David X. Cohen: Futurama’s Head (In a Jar)

January 29th, 2002 | Category: Interviews

David X. CohenMy friend and colleague Tom Georgoulias let me run this interview in my book, Follow for Now.

David X. Cohen is the executive producer and head writer of Futurama, my favorite TV show. In case you haven’t watched the show, it’s about a pizza delivery boy named Fry who is accidentally frozen in a cryogenics lab and revived 1,000 years in the future. Instead of getting a chance to reinvent his life, Fry’s career implant chip predetermines that he, again, is destined to be a delivery boy. After a futile attempt to resist his future, Fry joins the Planet Express delivery company and works alongside several other misfit characters in similar circumstances.

David, whose middle name does not begin with an X, and his crack team of high-tech comedians and CG wizards are responsible for this super-smart, animated comedy that Fox works so hard to keep you from seeing. Even with a difficult 7 PM EST Sunday time slot and constantly shifting air dates for new episodes, those folks who make the effort to watch or tape the show are always treated to a hilarious excursion into the year 3000. Sassy comments from Bender, the surly robot who drinks, steals, and smokes; guest appearances by Gary Gygax and Deep Blue; and a bar where designated device drivers drink for free — three tiny bits of the intricate Futurama universe and comedic gold for hackers and geeks alike. In fact, there are so many inside jokes hidden in the background scenery that you often have to watch portions of an episode in slow motion to catch them all. No doubt about it, devotion to the show is always rewarded.

Tom Georgoulias: You have degrees in both computer science and physics, yet you are the executive producer of a satirical, science-fiction cartoon. How did this happen?

David X. Cohen: Ah, the same question my parents asked in reference to certain piles of tuition money that went out the window.

I always planned to be a scientist. Both of my parents are biologists and my favorite subjects in school were math and physics. (Go math team!) At the same time, I liked to draw cartoons (which I would force my sister to buy for a penny — the beginning of my professional writing career), and I wrote the humor column for my high school newspaper, and later was a writer for the Harvard Lampoon Magazine. At some point, I had a sudden panic when I realized that there was the option of trying to write professionally, and that I had to make a choice. But I didn’t — instead I took a year off and worked at the Harvard Robotics Laboratory.

Finally, I decided I should go to graduate school before I forgot everything I knew, with the idea that I could try writing later if I wasn’t sure I had made the right choice. After three years of graduate school, I felt I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I should, and that there was no end in sight, so I took a leave of absence and began writing sample (“spec”) TV scripts. After a year or so of unemployment, this got me a job writing a couple early episodes of Beavis and Butt-head. Later I got hired at The Simpsons, and about five years after that, Matt Groening asked me if I wanted to work on Futurama with him. Which I did, of course.

TG: Have you ever considered leaving the creative business for a job in the technology field?

DXC: Once in a while, when I’m fed up with the illogic of the TV business. And also briefly a couple of years ago, when I lived in fear that all of the computer scientists I knew were about to become billionaires in the internet IPO boom, leaving me behind.

But in truth, I’ve now forgotten a good percentage of whatever I once knew, so I’d have a mountain of catching up to do. I have expertise programming the Apple II, if that’s still in big demand.

I still like hacking around on the computer. Maybe I’ll crank out some shareware some day. A cheesy videogame of some kind.

TG: What influences do you draw upon in creating both the stories and the science & technology for each episode?

DXC: One of the first rules that Matt Groening and I agreed upon for writing Futurama was, “Science shall not outweigh comedy.” Still, we wanted to get in as much science as possible where it didn’t clog up the gears of the story. Obviously, a lot of our technology is drawn from ideas in science fiction rather than actual science. For me, Star Trek, Arthur C. Clarke, and author Stanislaw Lem are some sci-fi inspirations. We had fun early on trying to decide which standard ideas we would use (e.g., faster-than-light-travel, without which the show would be impossible), and which ideas we would dismiss as ridiculous (the transporter — since our ship can land anywhere, we didn’t need it!). Actually, as far as faster-than-light travel is concerned, I wanted to make at least a nod to the problem, so in one episode we mentioned that they actually could not go faster than light, but that the speed of light had been increased.

