Futurama: Bringing an Alien and a Robot to TV Life
New York Times
July 22, 1999
By James Sterngold
Los Angeles -- Matt Groening's latest animated prime-time series,
the well-received 'Futurama,' is off to a reasonably
good start. By midseason it was pulling in about 10
million viewers, and most of them were the young
men so coveted by advertisers.
A little over a year ago, Matt
Groening had a tough decision to make: Should his
robot's head be square or rounded?
That would not normally be considered a major creative
decision in television, but for someone as detail-oriented as
Groening -- he said he spent hours contemplating the
question -- it was one of several crucial choices he had to
make to help define his latest animated prime-time series,
the well-received 'Futurama."
Adult-oriented animated series have
become big, in large part because
of the success of Groening's first
show, "The Simpsons," which
began in 1990. When Groening sat
down years later to create his next
show, a sort of futuristic science
fiction sendup, he used much of
what he had learned about what
works and what does not in this
realm of television. The veteran
took his hard-won experience and
created an ensemble of bunglers
living in the year 3000, hoping that
such a show would stand out in a
crowded animation field.
"Futurama" is off to a reasonably
good start. By midseason it was pulling in about 10 million
viewers, and most of them were the young men so coveted
by advertisers. Its season ratings (it is being shown in
reruns until the fall) were well behind "The Simpsons" but
ahead of such animated shows as "King of the Hill,"
"Family Guy," "Dilbert," "South Park" and "The PJ's."
The journey from conception to animation took a few
years, with decisions looming large on issues like whether
to give the robot, Bender, antennae, how much of a slacker
to make his pal, Fry, and what kind of nose should grace
the lead female character, the strong-willed and sexy alien
Leela. In a wide-ranging interview, Groening discussed this
delicate decision-making process.
[In the drawing to the right, Leela is shown in an early-draft concept.]
"Futurama" began as a sort of dream project, Groening
said, one in which he could capitalize on his success and
build the comedy as he liked. Still, he had to get Fox
executives excited, and he said he did so with a sly
"The way I sold the show was by saying, 'This is the
Simpsons in the future,' and dollar signs danced in front of
their eyes," Groening said. "When they finally saw it, they
said, 'This isn't anything like the Simpsons.' And I said:
'Yes it is. It's new and original."'
What "Futurama" shares with "The Simpsons" is a slightly
twisted sensibility, a pointed but good-natured satirical
approach and a focus on losers. But "Futurama" is more
of an adventure series -- there is no domesticity to speak
of -- and it examines the life of a teen-ager rather than
parents and younger children.
In the same way "The Simpsons"
upends the formula of traditional
family sitcoms, "Futurama" mocks
many of the conventions of science
Life in the future has often been
depicted as militaristic or at least
heavily regimented under some sort
of strong authority. "Futurama"
presents a civilian society
dominated by commercial interests
with plenty of winners and losers.
A major ambition in assembling
"Futurama," Groening said, was to
create a sort of dream show, to get
it all right without anxieties or
"'Futurama' was an attempt to see if we could duplicate
some of the fun and have none of the headaches of 'The
Simpsons,"' Groening said. "That did not happen." For
starters, there was Bender's head. The hard-drinking and
nihilistic robot started out with a squarish one, on the
assumption that most robot heads would look that way in
the year 3000. But then, Groening said, Bender's was
rounded to underscore the fact that he is a misfit, a round
peg in a square hole.
"We initially gave him antennas where he would have ears,
but we decided it was more effective to make him more
streamlined," Groening said. "He's not streamlined as a
personality, and that's part of what makes him funny."
It is also what helps make Bender believable as a machine
who can still be a companion of sorts. He knows no guilt,
constantly feels sorry for himself and can bend metal.
Some of Bender's qualities have yet to be displayed in the
series or have not received much attention, although they
have been on the writers' minds as they determine how he
acts in various situations. As a robot with soul, he plays
the piano when he is blue, for example.
