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October 7, 2015

David X. Cohen on 'Futurama's' New Season

by Joel Keller, posted Jun 23rd 2010 2:30PM
David X. Cohen, executive producer of 'Futurama'Talking with David X. Cohen is always fun, because the 'Futurama' showrunner has the same wry, geeky manner as most of the show's fans (including me). So you can do things like goof with him about adding a 'Lost'-style twist to the season finale or how the iPhone will be implanted in your eye in the future. But what he's the most good-natured about -- and most resigned to -- is the show's perpetually precarious situation.

When I spoke to Cohen earlier this week, he mentioned the fact that he was again trying to write the 26th and last episode of Comedy Central's current order to serve as both a season or series finale. And the crew and writers were again trying to figure out their next steps.

"(I)t's familiar territory for us," he said, "but because Comedy Central's airing these half this year, half next year, it's a little less of an emergency for them to make any decision if they want to order more or not. So we're very used to it, unfortunately."

Otherwise, he happily gave us a preview of what will happen during the first half of the run, which begins on June 24 at 10PM ET with a double shot of episodes. He also envisioned what a 'Futurama' feature film might look like. Interview and clips after the jump (Warning: We do talk a little about the 'Lost' finale. So if you haven't seen it, read that part at your own risk).

Do you wish sometimes that things were more straightforward, like your cousins over at 'The Simpsons' are, where it's "season 21, season 22, here we go"?
Yeah. Yeah, well it's a blessing and a curse, I guess, because you work at 'The Simpsons' and you don't jump ship at some point, suddenly you're 20 years older. (chuckles) So there's something to be said for a little drama of periodic cancellation and resuscitation to liven your experiences up a little bit.

When you did that last movie to kind of end it on a cliffhanger and let people know hey, here's how it ends, whether we're back or not? What was the thought there?
Yeah, well, we're one of the few shows now that has a lot of experience writing our last episode ever, so we're currently engaged in doing that for the third time, at the moment, in fact. So our goal, I've decided, in the last couple of efforts at least, is to strike a tone where I would be happy if that was our last episode. I shouldn't say happy, I should say satisfied, I guess. Where it's kind of a bittersweet tone and on the one hand, it could be the end of the series, but on the other hand, we don't actually have a giant anti-matter explosion that kills all of our characters beyond repair.

So we've learned to leave our options open, but I never want to be presumptuous and assume that we're going to come back. It just so happens we've had the good fortune so far to return, so we've cashed in on the fact that we didn't kill all our characters off in a 'Lost'-style shootout.

Is the next ending going to be where it's some sort of religious parable and Fry's really the equivalent of Jesus?

All Fry needs to do really is grow a beard, I guess. He's a little Jesus-y in his general build and complexion, I guess, by your standard clichèd version, so why not.

So if the series had ended with the Planet Express ship being chased by Zapp and going into the wormhole, that would have been fine with you guys? Or is that the kind of thing where it could have been like a 'Sopranos' ending...everybody would have to figure out what happened next?
In my mind, they were going to get away. If we hadn't come back, in other words, in my mind, the crew got away. That would be the end of a 'Futurama' episode, you know, they wouldn't get caught and imprisoned in a dark hole forever at the end of an episode. So yeah, I don't think it was quite 'The Sopranos.' I think, if you had to fill in the blanks, I would say they got away and blanked the records and things worked out somehow for the best.

I always like to think that these characters are living on, even if we're not seeing them and not writing them. They seem pretty real to me at this point, after devoting a decade of my life minus a year here or there to them. So I think they would have gone on and had their adventures that we didn't know about.

Because of the disjointed nature of the show, does it seem weird that it's been 11 years since it started on Fox?
Very weird. It's impossible for me to believe, really. I mean, like everything else in life, it feels like about four months ago that Matt Groening said "hey, you want to talk about this idea for a show that I have." So yeah, it's very hard to believe.

And another strange thing is just that our real world has moved very far into the future since this show started. And we now have all this subject matter we didn't have at that time. We've got a whole episode about the future versions of iPhones, and YouTube, and Twitter and stuff. And that stuff, as common as it is now, would have seemed like the distant future if you had described it to us in 2000. So it's amazing in that our ordinary lives have changed so much, and yet you don't really notice, even if it just creeps on you gradually, month by month, over a period of a few years.

