Wednesday, 23 January 2019

The Difficult Second Album by Steve Gladwin

Imagine you have just created one of the most popular TV series of all times. Any creator needs fresh inspiration, the need to stretch yourself and try something new. Sometimes that inspiration comes in the form of a person. The inspiration Simpsons creator Matt Groening found was writer and Simpsons producer David X Cohen and the series they would create together was Futurama. The rest – although hardly likely to match The Simpsons success, might have been plain sailing but in the end turned out to be anything but.. Even the initial pitching of the series in 1998 – which Groening and Cohen had already pretty well mapped out – was tough, something which Groening described as ‘by far the most difficult experience of my adult life.’ Fox, who had never been allowed to exert any creative control over The Simpsons, immediately found three things they didn’t like, in the idea of suicide booths, the character of Zoidberg and the anti-social behaviour of Futurama's robot hero Bender.

Futurama co-creators David X Cohen and Matt Groening, (Wikipedia)

Establishing the premise of the series will make all this easier to understand. Futurama concerns pizza delivery boy and all round loser Philip J Fry who while delivering a pizza, (which actually turns out to be a joke addressed to I.C. Wiener) on new year’s eve 1999, accidentally falls into a cyrogenic chamber and is frozen until a thousand years have passed. Emerging in the year 3,000, the shocked Fry wakes up to a world he can hardly recognise. In New New York, where there are suicide booths on every street corner and robots of as many varieties as there are humans and aliens, transportation is by shooting through a series of interconnected transparent tubes from place to place like glorified mail. He soon finds employment with Planet Express, an interplanetary delivery series run by his own ancient nephew, the eccentrically deranged Professor Hubert Farnsworth, who keeps a lava pit leading to the earth’s core in the basement, and a cloning machine in his lab. Farnsworth is half mad professor and half senile, prone to heralding the announcement of news, good or bad, by crying ‘Good news, everyone!’ This, more often than not will include crew assignments where death is a near certainty.

Fry,back in his old job as the delivery boy, is part of the new original crew of three, (best not to ask about the previous ones!) Accompanying him is Turanga Leela, the one-eyed purple haired pilot- for a long time is assumed to be one of the Cyclops race - and one of the jewels in Futurama’s crown, the cigar smoking, alcohol fuelled, thieving, utterly reprehensible but somehow lovable, ‘’bite my shiny metal ass’ spouting, Bender Bending Rodriguez, one of a batch of bending robots produced by Mom Corps, whose titular head is almost as old as her old lover Professor Farnsworth, and as corrupt and money grubbing a super villain as you can imagine. She is also ever ready to don the sweet old lady guise which hides the metal dominatrix beneath. Mom has three idiot sons who she swats as casually as flies, with the violence being passed down the line, so that the youngest Igner suffers it most. The three sons are based on The Three Stooges, possibly on the fact that the third stooge Curly was beaten and thrown about so often that he suffered permanent brain damage.

In Futurama, the underworld of the old city of Old New York is a network of tunnels and sewers where the discarded mutants live,(two of whom turn out to be Leela’s true parents) There is also a museum of preserved celebrity heads, including all of the US presidents, of whose number Richard Nixon, ends up as ruler of the Earthicans in a memorable double act with Spiro Agnew’s body. The show has a cast of seven regulars, each pretty much an archetype of one sort or another. Apart from the naive slob Fry, the resident Fool, Leela the Heroine and Bender, the anti-hero, there are also Farnsworths’s intern, Amy Wong, flighty slutty and proud of it, whose parents own half of Mars, Hermes Conrad, a rather strange and excitable rastafarian West Indian and low level bureaucrat, (and proud of it) responsible for the accounts and making sure everything stays tidy and Professor Farnsworth, the crotchety old man/Pantolone figure.

Then there is Zoidberg;one of the subjects of one of Fox’s objections. Many years ago when Futurama was being shown on Channel 4, I would catch the occasional glimpse of Zoidberg and he would rather freak me out,(I know – what a wimp!) Having now become not just a Futurama convert but pretty much a Zoidbergian zealot, I now know that he is Doctor John Zoidberg, one of the lobster-like Decapodian race, and a specialist doctor in alien technology. Unfortunately Planet Express has no aliens apart from Zoidberg, so his expertise in alien anatomy. is at best useless and at worst positively life threatening. Needless to say the writers have much fun with this concept, but it also means poor Zoidberg is left potentially with next to no role in the team. The fact that he stinks, continually blubbers at the slightest thing, and lives in a dumpster means that the rest of the crew despise him.

