|David X. Cohen boards the Planet Express to find meaning in Futurama
By Kathie Huddleston
For David X. Cohen, Futurama
has never been better—and the best stories are sitting on the shelves just waiting their turn to air. The executive producer is excited by what has come to be a meaningful endeavor for him, even as he ponders his future when his contract ends this year. Futurama
airs on Sundays at 7 p.m.
Cohen explored his passion for science and his love for parody at Harvard University, getting a bachelor's degree in physics and working on the Harvard Lampoon.
He continued his educational studies at UC Berkeley and got a master's degree in computer science.
After school, Cohen wrote for Beavis and Butt-Head
before moving on to write for The Simpsons.
He went on to become the show's executive producer and won two Emmy Awards for his work on the series.
Cohen chatted with Science Fiction Weekly
about sports, being a half-god of the Futurama
universe and the prospect of leaving the show.Tell us what we can look forward to on Futurama this year.Cohen:
This upcoming season of Futurama
is basically a treasure trove of Futurama
gems waiting, because we've been bumped for football so many times that a lot of great episodes have been just waiting eagerly on the shelf to jump out and go on television. We have just a huge number of what I think are our best episodes ready right now.
Our premiere is one of my favorite episodes we've ever done. It's called "Roswell That Ends Well," and it's our first time-travel episode. It's our first backwards time-travel episode, let me put it that way. There's a huge disaster at the beginning of the show, which sends our heroic crew hurtling backwards in time and they crash-land in what turns out to be 1947 Roswell, New Mexico. It's a very busy episode. A lot of stuff going on. We were really tempted to try and write a movie out of it, cause it's just such a blast. A lot of Futurama
is the function of stealing our favorite ideas from science fiction through the ages. And this is such a rich mine of science-fiction ideas. The more people are familiar with our starting point, the more crazy we can go with it without losing them. This is just one of those things that the public knows. I think it's one of our most fun episodes so far.
And they finally have scheduled our "X-Mas" special from last year. This is our long-lost episode. Christmas is actually known as X-Mas in the future. Due to overuse of that contraction, people have forgotten the original name. This episode was supposed to be on a year ago and the people at the Fox network decided that it was not appropriate for broadcast at 7 p.m. They probably replaced us with some kind "Island of Naked People" or something like that [laughs]. So we've been waiting a year, and finally they've [scheduled it] to show at a later time slot. So the current schedule claims, and I'll believe it when I see it, we're actually on their schedule for Dec. 23 in the X-Files
We have a one-hour "X-Mas" block. They're going to start with our original Christmas episode, which guest stars John Goodman and Conan O'Brien, and introduces our character of evil-robot Santa Claus. And then at 8:30 will be our long-lost episode, and your readers can judge for themselves whether it was too mature for 7 p.m. Coolio is the guest star in the new episode, and he plays Kwanzaabot. He co-exists along with the other one. It's a multicultural society. Those will also be our first couple of new shows of the year. And you've got some other fun things coming up too. Cohen:
Yes. Our Valentine's episode guest stars Sigourney Weaver, and she is a popular favorite around here. She is playing the voice of the Planet Express
ship. It's a pretty abstract role she's taken on. The basic idea is they install a new personality in the ship, which has a female voice. Bender immediately falls in love with it and has a whirlwind romance with the spaceship itself. Our animators were extremely troubled by this at first because they thought they would have trouble showing a lot of emotion between two characters who were about 1,000 times different from each other in size. She was great. She was a very good sport about it and gave a moving performance as a giant spaceship [laughs]. It's a moving epic.
A likely candidate for our season finale is our Star Trek
episode. This is probably the one we were the most excited about. It was the most difficult episode, but also I think we'll have the biggest reward now that it's coming together. This is one where we have five of the original cast members, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei and Walter Koenig. And possibly a cameo from some new Star Trek
people. But those aren't recorded yet, so we'll have to let that be a mystery for now.
