David X. Cohen of Futurama: The TV Squad Interview
David X. Cohen, executive producer and show-runner of Futurama, spoke to me via phone last week. We didn't have much time, only about ten minutes or so, so we got down to the nuts and bolts: how the movies will play on Comedy Central, some information on the show's comeback, a quick preview of the next DVD, and how the Fox executives felt about being ground into all-purpose powder.
Joel Keller: OK, we're recording...
David X. Cohen: Do you have a Nixon-style reel-to-reel recorder under your desk there?
JK: (laughs) Why, yes, yes I do... how did you know? (both laugh)
Let's get right to it: last January I spoke to (creator and exec. producer) Matt Groening at the TCA's and he told me the entire story about how you brought Futurama back. I'd imagine it was the same story as how Family Guy was brought back, because of the popularity of the repeats and DVDs?
DXC: Yeah, the fans would just not let it die, and ultimately all credit goes to them for continuing to watch the reruns even on the 83rd showing and buying the DVDs year after year. And it just took about three years for the depth of the fans' support to sink in over at Fox. And I think they just thought it was an anomaly at first and then it kept up year after year. So, you know, three years passed and then suddenly our phone rings, and they said "You know what? I think we might be able to capitalize on this!" We wish they had realized earlier, but we'll take it.
JK: So let's go over how this is going to work. You're putting out four movies, starting with Bender's Big Score...
DXC: Right, and down the line, they're going to air on Comedy Central. For anyone who doesn't know, Comedy Central is taking over the cable reruns on January 1, 2008. It's shocking to hear that five years have passed since Cartoon Network started showing it, because that's how long they had the rights for. And they just... I just want to give them a lot of credit out there for keeping the show alive and promoting it and doing all the things that, you know, the first time around I think the show would have benefited from: keeping it on at one time and place, basically, so the fan base could grow.
Cartoon Network did a great job, and the result of that is that other networks became interested in showing it as well, so Comedy Central ultimately ended up with the rights. These new DVDs will hopefully air as these epic, 4-episode arcs on Comedy Central and then they'll go into the general run of the show after that. But there'll be a window of time where they'll only be on DVD; I don't think there's any actual official date yet when these will air, so it's gonna be a while yet before you see them.
The DVDs basically have a little more material than the episodes will have, but we actually put in a few treats in the episodes that are not on the DVDs, so you know... we want to reward people no matter how they come back to Futurama, we want to give them a little treat.
JK: Any examples of the treats in the episodes?
DXC: Yes, in the first movie we have a commercial for Torgo's Executive Powder, which is an all-purpose powder made from ground-up Fox executives, and it can be used as, you know, a jock itch powder, or an explosive, or a scouring powder, that sort of thing. So we have a little fake ad for that that's not on the DVD.
JK: I like how you use the Executive Powder throughout the entire movie to solve every problem.
DXC: (laughs) You know, we really let the Fox executives have it in this movie, as you're alluding to. People ask us if we had any trouble with them. The answer to that is no because those are the Fox network executives and we're not going on the Fox network this time around. So they never saw it (chuckles). In fact the basic thrust of that sequence is true, that the executives who were there at the time are all gone now, so it makes no difference anyway. But we're only dealing with the Fox television studio that produces the show, this time around. And to our amazement, they've just been incredibly supportive.
This is a show that's not used to getting tremendous support and this time around they just called us in to discuss doing these and they immediately said, "Let's do more than one," and then we said, "How 'bout three?" And they said, "How 'bout four?" So the ante just kept going up and up. And they gave us a big premiere at the Cinerama Dome, which was beyond anything we would have expected when we were on the air. So it's been a total change. Again, I just think the sheer numbers hit home when they saw the ratings these past years not going down.
JK: Does the Fox network have the option of picking up these episodes later?
DXC: It's not impossible actually, because what Comedy Central owns are the cable rights. The broadcast rights are a separate issue. We're getting into the technical issues, but techincally they an sell the broadcast rights separately and the logical place would be the Fox network, but it doesn't have to be the Fox network; they could sell it to CBS. It just might not be as good a fit (chuckles) with their programs as it is with The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad, so...
JK: I could see it airing right after Two and a Half Men.
DXC: Yeah! We'll call ours Six and a Half Lobsters or Three and Half Robots or something like that, and they can try to make a programming block that way.
But, yes, theoretically, Fox can show it. We have not gotten that phone call yet, that's another phone call. Again, it's a new set of executives there so it's actually not impossible, and i would encourage any Fox network executives reading this to ignore the first 20 minutes of the movie where we grind you up into a powder, and please call us up and we'll be more than happy to be back on Fox as well.