Dr John Zoidberg, courtesy of

This is a character who shouldn’t work then, especially in the shadow of the mighty Bender, but voice genius Billy West who provides us with Fry, Farnsworth, and Zoidberg saves the day by making Zoidberg Jewish. There’s apparently a lot of self-deprecating Jewish humour in Futurama, and not just in Zoidberg. For all the exhausting frame and cell building and storyboard work that goes into your average animation, it’s the voice actors who provide the final icing on the cake. Who could imagine The Simpsons with someone instead of Dan Castellanetta as Homer, (who incidentally has a whale of a time as the Robot Devil in Futurama), Stewie Griffin without Seth Macfarlane, Kung Fu Panda without Jack Black or Mike and Sully from Monsters Inc and Monsters University with voices other than Billy Crystal and John Goodman. Anyone could do it, right? Hmm!

We’ve recently been listening to Stephen Fry, who has almost become Mr Audible of late reading the whole canon of Sherlock Holmes and I have renewed respect for what he can do as he manages to metamorphose his voice into a whole host of characters and accents and ages. And we always forget that it’s Doctor Watson who’s the narrator of these stories, so the first thing you need when tackling these is a Doctor Watson voice, because you’re going to use it a lot.

I’m not sure if Stephen Fry is a fan of talented American voice maestro Phil Hartman, who added to The Simpsons voice roster with washed up actor Troy ‘you may remember me from such films' as’ Maclure, or useless ambulance chasing lawyer Lionel Hutz. The third of the jewels in the Futurama crown is the character of Captain Zapp Brannigan, a useless walking ego in a mini-skirt uniform and a long suffering alien side-kick called Kif, prone to uttering world weary sighs when his superior asks for him to do almost anything. Zapp Brannigan is the fourth character on the Billy West voice roster, but when you first hear him he sounds like Phil Hartman.

The sad fact is that Phil Hartman was supposed to be Zapp Brannigan, until he was shot by his disturbed wife. Out of this appalling tragedy was to come Hartman’s final legacy, the Phil Hartman voice that Billy West gives to Zapp. It’s almost as if he were still with us. A lot of the comedy in Zapp, besides his sheer uselessness, comes from the disastrous one night stand he has with Leela, which she is never allowed to forget and where Zapp spends the rest of the serious trying for a re-match, including at one point having an affair with and almost marrying Leela’s mother, Munda, to make her jealous.

But what does all this mean to the casual reader of this blog? Surely there’s few things more boring than someone enthusing at length about a show you either haven’t seen or have no interest in watching. Because there’s nothing especially ground breaking in Futurama, just a cumulative level of excellence in animation, ideas and effects which is pretty much the norm nowadays. If you hate the yellow of the Simpsons, then surely you’re going to equally hate the purple and pink of Futurama. But the only way I can speak about it is as a critical fan, rather than just a critic. So here are a few great reasons to try Futurama.

Fry, Bender and Leela, Futurama Fandom

* You get to go on a new adventure every week. If you’re a fan of sci-fi of the Star Trek and Doctor Who ‘monster of the week’ variety, then Futurama provides you with a great opportunity to visit crazy planets and solar systems, meet suitably benevolent and murderous aliens, get beaten up, shot, tortured or killed and still rise again in time for the end of the episode.

NB This is not always strictly true as more than once member or all of the magnificent seven die, change change shape, lose their skins, go back and change time so they do not exist etc etc.

* Bender is great. You only need a few seconds of hearing John Di Maggio’s magnificent gravel-voiced portrayal to get Bender, a character who makes Bart Simpson seem like Martin Prince. Bender is the clown prince, the devious scam meister, no conscience, out and out rogue we all secretly long to be.

