Intervista a David X. Cohen, co-creatore di Futurama e sceneggiatore dei Simpson

Futurama is the most cancelled show ever. A record that only Matt Groening was able to achieve.

Unlike The Simpsons, Futurama was an unwanted child. Groening created the series along with David X. Cohen, one the Simpsons’ writers back at the time. Cohen was the perfect man for the job: a sci-fi fan, man of science, he even had an X in his name (something he had to do in order to enter the Writers Guild). FOX couldn’t ask for more from the man that made the network so rich, but when they discovered what Futurama was about, they flinched. “Too weird”, “Not enough Homer” and so on.

So they shot themselves in the foot and started to air the show in such a bad way that the series started to lose viewers. FOX canceled the show shortly after, but Comedy Central came to the rescue, giving Futurama two more season – and four direct-to-DVD movies. Last season ended in September 2013.
Now, after a year and with a Simpsons crossover on the way, David X. Cohen sat down with Fumettologica to talk about his experience on the show, his career and, most of all, to settle down the oldest rivalry that mankind has ever known: Star Trek or Star Wars?

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Ok, first of all: Star Trek or Star Wars? Is JJ Abrams the right guy for the new movie? And, most of all, will there be enough Jar Jar Binks in the new episodes?

I’ve always considered myself “Star Trek”. As far as which had more influence on Futurama, Star Trek is much closer to the model Futurama follows… it’s a group of people flying around and interacting with weird aliens and weird members of their own crew, and living in a world that has many analogies to our own. I will admit I’m also a little bit Star Wars now, since in recent years I’ve enjoyed watching all of those films (many times) with my daughter.  Except Episode I. And VI. And II.

As far as JJ Abrams, I enjoyed the first of the new Star Trek movies, and it was an impressive and creative way to deal with the very difficult task of bringing the series back for the Nth time. I thought the second film had too much “superhero” action… the big fight on the flying cars took me out of it because it didn’t feel like it took place in the real universe with real laws of physics. Despite it being a visually amazing action sequence, It wasn’t exciting to me because it didn’t feel to me like there was any clear threat to characters whose physical abilities were superhuman. Too much action!  And maybe too many references to Wrath of Khan. For Star Trek I like to see more sci-fi ideas and problem solving and character interaction.

I don’t really know what to expect with the new Star Wars movies. Since I’m less invested in the franchise, it might not bother me as much if I don’t like it. But it will still bother me a little. No, I admit it… a lot. I guess at some point I got invested in it after all. I can’t help but want it to be good. Regarding Jar Jar, if he’s onscreen just long enough to be slowly crushed under the foot of an Imperial Walker and then scraped off with a stick and flung into a ditch, that would be about right.

It’s been fifteen years since Futurama’s inception. Can you tell us a bit about the origin of the series (Fox wanted a new show from Groening, was it his choice to tackle a science fiction project? Also, was it Groening that chose you for the series or did you candidate yourself?)

I was working as a writer for The Simpsons in the late 1990’s when rumors began circulating that Matt had a new idea for a show – a sci-fi cartoon. So the basic idea was his. Of all the nerds on the Simpsons writing staff, and there were many, I leaned the most in the “science/sci-fi nerd” direction, and of course I was extremely excited when Matt asked me if I wanted to work with him on the new project. I cleverly figured the Simpsons couldn’t go on much longer, since it was already in season NINE, so I jumped at the opportunity to leave that doomed job. Matt and I talked about Futurama for something like a year, in our spare time, before pitching it to the Fox network.

Groening said that trying to get the show on the air was “the worst experience of my grown-up life”. What was the experience like for you? Extreme as Matt described it?

It was definitely a tough experience. There wasn’t much precedent for comedy science fiction, let alone animated comedy science fiction intended to appeal to adults, so there were many, many basic decisions to be made about the tone of the show. At the same time, we had to adhere to a tight schedule to deliver 13 episodes on time and on budget, and on top of that we had a lot of battles with the network over the content and direction of the series. For me and the writers, there weren’t enough hours in the day and we ended up working late into the night, seven days a week, for quite a while. It was beyond exhausting.

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Speaking of the network: back in the days, Fox changed the timeslot often, to the point that you couldn’t predict when the next episode was going to air. Why didn’t Fox believed in the show?

