David X. Cohen On Futurama: Bender's Big Score

Some good things simply end too soon: the Renaissance, Abraham Lincoln, our faith in Robin Williams' career as a dramatic actor. . . . Among those lost treasures is Futurama, the Emmy-winning animated TV sitcom created by Matt Groening and David X. Cohen for the Fox network. The series, which ran from 1999 to 2003, followed the adventures of a former New York City pizza delivery boy, Philip J. Fry, after he's accidentally cryogenically frozen and revived one thousand years in the future.

Befitting a series that had The Simpsons' creator Groening in the production office's big Capt. Kirk chair, Futurama was part Simpsons-style weekly comedy, part goofy satire that riffed on gee-whiz pulp sci-fi tropes (everything from alpha-male space heroes to invading aliens to Star Trek), pop culture (apparently all our celebrities, A-list to D-list, are still alive in the 31st century as heads in jars), and TV itself (Bender's Big Score opens with bull's-eye shots at the Fox execs that canceled the series). Although never a hit on the scale of The Simpsons, Futurama was consistently funny, with strong writing, characters and variety. After four seasons, during which Fox jerked the show around with slippery time slots and frequent pre-emptions, the network pulled the plug.

But strong sales of the four season DVD box sets, plus high ratings for late-night reruns on the Cartoon Network beginning in 2003 -- not to mention the sort of loyal online fan base that successfully rallied for Family Guy's return and spurred a big-screen continuation of Firefly, another science fiction series undeservedly abused by Fox -- eventually convinced the network to give Futurama a return ticket, at least for a while. This week Bender's Big Score, the first of four direct-to-DVD feature-length Futurama movies, arrived on our shelves. The subsequent three features will be released over the next year, and in 2008 they'll also be broadcast on Comedy Central edited into 16 half-hour episodes.

It's a pleasure to report that Bender's Big Score successfully returns us to the Futurama universe as if we'd hardly been apart. The complete cast is back, headlined by regular voice stars Billy West, John DiMaggio and Katey Sagal. (Sarah Silverman, Mark Hamill, Coolio and -- a delightfully convenient truth -- Al Gore also join the cast.) Likewise back again are the original writers and production team, including Groening and Cohen. The animation is being done by the same studio that did the series, although this time in a wide-screen, high-definition format.

The adventure involves alien nudist Internet scammers who take over Earth and send Fry's obnoxious robot buddy Bender back in time to swipe history's treasures. (The key to time travel is a coded tattoo on Fry's butt.) But when the beer-loving robot's crimes have devastating effects on the space-time continuum, Fry, Leela, Dr. Zoidberg and the gang must figure out how to make things right. While long-time Futurama fans will spot several dozen in-joke references to the original series, including favorite characters such as Robot Santa and Kwanzaa-bot, Bender's Big Score isn't too in-jokey to appeal to viewers who missed the fun the first time around. The DVD is well produced and packed with quality bonus material, including a party-atmosphere commentary track with Cohen, Groening and cast members.

Recently I chatted with David X. Cohen, who, besides being a creative force behind Futurama, holds a physics degree from Harvard, where he wrote for and served as president of the Harvard Lampoon, and a master's in computer science from Berkeley.

M.B.: First things first, David: Do you prefer "geek" or "nerd"?

DXC: I think I prefer "nerd" because "geek" has all these weird other connotations, biting the heads off chickens and so on. Although I do all of those things, I'm more embarrassed by them than I am my "nerd" credentials.

What did you do after Futurama was canceled?

First I cried. That was the first year.

Without spoiling the plot, it's safe to say that Fry travels farther in this story, literally and figuratively, than in any previous Futurama story. Was a warm spot for Fry part of the the whacked-out science fiction plot from the beginning?

There were two camps we wanted to please with this return of Futurama. Actually, these two camps overlap, but we wanted to make sure both sides of the story were done well. One camp is the hardcore sci-fi fans, who get the big time-travel and space-battle story. The other camp are those hooked into our emotional, more relationship-based stories. That's where Fry and Leela come in.

I think we pulled it off, mixing the crazy sci-fi story -- all big guns and spaceships and a fleet of solid gold Death Stars -- and the emotional story. The emotional stories, those are harder to write, I think, but they have a bigger pay-off when they work. Making you feel moved at the end of all that crazy sci-fi fun stuff, that's when we feel like we've really done something and it's something we're really proud of.

What would you say to the original fans of Futurama who, while checking out the video store aisles, wonder if this is just some quickie knock-off trying to cash in on their love for the show?

First I'd say that I've been working full-time on this one for the past year and a half now, so it's definitely not a quickie. As far as "knock off," I'd answer that by saying that my chief condition for coming back -- the reason for it -- was working with the whole original team and the original cast of the show. Besides just bringing back the show, we wanted to have the most interesting team of writers, the most brilliant animators, the cast members. . . . Just getting a chance to work with these people again was a big reason for wanting to do this one. So it's definitely no knock-off. It was a full effort from everyone involved.

What fun stuff can we expect in the future installments?

Ah! There are some unanswered questions at the end of the first one, and we could have left it there, but we decided that the second one will pick up where the first one leaves off. So the next film will end up being an intergalactic love affair -- sorry, a touching inter-universal love story -- about this giant planet-sized monster, played by David Cross, who's in love with every living being in our universe. Brittany Murphy and Stephen Hawking are the guest stars. We're calling it The Beast with a Billion Backs.

The third one, Bender's Game, is our first real all-out fantasy, which is sort of shocking given everything we've done before. We'll get to see the Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons fantasy-world versions of our characters. That one will be visually interesting, so I'm looking forward to seeing it myself. It's being animated now.

Then The Wild Green Yonder, the fourth one, is a big sci-fi story about a billions-of-years-old battle between powerful ancient forces, and of course our crew gets caught in the middle of that. Again we want to -- if we pull it off -- have a touching emotional story there as well, the reason being that if that turns out to be our last film, we want to go out on a grand note.

How does it feel to have the coolest nerd job in Hollywood? Are you in fact the coolest nerd on the west coast?

Wow! I don't know if I've ever been given that honor before. I'm happy to take it. I watch a lot of other nerdy shows, like Battlestar Galactica for example, and I'd be happy to be considered in the running.

And yeah, my job is fantastic. It is very hard -- I don't want to give the impression that we all just dance around on tables going "Oooh, let's add that" -- it's really hard making these animated shows, even the regular half-hour ones. It's a very long process. I've been working on this one for a year and a half, but the upside is that it's really fun and you get to work with the smartest people in Hollywood. It's very satisfying when it's done, but it's a lot of work along the way.

So any honor I win for Top Nerd, I've put in the sweat so I'll take it. I'll be guilt-free when I accept the giant gold pair of glasses.

You can purchase the DVD from the FoxHome website.

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Mark Bourne