiction part right. I mean we always are about the comedy first, but we do work as much science fact in as possible. So I like to think we’re contributing. We do lighten the mood in there a bit.
“We will be doing the San Diego Comic Con, of course. We will show our best, most appropriate clip there. It features some scenes from Comic Con in the year 3000. It will have some special guests Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica), Sergio Aragones and the biggest guests of all, the heads of Matt Groening and David X. Cohen!”
Does this mean that come the year 3000 Futurama will still be creating new episodes? Considering just how hard it is to eliminate this animated, sci-fi series, anything is possible.