The basic premise, and I don't want to give too much away, but Star Trek
has been banned because the followers have become too powerful and threatened the world government. So Fry sets to right things because he's such a big Star Trek
fan and ends up having an adventure with all of the people I just named, whose heads are, of course, preserved in the future. And they even get bodies for part of the episode. A nice turn of events. and wouldn't you know it, they start to look a little like they used to look back in the late '60s [laughs]. It was really pretty hard, if you might imagine, to assemble all of those people. But after much work we pulled it off.
We actually had Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner in the studio at the same time, which was pretty entertaining for us, because a lot of the times they just were killing time chatting between takes. Which for them was just a casual conversation, but for all of us it was like, a $1,000 a seat show [laughs]. Very, very exciting.
Oh, and we're having Al Gore back on the show. Now I have no idea when this will be on, probably March, April, somewhere in that area, he will be hosting the Global Warming Conference of the Earth 3003 when global warming takes a sudden turn for the worse. It's about the year 3002 roughly, and so they have to take action, of course, and they rescue our periodic guest star, Al Gore [laughs]. Well, you know, he doesn't have another job right now. Cohen:
That's true. We've offered him repeatedly to be a regular on the show. He definitely hasn't given us a firm no. Why does the season start so late for Futurama? Cohen:
Well, it's the usual reason. Fox—not only do they have football, but they also have baseball, which has two rounds of playoffs and the World Series. It's just very hard in our lousy timeslot on Sundays to get a week when there's not either football games or fabulous exciting World Series games going [laughs]. So in Futurama, are you going to ban sports at some point? Cohen:
It's tempting [laughs]. Yeah, just get out our frustrations on the air. We actually got a little revenge on baseball. We've turned it into the sport called Blernsball in the future. The idea was that people got so bored of baseball that they finally just had to liven it up. We had one episode about that a long time ago. We actually have one on the shelf guest starring Hank Aaron and Bob Uecker. That one's called "A Leela of Her Own," and Leela becomes the first woman major-league Blernsball player. She ends up training with Hank Aaron. He actually plays his own head in a jar and his full-bodied descendant, who is the worst Blernsball player of all time. It will be shown sooner or later. What's your favorite character on the show?
The easy answer is Bender, and that's probably true. Because it's just too much fun to write for a character who has no regrets, no shame. He does whatever he wants, whenever he wants. At any moment, you can just say "What's Bender doing?" and it's going to be something fun. It's very liberating. Matt Groening was saying the day we were watching that Valentine's Day episode, "You know, it is so much fun to watch a character who is only out for themselves." [Laughs.] That kind of sums it up. You don't have to worry about being PC. So that's fun.
But a few people are creeping in on the show. I have to admit I'm liking Dr. Zoidberg more and more. The more pathetic he gets, [the more] I like him. He's up there. It's the usual case where the side characters start to be more and more fun to write because they just can butt in and say their joke and butt out again. They don't have to deliver information or anything like that.
There's some good news about the show, The Annie Awards. We won two of the three things we were nominated for this year, which was Best Writing in a Prime-Time Cartoon. We actually beat out The Simpsons
and King of the Hill
. That was for an episode where Fry learns about his brother, one of our more emotional episodes, written by Ron Weiner. And we also won Best Male Voice Actor for John Di Maggio as Bender. And The Simpsons
took the final category of Best Animated Show, but they've won that category something like 10 years in a row. However many years the awards have existed. Of all the episodes you've done so far, what's your favorite? Cohen:
Tough question. It always keeps changing because I get bored with the old ones. But our series premiere is definitely right up there for this year. I have one old one I can add, too. It is one of the moments when I really thought the show was going to work, after all. And I saw the episode in the rough animatic stage, and I said, "Yeah, I like this show." It's called "Why Must I Be a Crustacean in Love." It's the one where Dr. Zoidberg has to go back to his home planet to mate. It sort of brought together a somewhat emotional story with all these references to Star Trek
and just a lot unbelievably crazy sci-fi jokes and people's arms falling off [laughs]. Something you could never really do in a live-action show. And that's the moment when I knew, "Yeah, we're actually doing something that you would not see elsewhere on TV." That was in the second season of the show, but I realized that we were doing something worthwhile. As a writer, when you're developing a story for Futurama, what are your main considerations and worries?
