David X. Cohen Reflects on the End of FUTURAMA
By Kyle Anderson on December 17, 2013
On September 4th, the final episode of the long-running, highly influential, and always brilliant Futurama aired (and we had a live pre- and post-show roundtable discussion) and fans had to (yet again) bid a tearful goodbye to Fry, Leela, Bender, and the rest of the Planet Express crew. But this isn’t the first time this has happened; writer and executive producer David X. Cohen knows all too well the fickle nature of television, especially given how many times they themselves have had to write a series finale. We spoke to Cohen about how he’s adjusting to the show being over, what his favorite episodes of the last season were, and what fans can expect on the recently-released Volume 8 Blu-ray and DVD.
NERDIST: Thanks for talking with us today.
DAVID X. COHEN: My pleasure. I don’t have anything else to do anymore.
N: Has it sunk in yet that you’re done? Is there really nothing more to do for Futurama?
DXC: Yeah, it’s funny, with an animated show things end so many times that you’re never quite sure, because first, you finish your last script, then your last table reading, your last recording, then the animation comes in stages, and then there’s the broadcast, and then the DVD goes on sale. There’s always been one more thing, so I guess I haven’t quite hit the final mental acceptance yet.
N: So, this is like the last roundup, then, because you’re doing DVD interviews.
DXC: Pretty much, but then whenever I think it’s done, then I get a call that’s like, “Oh, the last episode is airing in Germany tomorrow. Can you do interviews for Germany?” No matter when you think it’s done, there’s something else, and then next fall there’s going to be the Simpsons/Futurama crossover episode on The Simpsons. I think for the near future at least I’ll be able to fool myself into thinking it still exists in some form.
N: It’s been a couple months now since the last episode, “Meanwhile,” aired. How do you feel like it came out? Did it go the way that you guys wanted it to? Do you think that the public has accepted it? I really liked it. I was at the Nerdist event that was at the YouTube Space, and everybody in the audience really seemed to like it. How do you think it came out with a few months to look back on it?
DXC: I still think it was our best series finale, of our four series finales that we wrote, partially because I think we just got better at writing our Last Episode Ever with practice. I think by the time we got to the last one we knew the tone we wanted to shoot for, which generally, in the case of a Futurama series finale, is some kind of an epic sci-fi story with your touching, emotional Fry and Leela story on top of it. We were pretty sure that was the direction we wanted to go, so we had a lot of time to think about it this time around. It felt good. This is how good I think that episode went: it actually makes me nervous that if the show were ever to come back, could we ever end it as well again? It’s almost an impediment to coming back, having ended it on such a nice note.
N: That’s true; it was very much a personal story, even with the sci-fi elements. You didn’t decide to do a big space battle or have the fate of the universe hang in the balance. It was just the main characters being dumb and having to deal with that, as some of the best episodes are.
DXC: Yeah, we had sci-fi in there in the form of the time button, reversing time every ten seconds, but, yeah, you’re right. It was not giant explosions. I would describe it as a more thoughtful episode and a little slower-paced episode. We even had this huge musical montage towards the end where you saw Fry and Leela going through their life together, and it went on for a couple of minutes, and we very rarely take the time to do that sort of thing in Futurama episodes. We thought this being the last episode ever, we could make it stand out a little bit from the pack that way.
N: As you were saying, you haven’t fully decompressed yet, but do you ever take a moment to look at the series as a whole and how much it’s grown and changed and evolved over the years?
DXC: Yeah, I think especially now that I have had a little bit of time and have been talking a little bit about the history of the show. That forces me to analyze it a little bit, too, and when I look back, I really think the later episodes are much better than the earlier episodes, in retrospect. Part of that is just this real long flow of feedback that we have in animation, where we write something and it doesn’t go on the air for a year, and if we see how people react, or how even we react at that time, it’s another year before an episode that incorporates those lessons can go on the air.
It’s almost a two-year loop, really, from when you do something to when you can incorporate it and you’ve learned from that. The big lessons that we did learn were, number one, to always stick with the idea that you just mentioned. The stories are about the characters and not about what is on another planet in the 16th dimension or something like that. That’s the setting for the show, but the story is always about the characters and their emotions and their concerns and how crazy the setting.
Number two, equally important, we learned, to our surprise, to take the sci-fi angle more seriously. I think in a lot of the earlier episodes, we tried to brush the sci-fi under the table because we were afraid that people would get scared of it, like, “Hey, we want to watch a family in the living room like The Simpsons,” so we tried to make it a little like a family in the living room in the future.
N: Did you find the more sci-fi episodes really started to strike a chord with the fans?
DXC: Yeah, we started noticing that when the episodes were taking the sci-fi seriously, those were among the fan favorites, and it was alerting for us but we also found that it didn’t hurt the comedy and that when the sci-fi was really taken seriously, like in our big time travel episodes, including “The Late Philip J. Fry,” that won the Emmy Award a couple years ago, that the comedy still played well.
I think against that real heavy dramatic background, the comedy is more of a relief. Whereas originally we were afraid that you couldn’t do comedy and serious sci-fi at the same time, later we found it actually improved the comedy to take the sci-fi seriously. That was really a big lesson we learned.
