Futurama was experiencing cancellation reprieves before Netflix made it cool. The beloved animated comedy, created by Matt Groening and starring Billy West and Katey Sagal, first ran for five seasons on Fox starting in 1999, then remained a part of the network as a direct-to-DVD movie series, then was picked up for two super-sized seasons by Comedy Central. In 2013, though, it looked like the series could really be done.
But Futurama has come back in a big way in 2017 — just not in any way you’ve experienced it before. In June, a mobile game version called Futurama: Worlds of Tomorrow was released, and its company, Jam City, negotiated with the original series’ producers to create an additional (double-length!) podcast-only episode of Futurama as special promotional material. (The podcast, released by The Nerdist Podcast, debuted Thursday morning. Listen to it here.) Of course, much of the original team got back together, making this another vital entrant in the Futurama canon. With two distinct chapters now newly available, the show’s future again appears in flux — if, at the same time, more boundless than ever.
Co-developer and writer David X. Cohen spoke with EW about reviving Futurama for the fourth time, how the show has evolved in tandem with TV, and just how many endings one TV series gets to have.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I remember reading an interview with you, when Futurama “ended” in 2013, saying that when it comes to animated shows, you can end things several times.
DAVID X. COHEN: Well, with our animated show, things sure ended several times!
I know you were pretty happy with that 2013 finale, so how have your thoughts evolved on that philosophy?
You know something’s gone horribly wrong when you feel like you’re getting very experienced at writing your last episode ever. A bad sign, usually. The last one we wrote, it was the fourth time we’ve written an episode where at the time we wrote it we thought it would likely be our last episode ever, so that’s more than usual. Each time I felt like we left it in a pretty good place where I could live with myself if it didn’t come back — try to leave a little bit of hope alive for the future. One thing I’ll say is that the first couple times we thought we were going away, those were the more deeply cutting ones, where it was more emotional, and we felt like, “No, we’re just getting started here.” Now I feel like the third, fourth time it’s a little harder to work up that degree of deep emotion because you just go like, “Hm, I guess I just do not know what the future is anymore.” We’re lucky we got to come back, and if we get to come back again, that would be awesome. If not I’ve cried two or three times, but this time I’m just going to say, “Well done, everybody!”
Particularly with that 2013 finale, this idea of things ending, but also continuing on, is really baked in — it’s an idea that lends itself really well to the show’s premise.
Yes, absolutely. When you’re in science fiction territory, you can always time-travel to the spot you want to restart in, or the universe can loop around and big bang again. Someone’s consciousness could be downloaded from the Cloud. We have much more good excuses than other genres for starting our show again.
Talk to me about getting back with the writers. How did you initially decide to approach revisiting the show again, particularly in a new format — this time in a podcast?
It begins with this video game company, TinyCo, which has subsequently been bought by a slightly bigger company, Jam City. They’ve put out a mobile game called Futurama: Worlds of Tomorrow, and they’ve been very good from the beginning about saying, “We want to make this true to the series, and we want to get the whole cast involved and the original writers and the original animators.” They’ve really been good about that, trying to show this as the real DNA of the series Futurama. The game came out recently and, leading up to that, we were talking about, what is a good way to promote this and really get that message out — that the original cast and crew is behind this thing? The first thing that came up, of course, is “Can we do a new episode?” I said, “No, probably not! It will take a year and it will cost a huge amount of money. Both of those things are prohibitive.” Then someone said, “Well, can we make an episode but not animated, and just do it as a radio show?” That set off a little bell in the back of my head, because about maybe a year ago, I had gotten into a conversation with Chris Hardwick, a man of 10 million hats, and he, as a member of a very famous podcast, was saying, “You guys should do an audio episode.” At the time, I said, “Well, that sounds fun. I like old-time radio shows and stuff.” But again, “It just seems hard to pull the pieces together.” But then suddenly this game company’s talking about — the game company could back this production under the guise of bringing attention to the game. So I said, “Okay, you guys call Chris Hardwick, and maybe between all of you we can make this happen somehow.”
Sure enough, it has happened. I got a couple of the writers on board, specifically Ken Keeler and Patric Verrone, who were two of the longest-serving writers on Futurama, and the three of us wrote this script — which is a double-length episode. It’s almost 45 minutes long; it’s about as long as two episodes of the show. Although it’s one continuous epic thing. We’ve got the entire cast on board and Chris Hardwick guest-starring as well, as this horrific creature that evolves from billions of podcasts that no one ever listened to. It just kind of came together in this miraculous way. Once we started doing it, I will say, at first we thought, “Well, it will be a little easier than making the full animated version,” but we ended up getting sucked in and making it bigger and longer, and all of us putting in a lot more work than intended. But I think as a result it also turned out better than intended. It’s going to be, I hope, pretty exciting for all the fans.
What can you tease about the episode, and the making of it?
Part of the fun of doing the audio episode is to do a few things that are difficult, or that you wouldn’t do with animation. So things really get set in motion when Fry, who is always trying to win the heart of Leela, makes what he considers to be a very romantic gesture, and gives to her the gift of a holographic nude self-portrait of himself, which he has created in her honor — and the details of which would be hard to show in animation. But because it’s this complicated 3-D thing and also because Fry is unpleasantly nude, for various reasons it would be harder to do animated, but we’re like, “Alright.” It works in radio where you can describe all the amazing things that you’re not seeing. That’s part of the fun of writing it. And she does not take too well to this so-called gift, for one thing because she has only one eye and she can’t even see in three dimensions, so she doesn’t get to enjoy the full degree of Fry’s nudity. They go to dispose of this contraption on a planet designated for disposing of electronic junk and while there they accidentally unleash this horrific creature played by Chris Hardwick on the universe.
