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Interview with “Futurama” EP David X. Cohen

It’s not often that a series can be off the air for longer than it was on the air and then come back as strong as ever, with only minor changes. This is the case, however, for Comedy Central’s Futurama, which used to be FOX’s Futurama. Now in the middle of its second Comedy Central season, the show that gave us indelible characters like Bender, Zoidberg, and Scruffy is in its seventh season overall, the first half of which comes to DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday the 11th. One of the people responsible for the show since Day One is David X. Cohen, the developer, executive producer, and head writer. He was kind enough to talk to us about the way the show has changed, science he finds fascinating, topical humor, and cut musical numbers.

NERDIST: Futurama is going strong in its second season after a being “Rebirthed.” How has the show changed from its first four seasons, and even from last year to this year?

DAVID X. COHEN: Ah, good question. The weirdest thing about this season, for me, is that there was not a lot of drama coming back from last season. It’s a situation we are not used to at all here at Futurama. You know, we were on last year and they just said, “We want some more,” and then we were on this year. We don’t even know how to deal with that situation! The lack of chaos and people quitting and going off to find work while we’re semi-cancelled has been very surreal for us. So, that’s been the oddest thing about this new season. We kinda kept going, we got to keep all of our writers and animators. It was an unheard-of smooth transition from season to season for us.

As far as differences from the original show to now… there are several. Technically is the most obvious; we went to HD and widescreen. And they sound a lot different; we mix in 5.1 surround sound now whereas it used to be stereo. So, technically, it is far superior to what it was in the old days. As far as our production, we’ve had to streamline things a little bit; obviously the show’s on cable now, so… Do you want to hear some of the dirty secrets of how we do that kind of stuff?

N: Sure! I’d love to.

DXC: One example is we used to use a live orchestra when the show was on Fox, believe it or not, which very few shows did. Matt Groening is very passionate about music and using live music, so we had a full orchestra doing the music the first time around. We have now switched to digital now. We still have the same composer, Chris Tyng, but when the score is ready it is synthetically produced. Now, of course, technology has helped us out in that area and the tech for synthesized instruments has become very good and gives us a very realistic sound. On rare occasions when we have something specific like a solo saxophone, which we have coming up, for example, we can bring in one musician here and there if we have to. So, that’s an example of where we’ve saved a lot of money, secretly, without anyone knowing.

We have a few less writers than we used to, which I was very worried about, actually, when we first came back at Comedy Central. These animated shows usually have big staffs and would all be working two groups at a time, but what saved us, although we had fewer fulltime writers, some of the original writers were free to do some freelance scripts for us. So, when we get overloaded at the office here, I would farm them out to some people like Lew Morton and Aaron Ehasz, who had written for the show the first time around, and that’s saved our butts in terms of production. So, we’ve gotten pretty lucky with having to squeak by and cut a few corners, but, personally, I think the show is better than it was, certainly technically at any rate. Draw your own conclusions about the material, but, you know.

N: How is Comedy Central to work for as far as giving notes on scripts and things like that?

DXC: They’ve been great. It was a weird case, because they bought the show mid-stream and it had already existed for years, so they knew just what they were getting. It wasn’t like a normal show where they’d develop it and go back and forth; they said, “You know what you’re doing, and you’ve got total freedom,” and they just trust Matt Groening to not let the writers run wild. [laughs] Or to let them run wild, whatever; he’s in charge of either letting us or not letting us, so they’ve been absolutely great. They do have a standards and practices department, believe it or not. Once in a while they’ll make sure we’re not pushing any legal boundaries, but content-wise, we’ve gotten a lot of freedom. They’ve just been great about keeping it on its regular time slot, promoting it, doing a lot of things. They’ve also been doing a great job online, actually. They run the Facebook page for Futurama, which I believe is in the top ten most liked or followed (whatever the correct terminology is) TV shows on Facebook. We’re number 9.

N: It seems that since the show’s come back, it’s gotten a bit more topical; is that just through design or is there more stuff to make fun of now?

DXC: It’s a combination of things. One is there was this weird gap of years when we were off the air and the march of technology actually gave us some new material. So, one of the episodes you might be thinking of in your question is the iPhone episode, E-Y-E Phone [Episode three of Season Six, “Attack of the Killer App”]. Obviously, when the show was first on, we did not have smart phones of any kind; we had very dumb phones. It was genuine science fiction. The phones we carry around today and don’t even think about were genuine science fiction just a decade ago, which is pretty hard to believe. So, technology had moved along and gave us new material. Another example is an episode that’ll be on next summer, 2013, that was inspired by 3D printing technology and we actually had a 3D printer at the office. We were playing with it so much, we said, “Hey, let’s do an episode about this so we can write it off.” And then, this season, I think we got a little extra bonus of topical material, just based on what was going on in the real world. Sort of a coincidence, but being the year 2012 and a presidential year, that inspired a presidential episode, and also being the end of the Mayan calendar gave is the episode “A Farewell to Arms,” which is the second one on the new DVD set, which is about the end of the world in the year 3012. So, a bit of the coincidence of the calendar generated some of the more topical stuff, too.

N: Part of what makes the show great is that you can tackle these huge philosophical and scientific problems, like in your episode in the set, “Free Will Hunting,” you talk about predestination versus free will. How did you go about writing that episode? Did it come from wanting to talk about that topic or did it come out of working out the story?