The biggest consideration is that we actually do still have to have an emotion story. And I don't necessarily mean it's a tearjerker, but I mean the characters must have understandable human motivations for doing the things they do in the episode and that there's a real conflict of some kind either between two characters or between one character and their circumstances, the same as you'd expect in any sort of drama. We really work on that. We work on the futuristic details of the show.
One of the basic operating premises, which is a credo of Matt Groening, is that you can put the characters in any sort of crazy, bizarre [situation] you can dream up, but they have to react in a way which people can sympathize with, even if we're talking about robots and lobsters. They still count as people. If something really crazy is going on they have to react like it's crazy. And if it's scary, they have to be scared. And if they're in love, they have to be in love. That's one of the things we're most careful with, is to try to get people wrapped up in a story which they actually care about. And once we have that, we start to [add] on the futuristic sci-fi stuff.
I think what we found as we went along is that the comedy in a show like this plays much better if there really is a good dramatic science-fiction story underlying. Science fiction is such that the visuals and all are so amazing that you actually have to play the drum kind of seriously underneath the comedy, or it starts to just seem goofy and stupid if you don't take yourself a little bit seriously. Trying to get a story that would work, even without the jokes. What do you love most about working on this series? Cohen:
I actually feel very attached to all of the characters right now. It's kind of like I know the people and I, myself, have become very curious about what's going to become of them. Are Fry and Leela going to get together? Is Bender going to settle down? I just want to know what's going to happen. And then realizing you can make that up makes you feel very powerful and very godlike. I feel like I'm god of this universe, or at least one of the half-gods. So that's a pretty good feeling. If you were developing Futurama today, would you have done anything differently? Cohen:
I'm sure, yeah, definitely. It may not be that much different from what people saw on the air, but it would have made my life a lot better. There were a lot of things we had to arrive at by trial and error. So let me give you an example.
One was, what should a robot sound like? We probably brought in 100 people or more to audition for Bender, cause we just didn't know what he should sound like. For awhile we had everyone talking like the traditional "I am a robot" in a monotone, and it seemed like we would get tired of that after a while. And then we got all these people with all these deep voices and squeaky voices. You know, we just kept changing. And then John Di Maggio came in and he auditioned for the Professor with this kind of drunken, weird voice. Then someone said, why don't we try that for Bender. And we did and that just fits his personality because we already knew he was going to have all these vices. That was a moment [we decided], you know, he doesn't have to sound like a robot. He could just sound like some drunken guy and be a robot. Almost everything was like that.
We spent months sweating it out, and we would maybe be a little more open to trying radical unexpected things like that. And I would have gotten a lot more sleep. I probably would have worried a little bit less. In general, we were extremely worried whether everything in the show made perfect logical sense and there was just never any way to do that. And the more it's gone on, the more we've just relaxed. If a joke takes us away for one second, there's a story underneath it and the people aren't going to get lost. They'll forgive us if in this episode gravity can be reversed and in the next episode it can't. We had to give up on 100% continuity. What has surprised you most about Futurama up to this point? Cohen:
At the beginning it was just how hard it is to get an animated show off the ground. Much harder than I expected, because I had worked on The Simpsons
for the middle seasons, season five to season ten, roughly. It was a pretty well-oiled machine by the time I started there. And everyone knew what to do and we worked very hard, but we weren't literally collapsing from exhaustion at the end of each day. Starting on Futurama
, it suddenly made me realize how hard it is to get that machine up and running. Just to put together a staff of writers who were really talented and get the animation company going and make sure you have full confidence in them. We did well with Rough Draft Studios. That was one the best early moves we made. That turned out to be great.
