Coming out from the shadow of a successful franchise is never easy, but when said franchise is the megapopular The Simpsons, the shoes are extremely hard to fill. In 1999, Futurama--with Simpsons creator Matt Groening's signature animation--debuted on Fox and began the adventures of Planet Express in the year 3000.
Though most Simpsons fans dismissed Futurama initially, the show drew a dedicated, cult following. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough for Fox, who wanted ratings on par with Simpsons, and the network canceled the series after five seasons.
Like Family Guy, the show saw a new life after late-night airings on basic cable and better-than-projected DVD sales. While Peter Griffin and friends got a new prime-time deal with Fox, Futurama took a different path. Tuesday, November 27, marks the return of Futurama in the form of the straight-to-DVD movie Bender's Big Score--the first of four scheduled to be released over the next year or so.
David X. Cohen (the "X" is a made-up initial), who helped develop the show for television with Groening and serves as its executive producer and head writer, spoke with TV.com about the process of getting back on the air, making fun of Fox, and what makes his show different than The Simpsons (which he also wrote for).
TV.com: First of all (and it makes me very proud to say this), welcome back.
David X. Cohen: Thank you very much. It's an honor and a relief.
TV.com: Absolutely, especially for us fans. What was the hardest part of getting the franchise a second life?
David X. Cohen: I guess the hardest part was just getting Fox to listen to our desperate pleas not to cancel us in the first place. But I can give you the story, which I think will answer that. We went off the air obviously after being bounced all over [the schedule] and winding up in the 7:00 p.m. Sunday "death slot," and then went off the air. And suddenly we were getting these really good ratings on Cartoon Network and people kept buying the DVDs.
So Matt Groening and I actually called 20th Century Fox Television maybe once every six months and said, "Hey, we think maybe we should do a direct-to-DVD movie because there seems to be that audience who is not deserting us here." And they said, "Oh, we'll think about it." And then a couple years go by we get a call one day and they say, "Hey, we have an idea. What do you guys think about doing a direct-to-DVD movie?" And we said, "We think that's a really good idea."
And so it came from them, their idea, brilliant idea, and all credit to them for thinking of it. And in all honesty, once they came around to our way of thinking it was not a big fight. That's been the biggest shock of all is what tremendous support even Fox has given us this time around.
We went into this initial meeting where Matt and I had all our arguments laid out and we were just thinking, "How can we convince them to do this DVD movie?" Because we thought we were just going [into the meeting] to discuss the possibility. And we walk in the door and the very first thing they say is, "Now, to make this make sense from a business point of view, we think we have to do at least two movies." So that was the opening line of the meeting, which for a Hollywood meeting is about a million times better than it could ever be expected to go. So that was the opening minutes of this project. It's been a total breath of fresh of air compared to the first time around.
TV.com: But they still let you lampoon them a little bit in the first five minutes.
David X. Cohen: Well, you know, one interesting thing about this project, because it's going direct to DVD, we had no network censor. There was a legal review to make sure we weren't bad-mouthing anyone who would sue us. But aside from that we actually did not have to go through any censor because we're not going on the Fox network.
So the fact that we discussed network executives being ground up and made into an all-purpose powder that can be used as a cleanser or an explosive or as jock-itch medicine, did not bother them because they didn't see it. So that's how we got away with it.
TV.com: Bender's Big Score has to be the most complex Futurama stories I've ever seen... It's like an episode of Lost.
David X. Cohen: We can't let down our sci-fi fans even if we had to. We decided we had to make two groups of fans happy, the hardcore sci-fi fans and the Fry/Leela romance fans. So we tried to work those two things together with the crazy sci-fi story and hopefully brought it down to Earth a little bit by some genuine emotion.
TV.com: Were the ideas for the movies always kicking around, or did you come up with them once you knew you were making the films?
David X. Cohen: This was mostly new stuff. I mean, we made a few references to past episodes for the dedicated fans. There were kind of things we wanted to get back to. But the main sci-fi story we came up with specifically for this project.
There are some ideas that have been kicking around for years, coming up close to 10 years, I'm shocked to realize when I think about it, that might have been in my head even before we came on the air. And we are going to hit a couple of those in the later movies because [Bender's Big Score] is just the first of four. But this movie was basically all original and just came to us in some brainstorming sessions or whatever. We decided we wanted to do something big and crazy for our return.
TV.com: Are you discussing the plot of the other three movies yet?
David X. Cohen: Yeah. The second one--all of these titles are tentative, they may or may not stay the same--is called, The Beast with a Billion Backs. And it is guest starring David Cross as its monstrous planet-sized alien from another universe who has a love affair with all living beings in our universe simultaneously. So it's an interuniversal love story. Brittany Murphy is also in that one and Stephen Hawking is returning for his second guest appearance.
