AUSTIN, Texas—“What sets this show apart from the other shows you’ve worked on?” asks an audience member decked out in a potentially questionably licensed Planet Express tee. As the other four panelists look to see who’ll field this, actor Phil LaMarr doesn’t hesitate.
“Most of the other shows I’ve been on haven’t been cancelled three times.”
Even if it did somewhat pioneer the practice of fandom driving another network to swoop in for the save, Futurama of course stands out for far more than its episode total. Which is likely why a partial cast of LaMarr (Hermes), Maurice LaMarche (Kif), David Herman (Scruffy), and Billy West (Fry, Zoidberg, Farnsworth, et al.) happily reunited with creator David X. Cohen on stage Friday night during the ATX TV Festival for a live table read and Q&A.
With an assist from Aisha Dee (star of Freeform’s The Bold Type) for the female voices, the cast did its rendition of “The Six Million Dollar Mon,” a Hermes-centric episode from the show’s later Comedy Central years. As anyone who’s occasionally rewatched the series on Hulu can attest, things both continue to hold up and gradually gain that Simpsons-like prescience. This story, for instance, revolves around Hermes losing his job to autonomous robots and increasingly embracing his own cyborgism/body hacks.
Performed live, naturally the episode contains a few different flourishes. The crew works in new digs at everyone from infamous attorney Michael Cohen to John DiMaggio (since the actor voicing Bender couldn’t attend; LaMarche can do a pretty spot-on impression, though). An f-word or two slip in, as do a few breakdowns in laughter. But best of all, the muscle-memory presents itself from the very beginning. Seemingly every panelist slides effortlessly into their old (multiple) characters, down to oddities like LaMarche’s Hyper-Chicken lawyer (a semi-homage to Foghorn Leghorn) or Herman’s Roberto the criminal bot (“Every ‘70s cop movie had a Roberto,” Herman said of his inspiration). West talks to himself in multiple instances without as much as a hiccup, and he even does some extended work as Zoidberg ventriloquizing a franken-Hermes.
“People always come up to me and say, ‘My cousin’s sister’s brother should be a voice actor,’ and that’s great,” Cohen later says. “But if they can do one character who can do that character puppeteering another character, and then do that singing and harmonizing with each other, then come talk to me.”
The ATX TV event wasn’t the Futurama cast’s first reunion. Just last year, in fact, they all got together for a double-length, audio-only episode on the Nerdist podcast network—an event nearly five years in the making.
“After we did the most recent last episode [in 2013], Chris Hardwick showed up to do a farewell show on YouTube. I was talking to him, and he asked if we ever thought about an audio episode,” Cohen recalls during the night’s Q&A. “I thought it’d be great; the voices are so specific I think it might be ideal… but it takes money and time, and we’d have to write a script. It’s just as much work for us. Only the animators are saving time.”
Luckily, an opportunity eventually presented itself. Game developers at TinyCo had put together a mobile RPG based on the show, and the marketing team needed ideas on how to promote everything. They approached Cohen, and the time came to dust off the idea. The show’s writing team soon reconvened and created an original story. When asked about how the show translated to audio-only, the cast certainly enjoyed it in retrospect.
“We got one speed—over the top,” LaMarr said.
“It’s acting without the hair, lighting, and makeup—it’s cool,” LaMarche added. “Plus you can play multiple characters without a costume change. Your voice is the costume.”
Unlike the podcast, this reunion does give the players a chance to offer some insight into their craft and share a few behind-the-scenes Futurama stories, though. The panel talks through how Hermes evolved over time (he originally didn’t have a Jamaican accent and went by “Dexter”) and whether or not they feel like they left some stories in the can before cancellation (“It feels like a complete package to me now, but there [are] always more stories if Hulu got really excited,” Cohen says, before LaMarche pitches a Zapp and Kif spin-off).
Notably, the actors spend a considerable amount of time talking about the craft of developing voices (King of the Hill’s Johnny Hardwick, aka Dale Gribble, even chimes in from the audience). Herman took a spontaneous approach, sometimes workshopping voices as he’d drive to table reads. Being a veteran of the field, LaMarche (whose credits include The Brain on Animaniacs and everything from The Simpsons to Rick & Morty to Looney Tunes) would keep a library of audio odds and ends on cassettes or videos for reference and research before the days of YouTube.
The whole panel seemingly agreed that when approached about a new character, the first question would always be, “Well, what did you have in mind?” LaMarr’s Preacherbot, for instance, demonstrates a rare instance when a character came to be because writers heard the actor goofing around with various voices during some recording downtime.
“[When it came to Kif], Matt [Groening, co-creator] didn’t quite know what he wanted. He knew he wanted him to sound beleaguered,” LaMarche says, preparing to demo the various voices he trialled for the character. “If Zapp is Shatner not Kirk running the Enterprise, Kif needs to be Leonard Nimoy. ‘Sir, the rest of your crew doesn’t share your passion for valor.’ But that sounded wrong, so I used Truman Capote, because he needed to be tired and needed a nice exhaustive quality to his voice. But then Kif needs to fight back, like Jon Lovitz—OK, let’s marry that to Capote. And the exhausted sigh is 100 percent my wife, Robin. It’s the sound she makes whenever I think I say something that’s terribly intelligent.”
The audience Q&A ultimately mostly centers around a single theme—just how nerdy the show remained throughout its run. Moderator Ben Blacker asks if the degree of academic in-jokes ever got pushback from various networks, but Cohen insists that was one area where the writer’s room wouldn’t budge.
“[Our only rule:] if the joke was super nerdy to the point less than three percent would get it, we’d try to hide it in the background—on a chalkboard or in alien language graffiti—but we never had a limit to how nerdy we could make a joke,” Cohen says. “[One of my favorites] is about horse races in the future, ‘It’s so close and it’s quantum finish—no fair, you changed the outcome by measuring it.’” (“That took David half an afternoon to explain,” LaMarche admits.)
Somehow, that’s not the even the geekiest moment of this ATX TV event. Near the end of the discussion, another audience member gets up to ask about an extremely specific bit of show lore. In an episode about body-swapping called “The Prisoner of Benda,” writer Ken Keeler once developed an entirely new math theorem just for the show (because, ho-hum, the Emmy-winner previously earned a PhD in Mathematics). How aware was everyone on staff about this? Evidently, it came as surprise to most of the staff, too.
“[The episode] uses a standard old Scooby-Doo idea: everyone switches brains. So Fry’s voice comes out of Amy’s body, for instance. But we wanted to make our version a little nerdier, so the machine that does this is a one-way—if Fry switches with Amy, they can’t switch back, but they can switch in a circle,” Cohen explains. “We talk about this idea all day, but at the end of the day if they’re all mixed up, is it even mathematically possible to get things back to normal? We left without knowing the answer, and we came back next morning to see Ken. And he says, ‘I proved a theorem.’”
Thus, the Futurama theorem was born. And if you watch the episode, true to Cohen’s internal rule, there’s fraction of a second with nothing on screen but the theorem (created in the show by the professor working with the Harlem Globetrotters).
This festival night already had plenty of reminders about what set Futurama apart, but it felt appropriate to end with perhaps the most more unusual accolade that Cohen could recall.
“I bet this is the first time any sitcom, at its climatic moment, cut to a proof of a theorem.”
Listing image by Comedy Central
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