Nice Planet...We'll Take It!
October 1999 [issue #33]
by Alex Needham
Leela, Zapp and Farnsworth
Fry, Bender and Kif
Beelzebot and Bender
Amy, Mom and Hermes
behind the scenes photos
The Simpsons conquered the world. Now Matt Groening is taking on
the whole galaxy. He invited THE FACE 1,000 years beyond Springfield.
Matt Groening's favourite story about the making of Futurama
concerns the time he pitched the show to the executives at 20th Century Fox.
"The way I sold them the show," he says in his gentle Oregon accent, "was by
saying, 'This is The Simpsons in the future,' and the dollar signs danced in
front of their eyes." Once Fox had seen the first episode of the new show,
however, they were less than pleased with their investment. "But this isn't
anything like The Simpsons," they complained. "Yes it is responded Groening.
"It's new and original."
Drive north out of Beverly Hills, on to the Avenue Of The Stars, and
a huge silver skyscraper looms up on the west. This was the building under
siege in the first Die Hard film. It's also the home of The X-Files, Ally
McBeal and, indeed, The Simpsons. This is Fox Plaza, the centre of one of
the most famous and aggressively expanding entertainment companies in the
world, 20th Century Fox.
Pull up beneath the skyscraper and there are acres of warehouses,
studios, trailers and neatly manicured gardens. Brad Pitt's new movie, Fight
Club, has just finished shooting here, and the cast of NYPD Blue are
currently rehearsing on a closed set. Further north stands a huge Forties
model of the Titanic, bleached white by the sun. In its shadow, rich-looking
women with LA facelifts and floppy hats dash from meeting to meeting in
preparation for this year's Golden Globe Awards.
Next to a huge hall, where an orchestra is scoring a movie called
Lazarus And The Hurricane, stands a trailer; inside, 50 people have gathered
to read over the script for episode nine, series two of Futurama. The entire
team of Futurama's 22 writers are dotted around the perimeter of the room,
while the remaining number - actors and executive producers - sit at a vast,
solid teak table in the centre. Matt Groening, the large, mop-haired,
45-year-old voice of a generation, sits quietly halfway down one side,
wearing an anonymous black T-shirt, notebook at the ready.
Groening never misses the script reading, or'table read', as they're
known. These meetings occur once a single writer has completed a script and
submitted it for the scrutiny of a six-strong editing team - a process that
takes six weeks. The table read is a chance for both the writers and the
producers to hear the actors voice their characters. It is then recorded and
sent to the production company Rough Draft, who create the final 22-minute
Before the reading can start, Joe DiMaggio, the voice of Futurama's
robot character Bender, entertains everyone with a rendition of the 'Blame
Canada' song from the South Park movie. There is a lot of talk about the
South Park movie. Everyone agrees that it is very good. Matt Groening is
particularly impressed. "It made me realise it was possible to have a
cartoon series on air and still do a movie," he says. "I thought it was
Soon, however, the meeting gets under way. It seems that, due to a
mix-up, an image of Bender the robot bearing the speech bubble "Hey! Hands o
ff my knob" has ended up as a 'life-size' promotional cut-out. Many have
already been sent to Australia. Everyone laughs. This is about as serious
as things get. Groening, surrounded by a team anxious to impress him, is
doing his best to make sure they all feel at ease.
America is already well acquainted with Futurama (it comes here, to
Sky One, this month). The first series, which began in April and ended nine
weeks later, was a big success: 19 million people tuned into the first
Set in the year 3000, Futurama is to The Jetsons what The
Simpsons were to The Flintstones. Futurama shares many things with The
Simpsons. Its plots are knowing and satirical. It laughs at human
failings. It has a good grasp of pathos. Its best character is an amoral
alcoholic. It's very clever. It's very, very funny. And it has
celebrity cameos, too - although stars appearing in Futurama are reduced
to bodyless heads preserved in jars in the 'Head Museum'. But this
hasn't put anyone off. Pamela Anderson, Leonard Nimoy and the Beastie
Boys have all featured - as has Groening himself.
And, of course, Futurama looks like The Simpsons. The characters
still have four fingers, big boggly eyes and exaggerated top lips -
although, this time, they're not yellow ("Evolution!" explains Groening).
And, just as The Simpsons upended the concept of the cosy family sitcom, so
Futurarna both honours and pokes fun at the conventions of sci-fi. But more
about that later.