But it's all the little things you don't think about. You need a really good composer because we actually use an orchestra. There's a lot of music in the show. Sound effects, and the editing. On top of that you're making up a whole universe in the case of Futurama
where you don't even exactly know what are the laws of physics literally and what are the laws of society. You know, do robots date humans? And there are a billion questions like that. So it was just a massive amount of work. We really all were literally about to collapse by the middle of that first season. I'm quite proud of what we've accomplished.
We were talking about this the other day. I believe there have been 10 network prime-time animated shows that have premiered and been canceled since Futurama
came on the air. So it's a testament to how incredibly difficult it is to get one of these shows up and running. It looks easy when you see the final product because it moves along quickly and you get the feeling because the show's so fast-paced they must really just sit around throwing out jokes and whipping out drawings. It's not like that. It's a very long and difficult process to bring it to the stage where [it's completed]. It's a monumental task to get one of these shows on the air. We're now just getting to the stage where everything is in place and it's sort of a normal. in terms of TV writing, a normal job. We still work long hours, but we're not going home and [passing out]. What is the process of getting an episode on the air? Cohen:
It usually starts with me and a couple of the writers going out for lunch on the weekend, and we talk about some ideas for episodes, trying to figure out what our next one is going to be. Usually after one or two such lunches, we come up with rough storyline. Then we'll work that out with some more writers and really play out the entire story in pretty good detail. Not with all the jokes necessarily, but just what's going to happen. Then somebody will actually go out and write the script based on that, which is the person who gets the credit "Written By." Of course, they have put a lot of work into the script, but at the same time it is really a big group effort and there's a lot of all of the writers in every episode. The person who is credited as the writer usually gets too much credit or blame. Whatever people think it deserves. Really we're working quite tightly as a group.
Then we'll all get together and we'll go through the script in painstaking detail and rewrite it for at least a week with a group between five and 10 writers. That's really the bulk of the writers' job on these shows, which is not really to write, but to rewrite. Almost all the time you're looking at a script and trying to make it better. We're just combing over it and over it and over it and finally we get it into a shape we like, and we have a table reading with the actors where the whole cast actually comes in. We sit around a giant table and they read the entire script like a play. We listen to it and try and decide if things are actually going to work the way we'd hope they were going to work when we were writing it. And then we go back and rewrite a little more.
Then we record the voices for the whole show. It goes out of the hands of the writers at that point and we can breath a sigh of relief. We shuffle the audiotape of the entire show and hand it off to the animators at Rough Draft Studio, which is in Glendale. Then they set to work for several months. It's such a glamorous process [laughs]. It's really interesting because everyone really is completely dependent on other people to do their job well. We know very well we cannot draw the characters. And I'd like to think that they cannot write the script at least as well as us. And none of us could compose music. You're very reliant on other people to do their job completely and they do amazing things. How long does it take from beginning to end for an episode? Cohen:
Between the initial idea for the script and when we have the script ready, it's usually close to two months. And then for the animators, they spend about two to three months with it here in the United States where they end up with this thing called the animatic, which is a pencil version of the entire show. It doesn't have all the drawings in it. It just has the key positions of the characters in each scene. It will move very carefully, maybe about one picture per second, or something like that. It's all just literally drawn in pencil on white paper. And we watch the whole show and we have a lot of feedback between the writers and the animators at that point. Then we make a few changes and we send it off to Korea to the overseas branch of Rough Draft Korea. And that's where they do all they do all the in-between drawings and also color the entire show. That's all done digitally, which is different from The Simpsons
, which still uses real paint and cells. That's just because the computer technology was too expensive at the time they started out. They have this big machine in place there and they don't want to mess with success, so they do it the old-fashioned way.
