I love Futurama! I was sad it got cancelled the first time, and the second time. According to The New York Times article, “Futurama: Bringing an Alien and a Robot to TV Life“:
Matt Groening’s latest animated prime-time series, the well-received ‘Futurama,’ is off to a reasonably good start. By midseason it was pulling in about 10 million viewers, and most of them were the young men so coveted by advertisers.
A little over a year ago, Matt Groening had a tough decision to make: Should his robot’s head be square or rounded?
That would not normally be considered a major creative decision in television, but for someone as detail-oriented as Groening — he said he spent hours contemplating the question — it was one of several crucial choices he had to make to help define his latest animated prime-time series, the well-received ‘Futurama.”
Adult-oriented animated series have become big, in large part because of the success of Groening’s first show, “The Simpsons,” which began in 1990. When Groening sat down years later to create his next show, a sort of futuristic science fiction sendup, he used much of what he had learned about what works and what does not in this realm of television. The veteran took his hard-won experience and created an ensemble of bunglers living in the year 3000, hoping that such a show would stand out in a crowded animation field.
“Futurama” is off to a reasonably good start. By midseason it was pulling in about 10 million viewers, and most of them were the young men so coveted by advertisers. Its season ratings (it is being shown in reruns until the fall) were well behind “The Simpsons” but ahead of such animated shows as “King of the Hill,” “Family Guy,” “Dilbert,” “South Park” and “The PJ’s.”
The journey from conception to animation took a few years, with decisions looming large on issues like whether to give the robot, Bender, antennae, how much of a slacker to make his pal, Fry, and what kind of nose should grace the lead female character, the strong-willed and sexy alien Leela. In a wide-ranging interview, Groening discussed this delicate decision-making process.
“Futurama” began as a sort of dream project, Groening said, one in which he could capitalize on his success and build the comedy as he liked. Still, he had to get Fox executives excited, and he said he did so with a sly stratagem.
“The way I sold the show was by saying, ‘This is the Simpsons in the future,’ and dollar signs danced in front of their eyes,” Groening said. “When they finally saw it, they said, ‘This isn’t anything like the Simpsons.’ And I said: ‘Yes it is. It’s new and original.”‘
What “Futurama” shares with “The Simpsons” is a slightly twisted sensibility, a pointed but good-natured satirical approach and a focus on losers. But “Futurama” is more of an adventure series — there is no domesticity to speak of — and it examines the life of a teen-ager rather than parents and younger children.
In the same way “The Simpsons” upends the formula of traditional family sitcoms, “Futurama” mocks many of the conventions of science fiction.
Life in the future has often been depicted as militaristic or at least heavily regimented under some sort of strong authority. “Futurama” presents a civilian society dominated by commercial interests with plenty of winners and losers.
A major ambition in assembling “Futurama,” Groening said, was to create a sort of dream show, to get it all right without anxieties or compromises.
“‘Futurama’ was an attempt to see if we could duplicate some of the fun and have none of the headaches of ‘The Simpsons,”‘ Groening said. “That did not happen.” For starters, there was Bender’s head. The hard-drinking and nihilistic robot started out with a squarish one, on the assumption that most robot heads would look that way in the year 3000. But then, Groening said, Bender’s was rounded to underscore the fact that he is a misfit, a round peg in a square hole.
“We initially gave him antennas where he would have ears, but we decided it was more effective to make him more streamlined,” Groening said. “He’s not streamlined as a personality, and that’s part of what makes him funny.”
It is also what helps make Bender believable as a machine who can still be a companion of sorts. He knows no guilt, constantly feels sorry for himself and can bend metal.
Some of Bender’s qualities have yet to be displayed in the series or have not received much attention, although they have been on the writers’ minds as they determine how he acts in various situations. As a robot with soul, he plays the piano when he is blue, for example.
According to Groening’s computer file from December 1997, Bender is also “a poor chef, proud of his being nonlethal, useful in the kitchen because he won’t burn.” He loves to cook but was built without a sense of taste.
As much as Groening brooded over the character of Bender, the show is essentially about the trials of being a young adult, as seen through the character of Fry, the robot’s buddy. Fry is a 20th-century pizza delivery boy accidentally catapulted into the future after literally stumbling into a time machine. Amazed by what he finds, he remains, as he was in the 20th century, something of a loser. But not too much of a loser.
In fact, Groening said, Fry has developed into a slightly less farcical character, making a transition from hopeless bungler to bungler with a modest glimmer of hope. He has become an exaggerated version of a certain kind of teen-ager — easily distracted, stubborn, a slob, and at times blatantly exuberant about things he loves, like bad television shows.
Bumbling through the future seemed like a nifty alternative to Fry’s old life. Back home he was a dropout from Coney Island Junior College, whose cheer at sporting events was, “Go Whitefish!”
“We figured we needed a character the audience could identify with,” said Groening, explaining that young viewers might recognize a little of themselves in the willfulness of the remodeled Fry. Nevertheless, Fry just does not have it in him to actually get ahead, a characteristic Groening enjoys poking fun at, and a contrast to the superheroes of other shows.
Then there is Leela, who takes a snickering, condescending attitude toward her hapless friends. Groening said that although her most distinguishing feature was always a single large eye, she had evolved considerably, thanks partly to lessons gleaned from “The Simpsons.” A flashback in one episode about how Homer met his wife, Marge, in high school helped his creative team understand that animated woman characters could be sexy, he said.
Curvaceous Leela is a woman of the future, assertive, decisive and battle ready. Being an alien, she also has that one giant eye, which makes her self-conscious about being a freak of sorts, by human standards.
Calling up a computer file, Groening read off some qualities he had jotted down for Leela: “strong-willed, opinionated, gentle (when not fighting), gives orders, unlucky in love, loves weapons, loves animals.”
The problem, he said, was that after his team realized that an animated woman could be sexy, they kept making her a little too racy.
“We had to pull back on Leela,” Groening said. “The tendency among the animators was to draw this bizarrely exaggerated female form, if you know what I mean.”
Once she was toned down, one body part, in addition to her eye, remained somewhat larger than usual: her nose. That Groening decided to keep, just for fun. “Probably the biggest argument about Leela was the size of the nose,” he said. “Some of the animators said it was grotesque.”
As with Bender, the animators gave Leela some characteristics that have yet to be examined but inform her personality in the minds of the writers. In fact, a big surprise lies in store for Leela. “Since this is an epic space opera, Leela has a dark secret,” Groening said. “Suffice it to say, things are not what they seem. That’s all I can say.”
In “Futurama” her chances of escaping her past are minimal. One conceit of the show is that in contrast to the popular belief in self-help and man’s ability to change, what happens in Groening’s future world is predetermined, or nearly so. He intends that gloomy note to be the foil against which the characters react.
“We’re satirizing everything you’re told these days about reinventing yourself,” said Groening. In “Futurama,” he said, “my answer to the question of whether you can reinvent yourself or whether you’re doomed by some predetermined plan is you’re doomed.”
But over time, this notion, too, has become more malleable, so that the characters now have some wiggle room to try to better their lives. “My optimistic liberal point of view is you should do what you really want to do and not accept the fate you’re handed,” Groening said.
Indeed, he has come to realize that in the world of animation, change — in particular, rapid change — is admirable. Bender, for example, can drop whatever he is doing in an instant.
“There are certain things you find work comedically in these shows,” he said. “A big thing is, impulsiveness is very funny in animation. Leaping before looking or instantly changing directions when something interesting suddenly comes along. So I don’t always know what they will land on when they leap. That’s part of the way things change.”