The first episode begins in New York on New Year's Eve, 1999, where
we meet Fry, a pizza delivery boy who's in his mid-twenties and fed up.
Wandering into a cryogenics laboratory, Fry accidentally freezes himself and
wakes up exactly 1,000 years later. There he meets Leela, a pneumatically
chested, one-eyed alien martial arts expert and, he discovers, his Fate
Assignment Officer. Leela gives citizens jobs based on their personal
attributes. She reassigns Fry his job as pizza delivery boy. In an attempt
to escape, Fry hooks up with a robot, Bender.
Bender, like Homer, is the show's anti-hero and true star. Lazy and
prone to depression, he cheats, lies, steals, subscribes to Playbot magazine
and visits coin-operated prostitutes. He smokes cigars and drinks cans of
beer - three at a time. "Bender gets around the censor problems. He can't be
a bad role model for kids," Groening has explained. "He's a robot."
Today's script is a 47-page opus entitled 'Bender Gets Made'. It
gets a lot of laughs at the table-read, and has a hugely complicated plot,
which veers from a satire on celebrity cooking shows to an allusive parody
of Mafia movies. One scene is set at the Little Bitaly street fair,
featuring mobster robots called Clamps, Jimmy Mouse-Pad and The Donbot. Joe
DiMagglo does an excellent Brando impersonation as The Donbot, while the
producers are currently in negotiation with Joe Pesci to voice Clamps. By
the time the actors come to a complex section centring on a consignment of
Zuban cigars, it's obvious that the episode still has to find a way to
negotiate the hairpin bends of its plot without completely losing its
audience. The avuncular, unassuming
Groening patiently takes notes, giving the occasional, encouraging chuckle.
At the end of the read he quietly files out of the trailer along with the
writers. No one has made any public comment on how the read went: the
writers will pick it over at that afternoon's meeting.
A couple of days later, the rewritten episode will be recorded scene
by scene. The production team will keep the five best takes of each scene to
give them some choice when it comes to the animation. It can take an entire
working day to record five perfect takes for a single scene; most scenes
last no more than two minutes. In contrast, a ten-minute Hanna Barbera
cartoon takes about 70 minutes to record in its entirety. Groening's belief
is that, by taking so much longer, the actors are encouraged to be more
creative when it comes to interpreting their characters and delivering
jokes, producing funnier, slicker results.
At the Futurama production HQ, a half-hour's drive from Fox Plaza,
Matt Groening (pronounced correctly it rhymes with 'braining') relaxes on
the sofa in his office. For as long as he can remember, he has always wanted
to make a science fiction show. Before that, he just wanted to be a
He started drawing cartoons while he was growing up in Portland,
Oregon. His father, also a cartoonist, is called Homer. His mother is called
Margaret. As a teenager Groening devoured the work of Frank Zappa (he liked
the idea that no musical style seemed beyond him), Walt Disney (for
Disneyland, rather than Mickey and Minnie), Hugh Hefner (because the notion
of a Playboy mansion that was open 24 hours a day seemed so fantastical) and
PT Barnum (because he "loved the idea of owning a museum of oddities").
After graduating in philosophy and filmaking from Evergreen State
College in Olympia, Washington, Groening moved to Los Angeles and worked as
a journalist on a minor newspaper, the LA Reader. He continued drawing and
developed a cast of characters who were to become the basis for Life In
Hell, his sharp but melancholic strip starring a one-eared rabbit. The
cartoon came to the attention of Fox. In 1997, the network approached
Groening about translating the characters to television. They wanted an
animated short to break up the format of a new comedy sketch series, The
Tracey Ullman Show. Groening, however, was suspicious of what Fox might do
to his rabbit, so he knocked out some new characters for the network
instead. They were a yellow, dysfunctional family called the Simpsons.
While Life In Hell is currently syndicated to some 200 newspapers
around the world, The Simpsons has become America's longest-running sitcom.
It has amassed $500 million in merchandising, has won ten Emmys, is shown in
over 70 countries and has provoked presidential censure (from George Bush in
1992, who thought that "Americans should be more like the Waltons and less
like the Simpsons").