I think it was mainly just that we didn’t have many fans of the subject matter at the network, and as a result we didn’t get to stay long in the ideal time slot, which was Sunday nights at 8:30 PM, right after the Simpsons. We got two airings in that slot before moving to Tuesdays along with Family Guy and other animated shows. Later we bounced back briefly to the good Sunday slot before moving to the “death slot”… Sundays at 7 PM. The Fox network airs football games Sunday afternoon, and they frequently run long and bump off whatever show is supposed to be on at 7 PM. So many episodes of Futurama were bumped from the schedule that Fox ended up showing almost a whole additional season of bumped episodes after cancelling us. We knew we were in serious trouble in the 7 PM time slot when Fox began promoting the Sunday-night lineup with the slogan, “The fun begins at 8!”.

Now that you have a little bit of perspective on the show, is there anything you would do differently going back? 

We learned a lot of lessons as we went along, but it took a while to implement them since it takes us almost a year to produce an episode from start to finish. One of the biggest lessons was to take the sci-fi angle more seriously. We were initially concerned about pushing the sci-fi too far, and certainly the network was very concerned about that. Panicked, really. The third episode of the series, “I, Roommate”, was specifically created to address the network’s request that we make it more “down to earth”. Later we found that the episodes with a strong sci-fi story underlying the comedy were fan favorites, and that the comedy still worked fine, in fact better, when we took the sci-fi seriously. The grandeur of space and the epic drama of sci-fi are great backdrops for the characters’ petty human concerns and emotions. Once we started going more all-out with the sci-fi stories, I think the series got a lot better.

In the first season Futurama was a very edgy show. It reminds lot of the Simpsons’ first episodes – it had sex, violence. Even a suicide booth. Was there an attempt to push the boundaries of what you could do with cartoons? And how come the network let you do that? 

Personally, I thought the idea of a coin-operated public suicide booth was so over-the-top and ridiculous that I didn’t expect it to be controversial. We weren’t trying to push the boundaries of good taste. But as it turned out, the network was very worried about it (they were worried about pretty much everything). They also felt Bender was too mean. Their concerns were valid in the sense that they didn’t want the future to be too grim. We didn’t either, though… our idea was always that the future was neither a Utopia nor a dystopia, but that there would be both good and bad elements to make the world analogous to the world of today. Ultimately I don’t think many viewers were shocked or outraged by the suicide booth. (The fact that the character who wanted to kill himself was a robot probably made it more palatable.) Generally when you see things in cartoon form, they don’t seem as shocking as you imagine them when you first read the script.

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In the latter seasons I think the series found its own voice, which was this mixture of comedy and hard sci-fi themes. It lives in its own world, a bit of 50s b movies, a bit of Douglas Adams, a very strong spoof of that “optimistic sci-fi” like Star Wars/Trek, not steampunk or a la Blade Runner at all. How did you find this tonal balance?

I accidentally half-answered this question earlier, as far as the long feedback loop where we saw fans responding positively to the sci-fi content. The other development with the tone was that we attempted more emotional and occasionally horribly tragic episodes as we went along. These started as experiments (like “The Luck of the Fryrish”, where we learn about Fry’s long-dead brother), and again it was only after that one worked pretty well that we felt confident enough to try more. The best episodes ultimately were the ones that succeeded in combining hard sci-fi, a genuine emotional story, and good jokes. It’s a challenge because it’s already quite hard to get people to buy into the emotions of a cartoon character, and three times harder when the character is a drunk robot flying around outer space.  Some examples of episodes that I think worked in all three areas were “Godfellas”, “The Late Philip J. Fry”, and “Fun on a Bun”.

How many Futuramas exist? I mean, do you think at the series as one big journey or you consider the series different from time to time (before the cancelation, with the DVDs, then when you came back on Comedy Central)? Did you tackle the new seasons differently from the first run?

We absolutely always thought of it as one continuous thing. This was helped by the fact that we had continuity with our cast, animators, and writers even after the show was cancelled and brought back a couple of times. When the series moved to DVD and then cable TV, with their looser standards for sex and violence, we were initially tempted to see what we could get away with… for example, the Nude Beach Planet in “Bender’s Big Score”, or the Adam-and-Eve planet in “In-a-Gadda-Da-Leela”.  In both cases, we rapidly grew tired of the attempt and moved back toward the existing tone of the series. The tone of the series evolved because we were trying to make it better… not because we were on a new network or delivery system.

One theme of the show is time travel. You used it a lot in several occasions (usually the best episodes), but it’s a very hard subject to deal with, because if you start asking too many questions you’re screwed (Rian Johnson’s Looper basically dismissed the issue, but I think that while in comedy you can kind of dodge it, in serious movies one must give the audience some rules in order to set up the playground). What’s so fascinating about it?

