Sad news, everyone: "Futurama" has aired its fourth final episode (previously, there was the one after Fox canceled the series, then the last of the direct-to-DVD episodes, then the one they wrote before Comedy Central gave the show a last-minute order for its seventh season). To celebrate, the finale had a live-streaming panel, hosted by Nerdist's Chris Hardwick at the YouTube Space L.A., book ending the episode's live broadcast.
We sat down separately with "Futurama" creators Matt Groening and David X. Cohen for a few minutes before the finale aired.
"Futurama" was a spinoff from "The Simpsons." Did you feel like you needed to tell a different story?
Matt Groening: David and I are science fiction fans, and we just had so much fun talking about stories that we could not do on "The Simpsons" — nor could any other show do. So a science-fiction comedy set in the future — I thought, "Oh! Well, that'll be a snap." Turns out that it's a really tough hybrid. Science fiction has its own challenges, comedy has its own challenges. But putting the two together is really difficult to make good, because most science-fiction comedy is kind of clunky.
David X. Cohen: And one thing I'll say about those early days is when you talk about coming out of "The Simpsons" mold, we really wanted to make sure people didn't say the show was just a rip-off of "The Simpsons," the show is just "The Simpsons" in space, that kind of thing. So one of the things we worked hardest on was to differentiate the show in every way — except visually, since Matt has only one style of drawing. But in every other way, we wanted to differentiate it from "The Simpsons," and so instead of kids and parents, it's young adults who are sort of a different demographic and have different concerns — with romance and workplace and stuff. Instead of being set at home, it's at work, and they're off on missions. We wanted to make everything about the show different, except for the overbite on the characters.
Groening: And we wanted to make it different from the rest of science fiction. When you think about science fiction on television and in the movies, almost invariably the science-fiction premise is based on the idea that we live in a military future and it's basically a fascist state. Everything: "Star Wars," "Star Trek," all of them. And the idea of the military future just seems ... I'm just amazed — it's basically every science-fiction show, and I thought, let's try not to do it. Let's try to go in a different direction.
Cohen: And it was a good choice Matt made because, ultimately, if you want to comment on the world today — which is usually the goal of comedy — it's easier if there's good and bad and regular people, and hobbies, and all the things we have today, but whatever the evolution is in 1,000 years from now. But not this single, one-sided society that wouldn't allow that kind of commentary.
Groening: Also, because I grew up with George Orwell's "1984" being in the far future, and that came and went, and then "2001" and all that stuff — we wanted to do a show that was going to take a long time for us to catch up with, so that's why it's set in the far future. In fact, I'm amazed that more shows aren't set in the far future. I mean, why not? It's just a number
Cohen: "Star Trek" did that.
Groening: Oh, that's true.
Cohen: They only did a couple hundred years.
Groening: Yeah, see? They're going to be outdated long before we are.
What is the next challenge? Is there another genre, another perspective, that hasn't been done?
Cohen: I think [that] was the last one, the last genre that hadn't really been explored: sci-fi comedy.
Groening: Yeah, I think the Western. The low-budget Western. You know, that's really funny, because now you can access so many old TV Westerns that I remember growing up with. You look at them and go, "Jesus Christ! Look at those painted backdrops!" You watch Bonanza and it's like they're walking in front of a painted Ponderosa.
Cohen: They didn't envision HDTV, possibly, at the time.
Groening: You know, I think you're right.
Did the character that you personally started out identifying with in "Futurama" change, or has it always stayed the same?
Groening: I think at the beginning, we needed to take Fry from our time into the future, and have him be there to explain stuff for the audience, and we realized within one or two episodes that that was not necessary.
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Cohen: Yeah, people buy into stuff right away, and so the idea that Fry was in the future ... I think Matt's just right — that's probably the biggest change. We thought for everything we were going to show, Fry would say "Wow! Hovering cars? Cars had wheels back in my time!" But it turned out no one really needed to hear that that had changed. So the fact that Fry was from the past became much more useful emotionally — again, to go back to caring about the characters, that Fry had left things behind, like his family and his dog. So that's where it actually paid off — was in terms of the fact that you can't go back and you can't revisit parts of your life that are gone, and that's where it came in handy to have that.
Groening: I'm sorry we killed the dog.
The panel featured Groening and Cohen, voice actors Billy West (Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg), Maurice LaMarche (Kif, Morbo), Phil LaMarr (Hermes Conrad), Lauren Tom (Amy Wong), writer Patric Verrone, and director Peter Avanzino.
LaMarr recounted the evolution of Hermes (who was originally named Dexter and wasn't Jamaican), and the people on the street who complain that his voice has changed over the years. His response: "That was 10 years ago! Your voice sounds different than it did 10 years ago, too!"
One of Groening's regrets is he never got Tom's laugh into the show. She recalls him saying at her audition, "We've got to get that crazy laugh in there somehow, so you're hired — we'll figure out what to do with you." Cohen also cited her ability to "curse in a TV-legal way" (in Chinese).
They screened Cohen's favorite "Futurama" scene, from "The Late Philip J. Fry" (directed by Avanzino), in which Fry, the professor, and Bender get to see the end of the universe. "It's kind of thoughtful, it's kind of funny, and it's also very, very depressing, which is what makes me laugh."
Coincidentally, Groening's favorite scene was just after that, when the trio is forced to watch the entire universe die and be reborn again. "It's more of the same, but different."
Cohen is actually a little relieved to be "on hiatus." For the producers and writers, as soon as they're done writing, the animation comes back from overseas, and as soon as that's done, it's time for more writing. So for them, it's been essentially six straight years of working without a break.
"Jurassic Bark" came up — as it must — because of its unexpected emotional power. It wasn't the first tearjerker episode, though: That was "Luck of the Fryrish," which the producers were worried wouldn't connect with audiences. It turned out to be a fan favorite, however, so about once a year after that, they went back to that well. And LaMarche revealed he's never seen "Bark" because he knew he wouldn't be able to take it: "I cried at the table read!"
The show's ending was up in the air for a while; Verrone actually pitched to send Fry back in time to December 31, 1999 — making it so the entire series seemingly never happened. "It's a tempting idea," said Cohen, "because it's so cool. But it's depressing to think that you had wiped the slate clean."
There are talks to find a new home for "Futurama," but for the creators, most of the stories they've wanted to tell have been told. The main reason to keep going is because the cast and crew have been together so long and get along so well together — they'd just like to keep the family together.
We know the feeling.
Watch the panel:
Watch a "Futurama" clip: