Interview: David Cohen from Futurama

The future is back! The first new “Futurama” programming since 2003, Futurama: Bender’s Big Score features out-of-this-world hilarity on DVD November 27, 2007 from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.

In promotion with the release of the new DVD, we had the extreme honor of sitting down with Futurama’s executive producer and co-creator David X. Cohen to talk about the new DVDs, the writers’ strike, and Futurama’s future.

It seems that you have almost unlimited creative freedom with setting a satirical comedy as a science fiction show that takes place in the future. Was that the main motivating factor in the creation of the show? Where you felt a bit limited with how far “out there” you could go with the Simpsons?”

It definitely is a double edge sword. You do have a lot more freedom with a sci-fi show, but you also run the risk of going to crazy and cranking out something that people can no longer identify with. If you go fully for crazy sci-fi stuff, you may loose track of the characters that the fans personally enjoy.

Our philosophy, which you’ve hit with this question, is what’s difficult about writing the show. We have these crazy sci-fi settings, but we want people to care about these characters. The thing that took us several years to learn is that those things aren’t mutually exclusive. We can put these characters in any kind of crazy sci-fi environment as long as they maintain their emotions and that people are able to relate to them.

Now in addition to the DVD release this month with Bender’s Big Score, there’s 3 more releases scheduled. Can you elaborate on what fans can expect to see with those films?

Yes, the first ends in such a way that there’s sort of an unanswered question, and you might think hey it’s a cartoon and they’re not going to bother addressing that. But I can say that we are going to pick up with the second movie where we leave off in the first one. So if you’re curious about any unanswered questions at the end of this movie, stay tuned for the second one!

And I’ll go into the plot just briefly with the second one, David Cross guest stars as this really disgusting planet sized alien from another universe who caries on a simultaneous love affair with every living being in our universe, so it’s a really disgusting and touching love story. We also have Brittany Murphy and Stephen Hawking in that one.

Then the third one is our first big time story into the world of fantasy as apposed to straight up sci-fi, so it is kind of ‘Lord of The Rings’ style fantasy. Even to my own amazement we never really did a full episode in that kind of world. You’re going to get to see the fantasy versions of the Futurama characters, and I think visually that one will be stunning. I’m anxious to see it myself, it’s in Korea right now being animated. So it’s going to have a different look to it than the others.

Then the forth one, the dilemma of what we had in our last episode, the not knowing for sure if it is the last Futurama we will ever get to do. So we went for a real epic sci-fi story in the fourth one and it’s this ancient battle between powerful forces that have been going on for billions of years and the crew ends up stuck in the middle of that. We have a touching story with that one, so if it does end up being the last one we do, then it goes out on the right note. People will have a tear in their eye as they hit the road. [laughs]. But you know this show has done it’s last episode ever twice now, so I’m just keeping my fingers crossed to have a third last episode ever somewhere down the line.

I read that Comedy Central would be breaking down these films later to air them as episodes. Do you think that if this is successful for the network that we could have the series brought back?

I hope so! There are so many different ways we could come back now. We definitely have more hope this time around than last. We’ve done a lot now with the series and then these DVDs, and one thing that we haven’t done that I would love to do is a feature movie. I used to tell people that, that was my secret wish, but since I’ve told so many people that now, it’s not remotely close to being secret. So now it’s my wish that people will see how well these do, and how beautiful the animation is. I’d love to come back as a movie next time around, but if it’s more episodes for Comedy Central or for Fox, I’d love to do that too. There are many ways to come back to life when you’re a dead TV show nowadays.

Now I’m a big fan of all the episodes, but I have to say that there was one that really bothered me, which was the way that Jurassic Bark ended, and I’m sure you must get that a lot.

[Laughs] Yeah, it’s some people’s favorite episode, some people’s least favorite episode, and some people can’t make up their minds. That one I’m proud of it, though I completely understand people who are mad at it, I completely sympathize. But here’s the reason I’m proud of it, we write a crazy comedy, science fiction cartoon and the fact that people cried… the fact that this crazy cartoon actually evoked genuine emotion. Even with the tough guys, they come up to me sometimes and say,” I cried in front of my girlfriend. It was very embarrassing.” So that really helped as a writer. Yes, the episode was a bit of a departure for us, but we have done several other episodes that didn’t go quite as far yet still went all out with the emotion. I like to point out “Luck of the Fryish” where we learn about Fry’s brother, and that one I think had a really emotional ending as well. I’m really proud of those when we’re able to pull them off because it’s a high level of difficulty from the writing standpoint.

And with Seymour, know that you will get to see him again in Bender’s Big Score. So people that were sad that they would never get to see him again will have a small… small measure of revenge on us. [Laughs] That’s the beauty of time travel; you can bring back anyone you want. Never count anyone out.

In regard to the current writer’s strike, you’ve been on both sides of this having done producing and writing. What are your thoughts on this situation?

Well you can’t help but think about how directly inapplicable a lot of the arguments are to Futurama itself, because here we are. We’re a show that is coming back to DVD, there are not going to be any reruns on the network which would have been apart of the salary the writer was counting on. That payment is completely gone, and instead people are going to get these very small payments for the DVD sales, so it’s kind of living proof that the TV industry is changing.

