LET’S TALK COMEDY. What makes something funny? What is funny? Is there some kind of actual definition for funny that subsequently encompasses comedy, giving it a structure and frame for comedic things to bounce around in? Is comedy the bouncing thing itself, or is it the various vibrations and shockwaves that occur as a result of something comedic bouncing around in a room made of funny? Is it none of the above? All of the above? What the fuck is comedy, man?
One thing that everyone probably agrees on is that comedy should make you laugh. Whether out loud or on the inside, it makes you chuckle, chortle, and generally react favorably to whatever’s being presented. Basically, anything can be comedy.
So it’s basically about presentation. Comedy isn’t a substance so much as it is a moment, a context, an amalgam and a conflux, as it were, of personalities, words, events, and reactions that all kind of snowball together and smash into your funny bone, forcing you to laugh. Comedy is an art.
Futurama is a comedy. Or, at least, it was.
Any culturenaut worth his or her collective spit knows about the tortured life of the Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s brainchild like the back of their hand. They experienced the elation of a show that continued a tradition of boisterous, tradition-bashing, irreverent jokes presented through absurdist scenarios and extremist personalities, felt a tinge of sentiment through a delicately crafted romantic narrative between a bumbling idiot loner and an egoistic existential outcast, and ultimately suffered the tremendous ambivalence that came from the premature termination of one of the greatest shows of our generation. And of course they felt the unimaginable joy of its resurrection, at first slowly, in 4 yearly made-for-TV movie spurts, and then gloriously in a complete return to form on dear old Comedy Central.
But the Futurama we have today isn’t the same. For all the good that’s come out of said resurrection of one of the greatest comedies of all time, there’s a terrible, unshakable feeling that the show that we’re so happy to have back has been changed. Futurama has been snatched; in its place we have…something else.
And so it’s here that I emit my piercing pod-person scream in an attempt to illuminate the truth: Futurama just isn’t as good as it used to be.
LEELA, THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH ANYTHING
One irrefutable fact about Futurama is that it’s funny. It’s also about everything. In Futurama nothing is sacred. There’s no crazy guy saying “you can’t do that” or “you can’t say this” or “the word ‘bastard’ isn’t on the list of approved terms”. Okay well, maybe there is, but they don’t listen to that guy.
So much of its magic comes from this; pure irreverence mixed with incisive wit. In the very first episode this is made unmistakably clear, with Fry landing in a future full of suicide booths, a jaded fate assignment officer, and the mantra “you gotta do what you gotta do”. Throw in a few decisive quips about society’s obsession with the past and its icons symbolized by rows upon rows of heads in jars and I’d say you’ve got a formula for magic.
BONDER!? IS IT REALLY YOU?
So when you take that formula and start futzing with it, you move the marble of comedy, once so precariously poised upon the acme of the comedy bell curve, out of its precariously poised balance. And what would make comedy veterans knowingly futz with such a precariously poised marble?
By truncating the proposed timescale for a show, you truncate its ability to tell a story. And in Futurama’s case, it’s like slicing open its chest, thrusting your hand inside, and then ripping out its heart. As you rip and tear the heart from its bony cage, vessels and arteries are pulled from their rightful spaces and life-giving blood sprays every which way, spattering on a liver, a spleen, and maybe a pancreas. These poor organs try their best to sop it up, soak up the life, and carry on as best they can, but it’s only matter of time until these limp pools of blood, now detached from their circulatory, oxygenating, life-giving source, turn blue and fetid, and eventually dry up, caking, calcifying, and strangling out of those organs what little life they were meant to give.
But I guess you can’t really say that they didn’t try their darndest to make that last bit of life great.
NECKS ARE FOR SHEEP
And it’s true: Futurama didn’t really give up the ghost at the end of Season 4. I mean, it looked like it, of course. And it felt like it too. Only the most important elements of the story had been resolved up to that point: Philip J. Fry, Idiot Universal Savior, proved his worth on a Scooty Puff Jr. AND Sr. Turanga Leela, forever disinclined to fully collapse into an unshakeable chemistry with the said Idiot Universal Savior finally capitulates (presumably). The Planet Express crew’s fate left uncertain, but the characters we care about finally free of doubt, danger and uncertainty, and hopefully happy. It was a good ending. But it was an ending too soon for most.
And rightfully so! There were still so many stories left untold, so many ideas left untouched and un-satirized. So they did what every good storyteller faced with a malicious emcee with a personal vendetta against him does: he keeps telling his story. Luckily for Futurama, its audience was so in love with that story that it made it easy. They drowned that stupid emcee in a pile of cash not unlike the way I stuff my face with so much fried chicken that I become momentarily apneic.
What came out the other end were 4 movies, each increasingly absurd, each appropriately themed for the year they were produced in. But most importantly of all was that it was more Futurama, which is precisely what those cash-dumping fans wanted. It was more Fry, more Leela, more Fry and Leela, but also more of everything else. But as with many wonderfully delicious things, more isn’t necessarily better. And in the case of Futurama, every bit more wasn’t just a bit more comedy. It was more Futurama.
I’VE BEEN A FOOL. A FULLY JUSTIFIED, PRUDENT FOOL
This begs a disturbingly vague question: What is Futurama? Futurama is more than just a comedy, though it is objectively funny. Futurama more than just a documentation of absurd individuals (a la Family Guy), though without them it wouldn’t be worth watching. And Futurama is more than just a story, but because it is a story, every episode is expected to push the story further. And even those that don’t, still do.
So what Futurama really is is that story, and what made Futurama interesting to watch, worthwhile to watch, and most importantly more than just funny to watch was that it was a story. A story that, under the unforgiving force of a truncated timeline, was completely and utterly betrayed by its creators. And to have to recombobulate that, to have to try and resurrect that narrative momentum (any narrative momentum, really) is nearly impossible.
So they didn’t.
TOO MANY BONES, NOT ENOUGH CASH
What they did instead was forge ahead, discarding any sentiment, substance, or significant plot facts for the sake of comedy. They called Zoidberg an Art History doctorate, turned Professor Farnsworth into a wrinkled Wikipedia, and completely destroyed what little integrity was left in Philip J. Fry’s integrity gland.
What we have now is a show built on a graveyard of aborted babies, a place where the idea that anything could be sacred has lived, died, and been meticulously documented, a place where the word “atrocity” has no more weight than the words “apples and oranges”, and a place where only a dark and absurd narrative could survive, or maybe where a bland and mundane one might seem tragically comic.
That’s what we have now. Futurama is no longer an interesting and vindictive satire of modern society; it’s just another product of it. Futurama is no longer a place where romance in destiny carries more weight than what might make a few physics nerds laugh and feel included. Futurama is no longer a show where anything really happens. Futurama is now just another joke on Comedy Central.
And the real comedy is just how tragic that fact is.