DXC: Episodes come from all directions, and that one did come specifically from just talking about the theoretical and philosophical idea of, “can a machine have free will?” That came out in the room and I kind of laid claim to it. It definitely sprang from that idea as opposed to coming from, like, “Bender goes to the robot planet again,” or whatever possible things you could think we might have thought about. I was particularly interested because I actually thought back to my high school days [and] I remember getting into big, high school-style debates about that exact issue, and at the time I did not know anything about quantum mechanics, I’d only take physics. So, I believed, based on my physics class, that all particles in the universe moved according to these Newtonian laws of motion. Basically, if you believe that, then the motion of every last electron, neutron, proton, and everything else in the universe is on a predictable path and, if you had enough data, could be predicted out as long as you want. So, in other words, there would be no free will in that universe, at least by the definition I’m giving here. Am I getting too deep into this question?

N: No, not at all! It’s great! I’m finding it completely interesting.

DXC: So, anyway, I remember I was in Latin class – believe it or not, I was taking Latin. Almost anything is more interesting than Latin, and we started debating this, and I think the teacher got involved, and we basically devoted a day to debating it. I remember one other guy in the class said, “Wait, but quantum mechanics says there’s randomness,” and I hadn’t heard anything about that. So, anyway, it was a topic that I felt passionate and confused about in the past, and it just fired up some old neurons in my brain and I just latched on to it.

N: Do you have any favorite characters to write, or ones you like writing more than other ones?

DXC: It’s boring to say Bender, but it is really fun to write for Bender, in the same way that it’s fun to write for Homer. The character who does what he wants to do at any moment and he doesn’t just have fantasies; the second he thinks of something he wants to do he’s doing it and says what he wants to say, that’s your Homer and Bender and they’re always fun to write for. I always want to give a more creative answer like, “Hypnotoad!” or “Roberto!” They’re great, but it’s hard to do an A-story, a main story, about those characters. Of the main characters, I think still Bender. Many of the episodes which are the best episodes are NOT Bender-centric episodes, like a lot of the Fry/Leela ones, which I think are among our bests and our fan favorites. It’s always this trade-off where you do a higher degree of difficulty and try to get that emotion in there, which often works better with Fry and Leela or Fry remembering his past, to have a big payoff. So, you know, easy and best are not always the same, and fun and good-outcome are not necessarily the same.

N: Besides your own, of course, what’s your favorite episode from the box set?

DXC: Can I mention three? There are three that I think of as standing out, for me. The first one is number one on the set, called “The Bots and the Bees.” The basic idea of it is that Bender becomes a dad, he fathers a child robot, which, in itself, is a question that begged an answer because we’d shown child robots but not explained why there would be such a thing. So, it’s kind of a fun story, but the risk of it is that it’s like the late seasons of a sitcom, introduce a baby. We did not want it to be a cloying episode so we went out of our way to make Bender be the worst parent ever and not enjoy it and hurt people, you know, anything we could think of to take the risk away from it. The shocking result of all this when we watched it was, yes, it was crazy and Bender was being Bender, but then it was still bringing a tear to all of our eyes at the end. Our intent was to weed that out, but it didn’t get weeded out because the father-son story still played, somewhat to my surprise and despite all of our attempts. It was a rare case, we ended up with a good Futurama episode with a good emotional center that I didn’t foresee playing so emotionally. That one greatly exceeded my expectations. I thought it was just going to be crazy but it also ended up being genuinely touching. And, also, Wanda Sykes guest stars and she’s hilarious.

Then, a second one I will point to was “Fun on a Bun,” which I think is the more classic type of the best Futurama episodes. This is one that has a giant sci-fi story. We have a battle between cavemen on mammoths fighting Zapp Brannigan and soldiers from the future on spaceships, so the animators weren’t too pleased with that. [laughs] But, you know, it’s sort of the classic sci-fi episode which also has this big, touching romance story between Fry and Leela and when we pull those off I always think those are really good ones.

And, lastly, I’ll go to the last episode on the set which is “Naturama,” which is one of our annual three-parters; at some point we decided these were annual, episodes with three mini-stories. And this one is very different from anything we’ve tried before; it’s almost entirely a show that is making jokes about science as opposed to science fiction. You may not even think of that when you watch it, but it actually sparked a lot of debate here. Can we do that? Is that a Futurama episode? Some people, including Matt Groening, were nervous about it, but as a result I think we put a lot of extra effort into it. We tried to make it as scientifically accurate as we could, but also funny. And it was a big challenge for the animators because they had to redesign all the characters not just once but three times. The crew is re-imagined as wild animals of different types in each of the three segments. So, it was a huge effort all around, and I think the hard work paid off. I find it one of the funniest of the year, and I did not hear any complaints from the fans that we’d strayed a little from science fiction.

N: And finally, is there anything on the DVD, extras-wise, you think fans will really enjoy?

DXC: One is a totally new thing that we have never done before, which is for episode 705, “Zapp Dingbat.”  That’s the one where Zapp Brannigan is dating Leela’s mother and, originally, as originally written and animated, we had a big musical number, a show-stopping musical number, in the finale to that episode. Literally, the climax to the episode was in musical form. We did this whole thing, recorded it, animated it, and Matt Groening ultimately came in and said he was really wrapped up in the drama of the episode and the musical was knocking him out of it at the last second and he objected to that. [chuckles] We actually rewrote the end in a more classically dramatic and exciting way, but without the music. So, we had this big musical number lying around that was done and so we’ve put a check box next to the episode on the DVD and you can select which version you want to watch. You can watch the full episode through with either ending. We’ve never done that before, a genuine alternate ending.

The other thing I want to mention is “Futurama Karaoke…” Kind of a musical theme for the DVD extras I’m mentioning. But, any of the best musical numbers we’ve done over the years, we’ve made karaoke versions of them with lyrics on the screen so you can sing along with the animation. It’ll be excellent for Futurama-themed parties, which I now hope will start happening.

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Futurama volume 7 is available Tuesday, Dec 11th on DVD and Blu-ray.

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