David X. Cohen

July 1, 2013

I am David X. Cohen, head writer on FUTURAMA - AMA!

As usual, I am unemployed due to cancellation so I have lots of free time. reddit - ask me anything!

I have a great proof photo too.

THANKS, EVERYBODY! I (and Matt, and everyone who works on the show) deeply appreciate the support and the kind words and the anger at our cancellation, even the third time around.

As a special reward I have been authorized (okay, ordered) to provide a link to a never-before-seen clip from one of our few remaining episodes (sniffle). It's "The Inhuman Torch", coming up on July 10. Enjoy! Bye!


For the show's third supposed series finale are you guys planning something with a little closure like The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings or something more ambigious like Into the Wild Green Yonder?

I feel like we're starting to get pretty good at writing series finales -- it's a bad sign when you have a lot of experience doing that. We are definitely going for the model of "Epic Sci Fi" blended with "possibly heart breaking emotional story". In that vein I think it's a little closer to "The Devil's Hands" in that we will spend more time on the Fry-Leela angle. As I've mentioned elsewhere, we will actually see Fry and Leela's real, genuine, actual, factual wedding in this one. People get angry with me for saying that because they think I've given too much away, but rest assured that it moves onward and upward and backward and pretty much in all directions from there.

Do you intentionally tell your animators to draw in little Easter Eggs in each episode or do your animators do it themselves?

A mix. Probably about 50-50. We write some into the script, and sometimes they surprise us. Sometimes we mention something in passing, like calling for an "Escher-esque" background, and they go nuts and animate a 3D landscape of rotating gears in an impossible Escher geometry. Also sometimes too they try to sneak things by us. For example in the "Beast with Two Bucks" alien sex shop, which will be appearing again later this season, we didn't notice until the episode was almost done that they had stuck a few too many disturbing alien "toys" in the display cases. We might have managed to erase them in time. Don't look to closely.

Mr. Cohen, I'm a huge fan. I have to ask, you wrote some great Simpsons Treehouse of Horror segments, some Sci-Fi inspired, and now you run a great science fiction set show that is Futurama. What were your comedic or Sci-Fi influences growing up, or did you have any?

Credit to my mom... she was the big sci-fi reader in our house. Two books I found lying around that were big influences on me as a kid/teenager were "Dune" and "Tales of Pirx the Pilot" by Stanislaw Lem. (Some of Lem's stories are hilarious... I guess my first exposure to comedy sci-fi.) Also I watched the original Star trek in reruns plenty. As far as Comedy growing up, as a kid I insisted on staying up late to watch "The Carol Burnett Show". Also Saturday Night Live, though much of it must have gone over my head, I guess. But it was on late so I knew it had to be funny.

Hi and thank you for so many hours of my life well spent watching futurama.

One of my favorite aspects of the show is how serious themes and emotions can exist side by side with hilarious jokes. When writing an episode do you think about making sure this is balanced, or do you just write and let things play out as they do?

When the show first started we didn't know what the balance should be in terms of character stories and emotion vs. serious sci-fi themes. At first I think we erred in not diving far enough into the sci-fi... we were afraid it might undercut the personal stories. But as we went along it became clearer that taking the sci-fi space-opera-drama seriously only helped the personal stories. The dramatic tension when played seriously helps the jokes play better as contrast to that. So the surprise was that we could and should do both. In the best episodes we manage that.

What is your favorite animated show besides Futurama?

Well, Simpsons of course changed my life. Before that it never occurred to me that a cartoon could play to adults. After that, I had a career. So Simpsons number one. I also love South Park. As I mentioned I think Futurama works best and is funniest when we also take the drama seriously. South Park is a great influence and inspiration in that regard... they always take the drama exceedingly seriously, and it's always hilarious.

What do you think about the Futurama meme's?

Not Sure If X, Hypnotoad, Shut Up And Take My Money etc.

Why not "Why not Zoidberg?" Of course I love that people have run with these in ways that we did not anticipate. Of all of them I would say there is only one that, at the time we wrote it, I really felt like we had generated something meme-worthy. That was "Shut Up and Take My Money". Other than that, credit to our fans for elevating these to meme status.