How do you filter in pop culture references, considering that in the context of the show they're 1000 years old?
Right. Well, everything lasts forever now. I mean, it's all stored in Google somewhere, even in the year 3000. I guess as a general rule of thumb, as far as writing the show, I would say we always allow ourselves the leeway to do an offhand reference or a quick joke about things that they wouldn't necessarily remember that clearly in the future, but if we devote a whole episode to it, we try a little harder to futurize the concepts.

And here another example for you of an upcoming episode: we have one inspired by the Proposition 8 battle out here in California. And our is called Proposition Infinity. It's going to be the fourth episode this year. And in that episode, Bender campaigns to legalize robosexual marriage, which is the taboo marriage between a robot and a human. (chuckles) So there we've devoted a whole episode to it, so we try to come up with our future version so that we are somewhat history-proof in terms of the show being dated. I feel like we're relatively safe still from the concept of robots and humans intermarrying to be a clichèd...

Yeah, that's so over now.
So that's roughly the division in my mind. If it's a quick joke, fine, any reference goes. But if it's the whole plot point or you know, the subject of an episode, we try to come up with our future version of it.

The first two episodes deal with a very messy rebirth and a death globe called 'V-giny.' You guys seem to be concentrating on a certain area of the body in those first two episodes.
There are certain options to push the envelope a little bit on Comedy Central that we couldn't do before, although we tried to keep that relatively in check. I think overall, you're going to find the tone of the series is pretty consistent with the original. So it so happens that maybe we push it a little more in the first couple of episodes, but that's only because of a logistical fluke, that two in a row. But not that I think people will mind, probably, but we've generally imposed self-censorship and are not going wildly over the line, I think, on the whole.

How do you make sure, when you do shows that talk about an issue like censorship or Prop 8, it doesn't get too preachy or too politicized, and it doesn't overwhelm the comedy and the characters?
I mean, the most important thing, if you actually take on a real issue, I think, is to have somewhat reasonable opinions on both sides of the issue. You don't want it to feel like you're hitting people with a hammer. So that's number one. I would say, or number two, our alternative version, again, is to futurize it in such a way that nobody currently has that strong of an opinion one way or the other about robot marriage, say for example.

So we have actually a little more leeway, I would say, than 'The Simpsons' in terms of, we can first warp the issue and then have the episode. Whereas 'The Simpsons' is taking place more in our world and has to really be careful. When I worked at 'The Simpsons,' we would work pretty hard, you know, if there was an episode about guns, there would be...the gun would come in handy at the end of the episode. You know, it wouldn't be a lecture one way or the other, so.... It's usually more interesting, more conflict, if you don't immediately assume one side is a bunch of morons.

Did you guys learn anything from doing the movies that's carrying over into going back into the rhythm of doing self-contained episodes?
Certainly some technical things, because the movies were sort of, were our first experiment switching over into the high definition, widescreen, surround sound, that kind of stuff. So I feel like we're going to come back pretty polished in terms of our updated presentation, of all of those kind of things. So that may be a separate issue from what you're getting at.

But as far as the continuity, I would say it's actually not that similar of a process. I feel like we're, we had gotten pretty good at the half-hour format by the end of our initial run, and I think upon the whole, that we were getting better and better at it as it progressed. And I feel like we got back on that horse pretty easily when this process started up.

I think the movies had their own challenges, which were, for the most part, separate. We had to try to make something that played as an hour and a half movie, but could subsequently be divided up into episodes. Which basically required having some kind of a cliffhanger exactly every 22 minutes. So it was a pretty tall order, and pretty difficult to do. But that's a pretty different challenge than the half-hour episodes. The half-hours, I think the key is just to come up with a lot of interesting and relatable story ideas. That's the hardest challenge.

What else are we going to be seeing in this summer run of episodes?
I'll mention right off the bat, our last episode of this summer run, the 12th one of the year, it's our mini-season finale, it so happens by numerical coincidences, it's also our 100th episode exactly. So that's going to be our 100th episode season finale special And that's an episode where Leela leads her people, the mutants who live in the sewers of New New York City in a rebellion against the surface people. And we have Devo and Mark Mothersbaugh guest starring in that one as supporters of the mutant cause.

