It was one festive occasion at this year’s Florida Animation Con.
The cause of celebration was the headliners, many of the key people of “Futurama.” This included Billy West (the voice of Fry, Zoidberg and the Professor), John DiMaggio (your ever loving robot pal, Bender), Phil LaMarr (Hermes) and the multi-talented Maurice LaMarche (Kif Kroker, Mordo, you name it). .
David X. CohenYet the man who ended up the star of the show, when DiMaggio would let him, was David X. Cohen. Co-creator (he prefers “co-developer”) and head writer of this Matt Groening-created cartoon confection, this show has come back from the dead more times than any costumed superhero. It currently airs as repeats on Comedy Central. Still, as any hardcore fan knows, and they are apparently as many as the stars in the sky, new episodes are now being produced.
“Over the last couple of years we had four DVD movies which you might have seen,” Cohen said, “and it’s turned into an order for 26 episodes for Comedy Central. Those are going to begin, I believe, next June. They will probably run 13 this summer, and then run another 13 in 2011. They are stretching it out in the Hamburger Helper style. You will have two new seasons of Futurama.”
Backing this up, Cohen then presented a three-minute animatic of the first episode of the new season.
To explain this clip, one must recall the last few minutes of the last DVD, “Beyond The Wild Green Yonder.” As fans might recall, the movie ended with the crew of the Planetary Express being pursued by Zapp Brannigan in a truly ginormous battle ship. The last scene has them jumping into a worm hole in order to escape while Fry and Leela kiss, expressing their on-again/off-again love affair.
Well, after a brief introduction by the Hypno Toad, we return to the action, finding out the worm hole is actually the Panama Canal of space-time ruptures. It has left them over Earth, with Brannigan hot on their heels howling his victory yodel. From there, the two ships crash, right in front of the Professor’s building. Somehow, Fry and the Prof do survive.
As for the rest of the crew, including Kif, you’ll have to wait until late Spring, 2010.
“Of course, in Futurama, you can always find some excuse, some apparatus, which will bring you back,” says Cohen. “So we knew, deep in our hearts, that we would find a way to do so. That’s how we return to life--or death--as the case may be. That episode is called ‘Rebirth.’ It involves a slightly disturbing and somewhat literal rebirthing process. Be prepared. Don’t eat a heavy meal before watching.”
If anything, Cohen’s prognosis of Leela, Zoidberg, Hermes, Amy, et al, doesn’t sound too positive, either.
“They look dead to me,” he concludes, then adds. “Let me say in the 31st Century there are certain technologies we do not have. So being a skeleton is not a permanent condition in the future. I suspect you may get to see some of your favorite cartoon characters again.”
That isn’t all that’s coming, either.
“I would like to leak a couple of details about forthcoming episodes,” Cohen continued, knowing how fans love advance scoop. “’Rebirth’ is sort of a literal rebirth of the show. The second one is sort of a Zapp Brannigan and Leela-centric show. They are stranded on an Eden-like planet. You can imagine what may ensue in Zapp’s mind.
“We have an episode that is the future of Twitter and iTunes, those sorts of things. iTunes in fact is now implanted in your eye, making it actually Eye-Tune. I’ll give you one more, a very shocking episode, which involves a relationship between Bender and Amy. That will be the shocker of the season.
“The rest of them you will have to wait and see. For instance, at the end of the last DVD, Leela and Fry declared their love for each other. You’ll have to wait to see how they resolve that. That will be part of the subject of the first episode. There are a lot of entertainment beans I still can’t spill today.”
One important note though, even if the show appears to be cruising at warp speed, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t taken some hits. Cohen confesses that the budget for the new episodes is no where near the range of the earlier seasons.
David X. Cohen's Disembodied Head In A Jar“I’ll give you some perspective, so you can have pity on us,” he starts. “’The Simpsons’ have about 18 writers. Typically, they will be working in two groups, on two different episodes that are in different stages of production. ‘Futurama,’ at its peak, had about 13 different writers, counting me. At this point, we have about seven. For a prime time show of any kind, that is a small number.
“Then again, these are all really experienced people who know what we’re doing. There’s more efficiency now. One of the things we did have to do is we have to have a few more scripts written by people who aren’t there every day doing the day-to-day. Even then we’ve been lucky because we have even more ‘Futurama’ writers available.”
The cuts just aren’t on the writing staff either.
“The other thing we’ve done is moving a little more of the production to Korea,” he said. “A lot more used to be done locally. I have to give my considerable thanks to Rough Draft Studios, they did fabulous work. They have a huge operation in South Korea, which is where they did all the digital effects and inbetween frames, so more work is being done there.”
One thing that didn’t suffer any cuts was the voice cast. As many ‘Futurama’ aficionados know, there was a bit of a gaff after the announcement of the show’s return had been made. The cast hadn’t been signed when the release was passed out. This led to a bit of a wrangle between Fox and key members like West and DiMaggio.
“As far as the cast, as you probably saw on the news, we did have a bump on the road.” Cohen recalled. “Fox made a grand announcement we’re coming back. They just omitted to say the cast was, too. ‘Futurama’ would not be quite the same without the cast. We have the best voice cast that has ever been assembled on this show.
“It was kind of fortuitous, the way it was all covered. The cast did kind of push things to the brink in order to get the best deal. It makes sense in a way, that they’d all kind of threaten each other a little bit, but it was really just business between the cast and Fox Studios. As far as relations between the cast, myself, the writers and Matt Groening, are great. It was never personal.”
One thing that has remained constant though is Groening, even if he uses the ‘rama office as a great excuse to get some lunch.
“One of the advantages of this new deal is Fox has put us back on their movie lot, which is where ‘The Simpsons’ offices are,” says Cohen. “We’re about 100 yards from The Simpsons office. So Matt has two offices, 100 yards apart from each other. It’s good for him. He can go out and have lunch, telling us he’s at ‘The Simpsons’ office while telling them he’s at ‘Futurama.’ He loves that set up.”
Yet Groening’s involvement is more than just a good excuse to get some private time.
“I don’t want anyone to think he is this distant figurehead,” Cohen says about his boss. “He is involved in ‘Futurama.’ It’s been his thing since the beginning. He’s always taken a very strong stance about ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Futurama’ in that it really has to be the work of the creative team, not the work of a lot of executives and suits.
“Comedy Central has kind of agreed to respect the process. So we’re getting to do it as we always had. That is the power of Matt Groening. They are going to let us do our thing. In fact, in the first two episodes, he’s also credited as the co-writer of the story. He was responsible for the first two stories [about] coming back. That was just me, him and Ken Keeler.
“I had an entirely different episode in mind. I actually did a couple of interviews where I talked about the plot of that episode that we didn’t do. My original idea was we would spend the first episode in another universe, where our crew would be prisoners of a zoo. They would have been part of a mating project where they would produce these offspring with various powers. Then they would escape back to our universe.
“However, Matt Groening wisely steered us into a new direction. He said if we were coming back to life, we should come back to life in the show. Therefore, we should do the opening you saw here, which is sort of a quick way to establish that we’re back on home base. So he’s very deeply involved.”
In the meanwhile, Cohen has at least one serious idea about the future of “Futurama.”
“I always thought ‘Futurama’ would be ideal for a theatrical movie. As much as I love ‘The Simpsons,’ they really don’t lend themselves to that sort of epic thing. They don’t have giant battles or monsters, which let’s face it would look great in a theater. You can see we had the more theatrical-looking sets in the DVD movies.”
Considering good science fiction and “Futurama’s” track record, anything is possible.