Conversing about New New York on a New York Comic Con panel… or should we say, New New York Comic Con?
Futurama is like a television phoenix – the animated series always rises from the ashes and returns. The Matt Groening and David X. Cohen-created show debuted in March 1999 and lasted four seasons on Fox, but football pre-empting and shifting time slots made it hard to gain a foothold despite loyal viewers. Fox Home Entertainment revised the series with four direct-to-video movies in 2008-2009, and their success inspired Comedy Central to revive the show for four more seasons before canceling it again in 2013.
Still, you can’t keep the Planet Express delivery crew down. A decade later, Hulu has resurrected the Emmy Award-winning sci-fi comedy for season 11 – the first 10 episodes of which are streaming now. The satirical series has aged well because the writing is still sharp and funny, and there are always new topics and issues that can be addressed within the 31st century context of New New York. This time around the Planet Express team – Fry, Leela, Bender, Amy, The Professor, and others – tackles things like cancel culture, the Bitcoin Gold Rush, a global pandemic, and life as a simulation in their own inimitable way.
The Aquarian attended a Futurama press roundtable at New York Comic Con 2023 to learn more about the show’s revival, how episodes are assembled, and how they do their research into scientific and technological topics. The following conversation features executive producers David X. Cohen and Claudia Katz, supervising director Peter Avanzino, and director Claudia Chesney-Thompson.
Thank you for putting the Lament Configuration in the very first episode of the new season. I appreciated that.
David X. Cohen: I don’t know that.
The Hellraiser cube.
David X. Cohen: Oh, oh! I don’t know the term Lament Configuration. You say that was in the first episode?
Claudia Katz: With the Robot Devil.
Peter Avanzino: A Rubik’s lament.
David X. Cohen: That’s probably something that was thrown in on your end.
Peter Avanzino: I think so.
David X. Cohen: You directed that, right?
Peter Avanzino: I did. [laughter] A lot of directing – and I’m the supervising director – is reining in all of the Easter eggs that artists like to throw in. It’s okay to have some, but I don’t want to see Disenchantment or Simpsons mentioned in every episode of Futurama visually. In a previous season we had a robot chop shop, and there isn’t a single robot body part in there that isn’t from some previous thing – and that’s great. That’s the kind of stuff you do want, but people’s pets or their initials hidden in things you want to watch out for.
David X. Cohen: There was the Hall of Presidents Heads in an episode for next year that I’m just looking at the designs for, and I think a lot of animators’ cousins and stuff are among the many presidents who we’ve had between now and that year.
Claudia Katz: Future presidents [whispers], which they’re not supposed to do.
Peter Avanzino: I might have assumed you guys wrote those. It’s three or four storyboard artists and a bunch of designers. [The season opening script] might have just said the Robot Devil’s on the phone, or he was doing a a Rubik’s Cube, and then a designer [changed it].
Claudia Katz: We have a lot of comic book fan people who work at Rough Draft [Studios], so I think people are thrilled when they can piece together something that slides in organically, whether they’re supposed to or not.
Crystal Chesney-Thompson: I like that we snuck in the little Disenchantment moment in the time travel episode.
David X. Cohen: The fans have noticed that. For fans of all of Matt Groening’s shows, Disenchantment had previously put in a little Easter egg in the crystal ball of that show where you briefly saw the Professor’s time machine go by in the background. Then we reciprocated in reverse. It didn’t quite work out if you kept track of which characters were where, but nevermind.
Next year the series celebrates 25 years. What was it like 25 years ago when you guys sat down and said, “Hey, we’re gonna do this show called Futurama”?
Claudia Katz: It really is 25 years because we started in 1998.
David X. Cohen: I’m going to start crying [Laughs].
Claudia Katz: It feels like we’re old.
David X. Cohen: It was a lot harder then than it is now.
Claudia Katz: Very different.
David X. Cohen: There was a lot to make up. It was not The Simpsons, like a family in America. It was, what is the reality level of this universe? Can inanimate objects talk? The most basic decisions had to be made. Now we can just write shows knowing ourselves who the characters are and roughly what flies in terms of logic and stuff like that, but at that time, the amount of stuff you had to decide was pretty overwhelming.
Claudia Katz: Even visually, you’re building a world from scratch. Some of it is anchored in New York. It’s New New York, but then there’s a whole different level. When we started there was no internet, so there was no way to really do quick research. I would just troll bookstores like a lunatic, and then anytime I went somewhere else I would be like, “Where’s the bookstore?” Like just find architectural books. I grew up in Queens and my dad was a big 1939 World’s Fair nut, so that streamlined aesthetic was our jumping off point for the show. The Simpsons had a [studio] librarian who you could call and say, “I need a picture.” You paid, and it was very expensive. Say they wrote in a shotgun, but it was a very specific shotgun, and we’d call on the phone and then you would pay like $90 for a very crappy Xerox of whatever [you asked about].
David X. Cohen: I remember when I was with The Simpsons in that era, on very rare occasions we’d call the Fox research department and pay them.