How did the idea of Futurama first come about? Did Matt Groening already have the concept fleshed out and the approach you to produce it (or vice versa), or did the two of you come up with it together?

When I was working as a writer at the Simpsons in the mid-late 1990s, there was a persistent rumor that Matt was concocting a new sci-fi show. But it was very hush-hush. One day he summoned me for a lunch meeting... me being the "nerd" of the writing staff -- a title for which there was extremely stiff competition -- he wanted to know if I might be interested in working on it with him. I drooled. In retrospect, it was a risky move to leave the Simpsons. Many other writers have made a full career there, grown old, raised grandchildren in the writing room... but of course at that time we didn't know the Simpsons would go 20+ years so it seemed like I was getting out just before it crashed in season 10 or so.

What's your favorite episode of Futurama ?

I usually cite "The Luck of the Fryrish" as my favorite. That's the one where Fry learns about his long-deceased brother. It was the first episode where we out-and-out went for a tear in the eye at the end of the show. This is a high degree of difficulty on an animated show, so we weren't at all sure if it would work well or how people would react. It turned out to be a fan favorite and subsequently I think it became a trademark of Futurama that we would go for these emotional endings a couple of times a year. Just when you least expect it -- WHAM! Your crying at a dumb cartoon.

I also want to put in a nod for "Reincarnation", the episode where Futurama was animated in 3 different styles. The animation (directed by Peter Avanzino) was stunning, but also we shot high on the writing... each of the three parts hinged at a key moment on something BEYOND impossible to portray in its own style of animation (eg, not just a rainbow in the black and white episode, but a rainbow with a NEW color). That wasn't easy to concoct. And one of the three segments was about the nobility of the search for scientific truth... (why were we cancelled again...?) I like elevating science when possible instead of just making it the villain responsible for genetically-engineered viruses and so on. At any rate, you wouldn't see that subject matter on another show.

How and where do you get help for all the science jokes in the episodes? I.e. the formula in the "prisoner of bender" and the grandfather paradox in "all's well that roswell."

We had a ridiculously over-educated writing staff on Futurama. I ranked somewhere in the middle with my BA in physics and Masters in computer science. We also had Ken Keeler with a PhD in Applied Math, Jeff Westbrook PhD in Computer Science, and Bill Odenkirk with a PhD in chemistry. And throw in Stewart Burns with a masters in math. So it was very rare that we did not feel we could deal with the actual science ourselves. However, on rare occasions when I did feel the need to go beyond our walls, I most often consulted my old friend David Schiminovich, who is a Professor of Astrophysics at Columbia University.

As for the theorem that saves the day in the episode "The Prisoner of Benda", that was a real theorem proved by Ken Keeler. In the characters had all switched brains according to certain rules (the same two characters couldn't switch back once switched), and as we worked on the story we became curious about whether it would in fact be possible to get the characters out of their predicament. Ken proved the theorem and we decided to actually feature it in the episode. It's a group theory problem, for you math people.

Regarding the grandfather paradox in "Roswell that Ends Well"... errrr... to be honest, I don't think we tried to hard on the science there. Once you get into time travel, all bets are off. We just put it out there and hope no one complains too much.

I'm not going to ask if this is really the final season, because I'm guessing nobody knows for sure, but I will ask this:

Are you okay with this being the final season? Do you feel that Futurama has gone on long enough? Or would you like to see it push on into infinity, like The Simpsons?

When Futurama first got cancelled after four seasons on Fox, it was a little more upsetting. Four seasons is a very intermediate amount... not clearly a failure or a success. Most shows get cancelled either several seasons earlier or several later. So we weren't sure how to feel. I guess we decided on "bad".

Now having done seven seasons by our count (we include the four DVD movies as season five), and 140 episodes, it feels like a good run. If you were told in advance your show would make it that far, you would jump at the deal. Granted it took us 14 years to do seven seasons, but still, not too bad.