Seems like a good fit too.
Yeah, yeah. They were...that seemed like a natural...as soon as we stumbled across the idea, and apparently they thought so too. In fact, they've been hyping it up a fair amount, so they must be pretty excited about it.

And then one of my favorites in the middle of this year is actually an idea that Matt Groening had a while ago, where the Professor invents a time machine that can only go forward, and a couple of our crew members accidentally get started on that journey in this episode, which will be the seventh one this year. And once they get going, they have no recourse except to keep going forward, looking for a time when people have invented the backwards time machine to get them back. So this is a real epic, in terms of episodes where we get to see the future of, at many, many points into the very distant future. So it's a kind of visually spectacular, and that's one of my favorites, definitely, of this season.

How tough was it to get all the voice actors back? Because I know there was a little bit of a negotiation going on about this time last year.
It was tough, but also, we had on our side the, fortunately, the fact that I think the cast members are all proud and happy to be affiliated with this show. You know, I think they all wanted to come back, and just wanted to make sure they got a deal they thought was appropriate and at the same time, Fox knew the show was going on to cable TV and we've had to make a few cutbacks in various areas so they didn't want to go through the roof on how much they were paying anybody anywhere in the production. So of course, that was a little bit of a tricky situation and as much as possible, I tried to just encourage both sides to come to a happy conclusion.

Because it would be very disappointing to me, and I think to the fans, if we had had to produce the show with any new cast members. Both for continuity, and most of all, because the voice cast is so good on this show. It just would have been rough to try to reach the same quality. So I just want to reassure everybody, we did get the entire voice cast back. I mean everybody up and down the line. And similarly, again, luckily, having goodwill. And I think people, looking back upon the old days, we have a writing staff which is composed entirely of veterans dating back to the Fox days, and got our same animators, Rough Draft Studio Tech, and our same composer, Chris Tyng, so I think it will feel very continuous with the original run of the show.

It kind of just feels like it slides right in with the rest of the reruns that Comedy Central's been playing on Adult Swim before that.
Cool. That's the goal. We want everybody to be unable to decide if they're reruns or not.

But of course, they won't know what season it is because of all the mixups with Fox and all the other networks, so it won't matter anyway.
We'll have a big flashing "6" all over the screen on every episode.

When you mentioned that you might be doing another finale, is this 26 episodes it for now? Fox and Comedy Central haven't told you anything else?
Yeah, we're definitely not going to know anything for the future possibilities of the show before we wrap up production on these 26. I mean, the productions were actually almost done, the principal writing for the 26 episodes, we've recorded 24 of the 26 already, and the animation has begun on 24 of them in other words at this point.

So unless we were to get a phone call in the next month, we would start to ratchet down our operation here and the writers are going to go on to other jobs again and so on. But it's familiar territory for us, but because Comedy Centrals' airing these half this year, half next year, it's a little less of an emergency for them to make any decision if they want to order more or not. So we're very used to it, unfortunately.

Is there a drill that you guys go through, it's like "OK, I've got this, this, and this lined up," or "I'll go back to work for 'The Simpsons...'"
Yeah, I mean, basically coming into this, we knew the deal and we said, we told everybody coming to work on the show, look, we think we're going to do 26, it's going to take about a year for the main bulk of the behind the scenes production and writing, that kind of stuff. And when we get toward the end of that, you should start planning to move on. So everybody came in knowing the situation and people are, have been keeping an eye out for their next step.

For me, I actually, I'll still be working on the show pretty solidly all the way into 2011, so March or April, or something like that. Because we do have a lot of post-production we need to do and we need to shepherd the show through the animation process, and do a little rewriting at various stages, and do all the sound effects and music and all that stuff. So for me, it'll keep me busy for quite a while, so I'm not heading anywhere immediately.

And if Apple brings out yet another funky device between now and then, you're going to have to somehow write that in, right?
Yeah. At some...Apple said it's releasing a new iPhone on the same day as our premiere, we noticed. And if they had just picked (a day) exactly a week later, it would have come out on the day of our iPhone-related episode.

See, that would have been perfect.
Yeah, if only they would take orders from us, we'd be... (chuckling)

Right. And then like 'Modern Family' had the iPad episode, you guys can have your iPhone episode.
(laughs) And by the way, the iPhone in the future is a device which is implanted in your eye.

