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The Sciences

David X. Cohen on the New Season of Futurama (New Episode Spoilers!)

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Tonight's the night: Futurama returns with fresh episodes on Comedy Central, starting at 10 PM Eastern Time. Two weeks ago we featured our conversation with Billy West, the voice actor behind Fry, Professor Farnsworth, and other characters. Today, it's executive producer David X. Cohen, who worked on The Simpsons before creating Futurama with Matt Groening more than a decade ago. Cohen discusses how he went from scientist to comedy writer, the logic (or illogic) behind heads in jars, why things still don't work in the 31st century, and how he sneaks math jokes into the show. *Plus, read through to the end for some spoilers about the plots of some new episodes coming this season. DISCOVER Magazine: I feel compelled to ask: Does the X stand for anything? Or is it like the Harry Truman S, and it stands for nothing?David X Cohen: I’ll get that off my chest right off the bat: It’s a fraudulent middle initial, but there is a logic behind it. The reason for that is the writer’s guild, which has a regulation that no two writers can have the same name for on-screen credits. So, when you join the union, if your name is already taken, you have to change your name. Being named David Cohen—as you can imagine, there were several other David Cohens already in the guild, [and] one with my actual middle initial, S, for Samuel. So, I decided to go for the craziest most sci-fi letter available, X. DM:Both of your parents were scientists, correct?DXC: Yes. Both PhDs in biology. I grew up in a house that was very science-oriented. The family activities we did were usually science-related—trips to the zoo or the museum of natural history in New York. So it was just taken for granted—by me at least—that I would be a scientist sooner or later. I tended to gravitate, though, more toward the physical sciences and math and computer science and physics, and I actually majored in physics in college. So, my undergraduate degree is in physics, and then I got a master’s degree in theoretical computer science as well. Before I derailed. DM:How did you "derail?"DXC: When I was growing up I just wasn’t really aware that there were careers such as writing cartoons. It wasn’t something that anybody I knew did and never popped into my mind. But then, when I went off to college, I worked on the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine, and suddenly I did know some people who had the career goal of becoming writers, or specifically, comedy writers. And after that, I was somewhat torn. Should I continue down my path to be a scientist, or should I pursue this thing which (I thought) I did for fun? Ultimately, [I decided] I would like to go to graduate school before forgetting everything I did as an undergraduate. I went to UC Berkeley and had a good time there, but got to the point where I had reached the end of the line of what I was working on, and I had to reevaluate. I decided I might rather try the other option after all. It worked out. So, my leave of absence from graduate school is still in progress. Next: Fermat's Last Theorem, Star Trek, and suicide booths

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When I talked to Billy [West], he mentioned that the writers are always trying to sneak in scientific references. How much do you try to get that part of your background into the show? Are there specific things that you were glad you snuck in?

DXC: There are people with much better science resumes than me writing on it: We have a writer, Ken Keeler, who has a PhD in applied math, and in the past we’ve had two other PhDs working on the show: Bill Odenkirk with a PhD in chemistry, and Jeff Westbrook with a PhD in computer science. So, all of us have an agenda. We try to stick [those jokes] in the background: maybe on a chalkboard if the professor is lecturing, or floating in four-dimensional space if they’re in a weird land of floating equations. Those are all things that you can do in animation that would be… difficult to do in a live action comedy. As for me, it started when I wrote for the Simpsons, which is what I was doing before Futurama started. And there was one episode, which was in the early days of 3D animation, where we did part of a Simpsons Halloween episode in 3D, and there were some equations floating around. I wrote that portion of that script, and I snuck in a little reference to Fermat’s Last Theorem in the background, which had not been proven at the time. I wanted to show what appeared to be a counter-example disproving the theorem, and I wrote a computer program to find some very near misses to being counter examples to the equation—A to the N plus B to the N equals C to the N—that were so close to being correct that, on a standard calculator with eight digits, it would appear that I had found a counter example, due to people’s calculators rounding up. So I put one floating in the background, and to my great delight, when I checked the Internet over the next few days, people said, “What’s going on here? He seems to have disproved Fermat’s Last Theorem.” DM:Do people contact you directly about stuff like that? Or is it more glee for you to go through fan pages and find out if people got the joke?DXC: It’s mainly me trolling around secretly, and monitoring people’s reactions. But there are websites that keep track of these things, and there’s a mathematician at Appalachian State University named Sara Greenwald who actually lectures on the mathematics on the Simpsons and Futurama. I’ve gotten to meet her a couple of times. We even filmed a lecture she did and put it as an extra on one of our DVDs. That’s a sign that some real, actual mathematicians are taking notice. So, that is a badge of pride for us.