According to Groening's computer file from December
1997, Bender is also "a poor chef, proud of his being
nonlethal, useful in the kitchen because he won't burn." He
loves to cook but was built without a sense of taste.
As much as Groening brooded over the character of
Bender, the show is essentially about the trials of being a
young adult, as seen through the character of Fry, the
robot's buddy. Fry is a 20th-century pizza delivery boy
accidentally catapulted into the future after literally
stumbling into a time machine. Amazed by what he finds,
he remains, as he was in the 20th century, something of a
loser. But not too much of a loser.
In fact, Groening said, Fry has developed into a slightly
less farcical character, making a transition from hopeless
bungler to bungler with a modest glimmer of hope. He has
become an exaggerated version of a certain kind of
teen-ager -- easily distracted, stubborn, a slob, and at times
blatantly exuberant about things he loves, like bad
Bumbling through the future seemed like a nifty alternative
to Fry's old life. Back home he was a dropout from Coney
Island Junior College, whose cheer at sporting events was,
"We figured we needed a character the audience could
identify with," said Groening, explaining that young
viewers might recognize a little of themselves in the
willfulness of the remodeled Fry. Nevertheless, Fry just
does not have it in him to actually get ahead, a
characteristic Groening enjoys poking fun at, and a
contrast to the superheroes of other shows.
Then there is Leela, who takes a snickering, condescending
attitude toward her hapless friends. Groening said that
although her most distinguishing feature was always a
single large eye, she had evolved considerably, thanks
partly to lessons gleaned from "The Simpsons." A
flashback in one episode about how Homer met his wife,
Marge, in high school helped his creative team understand
that animated woman characters could be sexy, he said.
Curvaceous Leela is a woman of the future, assertive,
decisive and battle ready. Being an alien, she also has that
one giant eye, which makes her self-conscious about being
a freak of sorts, by human standards.
Calling up a computer file, Groening read off some
qualities he had jotted down for Leela: "strong-willed,
opinionated, gentle (when not fighting), gives orders,
unlucky in love, loves weapons, loves animals."
The problem, he said, was that after his team realized that
an animated woman could be sexy, they kept making her a
little too racy.
"We had to pull back on Leela," Groening said. "The
tendency among the animators was to draw this bizarrely
exaggerated female form, if you know what I mean."
Once she was toned down, one body part, in addition to
her eye, remained somewhat larger than usual: her nose.
That Groening decided to keep, just for fun. "Probably the
biggest argument about Leela was the size of the nose," he
said. "Some of the animators said it was grotesque."
As with Bender, the animators gave Leela some
characteristics that have yet to be examined but inform her
personality in the minds of the writers. In fact, a big
surprise lies in store for Leela. "Since this is an epic space
opera, Leela has a dark secret," Groening said. "Suffice it
to say, things are not what they seem. That's all I can say."
In "Futurama" her chances of escaping her past are
minimal. One conceit of the show is that in contrast to the
popular belief in self-help and man's ability to change, what
happens in Groening's future world is predetermined, or
nearly so. He intends that gloomy note to be the foil
against which the characters react.
"We're satirizing everything you're told these days about
reinventing yourself," said Groening. In "Futurama," he
said, "my answer to the question of whether you can
reinvent yourself or whether you're doomed by some
predetermined plan is you're doomed."
But over time, this notion, too, has become more
malleable, so that the characters now have some wiggle
room to try to better their lives. "My optimistic liberal point
of view is you should do what you really want to do and
not accept the fate you're handed," Groening said.
Indeed, he has come to realize that in the world of
animation, change -- in particular, rapid change -- is
admirable. Bender, for example, can drop whatever he is
doing in an instant.
"There are certain things you find work comedically in
these shows," he said. "A big thing is, impulsiveness is
very funny in animation. Leaping before looking or
instantly changing directions when something interesting
suddenly comes along. So I don't always know what they
will land on when they leap. That's part of the way things