It ends up not really looking that different, obviously. But one nice thing about the digital stuff is we can make a lot of changes at the last minute that can't be made with real paint, so if we want that spaceship to be red instead of purple, they can just click a few buttons. To paint in the first place is very difficult and takes somewhere around the same amount of time it takes in painting by hand, believe it or not. But to make changes after the fact, it is much, much easier. And I even left out a couple stages. There are storyboards before the animatic stage, that the animators draw up and that's like a comic book of the whole show basically. So that's the first stage of the animation. They actually got an Emmy Award for that this year, specifically recognizing one of the animators named Rodney Clouden. We got one last year for color direction. This animation company is really brilliant and deserves the awards that they are collecting. So from beginning to end, how long? Cohen:
Usually, it'd probably add up to eight months. And then we actually have to do a lot of editing and putting in the music and sound effects, which is going to take at least another month after that. So nine months is sort of a minimum to get it on the air. So you're starting on next season already.
We're done with next season already [laughs]. The episodes that will air by May are long gone, and we have quite a few beyond that. At this point because we've been knocked out so many times for sports, we're working more than a year in advance. You won't see a lot of breaking headlines. Usually we'll make changes at the last second and we'll have the actor record a new line just before it goes on the air. Just to be timely. And our editor will literally chop up the mouths of the characters and rearrange them to match the lip-synch of a new line, which is another huge advantage of doing stuff digitally. It's really cool. I just love watching them do the editing. Your job as an executive producer is quite different than your job as a writer. Do you ever find that those two roles are at odds with each other?
Well, I still consider myself the head writer for the show. But you are correct that I don't get to write many of the scripts anymore. That is a little bit of a frustration for me because I have so many production duties to attend to. Yeah, it's the usual case where if you have to manage something you don't get to do all of the things you really enjoy. At the same time I get to do some of the things I do really enjoy that the other writers don't get to do. One thing is all this digital editing stuff. Just as a computer guy, I just love working with that equipment and working with our editors. It's fantastic. It's sort of a game to me. You know, can we ram the show into 22 minutes without cutting my favorite things and make each joke work as well as it can. So it's not writing, per se, but there are very interesting things you get to do that the writers don't get to do. So there are pluses and minuses. The biggest minus is the hours. I try to be in there for as much of the writing as possible and do a lot of this other stuff late at night and weekends. It's draining, but very satisfying.
And you are the boss. Cohen:
That's right. You get the final say. You get an element of revenge, because all the scripts you wrote when you were not the boss, you end up having these [parts] which are your personal favorites but which the boss doesn't like that much. So they end up remaining forever on your computer in your private draft of the show that no one else ever sees. In this case, my favorite joke always gets on the air [laughs]. Why leave The Simpsons to do Futurama?Cohen:
It was a gamble, definitely. Working at The Simpsons
was a pretty cushy job because you just pretty much know it was going to get renewed every year. If you can just kind of stay out of trouble, you could have a pretty good long-term job. Which is very rare in the television industry. But at the same time, once in a while you have one of these opportunities where you go, "You know what? I'm not going to get this twice." For me, someone who always loved science and science fiction and The Simpsons
, the idea that a combination of all of those things would come along was too much to resist. You can't not answer that knock at the door. Are you surprised to find yourself a television producer?Cohen:
Now I'm not, but if you had asked me that question when I in college I think I would have been surprised. Writing was my hobby my whole life. Even when I was a little kid I was always drawing cartoons and writing stories and stuff. And forcing my sister to buy them for a penny. She didn't want to, but she was younger so I made her buy them. I would write my high school newspaper humor column and stuff like that. But I never thought of it as a job until years down the line. So I definitely would have been surprised then. But now I've done this longer than I've studied worthwhile things [laughs].So what's in the future for David X. Cohen?Cohen:
I'm just at the stage now where I have to address that question. I have less than one year left on my contract with Fox. I'm forced to start thinking about can I bear to move along and maybe leave Futurama
in other very capable hands. And that's a likely scenario. Nothing's decided yet, but there's a good chance I'll fall back a little bit and spend half my time working on something else. But if that happens it will be the subject of your next article (laughs).