Also with the 52 recent episodes for Comedy Central I feel like we really got to a lot of subjects that we wanted to cover and got to develop the characters quite a bit... and this current final(?) season ends with a very strong, emotional run. So all in all, yes, I will feel okay with it if this really is the end.

The idea of catching up to the Simpsons if we were to come back is definitely more of a nightmare than a dream. To do that, we'd have to get an order of "20 episodes a year for 20 years". Noooooooooo!

If they gave you the option of writing a Futurama spin-off, which minor character's adventures would you choose to follow?

We thought about this quite a bit... the one we almost attempted on several occasions as a "one episode" spinoff was the Zapp & Kif show. That's an example of an episode I always wanted to do that we still didn't get around to, even after the four bonus seasons on Comedy Central. My glorious dream was to do a Star-Trek-style episode where we stayed with Zapp and Kif's mission the entire time, and just have them run into the Planet Express crew in passing at some point. We would have also done a full new version of the opening credits and all. We never quite figured out the story for this one. Also we were nervous that people would get confused and angry, and throw things at the TV. I guess we panicked and chickened out. Now I feel bad.

My name is Philip and I find Fry to be a pretty accurate representation of myself. Any chance you actually secretly watch me for inspiration?

Yes, I think it's probably you that we're watching. Yes, definitely -- I just checked the live feed from your apartment and I see you are watching this Reddit conversation on your iPad with the puffy Hello Kitty stickers on it. Could you put a shirt on, by the way?

Meow mmrrrowww meow. Meow meeeow mew meow mmrrrowww mew meow meeeeow mew meow?

~swishes tail~ Meow! =.=

Yes, I'll clean the damn litter box in a minute. Let me finish typing.

Where did the idea for the hypnotoad come from?

Hypnotoad is a good example of a recurring phenomenon... a character we write in for one quick joke who we grow to love. In this case it was just to serve the plot point of Nibbler losing the pet show in the episode "The Day the Earth Stood Stupid". But later his mindless droning seemed to sum up something about TV in general and we kept bringing him back. He's also a writer favorite because it's surprisingly easy to write for a character who doesn't speak.

Other one-joke characters who I grew to love were Roberto, the criminal robot (programmed to commit crimes... why?) and Hedonismbot, whose name is pretty self-explanatory. These characters were given so much personality by the cast members (David Herman and Maurice LaMarche, respectively) that they suddenly seemed like more than we had planned when we heard them. So credit to our great cast. You can tell we didn't intend for some of these characters to come back because we didn't even try to make up good names for them. "Hedonismbot" is pretty lazy. But I guess it does the job.

Do you really have as much fun recording the audio commentaries for each episode as it seems? I still occasionally pop the dvd in and switch commentary on just to grin stupidly along with you guys.

Yes, the audio commentaries are genuinely fun. It always feels like a reunion to get together and talk about work that's already done. (When the work is still in progress, it feels more like work, somehow.) Our cast members have been extremely supportive in terms of doing commentaries, which also greatly raises the energy level over what you would here if it was just a bunch of writers yakking.

But the key element is Matt Groening's rule of DVD commentaries: DON'T STAY ON THE SUBJECT. As a DVD aficionado, he dislikes commentaries where people describe what's happening onscreen. So he always encourages straying off topic whenever possible. And I should say, Matt may hold a record for most DVD commentaries between the Simpsons and Futurama, so he has some experience.

How much involvement did Matt Groenig actually have in the show? It seems like he had a big hand in creating the characters and the premise, but you pretty much took the reigns after that.

Matt was quite involved, but with two shows going simultaneously, plus "Life in Hell" and his Bongo Comic Books company, you are right that he could not be everywhere at once. So I was in charge on a day-to-day basis, but he was almost always there for key stages of the script and animation process. Let me add that it has been a tremendous pleasure to work with Matt. He is a completely down-to-Earth person despite his tremendous success (at least at his other show!). He never came in and ripped up scripts as one in his position might have... and when he had a strong opinion about changing something, he was convincing but never angry or bitter or drunk or crazy... and he was right.

