David X. Cohen Brings Futurama Back to the Future
ATX Television Festival brings some of the cult show's voice actors together for a table read
It seems like, every May, TV news headlines are dominated by word of shows switching channels. This year it was Fox resuscitating ABC's defunct Last Man Standing, while NBC became national heroes for saving Brooklyn Nine-Nine when Fox dropped the popular sitcom.
That's old news to Futurama, the cult favorite science-fiction animated series about a scarcely competent interstellar shipping company in the year 3000. It started on Fox in 1999, piggybacking off show creator Matt Groening's TV-redefining success with The Simpsons; Fox then canceled it after four seasons. It found new life in reruns on Adult Swim, and when their contract expired in 2007, Groening and producer David X. Cohen started making direct-to-video movies. Those were so successful that in 2009 Comedy Central bought the rights, turned the films into season 5, and then commissioned two more seasons, finally wrapping up production in 2013. The switching doesn't stop there. Recently, Futurama switched streaming platforms from Netflix to Hulu, "along with most of Fox's other shows," said Cohen. "They're making a corporate move, very coincidentally, to the service they own 30 percent of."
Seven seasons on three channels over 14 years may sound like a hard road, and it came as the market for viewers' attention got tougher. Cohen said, "There's more places for your show, there's more shows, the budget is lower, you have less writers, and you have to make the animation funny but cheap."
However, Cohen said every shift was a new lease of life for the show. He said, "The evolution of the TV distribution business saved us several times. We had these rabid fans who would get the show back, and then suddenly these other avenues would open up." When the show first launched, it was still the era of the big four networks. When Fox dropped them in 2003, Cohen said, "DVDs were just blowing up, [so] that turned into a successful project, and [the producers] started looking around, and Comedy Central said, 'Hey, let's bring them back.' This was the time when cable channels were willing to invest a lot more money in original programming, and suddenly they were willing not just to show reruns, but original episodes. Then as that's trailing off, Netflix comes along, and that's able to support the reruns on cable, so you get more fans to the show. So now it's streaming and on two different cable channels, and this thing that we thought was dead on four occasions is still going strong somehow."
In part to celebrate the latest move in streaming services, at this weekend's ATX Television Festival there will be a cast table read of a classic episode. These readings happen a few times a year. Cohen said, "Our cast was always a tight-knit crew. We were always the underdog show while The Simpsons was rolling along, so it's a nice reunion when we can get back together."
However, it's basically impossible to get the entire cast back together. "They're all in demand doing other stuff," said Cohen, "so the challenge for me as the ringleader is to find a classic episode where this exact 50 percent of the cast has good parts in."
Every onstage table read is an all-star event, with mystery ringers brought in to provide additional voices. This time the originals will include Billy West (the voice of time-displaced delivery boy Philip J. Fry and his great x30 nephew Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, who Cohen called "one of the great names ever in voice-acting"), Emmy winner Maurice LaMarche (nebbish little green man Kif Kroker), Phil LaMarr (limboing bureaucrat Hermes Conrad), and David Herman, who voiced a panoply of supporting characters including Scruffy the Janitor, and the professor's perpetual nemesis Dr. Ogden Wernstrom (narrows eyes, shakes fist, "Wernstrom!"). Plus, to cover the female voices, Cohen promises "a special guest, to be named."
Animation evolved massively since Cohen got his first cartoon job in 1992, writing scripts for Beavis and Butt-head. Back then, animators were still working with brushes and paint on sheets of celluloid, "and when I say that, it sounds like they were riding their horse and buggy to the animation studio," Cohen said. "It sounds so impossibly outdated to believe that into the 1990s they were painting the cels by hand. It's unbelievable [how] recently the computer power came just to take over the technical work of animating the show."
But Cohen, Groening, and the writing team had a secret weapon: Each episode would be sprinkled with little in-jokes and references that the hardcore audience would try to spot – a can of Slurm here, a president's head in a jar there, a quantum mechanics gag or nods to obscure and classic sci-fi scattered throughout. Cohen said, "We tried to make it a good show that everyone will appreciate, but we also try to hide little things in there in the background, which are sometimes map jokes, or little visual jokes, or characters who may have appeared once before. So you end up hiding all these little treasures in a way you can't really do in live action. You can just say, 'Hey, animators, draw a hovering donut in the background in outer space.'"
It wasn't just jokes for jokes' sake. The show started with that loyal fan base but, as Cohen noted, it was not big enough to keep it on network TV, "but that same-sized audience was pretty good for cable. ... If you can hold on to it, then you have a pretty good chance of making it on one of these other places."
The trick was keeping them watching when the show was on hiatus, or switching between networks – both surefire ways to lose audience members. However, those little sight gags created a real bond between the viewers and the creators. Cohen said, "If you hit the thing that some particular fan likes in those random side or background jokes, then they're your hardcore fan, because they're on the same wavelength as you. So you're winning over people a small number at a time."
The changes in format and viewing habits also affected how many hidden gags they could secrete into each episode, and how obscure they could be. When Cohen joined The Simpsons in 1993, the team would slide a few hidden gags in for their own entertainment, and for the handful of devotees who would record the show on VHS and rewatch it with their fingers over the pause button. "But gradually, as the internet came in and people could a) post images and b) discuss things, the writers suddenly had feedback. If we hid something in the show, we could just go on the internet the next day and see if people noticed it and posted about it. It doesn't give us the information that Netflix had about how many people stopped it and looked at it, or rewound, but at least we knew if someone did see it, and that spreads around. So that makes a loop."
ATX Television Festival 2018June 7-10. Tickets and info at www.atxfestival.com. Follow all our news, reviews, and interviews at austinchronicle.com/atx-television-festival.
Futurama table read with David X. Cohen, Billy West, Maurice LaMarche, Phil LaMarr, and David Herman: Friday, June 8, 4:15pm, Paramount Theatre.