'Futurama' Returns Tonight! We Chat Up Billy West And Maurice LaMarche On Their Long-Awaited Return!

"Futurama" returns tonight on Comedy Central at 10pm. This is really freaking exciting news. The show was canceled in 2003 and that seemed to be it. Then it went into syndication and a funny thing happened: people were watching it. A lot of people. So four direct-to-DVD movies were released, and later broken out into individual episodes, making up a season of their own. And then, finally, the call came for straight-up new episodes, to air on Comedy Central. And so we get 26, which will divide up into two seasons, airing in 2010 and 2011.

To celebrate the ridiculously long-awaited return of the David X. Cohen/Matt Groening-conceived series, we sat down to chat with Billy West and Maurice LaMarche, who you might know better as Philip J. Fry (among others) and Kif (also among others). And you know what? Any excitement you're feeling at being back, they're feeling it more to the power of ten. Seriously... the whole crew is simply stoked.

"We're just thrilled to be back," LaMarche said. "We've got so many stories to tell and acting to do, we're just sticking around for a little while. At least 26 more episodes and who knows? Maybe more beyond there."

West, who makes for an fascinating phone interview because of how close his regular speaking voice is to Fry, feels the same. "I'm so thrilled it's back," he said. "The show evokes some kind of feeling in people, and that's hard to come by these days, to have a genuine attachment where you can't wait to see what on Earth is going to happen next week, where will they go."

No one had any inkling that a return was coming, but they all hoped for it. West and LaMarche both went out of their way to make clear that all of the players are great friends outside of work, and have stayed in touch through the years. LaMarche even had a master plan that he shared with Groening for keeping everyone together... and that's when he first learned a return might be in the cards.

"There was one point [after] we wrapped with the movies, it was John DiMaggio's 40th birthday and he was throwing a party at the House of Blues," LaMarche explained. "I was there standing with Matt Groening, and I jokingly said, 'Well, I tell you-- if we don't get to come back, I just want to have table reading parties like once a month, just the cast and whoever wants to come. We just pull out the old scripts, sit around a table, table read the episodes and then eat food, sit around and cut up.'"

"And Matt leaned in to me, very confidentially, and said 'I don't think that's the last we're going to be doing of Futurama. You're going to get a chance to table read for real. I think soon.' And it was like a year later that we got the news we were coming back as a series."

West didn't have a clandestine exchange with the architect of Earth's comical future as LaMarche did, but he clearly remembers finding out that "Futurama" was coming back. "I didn't bank on anything. I know how skittish things are. You know, you just wait and see," he said. "I did get a call from David and Matt, I was in New York doing a show with a friend of mine. I get a phone call at dinner afterwards and it was David and Matt saying that the show is back and that they made a deal. They were very happy, you could tell they were a little giddy."

The big question everyone has, of course, is how have things changed? According to LaMarche, they haven't. Not really anyway. "There are references to things that happened in the original series, little winks to the audience. That's what 'Futurama' loves to do. We love to dare our audience to be smart and keep up with references, and with science and popular culture. So everything that happened in the previous run is there."

While that tone remains, time has still passed in the fictional world of New New York City. The folks at Planet Express are 10 years older and 10 years wiser. Errr... well... they're 10 years older, anyway.

"The action takes place always 1000 years in the future, so it is 3010 in the show. But fortunately, nobody got 10 years wiser." Right. What he said. "I've always said the show is about how technology changes, everything changes... except people. People don't change. People are still schmucks."

"So our lovable schmucks, our lovable characters-- Fry is still the oddest-thinking human being on the planet, owing to being his own grandfather; and Leela is still a very strong woman, strong-willed, takes guff from no one; Kif is still" -- he breaks into Kif's voice here, to my delight -- "put upon by Captain Zap Branigan."

"It's our universe, there's nothing that is going to be unfamiliar. There are a couple of new characters, one-shots that are kind of fun. But for the most part it's 'Futurama.' I just think we've hit our stride this season; the stories are very, surprisingly, heartfelt. There's about three or four that leave you with the same kind of mist in your eye that 'Jurassic Bark' or 'The Luck of the Fryish' left you from the original run of the series. We've got like three them this season that, at the end of the table read, I was dabbing my eyes going," -- affects a tearful voice -- "'That was great. This is a really great show.'"