“Good news, everyone! Futurama cannot be killed!” said Nerdist CEO and omnipresent pop culture figure Chris Hardwick on a recent evening at the Avalon Theater in Hollywood, where a special live reading of Episode 6ACV04 (“Proposition Infinity”) was set to take place. The original cast was on hand, and the venue itself had been covered in Futurama paraphernalia –– animated press shots, absurd character quotes, a photo booth where you could place your head into a floating translucent blue jar like all the celebrities on the show do. Even Matt Groening stopped by, watching in the wings like a proud patriarch attending a family reunion.
Since it first got booted off Fox in 2003, Futurama has turned into the Preacher Adelphi Angel of animated TV: something that continues to pop up in various mediums no matter how many times someone attempts to snuff it out. For that, you can thank the fans –– a unique breed of die-hards who will happily devote hours of their time sharing an endless stream of Fry “Not sure if…” memes, or solving one of the show’s many complex math equation Easter eggs. It’s a collective passion that has translated into Comic Con cast reunions, new episodes on Comedy Central (where it last aired, in 2013), and this very live read –– which was being held in honor of Futurama: Worlds of Tomorrow, a mobile game created by Jam City with assistance from the show’s writers. (The game launches today and we also spoke to co-creator David X. Cohen at length about the series’ legacy.)
“We’ve tried to identify those intellectual properties that were brands that had a massive, super-passionate fan base,” said Jam City CEO Chris DeWolfe. “Futurama has one of those huge fan bases. It’s really, really starving for more content.”
Starving is right: more than half a million fans alone ended up tuning into a Facebook stream of the Jam City-sponsored event, which featured Cohen narrating, and show mainstays Billy West, John DiMaggio, Lauren Tom, Maurice LaMarche, and Tress MacNeille voicing their original roles (Katey Sagal was absent due to a prior engagement).
“I think the fans of this show are very intelligent,” said an energetic DiMaggio, the voice of Bender, before the event started. “I think that they really appreciate it, and I appreciate them appreciating it.” DiMaggio added that that cyclical gratitude had been reflected in the show’s stories, like the time writer Ken Keeler invented a new math theorem to help solve a plot line. “No other fucking TV show does that!” he said. “That’s just fascinating for me.”
DiMaggio, who has voiced other iconic animated characters in his career, including Jake on Adventure Time, relishes these semi-frequent get-togethers. But that doesn’t make getting back into Bender –– whose boisterous, scratchy tone helps punctuate the character’s booze-swilling tendencies –– any easier.
“You just have to get ready for it,” he said. “[There’s] that girth to it… it’s heavy duty to get back into. It’s like riding a bike –– uphill.”
For others, like veteran voice actress Lauren Tom, who plays the Planet Express intern Amy, the prep work for an event like this is not quite as taxing as DiMaggio’s or Billy West’s.
“[Amy’s] voice is actually pretty close to my own –– it’s just a little bit higher, because Amy’s younger and sluttier and more fun-loving than I am,” said Tom. Like her co-stars, she was in high spirits for the live read, though admitted that she tried not to let events like these get her hopes up for another full-fledged Futurama reboot. At the very least, she was just happy to see her cast mates and participate in something that made her children proud.
“[My kids] love the show,” said Tom. “I let them start watching it way too early; they were like, eight and six. And there’s some sexual innuendo, and their mother was playing a slut. But then I finally just caved, because they loved it so much. They were so proud of the fact that I was in it… My older [kid] is a junior in high school. So many of his friends love the show and it’s given him some street cred.”
Tom, who also plays Amy’s mother, the inscrutable Inez Wong (a voice she says is based off her grandmother’s), began her career on-camera before moving into voice work. She credits her time on Futurama with giving her career stability in an unforgiving industry.
“I didn’t have to audition for a lot of other voiceover jobs,” she said, about the days after Futurama came out. “[Voice acting] is the greatest job on the planet. For me, as an ethnic woman of a certain age, it just blows out all the stereotyping or typecasting I would receive on-camera. I can play a five-year-old black kid, and I can play a 98-year-old Jewish woman. And I didn’t realize how freeing that would be.”
Watching actors bring their animated characters to life in a live setting is odd, particularly for a show with an array of unique and bizarre voices. It’s hard to get your head around seeing someone like the six-foot Maurice LaMarche make sound effects as the timid pipsqueak alien Kif Kroker, or the heroic Billy West jump from the blubbering Dr. Zoidberg to the bro-ish Fry with the flip of a switch. DiMaggio credits Cohen for the helping shape the characters from the very beginning. “He would always have a perfect idea of what was going on,” said DiMaggio. “That was really the most interesting thing from a performance perspective: him not being a performer, always knew how to set us up. He’s a brilliant, brilliant man.”
Speaking of Cohen, after the live reading ended, Hardwick brought up the inevitable to the show’s co-creator: “[This] has to lead to more Futurama. The show is genuinely un-killable,” he said. Cohen smirked and responded with his usual dry wit: “You shouldn’t say that because every time I truly give up hope, that’s when the show comes back… I prefer to feel very hopeless.”