Futurama began as one of the "tons of ideas" Matt Groening says he
has "constantly floating around in his head". For two years, the idea just
fermented in his mind. Then, in 1997, he recruited a collaborator. David X
Cohen (the 'X' is meaningless, but there was already a David Cohen in the
Writer's Guild) is a sci-fi buff, has a degree in theoretical computer
science, and worked on Beavis And Butthead before eventually starting as a
script writer for The Simpsons in 1991.
For the next two years, the pair immersed themselves in the science
fiction of their childhood - authors like Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick,
and sci-fi movies from the forgotten (Destination Moon) to the obvious (Star
Cranky Eighties computer games like Bezerk and Centipede were dug
out for inspiration (Bezerk even supplied Bender with his battle cry - "Kill
all humans!"). Groening and Cohen also gorged themselves on vintage sci-fi
magazines (a process particularly inspirational to Groening, who says he
thinks more easily in images than in words) and had marathon sessions
watching old sci-fi TV programmes Lost In Space, Blake's 7 and Doctor Who.
"I rediscovered the British TV tradition of really low-budget sci-fi" laughs
Groening. Consequently, Futurama's world is a future far from perfect, full
of jet-powered scooters, product-branded airships, sinister but ultimateiy
rubbish mega-corporations and clunky robots. There may be spaceships, but
rush-hour traffic is no better. Mobile phones might be implanted in your
thumbs, but they still don't work properly. And the internet is still way
Groening and Cohen pitched Futurama to Fox in April 1998. "We went
in with a big meeting with all the executives and realised how overboard we
had gone in our discussions," remembers the small, bespectacled Cohen,
sitting at his desk in the Futurama production office. "We had so many
characters and story lines that we couldn't rehearse, so we just launched
into the pitch." After two hours of an elaborate and wildly enthusiastic
tour of the Futurama universe, the Fox executives ordered it on the spot.
Arguments between Groening and the network began almost immediately.
In 1987, when Groening had given Fox The Simpsons, things were very
different. The Fox network was brand new and, according to Groening, "open
to any kind of wild approach because they just wanted to get something on
the air". With Futurama, he had to endure a barrage of meetings with
executives nervous about such novel features as suicide booths (the
Stop'n'Drop, where for a mere 25 cents you have a choice of deaths "quick
and painless" or "slow and horrible") and coin-operated prostitutes.
"Executives are so nervous, complains Groening, "they feel they have mess
with it." If prompted, he will derisively read out memos from Fox picking
him up on such features as a five-eyed alien with an Italian accent who
"must not be an ethnic Italian stereotype", and a street-based crack-vending
machine which can have any voice except "black" one. The more Fox
interfered, the more Groening held out for the same conditions he'd secured
for The Simpsons: absolutely no corporate intervention at all. He won.
"There was a little headbutting along the way," he smiles.
Groening was hurt by Fox's resistance. Especially when, as Claudia
Katz, Futurama's animation director and head of the Rough Draft cartoon
production company, points out, "The Simpsons kept Fox in business in the
early years." Fox were particularly alarmed when Groening insisted on using
Rough Draft, which was set up by two former Simpsons animators and had only
ever worked on commercials. But Groening recruited them because "everyone
creative in the industry told me to give them a chance".
Rough Draft's studio is an hour's drive from Fox Plaza, out in Los
Angeles' suburbs. It's situated in a converted furniture store on the main
road in Glendale - a street so dull it frequently doubles for Middle America
in Hollywood movies. Behind the front door - which bears the legend 'No
soliciting!' - Daisy, Katz's large, pink-eyed Labrador, greets visitors
enthusiastically. (Daisy has had a cameo in Futurama - wearing a jetpack).
Past the main corridor, there are three floors of huge, open-plan offices,
divided by wooden partitions.
The animators, sitting huddled over desks or staring intently at
computers, are surprisingly young. Less surprisingly, they are mostly
hardcore sci-fi fans. One has covered his partition with Star Wars
memorabilia. Across the way, a lone goth has balanced five human skulls on
his. There are books everywhere. The person in charge of detailing
Futurama's architecture, for example, has a pile of glossy tomes on New York
buildings, while downstairs, the chief designer of aliens flicks through a
mighty natural history text on lizards.
Rough Draft take the finished script and break it down into a
storyboard of over 100 drawings. From this, their 120-strong team will
construct a basic, 1,000-frame, pencil-drawn cartoon, which is then fleshed
out and inked up as a 22-minute episode of over 30,000 frames by Rough
Draft's sister company in Korea.