Now and then, we throw in some pretty obscure science references when and where we think they won’t distract the casual viewer. For example, my friend David Schiminovich, an astrophysicist at Caltech, has provided comedy particle physics diagrams for a chalkboard seen in the background of one episode. We’ve also referred to the P =? NP question and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In fact, we may have broadcast the only dialog about the Uncertainty Principle in network sitcom history. The Professor loses at the horse track when his horse is narrowly beat out in a “quantum finish.” He complains, “No fair! You changed the outcome by measuring it!”

Our hope is that, although such material will fly by most people unnoticed, it might make die-hard fans of the people who do appreciate it.

I should also mention that we have several genuine ex-scientists on our writing staff: Ken Keeler has a Ph.D. in applied math and a masters in electrical engineering; Bill Odenkirk has a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry; and Jeff Westbrook has a Ph.D. in computer science. I’m actually somewhere in the middle of the pack educationally!

It’s really a privilege working with such knowledgeable and interesting people. I think it helps me keep my sanity, since outside of our writing room there isn’t such a high concentration of scientists in the TV industry. And I do still consider myself a scientist by nature.

TG: What standards do you measure an episode against before you consider it a finished product?

DXC: We’ve found that Futurama episodes seem to work best when there is a compelling dramatic story underlying the comedy. For that reason, we try to take seriously both the epic nature of science fiction and the human emotions of the characters (even if they’re not technically human). Interestingly, perhaps, these are things that need to be worked out very carefully at the beginning of the process, yet are the most important to the finished product. If you derail early on with the story and emotions, it’s very hard to patch things up later.

So, for us to be fully satisfied with an episode, it needs to be funny and dramatic at the same time. A tall order!

Of course, the animation, voices, music, and sound effects are critical as well, but the artists, actors, and engineers who work on those aspects of the show are so brilliant that I don’t personally need to direct the bulk of my concern toward those things.

TG: Do you feel any pressure from higher-ups at Fox to throttle back the content?

DXC: Matt Groening has always insisted on a high level of autonomy for the show, since that’s how he’s used to doing things at The Simpsons. We rarely get into arguments over the content of the show, though there was one notable exception — our Christmas special from 2000 was taken off the schedule at the last minute, having been deemed “inappropriate” for broadcast. It was not shown until a year later, in a later time slot. However, the content was not altered. At most, we get rid of a “hell” or “damn” or “ass” from a script once in a while.

TG: What is the general feeling among the Futurama crew concerning the way Fox treats this show? After all, it’s already January 2002 and we’ve only seen three episodes for season four, two of which were originally scheduled to air in season three.

DXC: Frustrated, bitter . . . you can guess. Obviously our time slot is a terrible handicap, yet the ratings have not been bad when we are not bumped off by football. My opinion is that the only thing Futurama really needs to be a big success is for Fox to promote it and tell people that it’s good. But evidently, they aren’t interesting in doing that. Why, I’m not sure. It seems like it would be very much in their interest as well as ours. But, as I mentioned earlier, television is not the most logical business.

TG: Outside of your Futurama duties, what other interests do you have?

DXC: Outside of my Futurama duties? Whuh? I’ve spent almost all my waking hours working on Futurama for the past few years, so sometimes I get confused when I hear the phrase “outside interests.” However, some things I seem to remember liking are: bridge (the card game, not the structure — no offense to the structure), fossils, computer programming, and tennis.

TG: You mentioned in a Science Fiction Weekly interview that you were considering reducing your role at Futurama and working on other projects. Can you elaborate on this?

DXC: If Futurama is renewed for a 5th season (as of now, January 2002, we haven’t heard one way or the other), it is true that I’d like to take a partial step back. I don’t think I could leave completely, since I love the show so much, but at the same time I don’t think I can take another year of working until midnight night after night. One idea I had is to stay involved in the stage of the process where we work out the stories. That way, I could retain some of the satisfaction that comes from helping plan the evolution of a universe!

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