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Fox's far-out Futurama looks like a hit
Denver Rocky Mountain News
March 25, 1999
Dusty Saunders

Matt Groening has been working on Futurama, his animated comedy series about life on Earth in 1,000 years, for three years.

"Sometimes it seems we've been working on this for a thousand years," the noted animator says.

"The planning, the animation ... all of that. It's a lot of hard work ... six months to make a single episode."

Fans of Groening -- and The Simpsons -- should think the three years have been well-spent.

Fox's Futurama (premiering at 7:30 p.m. Sunday on KDVR-Channel 31) is a marvelous blast into a funky future, full of The Simpsons' sass but with a riotous comedic edge all its own.

Futurama is Star Trek gone berserk. (Even Leonard Nimoy gets into the act, as one of the "jarheads." More about that later).

Futurama is set in the year 3000 in New New York City, which has been built atop the ruins of the original New York. Visitors fly in via John F. Kennedy Jr. Airport. This is a frenetic society, equipped with suicide telephone booths, where for a quarter, you can get help on how to end your life. It's automated, of course.

Need religion? There's the Church of Robotology.

Entering this futuristic environment is Fry, a human earthling who was accidentally frozen on Dec. 31, 1999 and wakes up 1,000 years later. Initially, Fry is scared and dumbfounded by his new environment. But since he was dissatisfied with his life (as a pizza delivery person) he's ready to take on a new experience.

He meets Leela, a cyclops space-alien woman who eventually becomes his pal; and Bender, a hopelessly neurotic assembly-line robot. This trio binds together for what looks to be a wacky space adventure.

Fans of The Simpsons will note the characters have the same bulging eyes (and no chin) as Bart and Homer and other residents of Springfield. ("That's the only way I can draw," Groening says.)

One thing has changed: The characters' skin is white, not yellow. "Evolution," says Groening in a matter-of-fact style.

Jarheads? They're a gimmick designed by Groening and executive producer David X. Cohen to provide celebrity cameos. Jokes Cohen: "Basically, any celebrity who wants to do Futurama is more than welcome on the show. But they have to agree to put their disembodied heads into a preservation jar full of Oil of Olay, which keeps them young in the future."

The basis for Futurama stems from Groening's love of science fiction.

"I grew up reading it so I wanted to do a TV show that both honored and satirized some of the things about science fiction," Groening told TV critics recently. "Several years ago I talked with David (Cohen), who was working with me on The Simpsons, about doing a series with a futuristic format.

"So we both started re-reading the classic stuff we loved as youngsters." Groening admits selling Fox on Futurama was easier than getting The Simpsons on the schedule.

"I think the success of The Simpsons caught everyone, including Fox, by surprise," Groening says.

"Initially the project was short cartoons on the Tracey Ullman Show -- filler, if you will. Also the network showed clips of The Simpsons to studio audiences watching Tracey's show.

"The network got such good response it realized it had something special."

Groening smiled while adding: "In the second round of negotiations (about Futurama) there was a lot more drooling and begging on Fox's part."

As in The Simpsons, voices will be an integral part of Futurama. Actors Billy West and John DiMaggio are Fry and Bender, respectively. Katey Sagal, one of Fox's first stars (Married ... With Children), is Leela.

If Futurama is an audience hit (and it should be), its success will not impact on the future of The Simpsons.

When asked about Bart and Homer and Springfield, Groening said: "In our scenario, The Simpsons is still on in the year 3000. But the fans on the Internet are complaining that the last 500 years aren't as good as the first 500 years."

Futurama will follow The Simpsons in the Fox lineup Sunday and April 4 before moving to its regular 7:30 p.m. Tuesday time period on April 6.

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