Katz is adamant that their work at Rough Draft is the most
innovative being produced anywhere in the animation industry. For a start,
Rough Draft has a special camera with which they can edit and fine-tune the
final material that is sent back to them from the artists in Korea. It means
the producers can still tweak episodes till days before transmission. "This
is just unheard of in TV," says Katz in her strong Brooklyn drawl. She has
created computer-assisted ways of creating crops, zoom-ins and movement
through frames and altering perspectives. "By comparison, The Simpsons
looks really flat," she says.
It's not just technology that has come a long way since The Simpsons
began. US television has too - thanks to The Simpsons. In America, TV used
to be diffuse: there was no country-unifying soap, no one show watched by
the whole family. The Simpsons has become this show.
More importantly, The Simpsons is adult, even world-weary, and has
always been happy to poke fun at social issues. The US political system has
proved a constant target, as has every contentious issue imaginable: race,
gay rights, war, sexual harassment... For the most part, audiences aren't
offended by the satire because it's just a cartoon. Of course, since The
Simpsons began, King Of The Hill (guns, child abuse) and South Park (singing
turds, elephants fucking pigs) have upped the stakes.
While Futurama's sci-fi setting may not seem to make it the best
show for tackling contemporary issues, it's not without an agenda. "None of
the characters in Futurama really have families," Groening points out. "They
find themselves by their work, like people in their twenties and thirties in
our culture do. The Simpsons is really about kids and middle-aged grown-ups
who've sort of given up on life. Futurama is more about the onset of
adulthood. It deals with problems of work, love, romance and sex."
Indeed, Futurama's ruling principle is: don't let authority tell you
what to do. In the show, the universe is run by a conglomeration called DOOP
(Democratic Order Of Planets), while the state's motto is "You gotta do what
you gotta do" - you have to do the job the state says you are best suited
to. The most popular TV show - broadcast on Fox - is The Mass Hypnosis Hour.
Futurama posits a world caught between a hope that things will be better in
the future and the knowledge that they probably won't. "My gut instinct says
that in the future, people will still be stupid," Groening sighs.
Nevertheless, the jokes and cultural references come speeding at you
faster than ever, from the sophisticated and knowing (an asteroid speeds
towards the Earth to the strains of 'We'll Meet Again', a nod to the
balletic nuclear missile explosion scene in Stanley Kubrick's Dr
Strangelove) to the plain dumb (Bender craps a brick after being surprised
by the police).
Matt Groening settles into the plush surroundings of the
second-floor suite of Edinburgh's Balmoral Hotel and sighs contentedly.
It's three days after the table read in LA and he has been flown to Scotland
for this year's International Television Festival. It's here that he will
present Futurama to an assembled audience of eager TV industry delegates.
But, primarily, he's here to enjoy himself. Unable to stop
absorbing absolutely everything from his surroundings, he enthuses over The
League Of Gentlemen, an episode of which he caught on the plane. He loved
it, and uses a catchphrase from the show - "We didn't burn him!" - at any
At the Futurama launch, in a hall packed with independent producers,
journalists, TV bosses from channels all over Europe and a few fans,
Groening, wearing a Simpsons baseball jacket, introduces the first Futurama
episode. Despite his disappointment that the slapstick bits (Fry is squashed
by a Star Trek-style sliding door) get bigger laughs than the more
sophisticated allusions (the Pulp Fiction reference, "I'm gonna get
24th-century on your ass!"), he's clearly at ease in front of the crowd,
belying his legend as a reclusive George Lucas type. Futurama's suicide
booths prove to be a point of debate. One nine-year-old boy asks Groening
how he thought of them, which rather startles the audience. A Swedish TV
executive, meanwhile, is heard to complain they are "over the top".
Futurama, says Groening, is still in its infancy: it has yet to
tackle the bigger themes. "We'll be dealing more with future problems of
death and longevity," he promises. In the meantime, the T-shirts, fridge
magnets and talking alarm clocks are already on their way - as is, if he
gets his way, a theme park, the Groening empire's answer to Disneyworld.
"It'd be great!" he enthuses. "You'd have Simpsons island with a 6OOft
statue of Homer. They'd sell donuts and beer in his head."
Matt Groening has seen the future. And it's going to be a lot of fun.