David X. Cohen Discusses The Past, Present, And Legacy Of ‘Futurama’

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David X. Cohen has a sore throat. Blame it on the hour he just spent on stage at a theater in Hollywood, narrating a live reading of a Futurama episode with most of the original cast (Billy West, John DiMaggio, Lauren Tom, Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeille; the only one missing was Katey Sagal, due to a prior engagement). Today, Cohen and the crew are intimately familiar with the Futurama reunion routine. The sci-fi comedy he developed with Simpsons mastermind Matt Groening has been resurrected on several occasions: from new episodes on Comedy Central to Adult Swim syndication to Comic Con panels. The most recent gathering centered around the launch of the upcoming mobile game, Futurama: Worlds of Tomorrow, with which Cohen and the original writers assisted. (It’s available today and we also have piece featuring more from Futurama cast members.)

After the reading, Cohen sat down with Uproxx to discuss the overall legacy of Futurama, its approach to math jokes and dated tech, and correctly predicting the future. But first, he had a few things to say about the difficulty of voice acting:

David X. Cohen: We just finished our table read, and I’m a little bit hoarse from reading the stage directions. It just makes you realize the range of talents of the actual voice actors, that they can each do an array of crazy amazing voices, impressions, they can sing in those voices… It just blows out your throat. Try to simulate Bender’s voice some time and see what happens to your vocal cords.

I interviewed Lauren Tom (the voice of Amy, among others) earlier, and she was saying how by working on Futurama she was able to pick up a lot of techniques to keep her voice going.

And Lauren Tom, by the way, the most petite of our cast members, is the loudest person. In Futurama we often have the occasion for screaming. So if it says Lauren Tom is about to scream they’re like, “Okay, wait.” Engineers have to turn all the mics down to zero. She will shatter glass. It’s unbelievable.

I just would have assumed John [Dimaggio, who voices Bender] was the loudest.

John’s the loudest in terms of speaking words, but when it comes to screaming, Lauren is the undisputed champion.

How did you feel overall about tonight’s reunion?

I loved it. I mean, the whole thing about doing this game is that it’s such a nice excuse to hang out with these people. Really, you become a family on a TV show, to put it in a corny way. Everyone got along pretty well on this show, which is why it’s still possible for us to do these occasional projects and comebacks. People scatter, but then they make room in their life to come back.

How close does a live reading represent an actual episode recording?

[For] each episode, we would bring the cast in on two main occasions. First for a table read; this is right after the script is done. We all sit around a table, and then the writers all get to hear the script for the first time and see if it actually is any good. So then we make changes based on the table read, or else we just blame the actors and say it was great and move on, depending on how much time we have available.

Then, for the actual recording session, we break the script into smaller portions, trying to do it in a logical way where we would schedule [actors together]… So as much as possible, yes, we tried to have the actors there together so they could have more chemistry –– and I think you can feel it.

Like what Wes Anderson did for Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Honestly, you can only do that if you have a really good cast. If they improv anything, or if they overlap, or whatever, than I’m going to be able to use that.

The show’s gone through hiatuses, cancellations, etc. The last one was in 2013 with Comedy Central. Is it one of those things you are kind of used to at this point? Or do you ever get used to it?

Yes, strangely enough. There aren’t very many shows where you can say that you get used to being canceled, but this is. In the history of Futurama, there’s been four episodes where, at the time we wrote it, we thought it was our last episode ever. We’ve literally had four last episodes ever, all written by the same writer, Ken Keeler, who’s a rare specialist in last episode evers now.

The first couple of times when it gets canceled it is very emotional, because we’re like college roommates (that might be a better description than a family). Especially the writers, we’re all in a room together –– a smelly room filled with junk food; it’s a lot like a dorm room. And you’ve spent years together, and then suddenly you’re like, “Okay, see you some day.” Then the third time that happens, you just go like, “We did this twice before. Maybe we’ll be back again. It was great seeing you.” So it becomes a little happier to do these things.

Do you find that the different hiatuses have affected how you approach the storylines when you return to the show? Do you feel like you have more freedom to be a bit more experimental?

I feel like we get better at making the show as it goes along. People have different opinions about this. Like, when I watch the very early episodes, they seem real rough to me across the board ––the animation, the writing. The voices are not quite the same. The Simpsons went through all that stuff too. But now… we don’t have to worry about the basics and who the people are, so you can skip right ahead to, “Let’s get a great story with some good emotion to it.”

But the other thing that happens is, when you’re canceled for a few years, the world does move into the future, and you get some story lines. For example, the very episode we [did] today, “Proposition Infinity,” was based straight off of the news, on Proposition 8 in California, which was to legalize gay marriage. It’s really a non-issue in California seven years later. It’s hard to believe. At the time we wrote it, it was a hot-button issue in California. That proposition was right on the verge of, “Will it pass? Will it not pass?” So we’re like, “Okay, we’ll do our future version: a robosexual marriage.” So we got the opportunity to comment on these things that are happening in the world at the time you come on, but in a one-step removed sort of way.

There are other things, like, even when we were originally on the air on Fox and we went away, we came back later for Comedy Central. That was a pretty big gap. So even iPhones had not existed the first time around, so we did our episode with the “EyePhone.” So the world keeps generating new storylines for us that we can steal. Then, eight years later, you think we made them up.

I have been re-watching the first season, which I haven’t done in years, and it was interesting hearing a lot of the technological references you use: floppy disks, CDs…
Yeah! VCRs! One thing to bear in mind when you’re watching, which makes it really confusing, is that sometimes in the old episodes, we would show, for example, a VCR as a joke, because it was already outdated. But now, 15 years later, you’re like, “Oh, everything in there’s comically outdated. What was the joke and what wasn’t?” It’s very hard for even me to remember.

