NEW YORK — Much like its hapless protagonist, "Futurama" is a 20th-century creation with a new lease on life.
After getting canceled three separate times in the past 20 years, "Futurama" has finally found a new home on Hulu. And, unlike a lot of "20 years later" revivals, the show's new season has been pretty good so far. Part of the reason why is because its cast and crew have been incredibly consistent ever since the program debuted in 1999. Space.com had a chance to speak with some of those crewmembers, and learn how the show has kept its signature mix of heart and smarts for more than two decades.
On Thursday (Oct. 12), Space.com attended a Hulu press roundtable at New York Comic Con 2023 along with a handful of other outlets. There, we spoke with supervising director Peter Avanzino, director Crystal Chesney-Thompson, executive producer Claudia Katz, head writer David X. Cohen, producer Lee Supercinski, and director Edmund Fong. (Due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, the voice cast wasn't able to participate this time around.)
An emotional core
For those who aren't familiar with "Futurama," the show tells the story of Philip J. Fry, a 20th-century delivery boy who gets cryogenically frozen until the year 3000 CE. From there, he teams up with a group of oddballs at the Planet Express company, where he becomes … a delivery boy (but in the future this time). Over the years, the show has explored Fry's relationships with the rest of the crew, including the feisty one-eyed mutant Turanga Leela, the belligerent robot Bender and the klutzy scientist Amy Wong.
Those relationships, Katz argued, are what has kept the show going strong since 1999.
"These stories have emotional cores," she said, citing an example from the current season in which Bender leaves Planet Express to go work at the evil Momazon corporation. While the episode is a pointed satire of Amazon's unrestrained growth in the real world, the focus of the story is about Bender feeling like a third wheel in Fry and Leela's budding romantic relationship. "Our characters don't really age, but some of our characters have evolved … Bender is always feeling pushed aside."
Hulu's relaxed restrictions on runtime have also helped the show further develop its characters, argued Avanzino.
"You can keep in a little more dialogue, hold on a scene, let music play," he said. "Two extra minutes is a huge amount of time." Fans who have seen the current season will probably remember Amy's heartfelt thoughts on motherhood toward the end of the episode. Amy's voice actress, Lauren Tom, included a little sniffle in one of her lines — which Avanzino claimed sold the whole scene, but a traditional network might have wanted to cut for time.
(On a side note, the crew acknowledged that Amy's teeny-tiny cell phone from the early seasons was one prediction they got wrong. "That was way off the mark," said Cohen. "But it'll come back again.")
The crew seemed particularly excited to explore Fry and Leela's relationship in the upcoming second half of the season, although they discussed a few other fan favorites as well.
"I'm happy to see Bender and Zoidberg together," said Chesney-Thompson. "More bro time!"
"You've got Zapp [Brannigan], who for better or worse — for comedy's sake — learns very hard-earned lessons," Katz added. She then clarified: "They are very short-lived."
The 'sci' in sci-fi
Granted, "Futurama" isn't a drama, and the show works best when the character relationships are a springboard for sci-fi comedy. To that end, the show has taken a lot of inspiration from other sci-fi properties, particularly "Star Trek."
During "Futurama's" initial run, an episode called "Where No Fan Has Gone Before" reunited most of the cast from "Star Trek: The Original Series," and delighted fans of both shows. Avanzino claimed that he'd love to do another "Star Trek" episode, but there isn't one in the cards at present. However, "Star Trek" fans should still keep an eye out for the second half of the current season.
"We have an episode — no 'Star Trek' guest stars, but very 'Star Trek'-inspired — coming up next year, written by our 'Star Trek'-iest writer, David Goodman," he said.
As for how the show blends sci-fi and humor, part of the process is choosing the right topics. According to Cohen, "We steered clear of politics this time. It didn't seem fun at the moment. No one's enjoying it."
"The vaccine episode ['Rage Against the Vaccine'] that Edmund directed was the closest we got," Katz added, calling the episode "really funny." In it, a highly contagious virus makes the infected feel angry and irrational, and the cure involves a treatment that the average person can't understand.
"It comments on science more than politics, mostly," Cohen said, referring to both the episode and the show as a whole.
The "Futurama" crew also has to prioritize story concerns over scientific concepts, even when that concept might be fascinating.
"Sometimes you have scientific concepts that you don't have the story for yet," said Avanzino.
"We have to wait till scientists discover them," Cohen added.
Breaking the rules
Generally speaking, the crew seems happy with Hulu's current season, as well as most of the material from previous seasons. However, they allowed that not every past episode was a hit — particularly one in which Leela and Zapp get stranded on an alien planet. There, Zapp maintains that they must survive and repopulate the human race together — which turns out to be a complete fabrication on his part.
"That one didn't age well, and wasn't that good to begin with," said Cohen. "We failed to avoid it."
On the other hand, taking big swings on unconventional subject matter has occasionally paid off for the show, too. When Cohen was first developing the show with "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, the two had a rule that they wouldn't allow time travel.
"It always creates a logical mess," Cohen explained. "We don't want to fall into that trap. Then we did that one with Roswell ['Roswell That Ends Well'] and won the Emmy award.
"In general, the lesson it taught was that hard and fast rules were not useful. If we have a good idea that has anything to do with sci-fi, that should be open to us to do our version of that idea. Loosen up a little!"
We'll see some of those ideas when Hulu airs the next 10 episodes of "Futurama's" current season in 2024. We don't know whether the show will get another season after that — but if history is any indication, it'll come back, one way or another.