You really focus on the Leela-Fry romance in that 2013 finale and end with a big romantic gesture. How did you go into this episode, in terms of their relationship?
The thing that I like about Fry and Leela is the direction it started to turn in, in the later seasons, which is that Fry — who had been this bumbling moron with no particular direction — his love for Leela is great enough that it actually does cause him to improve himself. That ended up being a little better direction, that he actually is getting a little smarter and trying a little harder. And it’s actually starting to work a little bit with Leela, as opposed to either he just fail completely and fall on his face or that she would fall for him for no particular reason, in the beginning. I like the ones where he actually steps it up a notch and makes an impression, and in this episode — although things start out badly for him — you’ll see that his intent is good and he has some tricks up his sleeve still.
They take up most of the space in the 2013 finale. Is there, perhaps, a supporting player who shines in this new episode?
In the most recent finale, we decided to really zero in on Fry and Leela and shrink the world — the whole universe was their universe. The podcast, in a way, is the opposite of that because we really wanted to hear everybody. We don’t want anybody to not hear their favorite characters. That’s part of what caused the episode to grow: “We want a Fry-Leela story, yes, but then of course we’ve got to have a Bender story.” There’s this, believe it or not, fairly emotional story about Bender and his mother, who we only very briefly touched on in the series — his mother being a robot arm with no mouth. So it was kind of a challenge to tell her story in a podcast where she can’t talk. But I think we did it. We made it a challenge for ourselves. There’s some deep emotion there between Bender and this robot arm, his mother. And then it’s science fiction. We had to have our threats of the Earth, and that’s where Chris Hardwick’s space villain comes in. So this is all taking place under the shadow of this horrific creature menacing the world. There’s three A-stories going on, really. And then there’s a lot of cameos from many of the side characters who we’ve had over the years. So this was an attempt to broaden things out and get everybody in there.
What did Chris Hardwick bring to the world?
He’s fantastic. I want to find a weak link in that guy’s talents; you feel inadequate when you’re in the room with him.
If you want a guy who can speak loudly for a long time and do crazy voices, he’s your guy — again! He’s everywhere. You’ll see when you hear the podcast that we wanted to try to find a voice that went with the idea of a character who was literally made out of billions of podcasts, so what we ended up doing was we had him record his part in multiple different voices. So he did many takes. I wouldn’t have asked most people to do this, but he was very enthusiastic, him being a big Futurama fan too. So we had him do the part multiple times in different voices, and he speaks in this harmony of voices, all of which are really him. You’ll hear it. It’s not an electronic effect — I want to give him, again, too much credit, but he’s really doing the part in all these different voices you’ll here.
Would you be eager to return to a podcast format again?
Yeah. My feeling about any Futurama stuff that I work on at this point is that I love to do it, and if I can come back, that is fantastic. I don’t want to do the bad version. Anything we do, I want it to be the good version of that. I don’t want to bring Futurama back as a TV show, but it’s in a real cut-rate animation style or where we can only get one and a half writers, or whatever it is. We’ve got to be able to do the good version. Same for the audio. We started to do it with a certain goal and as we were doing it, we just got sucked in — “Let’s make it better; instead of doing one episode let’s make it a double-length episode.” We make life hard for ourselves, but that’s the only way I think that I feel satisfied: if we try to make the improved version rather than the disappointing, step down from what people have seen before.
Futurama is fascinating to me, because it has existed through all these various incarnations of “television.” In every era that the show has had a kind of existence, TV has been in a completely different space. What’s it been like, writing and reviving this show as the medium has evolved?
Isn’t it amazing? The period of history that we’ve been through — the timing worked out very beneficially for Futurama, in terms of making it possible for us to come back. If you think about it, we came on the air initially in 1999, on regular old broadcast television with commercials and even old screen format — a 4:3 picture and standard definition, all that stuff — and we lasted four or five years on Fox. Then we were off. Up until that point in history, basically, when you’re off you’re off. That was it. But we just happened to hit the wave of DVD at that point, where people, to the surprise of Fox, started buying the show on DVD just as we were going off the air. They canceled the show but we’re still making money on this; we’re not familiar with this situation. Right about that time, Adult Swim put the show on the air at like 1 a.m. — like, this isn’t normally the way we show our shows, but let’s see what happens. And people watched the show at 1 a.m.
Because these new formats were appearing, Fox said, “Hey, wait a second, this isn’t what we’re used to, but the show is still finding an audience.” So that’s what led to them bringing us back with these direct-to-DVD movies, another area which you wouldn’t have thought of, even, when we were started to work on the show. That show found an audience, so Comedy Central said, “We’ll bring you back for primetime on cable TV.” So then we came back in HDTV, which had been invented at that point. And now we’ve got this mobile game — another format that didn’t exist when we started. The podcast, I can’t really say it didn’t exist since this is basically a format that dates to the 1920s I believe, so suddenly we’ve jumped to a 100-year-old format. That breaks the chain a little bit of new-and-improved formats. But even so, if you call it a podcast, then you can kind of pretend it’s the newest, latest thing. So we were just kind of hitting each format as it’s unleashed on the world, and that gives us a second, third, fourth lease on life. It’s just really been fascinating and unexpected at every turn.
I don’t know if there’s any left, but is there another format — a newer format — that you think Futurama could work in the future?
My hope is that within a year or two it will be beamed directly into people’s sinuses and will be shot onto their retina from behind. I think that would be extremely effective and you wouldn’t need a device or anything. That would work.