When Futurama first started, we had a hard rule that there would be no time travel episodes. Matt Groening and I were both constantly annoyed (24 hours a day!) by the huge logical holes in every time travel story, and we didn’t want to make our own mess of it. After a few seasons, though, we started loosening up, because as we worked in more science fiction ideas, it seemed strange to avoid such a major theme of serious sci-fi.

One thing we came to appreciate is that time travel is great for telling big emotional stories… you can separate couples or families by time, with no hope of seeing loved ones again (like in “The Late Philip J. Fry” and “Game of Tones”).  Or you can deal with people’s regrets in life, the idea of “…if only I could do that one moment over again” (like in “Meanwhile” and “The Why of Fry”).  Conveniently, time travel is also great for comedy because you can cut straight from the set-up to the punchline. This came in esepcially handy in the episode “Time Keeps on Slippin'”, where time kept jumping forward, particularly whenever we needed to cram another joke into the script. (Leela: “I’ll never marry you!” TIME JUMP TO: “I now pronounce you man and wife!”. Leela frowns. TIME JUMP TO: Leela’s bouquet shoved into Fry’s mouth. Etc.)

Once you go down the time travel path (paths?) it’s a matter of picking your poison in terms of how you deal with the logical paradoxes. We tried to wiggle out of this in “Bender’s Big Score” by claiming they had discovered “paradox-correcting” time travel. That’s where being a comedy show comes in handy… if I had heard that excuse in a serious sci-fi show, I would have been very annoyed. As always.

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The new Futurama has a lot of really great episodes: “The Late Philip J. Fry” (which I think it would have been an awesome series finale), “All the Presidents’ Heads”, “Game of Tones”, “Meanwhile”, you name it, but one stands out: “The Prisoner of Benda”. Did you know from the beginning that you were going to have a theorem (or a proof, according to Keeler) into the episode?

Looking back, one thing I am proud of is the actual science (not to be confused with science fiction) that we were able to work into Futurama.  I am very pro-science and always intended to be a scientist before derailing and becoming a cartoon writer.  The episode you mention, “The Prisoner of Benda”, is a standout in this area since it features an actual math theorem at the climax of the episode.  Here’s the history of that:

We initially started a more straightforward discussion of an episode about a brain-switching machine. This is a pretty standard cartoon idea, so we wanted to put a twist on it. This led us to the idea of a machine that could switch two characters’ brains, but couldn’t switch them back. We started to wonder: if a bunch of characters switched brains in an arbitrary way, could they always get their own brains back somehow, by switching them through a series of intermediate characters?

We left work for the day unsure of the answer. The writer of the episode, Ken Keeler, has a PhD in applied math, and when he came in the next morning, he announced he had proved a general result: no matter how mixed up the characters’ brains are, they can always get back to where they started provided two new characters are brought in who have never had their brains switched. At the end, everybody (including the two new people) will have their original brains back. Note that Ken refuses to call it a “theorem” because he feels the result is not significant enough to merit that designation.  He refers to it simply as a “proof”. Others on the Internet have termed it the “Futurama Theorem”.

I wanted to take advantage of this rare opportunity to make math the hero of a TV comedy, perhaps for the first time in the history of the universe, so at the climactic moment of the episode, we actually flash the entire mathematical proof on screen for about one second.  We figured anyone really interested could go back and freeze frame on that spot, and in fact many viewers did. One was well-known science author Simon Singh, who recently published an entire book on the hidden math jokes in The Simpsons and Futurama.  If you’re interested, I recommend it… it’s called “The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets”. We originally stuck in these types of math and science references just as in-jokes for our friends from college and graduate school… so the fact that there is now an entire book on the subject is very surreal to me.

You cited “The Luck of the Fryrish” as one of your favorite Futurama episodes, which I think is everybody’s favorite (mine too, although I like a lot “The Sting” too). What about the Simpsons? What’s your favorite Simpsons episode and why (you can count the ones written by you)?

Choosing a favorite Simpsons episode is like choosing a favorite grain of sand on the beach: there are trillions of them, and they’re all made from tiny bits of rock. I admit it’s a very bad analogy. I’ll narrow it down and say it has to be be an earlier episode, because those were the years that proved the Simpsons was something new and amazing. I’m going to go with “Homer the Heretic” for transcending standard cartoon themes, while being tremendously funny at the same time.

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Mimi Pond, speaking about the Simpsons, said it was a “boys’ club” situation, that she felt unwanted, which I think can be said also of scripted shows in general. Do you think that this – the under-representation of female TV comedy writers – is still a problem within the industry?