* The regular characters apart from the main seven are worth their screen time. I’m probably not the only one to have a major beef with the weakness of much of the Simpsons supporting cast, where a catch phrase or stereotype can often seem to make the whole character and every event in Springfield is attended by the same old tired procession. For every Troy Maclure and Krusty the Clown there’s a Hans Moleman or Bumble Bee Man awaiting the chance for his one joke.

In Futurama you have great but daft villains like the Robot Devil and The Don Bot, along with his two sidekicks, one of whom, a hatchet faced robot called Clamps, uses every opportunity to use his trademark hand weapons. You have Lrrr, leader of Omicron Persei 8, Elzar the four armed Venusian chef with his spice weasels, (literally weasels that squirt spices from their backsides) Calculon, the really lovey actor robot and star of Bender’s favourite TV show, ‘All my Circuits.’ Of course there are a fair few gems in the Simpson universe, but in Futurama the list goes on.

* The satire is as good as The Simpsons and often better. I think most people who don’t get The Simpsons are unlikely to be Futurama fans, but usually they’re glossing over how much of each show’s brilliance comes from the gags and satire. In both show it’s literally a case of if you blink you miss a sight gag and while you’re picking the wax from your ears, two verbal ones. Futurama, like The Simpsons at it’s best, can feel like an assault battery of wit and cleverness, where a line about how sad and pathetic Fry is can sometimes mask something really poignant.

* Futurama has a love story. It’s the unrequited and ultimately successful romance between shirker Fry and over achiever mutant Leela that gives the show a lot of its heart. This third millennium no hope saga keeps us guessing and caring and finally quietly cheering. It’s made even funnier because Zapp Brannigan, Leela’s secret shame,is constantly getting himself. But shambolic Fry is our hero and Zapp will usually end up totally humiliated and fail to learn from it.

* Futurama has real heart. I’ve lost touch with The Simpsons, but in its earlier series it had real heart and poignancy, which is something Futurama gives us on a regular basis. This is usually round either Fry, Leela or Zoidberg and even Bender has his moments as he’s such a child at robot heart. One episode, Jurassic Bark, is infamous for being a real heart tugger, (but not in a Disney/schmalzy or even Pixar/Randy Newman song way) that it has gone into the annals of animation history. Watching it and especially the final sequence – as searching and moving as the beginning of ‘Up’, really moved me in a way that few things do. Not since Lisa Simpson and her plaintive saxophone playing on the bridge with Bleeding Gums Murphy, or the ‘unofficial’ Michael Jackson voice over episode, when Homer’s new friend from the psychiatric ward helps Bart compose a birthday song for Lisa, has there been anything as quietly sob inducing. And that’s just one I can think of.

* It’s funny, folks! It really is. Bender and Fry as equally slobby room mates in the Robot Apartments, Leela and Zapp as a new and combative Adam and Eve, the professor’s tendency to appear naked as often as possible, (Futurama has far more of an adult content than The Simpsons, and in one case the issue of robosexuality, (in this case between the ever willing bad boy loving Amy and the try anything you fancy Bender) is explored as a social topic. Then there’s the classic Roswell episode, The Late Philip J Fry,where Zoidberg is the alien on the dissecting table and Fry accidentally sleeps with his own grandmother, (don’t ask!) And yet for all of this supposedly adult content, Futurama is completely adult and children friendly in completely different ways.

Futurama Crew - Creative-Analytics.
OK, enough already, as Zoidberg might say. I may not have either converted you or tempted you to try Futurama, (and I have to say that catching the middle of the odd episode is maybe not the way of appreciating its virtues - beginning at the beginning will serve it best), or put you off. Who cares? It's up to you! But if a TV series can be cancelled, only to return in four feature length episodes due to the popularity of its re-runs, only to return after several years absence for a final two series and pretty much keep up that high standard combination of wit, invention and heart which sums it up, well surely the world's a better place than it might have been.

Steve Gladwin

'Tales From The Realm' - Story and Screen Dream

Connecting Myth, Faerie and Magic

Author of 'The Seven' - Shortlisted for Welsh Books Prize, 2014


Susan Price said...

I never really got the Simpsons either -- but though I'm not a massive fan of Futurama, I do like it. Can't believe Fox made the objections they did!

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks, Sue. For Fox read Paranoia!

cj said...

love this graphic!

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