How did Dr. Zoidberg come into creation? Personally my favourite character with his brilliant one liners

Hey! Someone already answered this for me. And worse yet, they were somewhat right (I created a video game for the Apple II in the 1980's called "ZOID". This game was only played by me and my dad, in case you're wondering why you never saw it .)

Going into a little more detail... when Matt and I were first working on the premise of the series, we thought it would be useful to have a doctor on the crew. My idea for Dr. Zoidberg was based on something that always bugged me about the original Star Trek. Namely: I always thought that if I were Mr. Spock, a Vulcan, I would not feel very comfortable having a doctor of another species operating on me. So the idea was that Dr. Zoidberg would be knowledgeable only about the bizarre anatomy of his own species.

It was only later that Dr. Zoidberg took on the deeper(?) aspects of his personality... being lonely, poor, smelly, pathetic in every way. Once we started down that path, it seemed funny to keep piling it on.

As a side note, that's a pretty good way to get an animated character going. Start with a one-joke character that people can understand, then add on later if and as the show continues.

Mr. Cohen, there are numerous Dungeons and Dragons references in the show. I was wondering if you played D&D. Do you still play? Was it a big influence on the scifi/fantasy theme?

Are you accusing me of being a nerd? ME? Okay, yes, I did play a fair amount of D&D in middle school/high school when I wasn't studying math and programming computer games, but that doesn't make me a nerd, not by any stretch of the imagination.

I haven't played recently but it was certainly a big influence on me. I often think writing for Futurama was a lot like an extended D&D game... sitting around a table, talking about weird creatures and eating junk food. Many similarities. It was quite exciting for me when Gary Gygax appeared as a guest star during the original run.

Iv'e always wondered when Bender says "I prefer extortion. The X makes it sound cool." was that in reference to you? Because I've always thought the X really made the "David Cohen" sound cool! Thanks for the AmA

I think it was a reference to me... I always assumed so, but the line was written by Ken Keeler so I'm not positive. I didn't ask him because I didn't want him to deflate my ego by giving me some other explanation.

Incidentally, "X" is a phony middle initial I made up because my real middle initial, "S", was already taken by another member of the Writers Guild. They won't allow two members to use the same name in order to avoid confusion in credits. I decided that once I was going phony, I would take the phoniest letter of all. It turned out to be a good move because it's easy to remember and debatably "cool".

Can you tell us one episode you wish you go back and improve or completely change?

In retrospect I concede we went to far when we first came back on Comedy Central, in our second episode "In-a-Gadda-Da-Leela". Zapp and Leela get marooned on an Eden-like planet and he tries to deceive her into sleeping with him. But looking back it's a bit rapey. It was very funny at times but may have hurt Zapp's character.

What's a storyline that you love that won't see the light of day now that the show was cancelled?

Josh Weinstein and I had a great idea for an episode involving a character moving (and talking) backward in time. The story was great, but it was exceedingly complicated, and it had one other minor problem -- it wasn't funny at all. Very grave and creepy. We spent three full days talking about it, though. Painful. Often when we get un-cancelled someone gets a new take on one of these half-dead ideas and suddenly it works. We'll see!

Captain Kirk or Captain Picard?

They both appeared as guests on Futurama! If I choose, I'm in trouble. Either Kirk will punch me, or Picard will ask Number One to ask Worf to punch me. So I better stay out of this.

Do (or did) you own the Toyota Supra in the extra feature on the DVDs about making the Christmas episode with Coolio?

Yeah! It was mine. I had always wanted that car because of the giant spoiler. It looked like a big Hot Wheels car. I'm not actually a car guy and I mainly drove it 3 miles an hour in L.A. traffic, but it was fun.

The press release announcing the cancellation seemed designed to avoid the kind of Internet riot that a cult cancellation is bound to inspire, and made a great effort to discourage any kind of potential fan campaign to keep it on the air. So, my question is: were you gritting your teeth when you provided your quotes for it? ;-)

It was tough because on the one hand, the show was cancelled, but on the other hand, we still had a whole new season coming up. So we wanted to get the word out but not make people think it was DONE done. Kind of a confusing situation.

Here's the quote I almost used for the press release: "I couldn't be more proud of this series. Except possibly if it hadn't been cancelled three times."