The contracts should address this, DVDs are one thing, but this is the world we’re in now. Everyone knows that sooner or later, the Internet is going to take over much of the function of TV broadcast and DVDs. People are going to be downloading movies instead of buying DVDs, and streaming entertainment instead of watching it on TV. It’s just a matter of time, I don’t know if it will be in 3 years or 20 years. It depends on how fast fiber optic cable can be put in or high-speed wireless or whatever. Everyone knows it’s going that way. I think the arguments are reasonable. I think whatever ultimately wants though is to wrap up the strike. These things do need to be addressed though.

Another interesting aspect to it is that Patrick Verrone, who is the president of the Writers’ Guild, is one of our long time Futurama writers and wrote for every season of Futurama and for all 4 of these movies. So we had a direct connection to the top and what was going on. He was absent more and more for secret meetings of some kind, so we stopped getting our inside information as he started to disappear more.

We’re not the mightiest force in Hollywood. Futurama has always been the underdog show, but I think we’re a good example of the issues that are being discussed right now.

Now all the other scripts are written correct?

Yeah, yeah, the strike has no immediate impact on us. All of the other scripts have been written, rewritten, and rewritten at this point. The lead-time to do an animated film is so long. We did the first one in just over a year and a half, which is considered extremely fast for an animated movie. But the other 3 are all written and they’re all being animated as we speak. Our writer staff had already disbanded, so no immediate impact on us luckily.

How hard was it to get the show back rolling again? Where there any major issues with actor participation or studio support?

You know it took awhile to get everyone back together. The one amazing thing is that there was no problem with studio support, because obviously this show has had it’s ups and downs. We dealt before with Fox Network and they kept moving us around a lot with the time slot and lacking a little in promotion, but this time around we’re doing it with 20th Century Fox Television Studio. So we’re dealing with the studio and not the network. They’ve been incredibly supportive from day 1 when we went into discuss these DVD movies. We went in with arguments all lined up for why we should do a DVD movie, and the first thing they said is that they think we should do at least 2 DVD movies. We didn’t even need to make our arguments. We just started off with a bang. And the ante kept going up, let’s do 3, let’s do 4, so we settled there. And the huge premiere at the Cinerama Dome here in Los Angeles, and it’s really a huge theater, so they gave us a grand premiere for the DVD. We’re not used to that kind of treatment [laughs], so it was really nice!

As far as getting the cast back, I have to say one of the main reasons that Matt and I even wanted to do this is because we had such a good time working with them. We have a writing staff of crazy geniuses and the cast… I think we’re all just really proud to be apart of it. And the great music with our composer Christopher Tyng, and obviously beautiful animation from Rough Draft Studios… We got essentially everyone back, and I think that’s a testament to the fact that everyone liked working with everyone else. The cast was probably among the most eager to come back to the show. I run into them in the years we were off the air, and they would constantly ask me, “When are we doing more?! When are we doing more?!”

So they were really excited to come back, and I think somehow, they got better while we were off the air. I think they must just go around doing the voices for fun. John Di Maggio has just turned into Bender over the years [laughs]. They’re unbelievable.

There was really no problem getting anyone back. We got all the writers back, Christopher Tyng the composer, Rough Drafts the animation studios, who have just outdone themselves. And since this is a feature length film we wanted to give it that feel, so it’s widescreen which we’ve never done before and some real epic computer graphics… there is a space battle sequence which I think out does anything that we would have ever done for TV, and it’s in surround sound. So hopefully everyone will enjoy the extra effort that has gone into it.

Now are there any characters specifically that are completely your concept?

Yes. Matt Groening had some characters in mind before he even started talking to me about doing the show. He had the basic idea for Fry, Leela, Kif, Hermes, and his son. He had those characters in a rough form even before I came on board, but anyone that I didn’t mention I would say was jointly developed. I can say that Dr. Zoidberg was specifically my idea. I can remember my original logic for that, because I was a big Star Trek fan. I used to always think that if I was Mr. Spock, the non-human character, I would not want Dr. McCoy, a human with a different anatomy, to be operating on me. And Dr. McCoy always had to operate on Spock and say that,” You’re crazy Vulcan anatomy is driving me crazy!” You don’t want a doctor of a different species operating on you. So we had to have a doctor of different species who didn’t understand the anatomy of any of the other characters. That was the origin of the character. Even the name, Zoidberg, comes from this video game I programmed for the Apple 2 back when I was in high school, and that was called “Zoid”, so that’s the origin of the name.

Both your parents were biologists and you, yourself, have a degree in physics, so I have to ask if Zoidberg was at all inspired by this background?

My entire background I think explains my involvement in the show, I wouldn’t even be doing Futurama if not for my interest in science. With my parents being biologists, I just always thought I would be a scientist my entire life. I just derailed along the way [laughs]. I now make my living by making fun of science. Hopefully, in a way that shows an underlying love for it. We had several other people working on the show with science backgrounds, a couple Ph.D.’s. We may get our science sometimes in the name of comedy, but we know where it’s wrong. We’re able to conscientious decide if it’s worth contorting the science to get the joke in there.

I can’t say that any character was based on my mom or my dad or a professor I had, but it’s all just the general love of science that comes into play.

What’s next on your schedule right now?

At the moment there’s not really a lot to do besides a lot of interviews. So lots of that… the premiere, and trying to make sure our fans know that we’re coming back to life. That’s the entire agenda at the moment. After that, I go into finger crossing mode, and hope for that call to come in. So that’s where we stand right now. Most of the writers have already gone on to do other things, and I have to stick with this right now and just keep promoting. Obviously, I would love to do more, but if we’re gone, we’re gone. I’m going to wait it out for a couple weeks, and see how this first one does.

Interview By: Emma Loggins

– Futurama Official Site