Peter Avanzino: We’re using far fewer VHS tapes now.
Claudia Katz: We’re killing a lot less trees, for sure.
Now you’ve had this 10 year gap between seasons, and so much has happened.
Claudia Katz: It’s a pretty remarkable 10 years.
You have so much new information and ideas to contend with. Was it challenging to get all the ideas you wanted to get into this season?
David X. Cohen: No. [Laughs] I mean, I’m half-joking. This is not new or old, but we try to keep the standard high in terms of what we think is going to make a good episode, so it’s always hard to come up with new ones. We can say we want to cover certain material – like the rise of Amazon and lack of privacy and Bitcoin and all this kind of stuff which we make reference to – but still that’s not the story. It’s the theme of it. It’s similar at each phase where we come back where new stuff has happened in the world, but we have to still come up with our future take on it. And that part is about the same amount of work now.
Claudia Katz: Yeah, and I think we don’t want to just rely on parody. I think ultimately we want to tell smart, funny, often heartfelt stories. Then how do David and the writers weave in these touchstones like Bitcoin or NFTs?
David X. Cohen: A third of the episodes are some take on current stuff, and maybe one episode a year is a straight, head-on parody of something.
Claudia Katz: I love that Momazon episode. I think it’s hilarious, but at the core it’s about Bender being pushed out. He’s now the third wheel [with Fry and Leela], and it actually has a very emotional core at the center of it. I think visually, for us, that episode is the first episode where it’s just classic Futurama that has these great, crazy visuals, and it fires on all cylinders.
David X. Cohen: On an epic scale.
Speaking of heartfelt, many fans love that one minute the show is totally funny and then it’ll sucker punch you with a moral story. Have you guys experienced that afterwards: how an episode or scene hit harder than you thought it would have when working on it?
Crystal Chesney-Thompson: There are definitely episodes that I’ve worked on where I knew after reading the script that this scene is going to hit hard. And on episodes that I directed – “It’s so juicy, I love this stuff. I want to give people the feels with this one.” We really enjoy that.
Claudia Katz: For Rough Draft, that’s the acting stuff everybody loves and wants, but I think that’s part of the beauty of Futurama – that it does kind of sneak up on you.
David X. Cohen: I do think sometimes those are moments where all the different types of art that go into the show have worked properly together. It was well-written to get you to that point, and animated in such a way that these two-dimensional characters still reflected the emotion and you bought into it. But also the voice performance…
Claudia Katz: The great voice acting.
David X. Cohen: There’s an episode this year where Amy and Kif have kids [spawned from 20 years earlier]. Lauren Tom, who plays Amy, did this little sniffle in the reading at the end. It was the quietest thing, and for me that’s the key moment of the whole line which you might cut out normally just to speed up the dialogue. And the music goes in at the very end. Sometimes most of our own crew have not seen it, and [Christopher Tyng’s] music can really bring up the emotion at that point. Everything has to come together to make those things work. It’s a high bar in a cartoon to get people to buy in.
Claudia Katz: I think the longer runtimes [on Hulu] also give us the runway to hold on something, or let you leave that in or hold on something longer, or let the music play. That’s been a real gift. It’s really extra two minutes, and that two extra minutes is really a huge amount of time.
Peter Avanzino: Even if it’s the question of five extra seconds… because on broadcasts you’re down to the frame. Here you can edit it, and if it’s within the range you don’t have to cut out some emotional scenes to keep a Bender gag.
There have been past instances of the team having to do outside research. There was a theorem that was made up entirely for an episode.
David X. Cohen: That was inside research. We have our science crew on the writing staff.
Were there any episodes recently that really necessitated that sort of extra level within the team?
David X. Cohen: The episode we’re showing at our panel today [“All The Way Down”], which I wrote, has some more physics in it than usual. I was a physics major in college. Not to say that I couldn’t handle some of it, but on rare occasions we bring in a ringer, an old friend of mine named David Schiminovich. He was the chair of the Columbia University astrophysics department until recently. He’s still a professor there and he’s a friend of mine from going back to middle school. For this very episode, we actually had him come in via Zoom to the writers room two years ago and talk a little bit about some of the subjects we were going to be covering. There’s a key plot point: what’s a real physical phenomenon that would be very, very hard to simulate with a computer? That was one thing I had to talk through with him, and he said that they the physics of the Magnetar are extraordinarily complicated.
You have highly educated staffers with Masters degrees and PhDs. Is there an actual rocket scientist among them?
David X. Cohen: That’s him. He’s not on the staff…
Claudia Katz: But he’s our ‘phone-a-friend’ [Laughs].
David X. Cohen: He told me after he got his degree the one thing he realized is he will never again be able to use the excuse, “Well, I’m no rocket scientist”.
(The next 10 episodes of Futurama will air on Hulu in 2024 and the streamer has already renewed the show for 20 mone episodes after that. While you wait you can catch up on the entire series.)