I have no hopes of this comment being read. Having said that, my question is this: how would you respond to a question that is competing against 1900 other comments in the first hour of your AMA?

Sorry, never saw this question. There were 1900 others.

How does it feel knowing some of the people that were kids when the show started are beginning to enter the entertainment industry, writing, etc.? Have you noticed "The Futurama Effect" in any recent movies or series?

Thank you so much for what you do/did, David. You probably don't want to hear this, but Futurama is one of the most important things in my life.

It is always shocking to me to hear full-grown human beings say they started watching "as a kid". In retrospect I was pretty much a kid when it started, so I guess that makes sense. Also, why would I not want to hear that? Say it again! Louder.


Thanks, Mom!

Hey David,

Just a quick question here. Can we expect anymore appearances, from Roberto the robot? Love that guy lol.

Yes! I love Roberto too. He makes his grand final appearance in our second to last episode, "Stench and Stenchibility", later this summer... an armed robbery of a character played by none other than Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones. So he's going out with a bang.


It's Cancelled? Nooooooooooooooooooo!

What do you think about Zoich as a proposed mascot for XXII Olympic games? How did you guys learn about it and who decided to feature it in Futurama?

Love it. Check it out on youtube. (Ironically, we contacted the artist who did it and got his permission to use his version of Hypnotoad.)

Why weren't there more Space Odyssey references? Its ripe for the picking.

That is, beyond the standard 2001 stuff like the ship going insane.

You my friend will enjoy episode 7ACV20 "Calculon 2.0" coming to your TV later this summer. Calculon (after coming back to life) performs his one man show of the life of Hal. This sequence is a writing staff favorite.

At San Diego Comic Con in 1996, I went up to the Bongo Comics booth because I'd heard Matt Groening was going to be there. I was 13, and I loved The Simpsons, so I wanted to meet him. When I got there, the person who was running the booth at the time told me that I had just barely missed the cut off to meet him. Instead of going into teenage rage mode, I was bummed. I just said: "aw," and remarked that The Simpsons was my favorite show. I thanked the woman at the booth anyways and walked away.

About five seconds later, the woman called after to me and asked me to come back to the booth. It turns out that Matt heard the entire exchange unbeknownst to me, and he had autographed a picture and drew a Bart Simpson head on it for me. He handed it to the lady who handed it to me. Free of charge. I lit up like a Christmas tree. I will take this memory with me to my grave. It was so nice of him.

My question is, can you show this to him and pass along my sincere thanks? I'm 30 years old now, and I've resolved that at some point in my life, I want to be able to tell this to him and thank him. However, I'm not exactly sure that I'll ever get that chance, so I just thought I would throw this out there. Thanks, either way.

Done. I just emailed it. Seriously. You owe me. Maybe draw me a picture or something.

You drew an English language exclamation mark on your "Hi, Reddit! DXC" AMA proof, instead of using the alien language [4 dots in diamond pattern]. I say "Impostor!".

You passed the test! Honestly I have mixed feelings about using symbols for the punctuation. It kind of muddles things up when you view it as a code-breaking exercise since there are alternate ways to punctuate sentences. It keeps me up at night a lot.

Straight up, I may never have another opportunity to say this, but thank you (and all your fellow colleagues) for making such a witty, brilliant, amazingly niche comedy that has brought uncounted laughs into my life. Seriously, and I know I'm not alone in thinking this, you guys have one of the best shows on television ever in the history of all things ever.

Wow, that's quite a softball question. Wait, there is no question. Go back and do it again and try a little harder.

THANKS, EVERYBODY! I (and Matt, and everyone who works on the show) deeply appreciate the support and the kind words and the anger at our cancellation, even the third time around.

As a special reward I have been authorized (okay, ordered) to provide a link to a never-before-seen clip from one of our few remaining episodes (sniffle). It's "The Inhuman Torch", coming up on July 10. Enjoy! Bye!


This interview was transcribed from an "ask me anything" question and answer session with David X. Cohen conducted on Reddit on 2013-07-01. The Reddit AMA can be found here.