The show itself is sort of rife with references to old sci-fi and not-that-old sci-fi. Were you a big sci-fi nerd growing up? DXC: I would say I was a big nerd, but a medium-sized sci-fi nerd. I was certainly a sci-fi fan, but not to the degree that I dressed-up in costume or went to conventions. But I enjoyed reading sci-fi, and I am probably most influenced by the original Star Trek. That’s a big influence on Futurama, just in the sense that we have a ship flying around with this mismatched crew doing stuff that—although it’s in the future—we attempt to make relevant to our life today. Of course, I view Star Trek as the straight line, and our version, hopefully, as the satirical, humorous variant on it. DM:But rather than Star Trek's utopian, clean version of the future, you have suicide machines and leaking robots.DXC: That was a big topic of discussion between me and Matt Groening when we were first talking out the idea for the show. What type of future do we want to portray? Do we want it to be utopia, or do we want it to be a horrible dystopia, which were the two things you usually see? And ultimately, we said, “Well, wait a second. If the idea of this show is that it be relatable in some way, even though it’s set in crazy future with space ships and bunches of aliens, we probably can’t make it all grim or all wonderful, but it has to be more parallel to life today.” So, we tried to steal from everything. Therefore, we have the suicide booth on the one hand, for those characters who find the future unbearable. But we also have some really great stuff, tube-ways and rocket ships that can whisk you around to amazing places and relative harmony between the robots and the humans—most of the time. Things are working out about as well as they are now, it’s just that there are more cool things to look at. We have been able to tell a lot of stories that are relatable and don’t feel just like we’re going to random planets populated by random monsters. I think people do see an element of today’s world in our future—at least on the episodes where we succeed. DM:So would you stick it out if you found yourself accidentally transported to the Futurama

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31^st century, or head for the suicide booth?

DXC: Oh, I’d certainly stick it out. It seems pretty awesome to me to hang out with a giant lobster and a girl with one eye. I should add: The suicide booth never seems to work right, anyway. So even that’s not quite as bad as it sounds. DM:If you want to kill yourself in the future, you can’t.DXC: Right, and Bender has personally inserted his coin into the suicide booth about 35 times, and he’s still walking around. There’s always a malfunction there to save the day. DM:Is that part of the accessibility that you were referring to? In a lot of sci-fi, whether it’s dystopian or utopian, everything seems to work. But, in Futurama, nothing ever works. DXC: That’s right. That’s another theme. I’m afraid I’ll have to swear you to secrecy, now. You’ve hit upon the formula. Show the fabulous invention, and then have it not work. Pretty good formula. Next: The laws of physics and heads in jars

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DM: How far is 31^st century science? Is there anything in Futurama that the characters can’t do?

DXC: I’ll give you an example. We try, when possible, to stick with the laws of physics, while still allowing ourselves great leeway to do whatever we want. So we’ve claimed that you still cannot go faster than the speed of light in the future. However, at the same time, we managed to have our cake by claiming that they have sped up the speed of light. The speed of light has been tremendously increased, so you can then zoom around at less than the speed of light and still get wherever you need to go in a few minutes. The list of things you can’t do gradually fades the more episodes we do, by the way. Initially, we said, “Well, you can’t time travel. That’s gonna be a hard and fast rule of Futurama.” But about 40 episodes in we said, “Well, maybe it’s time for some time travel.” When you start to look for the big ideas in science fiction, you start to say, “Maybe we should have fewer hard and fast rules and more focus on the fun stories and ideas that are interesting to our fans.” So, we’ve definitely loosened up on the rules over the years. What we realized is that we have more latitude than we originally thought in showing any kind of crazy technology, including time travel or shrinking people to microscopic size, that we may have initially shied away from. We have more leeway than we thought in the fans going along for the ride on those things, as long as we are also telling a story about the characters that people are genuinely invested in. I think if people are really sympathizing with what the characters are doing in the story, they’re willing to accept any crazy technology we throw in as the setting for that story. DM:Are people more willing to accept stretches of the laws of physics because it’s animated?DXC: I think so. The laws of cartoon physics have always been pretty dubious. People go off a cliff and gravity sets in about 11 seconds later, so... We don’t usually do those kinds of cartoon jokes. We actually shy away, because we don’t want people to think of it as a cartoon. First and foremost, we want people to think of our characters as real people, even if they’re not technically people. Those cartoon conventions would distract the viewer from thinking about these people as real people. So, strangely enough, cartoon jokes are one of the few things we try not to do in our cartoon.