So the name's perfect then, right?
E-Y-E. Yeah, our phone is the E-Y-E eyePhone. It's implanted in your eye and projects a little screen that's hovering in front of you at all times.

Is anyone putting the bug in Matt's ear to make another 'Simpsons' movie to kind of keep the assembly line going? Were you in on that process at all?
No, I was not involved in 'The Simpsons Movie.' I watched it, I enjoyed it, but I didn't work on it. You know, I know it was a long and difficult process, so they might be recuperating still from that.

Three years later.
But maybe a 'Futurama' movie would be a nice thing to do next. Which is not in the works, but I think by its nature and just the setting, I think 'Futurama' would actually make a great future movie. You know, we'd have our science-based battles and everything. So I think it's natural for feature movies. I always like to lobby for that, indirectly. I bring it up in interviews and hope Fox executives will read it and go hey, there's an idea.

How would you do a 'Futurama' movie that would distinguish it from what you did in the DVDs or what you're doing in the series?
Well, we'd have a little more freedom than the DVDs in the sense that it would not have to break down evenly into episodes for future use. So I think we could really devote all our efforts to making one really grand story that would take advantage of the format. I don't have the story at this moment, but I feel confident with a few of our writers and a few months to stew in a room, that we could have something really impressive. So I think we'd just be unshackled with that plan, if we knew it was specifically for that use.

So it'd be like kind of 'Titanic' ... well, not 'Titanic,' but you know.
(chuckles) We've done the 'Titanic' episode. Well actually we have another... the season finale episode I mentioned involves a land-going vessel called The Land Titanic. So we've had a couple of... we've done our 'Titanic' ...we've done enough 'Titanic.' So we'll just switch over to some other disaster.

No very tall, skinny, blue-skinned creatures at all, with long hair?
Well there you go. There's a possibility. We just have a passing reference to 'Avatar' in one of our episodes. We didn't want to be the last show to parody 'Avatar.' There's no full scale parody of it, but we do have a quick joke where they land on a, what was the name of the planet again, in... I'll just call it an 'Avatar'-like planet, a 3D planet where Leela cannot make sense of anything, just because of her one eye. So there's a passing reference to an upcoming episode.

Very good. We'll leave it at that, because I'm definitely looking forward to seeing the rest of the season.
OK, well thank you. And thanks to all the fans who stuck with us over this time. They have saved our neck once again.

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Joe Davis

I have to say I have watched Futurama since the very first time it aired. Being a huge fan of the Simpsons, I looked forward to the show before it first aired. I was blown away by how awesome the show was. It has since been one of my very favorite television programs. When it was canceled I was very upset, and I then bought all four seasons when they came out on DVD. I watched them over and over and now know most of the episodes by heart. When the movies came out I was ecstatic to see new adventures will all my favorite characters. I was somewhat disappointed by the stories however. Of course I understood it could be difficult after a prolonged break between the movies and the television series. When it was announced that Comedy Central would be airing new episodes of Futurama I was again very much excited about the possibility of seeing what the writers could come up with. I unfortunately have been very disappointed with the new season so far. The genius of the writers and the subtle pop culture jokes have been thrown to the wayside. The original ideas of spectacular adventure have instead been exchanged for in your face preaching of what is currently wrong or seemingly ridiculous in society. I watched Futurama to get away from the troubles of the world, not to have satirical commentary on it. I just don't think it would be too hard to ask them to put down their megaphones of truth and just get back to what made Futurama great, the silliness of the future. I don't know if it's the influence of Comedy Central or the writers just trying to prove a point but I feel like this is not the direction that Futurama fans want the show to go in. I for one will continue to watch the show and hope that it will once again resemble what was once loved about it. Let's get rid of jokes like "This looks like a good place to take a dump," and get back to the hilarity that was once smart and comical.

August 19 2010 at 9:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I cannot WAIT until the new episode premieres tonight!

Each time I watch the preview for the episode, I always laugh at Fry's line:

"Professor, my Fry-fro's all frizzy."

Ah, alliteration. Thou dost giveth me chuckle-rumbles in my tummy.

June 24 2010 at 8:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Wow, most interesting indeed. Well done.


June 24 2010 at 4:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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