N: Did you find that stemming from doing the four feature-length stories during the interim years? That first one, “Bender’s Big Score,” especially always stood out to me as being incredibly sci-fi-y and also incredibly funny. Were those good for stretching the sci-fi writing muscles?
DXC: Yeah. I think part of the idea for those movies, the four direct-to-DVD movies we did, was “let’s explore four major areas of science fiction in a little more depth, since we have the opportunity.” If you look at the four movies, the first one is a big time travel movie, the second one is a big monster movie, basically, the third one is a fantasy Lord of the Rings-y kind of thing, which we had never done at all before, and the fourth one is sort of an epic space opera, spanning a billion years of sci-fi genre.
We felt like, “We’ll take four major areas of sci-fi, and go in to a little more depth.” You’re absolutely right. That was a very conscious decision at that point, when this lesson had sunk in a little that we will direct our attention based on the sci-fi angle and work at our strengths within those four categories.
N: You and I spoke last year about the previous DVD release and you ran down some of your favorite episodes from the half-season. What are your favorites this time around? Besides “Meanwhile,” I mean, because that’s clearly your favorite.
DXC: Yeah, I would certainly name the final episode as “Number One Must-See” if you’re a Futurama fan, for obvious reasons. So, we’ll omit that from the discussion now, but put that with an asterisk that you must see it. I’m also a big fan of the second to last episode. It’s called “Stench and Stenchibility,” and there was actually a question which I was asked many times over the years at Futurama panels, which is “will Dr. Zoidberg ever find love?” He does in the second to last episode. Basically, because we had a lot of characters to wrap up, we couldn’t wrap up everybody’s story in the last episode. You’ll see a lot about Fry and Leela in the last episode, but you’ll see a lot of Zoidberg and Bender in the second to last episode.
Another highlight for me is an episode called “Saturday Morning Fun Pit,” which is nominated for a Writers Guild Award, which is one of our three-part special episodes that we try to do about one of per season. This time it’s a rebirth of Futurama in the form of three what I will call “craptastic cartoons of the 1970s and 1980s.” You’ll see Futurama animated in those styles, as without naming any specific names a group of crime-fighting teenagers in a van, and a group of colorful singing characters in a mystical land, and a group of GI’s not named Joe, fighting evil. These are the episodes that always cause our animators to point guns at us and threaten to kill us when we hand them the script because we’re basically asking them to redesign the entire Futurama universe three times for a single episode, but they ultimately comply because they’re required to by contract and they all still have faith in us.
I’ll just name one more that is also nominated for a Writers Guild Award. I’m excited, because we just got three Writers Guild Award nominations for this last year in animation categories. There’s one more I’m going to mention called “Game of Tones,” and I will mention this because another thing we’ve learned over the years that I didn’t mention a minute ago is that people also seem to respond to the real emotional episodes of Futurama that we decided to start trying along the way.
Maybe about once a year we’ve gone for episodes that really have tried to get a tear in the eye of the viewer, which is not that easy with a cartoon, where you’re already just battling to get the people to buy in to the reality of it. We try one of these tough ones about once a year, and I think we had a very nice, touching one this year with the episode “Game of Tones,” where we learned more about Fry’s mom, who he left behind in the year 2000, so if you have your handkerchief handy, you can check it out.
N: You guys always take such pride in the home video releases and always have such great extras. Do you have any favorites for Volume 8?
DXC: Actually, one of my favorites ever is on Volume 8, I can tell you right off the bat. It is, because it’s a record for the ages that the writers themselves wanted to have. It’s a tour of the Futurama writers’ room. It’s called “The Writers’ Room of Tomorrow.” Basically, when we write the show, it’s pretty much a group effort, and we sit around a big table and we look at the script up on a screen, and we live in there almost like college roommates in the sense that there’s a lot of old dirty food containers around and stuff all over the walls.
Over the course of years of work, more and more and more stuff gets pinned to the walls, and all of people’s various projects are hanging up. By the end of the last four years on Comedy Central, we really had this pretty packed room of junk and all kind of memorable stuff. Everybody was sad to leave, so we said “hey, let’s make like a video record,” so you’ll see a tour with a little bit of comedy here and there, and some celebrity cameos.
You also see our most in-depth behind-the-scenes feature ever about the animation process. We’ve done comedy ones before that were the fake way that Futurama was made and a couple little things, but this is a three part thing called “Futurama University,” where we’re really in-depth. It goes into how the animators do different stages of the animation process. Those are two of the big ones on this set coming out, Volume 8.
N: And before I let you go – what stage are you at with the Futurama/Simpsons crossover episode?
DXC: It’s very far along. Al Jean, EP of The Simpsons, came to me and Matt with this idea, and we both were fine with it. Stewart Burns, who was a former Futurama writer who’s now been writing for the Simpsons for years, was chosen to write it. He seemed like a natural candidate, and I gave some input on it to make sure the tone seemed up to date with more recent Futurama. It’s being animated as we speak. It’s well along. It’s written. It’s recorded. Many of the Futurama characters make appearances in it. It’s got a huge cast. It’s very exciting. It might be the season premiere of The Simpsons next fall, but that remains to be seen. It depends how the animation schedule goes. So, we’ll have one more excuse to talk.