Is there ever any justification offered for the fact that people from the past live on as heads in jars?DXC: There’s very little justification for that in the show. There’s plenty of justification for it in real life: It’s useful for us to put in current-day guest stars into the show. What is the mechanism by which they will appear in the show? That’s another issue we had to address early on. We ultimately settled on the head in the jar, as opposed to, for example, the robot reincarnation or the holographic computer program. The head in the jar just seemed like it’d be more fun to look at. Within the show, the way I like to think of it is that there’s a fluid in the jar that preserves people’s heads in the state in which they are most remembered by people. That’s how we settle on what age to make the person in their jar. If you force me at knife-point to admit it, there’s even more illogic to it because a lot of our heads in jars are people who died long before this head-in-jar technology would’ve even been invented. We’ll have George Washington’s head in the jar sometimes, so they apparently were able to reconstitute their heads centuries after the fact. Yeah, the head in the jar, it’s good for comedy purposes. DM:How hard is it to come back to writing a series that you haven’t written in so long?DXC: It’s funny. You know, there has been this long delay since we were on Fox, but honestly, I do not feel the delay at all. A large portion of the reason is because we did those four DVD movies in the meantime. And even between the show being aired and the DVDs, there was still a fair amount of work that I had to do finishing up the post-production and the sound on the first set of episodes before we were canceled that time, and then the same on the movies. So the gaps for me between each disappearance and reappearance have been relatively short. And I’d say for the other writers pretty much the same. We watch a few episodes and be, like, “Oh, yeah. That sounds familiar.” (Laughs) Honestly, also, there was a learning curve at the beginning when you didn’t know exactly what the characters sound like and what each character is, what jokes are gonna work best for each character. And it gets a little easier to write as you go along. So, I actually think we got better at it over the years. We were probably best at it in the years when we weren’t even on the air. (Laughs) And, by the way, the new episodes: At least all of us who are completely unbiased here in the office are very enthusiastic about them and think they’re as good as anything we’ve done in the past. I believe our fans will not be disappointed. Next: New episode storylines!

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DM:Can you give us a few hints about what’s going on? Are there past storylines picked back up?DXC: Well, yes, there are. Right off the bat, we have to deal a little bit with our last DVD movie. Because the very last time we saw our characters they were fleeing the law by flying into a wormhole that would take them to an unknown point in the universe. We used the opening seconds of the first episode to extricate ourselves from that situation. However, we rapidly get them back to their home base. So, for the new viewer, I think they will not be disoriented, but we tried to not disappoint the hard-core fans in our return. The first episode, in fact, is called “Rebirth,” and the focus of it is a disturbing literal rebirth of our characters that I encourage people to watch cautiously. But, we have quite a few. I don’t know if you wanna hear about a few of the other ones. DM:Absolutely.DXC: Just a couple of random ones that I’m enthusiastic about, in no particular order: We have one that is going to focus on the future incarnations of iPhones and Twitter and YouTube and their privacy-invading possibilities. That’ll be, I believe, the third one of the new year. We have one inspired by California’s Proposition 8 from last year, the gay marriage initiative. But, of course, in our future, it’s a proposition called proposition infinity, to legalize human/robot intermarriage. So, that’s gonna be a shocking development in our series between Bender and a female character in our show who I will not reveal yet. That’s going to be a shocking episode. We have one I think is going to be really good about evolution in the form of robot evolution. We’re going to see a planet on which robots evolve from nanobots and we see the entire spectrum of evolution on their planet, from the tiniest microscopic robot life to modern society. And, we’re gonna have one—speaking of time travel episodes—in which the professor invents a new kind of time machine, but it has limited options, where it can only move forward in time. So, our characters find themselves in quite a dilemma as they keep leaning on that lever, pushing themselves into the future. We’re gonna get to see some very distant future scenes of Futurama. Those are a few of the more science-y ones coming up. Oh, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention we have an episode, the tenth one this year, which was written by Ken Keeler, in which the professor, with the help of the Harlem Globetrotters (who are a team of mathematicians in our future world), actually prove a theorem at the end of the episode to resolve the plot, and they actually will prove a real theorem. I’m not saying it’ll be a groundbreaking moment in mathematics, but they really do prove a mathematical theorem that helps resolve the dilemma of the episode. That, I feel confident in saying, is something you will not see on any other comedy on prime time television. DM:To finish up, how does it feel to be back?DXC: I’ve learned to never get my hopes up too high, or too low with this show, because we’ve had so many ups and downs at this point. It’s pretty much unprecedented. Family Guy, obviously, paved the way for animated shows to get canceled and then return to life. We’ve had kind of a second cancellation and a third. So, each time I try to enjoy it for the moment, and then take a wait-and-see attitude when it ends. As far as this last round, we were working on the movies and there certainly was a sense, if they were successful, that we might be able to come back in our original form as TV episodes. But, we really didn’t know until after the fourth and final one was done. I think Fox really was keeping an eye on the sales of the DVDs and the ratings of our reruns originally on Adult Swim, and now more recently on Comedy Central. For us, we like to think it’s high art, but for them, they want to see if people are actually tuning in. And luckily, they were. The DVDs sold, and people were watching our reruns. Ultimately, when you look at it that way, the fans truly did save us by remaining interested in the show, even after it came and went and came back again. So, a big “thank you” to all of our fans. Related Content: Discoblog: Sneak Peek at Futurama! Plus, Our Conversation with Billy West Bad Astronomy: The Futurama Is Almost Presentama Bad Astronomy: Sneak Peak: Bender’s Game Discoblog: The Science of Star Trek Discoblog: Scientists to Hollywood: Please Break Only 1 Law of Physics Per MovieImages: Comedy Central; Wikimedia Commons

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