March 26, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Matt Groening has seen the future and, quite frankly, it looks ridiculous. On this early March morning, the bearded creator of The Simpsons has gathered his staff in his sleek L.A. office (noteworthy decorative touches: three Emmys on shelf, one squid mask on coatrack) to view a rough cut of his long-awaited new animated series, Futurama. A giant TV screen illuminates a brave new world: Jet-pack-powered cats and dogs buzz above the Jetsons-esque cityscape. People clad in two-tone Trekkie fashions whiz through pneumatic tubes. And the jokes are flying faster than the speed of light. ”I’m anticipating an all-out tactical dogfight, followed by a light dinner,” cracks macho-cheesy space soldier Capt. Zapp Brannigan, in hot pursuit of a buxom Cyclops babe. Meanwhile, a robot aiming his beeping ”gay-dar” device at a talking ball of energy declares, ”I think he comes from a dimension that’s big on musical theater.”

The room swells with laughter, and the 45-year-old Groening — sprawled out on the floor like an oversize kid — guffaws the loudest. When the crowd disperses after the screening, the Bard of Bart issues his opinion: ”Oh, it’ll be one of the great episodes,” says Groening matter-of-factly. ”We just need to do retakes, rewrite lines, rejigger things with editing, pull back on some of the acting, make some adjustments, and tighten the tracks. Obviously, the music was totally temporary, there are no sound effects yet, the show’s two minutes long, so we’ll have to cut. We’re going to lengthen Zapp Brannigan’s tunic a bit and make sure all three eyes on the alien aren’t blinking at the same time….”

Jeez, who’d have thought the future would be so complicated? Then again, if you had the jaw-droppingly onerous task of following up one of the most acclaimed TV shows in history, you’d be sweating every blinking detail too.

”How do I beat The Simpsons?” he sighs. ”I won’t. I can’t. Nothing can. I just hope every review isn’t ‘Futurama is no Simpsons.’ It’s not a horse race — well, it is, sort of.”

Granted, Futurama — a coming-of-age tale about a pizza delivery dude who awakens from a cryo-nap in the year 3000 — does contain the trademark brainy yuks, random zaniness (would you believe suicide booths and a Church of Robotology?), and chinless, bulgy-eyed humans (”It’s the only way I know how to draw”). But Groening wants this series to be more than just 3001: Homer’s Space Odyssey. ”Futurama is an epic history of the future disguised as a weekly animated sitcom,” he declares. ”We’ve got a secret alien alphabet language. We’ve planted clues in the first episode that’ll pay off later…. There’s a really basic theme to the show: ‘Don’t do what you’re programmed to do — do what you want.’ It’s a sweet concept, and our culture pretends to believe in it, but the reality is, ‘Be afraid. Lower your expectations. Vote Republican.”’

There are Republicans in the future?

”Oh, yes — in fact, the head of Richard Nixon makes a surprising political comeback in an episode in season 2.”

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