Yes, there have always been a shortage of female writers on the Simpsons, Futurama, and scripted shows in general. I wasn’t there at the very beginning of the Simpsons, during the period Mimi Pond was referring to. I will say that during the time I was there, the general tone of discussion among the writers was not raunchy or aggressive or anything that I, as an admitted male, would categorize as anti-female. You do hear about shows where that tone is the norm, but I don’t think that’s the case at the Simpsons or Futurama.  I see the problem more as a self-perpetuating situation where show-runners, including me, like to hire writers they know and have worked with in the past. If the people you have worked with were mostly male, then the pool of people you hire from is mostly male. And so on. As a result, it does become “clubby”, since many writers have worked together for long periods, but women in the room are also “in the club”. Certainly, though, it seems uncomfortable to be a woman in that position and it remains a problem.

Looking at your bio, Futurama seems like you passions put on paper. You attended Harvard University, graduating with a B.A. in physics, and the University of California, Berkeley, with an M.S. in computer science. What kind of kid were you? Interested in science since you were a child?

I don’t think it will surprise anyone to hear that I was pretty nerdy (very nerdy). I played my share of Dungeons & Dragons and spent huge amounts of time programming the Apple II computer in the middle of the night. Both of my parents were biologists, so I grew up in a household where science was fun an interesting and not intimidating. I always assumed I would be a scientist of some sort, and my only big rebellion against the family tradition was to study mathematical sciences instead of biology. Take that, parents!

In Harvard you wrote for the Harvard Lampoon magazine, which saw the contribution of many people who would go on to become comedy writers. When did you decide to get “serious” about writing?

Until just before I graduated from college, I still thought I would become a scientist, or maybe a videogame programmer or something like that. But around then I realized that several people I knew from the Lampoon were planning to try to make a career of comedy writing. I was totally unfamiliar with show business as an actual business, and it had never occurred to me until then that it was a career option. I was very torn, but I finally decided to go to graduate school before I forgot everything I knew. I figured if I tried writing and it didn’t work out, it would be very hard to go back to school, whereas if I tried graduate school and it didn’t work out, I could still try writing.

Your first gig was on Beavis & Butthead. How did you pass from that show to The Simpsons?

Beavis & Butthead was a lucky break. I was sending sample material to lots of TV shows and hoping to get people to look at it. By chance, some material I had submitted to Late Night with David Letterman (where I wasn’t hired) got handed to Mike Judge, the creator of Beavis & Butthead, when he was at their offices. MTV had just decided to make Beavis & Butthead into a series, and he needed to hire some really cheap writers really quickly. He liked the material that I had sent to everyone except him, so he contacted me. I submitted some ideas and he hired me to write a couple of them.

As a starving graduate student, I didn’t have cable TV and had never heard of Beavis & Butthead, so I was very surprised and pleased when it became a hit. Suddenly I had a resumé. Meanwhile, my friend Bill Oakley, from the Lampoon, had gotten a job at the Simpsons and was able to encourage showrunner David Mirkin to take a look at my material. Presumably he liked it. There was a lot of writing staff turnover around that time, so with that and my lucky resumé and the fact that I was still really cheap, I got a job.

The Simpson-Futurama crossover: did you have any input or advice to the staff?

Yes, I got to weigh in with my opinions on several occasions. The story originated with the Simpsons staff, but Simpsons showrunner Al Jean wanted to get the Futurama stuff right, so he has been very generous about letting me butt in with my suggestions.  Mainly, as on Futurama, my advice was to take the crazy sci-fi melodrama seriously (or as seriously as possible). At this point, there are three former Futurama writers on the Simpsons’ writing staff, and one of them, Stewart Burns, wrote the episode. So it’s in good hands and I’m very excited about it. They managed to jam a surprising number of Futurama characters into the episode. It will be a real treat for Futurama fans, and hopefully Simpsons fans.

Will the crossover be the last time that we will see the characters?

Yes!  I mean no!  I have no idea!

You’ve been involved in two huge tv shows. What’s next for you? Have any story ideas that you’d like to develop?

My main problem is I have too many ideas.  Luckily, most of them are really bad once I think about them for five or ten more minutes, and that helps narrow things down.  At this moment I’m taking a little break because I’m coming off of about six straight years of grueling work… the four DVD movies and then four years on Comedy Central in the U.S.  But even the time off is starting to get grueling now, so I’m about ready to get back to work.