When you first started out, did you guys have a set of rules in terms of approaching real technology versus technology you guys were just making up?

It wasn’t really a hard and fast rule. I mean, I guess one of the big things Matt wanted to do at the beginning, and which we stuck to, was we did not like the idea that, in the future, technology is clean and perfect and works properly. We liked the idea that, no matter how advanced things get, they always still malfunction and get rusty and fall apart. We were always reminding the animators to draw garbage on the street. We didn’t want to do that future [where] everything is really sanitary.

The other thing that was fun to revisit was the pop culture references. Writing the show, were you ever thinking, like, “Oh, it would be funny if this ridiculous pop culture reference we threw in there ended up being proven true?” The one I’m specifically thinking of is in the first season, where you mentioned a Baywatch movie –– which is funny, because there ended up being a Baywatch movie.

Wow! Right! That’s coming true today… Now when I see [those references] I get really nervous. Like, there’s one joke about Bender. I don’t remember the exact line, but it’s something like, “I hope I don’t get buried alive like Julia Roberts.” Jeez, what if that happened? It’s very unlikely to happen, but if it did, it would really wreck up that episode very badly. There are some of them where we probably should have just done something else. But, yeah, we didn’t do a lot of pop culture references compared to any of the other Fox shows, just because we’re set in the future. When we did, it was more often with the head in the jar, or some twist on it. But once in awhile we couldn’t resist and we stuck something in. Those are what kind of stand out now. “Oh, this show wasn’t made last week. It was made 15 years ago.” So in general, I think it was wise to not go too deep into the pop culture on this.

You mentioned on stage tonight about the show’s math and science jokes. Though Futurama is a comedy, you’ve always tried to inject something that is considered anti-comedy. How do you meld those two things together?

The origin of our approach to the science stuff, it started before we even started writing the pilot. Because, when Matt [Groening] and I were talking, Matt wrote this on a whiteboard as a rule of thumb we agreed upon. It was, “Science shall not overrule comedy.” We wanted to get science in there, and especially wanted to get science fiction in there. But number one, it had to be funny, because we knew people would not watch if it wasn’t funny. So that was the working principle.

My philosophy kind of gradually developed while doing it, which was: I like to get science in there when we can. A lot of times I know the science is wrong, because we’re going faster than the speed of light, or whatever. So we at least try to come up with some wink to the science-oriented fans that at least we know it’s wrong.

Did you ever have mathematicians reaching out to you about any of the equations you included as Easter eggs?

Most notably, there’s a very well-known British science author named Simon Singh, who wrote a book called The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets, which devotes the last chapter to Futurama. We’ve actually gone around and given several talks about the math in the show. We have Professor Sarah Greenwald from University of Carolina who has worked it into her curriculum and won several teaching awards. We had her give a lecture as a DVD extra in one of our DVDs. I actually met a woman, a college student, at a panel we did in San Francisco a few weeks ago; said she had become a math major because of The Simpsons and Futurama. I was like, “Wow, that’s pretty unbelievable.”

The show is recognized for its humor, but less so for its emotional approach to storylines. For example, you have “The Luck Of The Fryrish,” you have “Jurassic Bark.” How do you approach episodes like that ––you don’t want to make it too depressing, but you’re still kind of trying to inject a little emotion into the storyline?

I’m very proud of those emotional episodes. We would try about one per season, typically, on average. The first one was “The Luck Of The Fryrish,” where we learn about Fry’s brother who he left behind centuries ago, and he has realizations about him, and it has a moving ending. When we were doing that, it was pretty hard to write, because we had to make up a lot of Fry’s backstory at the time, and also intercut this story in the past with the story in the present, and then go for this touching ending. It was really the first episode where we decided to really go for a genuine emotional ending. We didn’t know how that would play with the fans, and it ended up being a very popular episode. I was certainly scouring the internet after that aired to see what people thought, and that gave us the courage to keep coming back and doing that. Next we did Fry’s dog [in “Jurassic Bark”], which we may have gone a little too far [with].

That ending still kills me.

I remember someone posting something like, “They made me cry. I’m so angry!” But if someone gets a tear in their eye from your crazy sci-fi cartoon, that means they’re really invested in it and believing it, so you did something right along the way. So I feel proud of it. It makes me smile perversely when I hear the fans cried.

The last season we had was on Comedy Central in 2013. What was your hope going into that season, specifically around Fry and Leela?

For the most part, there’s not a huge amount of continuity in Futurama. But as we went into what, most recently, we thought was the last season, and still is, we thought, “Well, let’s gradually have Fry become a little more competent, and a little less stupid in his quest to win Leela’s heart, so we can end with a huge romantic heartbreaking episode as our last canonical episode.” That was kind of the deal. And there’s a few along the way… We kind of spaced them out during the season, and culminating with this huge one where time froze, and Fry and Leela lived out their entire lives together as the rest of the world didn’t age. It’s kind of heartbreaking, but he did win that battle against stupidity in the end. That’s what we were shooting for anyways. I was reasonably happy with the payoff there.

What are you most proud of in regards to Futurama?

I’ve thought about this a little bit… I’m very proud that we were able to work in some genuine emotion into such a crazy setting. But one thing I feel like was, actually, more groundbreaking is that there’s a lot of pretty good sci-fi in there that is also funny. There’s not a lot of things that are widely respected as comedy/sci-fi. There’s a few things, but it’s a small genre. I think we’re one of the better examples of doing actual mind-bending sci-fi that has real characters and real comedy in it. So I like to think we’ve set an example that that can be done and that people should keep doing it.