JK: One of the things I'm really curious about is that during the story of Bender's Big Score, once we get into some of the time travel and dimensional elements, the story gets really complex. I also thought was a really emotional story, more so than anything I think I've seen before from either Futurama or The Simpsons.
DXC: Oh, thank you and you've kind of... Can I butt in here or are you getting at a really specific question?
JK: Well, my specific question is that how are you going to break this up into episodes?
DXC: Ah, well, I'll answer that and go back to the other thing for a second. How it'll go into episodes is that we're gonna present them as an epic four episode arc, basically. There are actually dramatic points in the movie -- which hopefully you didn't notice -- where there is peril and we're going to say "To be continued," and then the next episode, we're going to say, "Previously on Futurama," and you're going to see a little catch-up of things you need to know to catch up with it.
We didn't want to try to break it up into four things that sort of stood on their own but sort of didn't. We thought it would be better to say, "These are epic 4-episode arcs," and we're going to present it still as a grander return to life. Something that is a bigger version of Futurama than you've seen before. It just seemed both easier to do and that it would make more sense, ultimately, than to just try to cut them up willy-nilly into four semi-related episodes.
JK: There's a lot of references in this movie to older episodes. Tons of them.
DXC: Basically we tried to guess who's going to buy these DVDs. We hope everyone in the world is gonna buy them, but we know that our real hard-core fans are going to buy them. So we want to reward those people, especially not just for buying the DVD this time but for being the people who are responsible for us coming back in the first place.
So, yeah, we put in references to a whole bunch of old episodes, even characters who only appeared once or twice, like Seymour the dog or Kwanzaa-bot or Michelle (Fry's ex-girlfriend), who's played by Sarah Silverman. We wanted to just reward those people and have these moments that just go by as part of the story if you aren't super familiar with Futurama, but if you are you'll be like, "Oh my god! That explains why such-and-such happened in this episode in the past." But because of the time travel story we're allowed to go back and explain a few things that happened before that begged explanation.
JK: And it's not the type of thing where you or Fox or Comedy Central were afraid that the episodes would be too inside for non-fans to enjoy?
DXC: I think ultimately it's not... I don't think it plays super inside, because you have to be an insider to realize that those are inside jokes. You know what I mean? So if you say, "Oh, this is Fry's ex-girlfriend," the fans know that. It doesn't really matter that it's Fry's ex-girlfriend. But if you've seen the episode, you get that reward.
I hope we pulled it off; that was our attempt, anyway, to structure those moments in such a way that if you've never seen Futurama before it won't grind the movie to a halt. You'll just go, "Oh, that's Fry's ex-girlfriend," or you'll say "Oh, that's Kwanzaa-bot, the symbol of Kwanzaa," but you won't say, "Oh I don't understand who that is because I didn't see the episode." We tried to present them as characters if you saw them for the first time you would just let it go as part of this movie too. We'll see (Tuesday, when) it hits the general public, if we succeeded.
JK: Before you go, you were going to mention the dramatic parts of it.
DXC: Oh, I really appreciate that you thought it was touching. This movie was obviously a real writing challenge, because we wanted to do two things to make it a really big return to life. One was to have a real big, crazy science fiction story, and that was this epic time travel story where Bender is running around through time as a giant gun (laughs), and is affecting history and those kind of things. But at the same time, we wanted to have a story that followed up on the personal lives of our characters, both for the hard-core fans and to just bring it down to earth a little bit for fans who are coming for the first time to Futurama.
So we wanted to do two things that are difficult to do at the same time: a huge sci fi story and a touching emotional story. It's another thing I'm curious to see people's reaction to. But the fact that you used the word "touching" is touching to me. So it at least it worked a little bit. I appreciate it.
JK: When is the next DVD coming out?
DXC: There's no official release date. If I had a rough guess, I'd say six months, but that's only a guess. But I will say for anyone who sees the first DVD, it kind of leaves off at a point were you might think we're either going to come back and deal with a couple of unanswered questions or we might just let it go without ending it. But I reassure you that we're going to pick up the second one where the first one leaves off and your questions will be answered.
The second one guest stars David Cross as a giant, disgusting planet-sized alien from another universe.
JK: And I've heard that that planet sized alien has certain romantic interests...
DXC: .. in every single living being in our universe. Yes. It's another touching and disgusting story to look forward to.