SFX Issue 48

February 1999

Interview:

Sci-Diddly-Fi

Forget The Jetsons (wouldn’t you love to?). The first decent animated SF comedy show is here, and it comes from the mind behind The Simpsons – Matt Groening.

“You know that thing at the end of Planet Of The Apes with the Statue Of Liberty sticking out of the sand? Well, that was done as a science fiction magazine cover about 15 times. And I loved that. And I want to do that sort of thing on a TV show. All these great visuals. I thought it would be really neat to have fun with some of the conventions of science fiction in a Simpsons -style way. And that’s it.”

Matt Groening could live off the profits of The Simpsons for life. Quite a few lifetimes, in fact. Bart, Homer and crew are now 11 years old, and still show no signs of running out of steam. So now it seems the creator of the most dysfunctional family in Springfield is looking to venture onto fresh ground – with a new show planted firmly in the SF arena: Futurama .

“This is the TV series that comes from growing up reading SF,” reckons the cartoonist. “Even before I read science fiction, my older brother Mark had a huge collection of science fiction books and magazines. I loved those covers.

“The three main characters are Fry, a guy from our time who has a tragic mishap on New Year’s Eve 1999. He gets frozen and ends up waking up 1,000 years in the future on New Year’s Eve 2999. He meets up with this alien woman named Leela, who only has one eye. She wears her hair down a little to sort of disguise the fact. And I thought it would be really cool if we could design this sexy woman that had one eye.

“And then there’s Bender, the stand-out character right now on this show. He’s our robotic Homer Simpson. He’s just corrupt – lovably corrupt à la Homer. He loves his vices. I think he’s the first robot in science fiction who shoplifts. He’s got a little door in his abdomen that he’s able to put things in. And also take out whatever props we need, à la Bugs Bunny.”

Voices for these three main characters have recently been confirmed, with Bill ( Ren And Stimpy ) West as Fry, Joe ( Chicago Hope ) DiMaggio as Bender and Katey Sagal as Leela. At one point, the late Phil Hartman, a Simpsons mainstay, was going to have a part in the show – poignantly enough, one which had been especially written for him.

Groening, who admits that probably all the Simpsons characters Hartman played will be dropped rather than recast, reveals, “He came in a couple of weeks before his death to audition. And I said, ‘You don’t have to come in, you know. You’ve got the part. We wrote the character for you.’ But he came in. That was typical of Phil. He did his other characters. He did Caveman Lawyer from Saturday Night Live . He talked about what a great time he was having in life. He talked about doing the voice of Captain Blasto on this video game Blasto . He did it for his kids. And he’s just a good guy. Just really appreciated being there. We were shocked and dismayed – as everybody was – that he died.”

Like The Simpsons , Futurama will be an ensemble piece. “With The Simpsons it’s just Springfield. On Futurama , it’s the same thing, except we’re doing the whole universe. So it requires a little bit more planning. And that’s why it took three years to put together.”

While Groening reveals that The Simpsons is still being broadcast in Futurama ’s future, it’s not going to be the new project’s Itchy And Scratchy . “The number one show is The Mass Hypnosis Hour .”

Fox certainly have high hopes for the series. 13 episodes have been commissioned already and the first episode is being broadcast on Superbowl night, the day on which more American stay at home in front of the gogglebox than any other. In addition, scribes from American’s number one sitcom of the past few years, Seinfeld, will be joining forces with the writers from The Simpsons gagtank. Despite such good omens, there have been rumbles of dissent on the Net, mainly because Futurama ’s visual style is so close to its predecessor’s.

“Well,” jokes Groening, “I did experiment with drawing five fingers instead of four.” But he remains unrepentant. “You’ll see the characters have really big eyeballs and the overbites, as in The Simpsons. However, it’s not a spin-off. Their skin isn’t yellow. But this is, really, the tragedy of my limited drawing skills. I’ve been drawing this way since I was a kid. If you read my Life In Hell comic strip they all look the same too.”

Leonard Nimoy has already been signed up to guest-star in an episode, and while Groening is staying quiet about his exact involvement, he does admit that part of the fun of Futurama will be poking fun at SF clichés.

“Well, most TV science fiction is about people travelling through outer space and looking out of a porthole, right? And there’s a lot of starfields around. Because they can’t afford to go to Earth and show the sets. On our show, we’re able to actually go to Earth and deal with some of the problems of the brute and some of the problems that we deal with right now. I love Star Wars and Star Trek and all the variations on them. However, I wanted to do a TV show in which the problems of the universe are not solved by militarism guided by New Age spirituality. I just thought, ‘Let’s try something different.’ It’s not a knock on the optimism of those shows. I just have a slightly more subversive take, I think.”

But some conventions set up in The Simpsons will be staying.

“We’ve got such a huge cast of characters in that show that we can move around. And over the last few seasons we’ve explored some of the secondary characters’ personal lives a bit more. I always thought that something most TV shows didn’t do – and don’t do – is reward you for paying attention. But on The Simpsons , if you really pay attention, there’s stuff hidden in the backgrounds.

“And we have even what we call freeze-frame gags which you can’t get unless you tape the show, go back, and freeze-frame it. And I love that. I love the idea that we put in jokes that kids don’t get. And that later, when they grow up, read a few books, go to college and watch the show again, they can get the show on a completely different level. We’re doing exactly the same thing on Futurama .”