People don't realize the other four scripts are all done also and are being animated right now because the lead time is so long for these things. So the first one's been done for actually quite a while.
The third one is our first big time foray into the world of fantasy, like Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings-style fantasy, which amazingly we never really did a whole episode even in a world like that before. So you will get to see kind of the fantasy variants of our characters.
And the fourth one is, I would say, a hardcore sci-fi story about this ancient billions-of-years-old battle between two mighty forces, and our crew--of course--ends up right in the middle of that. Also I think it has kind of a touching aspect to it in case we did it again, our last episode ever. We're getting used to writing our last episode ever on this show. So I think it will be a nice tone if we don't get to do more, but we are keeping our fingers crossed that these will do well and they will bring us back again in who knows what form.
TV.com: And I'm seeing it's tentatively called Bender's Game. Are there any Orson Scott Card references in that one?
David X. Cohen: The third one is called Bender's Game. Yes, the name is a take off on [Card's book] Ender's Game obviously, but the plot is not really a take off on Ender's Game. So I mean we title ripped off, yes, but the story ripped off, no. Although, I would like to rip it off because we had ripped it off in the past to some degree but it was a title we always wanted to use and we never got around to. And then we were like, "Hey, let's use Bender's Game. We have never gotten around to using it before."
And the fourth one is currently called Into the Wild Green Yonder.
TV.com: One of the best features of the Bender's Big Score DVD was the Everyone Loves Hypnotoad special feature.
David X. Cohen: And I'm glad we did it because I predicted that 90 percent of people will scratch their heads or possibly go insane and be committed [trying to figure it out]. And 10 percent of the fans will think it's the greatest thing in history. So you've proven yourself a fan by saying that.
TV.com: Are there any other cool special features we can expect in the later DVDs?
David X. Cohen: Yes. But we're not sure what they are yet because those usually we do within a few months window of the release date, which we're not on any of them. I know a couple things we have planned but I'm afraid I think I should not discuss them because there is about a 50 percent chance of anything that I mention will end up getting bumped off. So then I'll look like a dummy.
So yes, there are definitely some cool things that we have in mind but I can't discuss them until we [set release dates]. So therefore, you have to interview me again six months from now or whenever the next one is.
TV.com: No problem with that. Going a little more general here, besides the obvious, what do you think is the main difference between writing for The Simpsons and for Futurama?
David X. Cohen: I starting writing on The Simpsons in season five. When I got there I was so happy. I was like, "Boy, I was a fan of this show and now I get to write for it in its final waning years." And of course now those are looked back on as the late early years or whatever, the classic old days.
For me personally, it's totally a different experience where I came in as a fan and the thing was already a big successful machine and people knew how to do it. Not only had the show been running for several years, but it was based on a family and everyday experiences and exaggerated observations.
Futurama, when it first started, was extremely difficult to write for. We had to really figure out what the tone of the show was and how to do a sci-fi show that people who haven't seen every episode of Star Trek can understand, and we always worked really hard to try to have a personal story or an emotional story in there with the sci-fi backdrop that people could appreciate on a level as just as human beings... You didn't have to be a real sci-fi fanatic to get it.
Just to work those things together was very hard at first. I think we got good at it right around the time we were getting canceled by Fox, so another reason that it's very nice to be back because I feel like now we know how to do this and have focus on the real believable characteristics of people or monsters or robots that people can empathize with and yet go crazy with the sci-fi backdrop of the whole thing.
TV.com: Who was your favorite character from Futurama?
David X. Cohen: I'd have to be clichéd and say Bender. It's just always very liberating to write for a character who has no shame whatsoever. And it would just seem like it would be fun to live your life as that guy who says exactly what's on his mind at every second and does whatever he wants to do at that second. So he is the most fun to write for.
However, it is very rewarding that if you pull off an emotional story about Fry and his brother, for example, or Fry and his dog, or Leela and Fry's relationship. That is maybe more rewarding ultimately to pull those off because it's a little harder to create these sci-fi shows [and] get someone to shed a tear at the end. So that's very satisfying and a little more difficult to pull off.
TV.com: We're running out of time, so let's ask the ultimate last question.
David X. Cohen: OK.
TV.com: What show do you like better between The Simpsons and Futurama? And you have to choose one.
David X. Cohen: I would have to say Futurama. I mean, for The Simpsons I came in in the middle. I actually loved it. I think it's probably the greatest show in history.
But Futurama is part of me at this point. I feel like I've invested so much of my time and sweat in it that I feel like these are real. Even if we're not writing for him, I feel like, "Oh, Doctor Ziodberg, I wonder what he's doing right now." So I've gone obviously slightly batty. But these are kind of real people to me. We like to say The Simpsons is a cartoon but Futurama is real. So that's how we think about it in our minds.