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Back to the future with new ‘Futurama’ episodes
LOS ANGELES ñ On the next edition of “Futurama,” Professor Farnsworth brings his doomed crew back to life with an experimental rebirthing technique.
“Oh, mahn, I’m dripping with placenta,” says Jamaican accountant Hermes Conrad, who just moments before had been a lifeless skeleton. “Good thing it’s casual Friday.”
Pretty much anything can happen in the year 3000, where “Futurama” resided on Fox for five hilarious seasons that ended in 2003. Now, thanks to Comedy Central, “Futurama” is itself reborn and back to its old new tricks. The animated sci-fi comedy returns for a season of 12 new half-hours, kicking off with back-to-back episodes Thursday at 10 p.m. EDT.
This, as Professor Farnsworth often says in his quavering tone, is surely “Good news, everyone!”
Comedy Central has committed to 26 half-hours in all.
“Futurama” follows the life of Philip J. Fry, a dimwitted pizza delivery boy who, by a quirk of fate, was cryogenically frozen in his native Manhattan of 1999 and thawed a thousand years later in the reconstituted city of New New York.
There Fry landed a job with the Planet Express Intergalactic package-delivery company. Planet Express is owned by Farnsworth (who at 160 years old is both a scientific genius and batty) and employs a sarcastic robot-reprobate named Bender; Dr. Zoidberg, a lobsterlike alien who serves as staff physician; and, perhaps most notably, Leela, a sexy, kickboxing mutant with a single large eyeball with whom Fry is hopelessly smitten.
“Futurama” was created by Matt Groening and developed with David X. Cohen, an executive producer. A few months ago, Cohen was presiding over his cast of voice artists in a plushly soundproofed Hollywood studio as they recorded the dialogue for a future episode.
The gathered ensemble, fanned around Cohen at his desk in a semicircle and perched in tall chairs, included “Married … With Children” and “Sons of Anarchy” star Katey Sagal, who voices Leela. There was also John DiMaggio (Bender), Phil LaMarr (Hermes), Lauren Tom (the spoiled, spikey-haired intern, Amy) and Maurice LaMarche (fielding no fewer than seven supporting roles in that day’s script).
But first among equals was Billy West, whose seemingly limitless repertoire includes Fry, Farnsworth and Zoidberg, as well as the preening, cowardly starship captain Zapp Brannigan.
With their scripts on easels in front of them, they began at Act 1, Scene 1 of “The Silence of the Clamps,” performing each scene in sequence.
Certain sections were repeated, lines were given multiple readings, words got different intonations, all courtesy of Cohen’s coaching, interspersed with eruptions of group wisecracking and chortles.
“It helps to riff with the other actors,” West had said beforehand. “We fool around a lot and we make each other laugh, and that promotes a good energy in the room. That’s what puts me in the mood.”
“It’s like a disjointed radio show,” said Sagal, “except with big breaks, because these guys, as you can tell, are very funny. So sometimes it takes us a while to actually get to the work ó but we get there.”
It’s part of the charm for a team that voiced some 70 “Futurama” episodes, then four direct-to-DVD movies (aired by Comedy Central), then, years later, reunited yet again for the reborn series.
“When you’ve worked with each other for as long as we have, it all comes naturally. You always know something’s coming from the other guy ó but something unexpected,” DiMaggio said.
“It’s like when your uncle’s gonna tickle you, but you just don’t know where,” added LaMarche. The cast’s biggest challenge: not cracking up in mid-scene. “Early on, John learned to use whatever cushion was nearby to put over his mouth.”
As Groening’s big follow-up to “The Simpsons,” “Futurama” was always overshadowed by his brilliant first-born.
Who knows why? The verbal humor, sight gags, wicked cultural jabs and general irreverence that make “The Simpsons” great were always found full-strength on “Futurama.” What’s more, “Futurama” took a bold step beyond “The Simpsons” (based as it is in Homer Simpson’s hometown of Springfield) to take on the entire universe from a vantage point a thousand years removed.
“Futurama” premiered in March 1999 after Groening and Cohen, already a veteran “Simpsons” writer, had spent years contemplating what a sci-fi cartoon show should be like.
“I think Matt zeroed in on me as the nerrrrrd of the ‘Simpsons’ writers,” Cohen recalled, “though many people on that staff could have easily qualified.
“I got very excited, because my background was as an actual science student. I studied physics and computer science. I’ve always been very interested in actual science ó and also science fiction.”
The pair spent a lot of after-hours time hanging out, Cohen said, “talking about our favorite stuff in sci-fi, and what could we parody, and what could we outright steal.”
They also decided to factor in a hearty measure of character-oriented humor.
“Maybe the character is a robot, maybe he’s a giant lobster,” said Cohen, “but underneath we wanted them all to be people the viewers could sympathize with. We wanted to base our stories around actual emotions and themes that viewers could relate to.”
Even so, LaMarr argues that “most animated shows are just cartoon comedies, but I think it’s the sci-fi element that separates ‘Futurama.'”
That, plus a bit of twisted realism, imparted especially in the urban world of New New York.
“Unlike ‘The Jetsons,'” noted LaMarche, “you actually see our sidewalks.”
“And we walk on them,” DiMaggio laughed.