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Where the ‘Futurama’ is now

Special to The Times

Matt Groening hearkens back to his days a rock music critic, his day job before creating “The Simpsons,” in describing another one of his creations.

“I feel about ‘Futurama’ the way Paul McCartney must feel about Wings,” Groening says with a characteristic laugh. “It’s tough to compare anything to ‘The Simpsons,’ but I’m incredibly proud of ‘Futurama.’ The show is still alive, even though it’s no longer supported by its original network, Fox. It’s on Cartoon Network now. We’re still working on ‘Futurama’ comic books and toys, and we’ve been talking about ‘Futurama’ movies. Just a few days ago, fans of the program submitted a petition to save it that had 130,000 signatures. Even by TV standards that’s pretty amazing.”

The first season of Groening’s Emmy- and Writers’ Guild Award-winning send-up of science fiction movies and TV shows arrived on a three-disc DVD set Tuesday. The show ran from 1999 through 2003 (although Cartoon Network, which last year picked up rights off-network rights to the show’s 72 episodes, hasn’t decided whether to continue running it beyond this season) -- hardly a flop but far behind the phenomenal success of “The Simpsons.”

In many ways, “Futurama” was a more difficult program to create than “The Simpsons.” Groening and some of the other artists involved in the series discussed the challenges recently.

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“The Simpsons” centers on a family of more or less human characters in a suburban setting. “Futurama” demanded much more extensive design work. The artists had to create a world that spoofed the cliches of the sci-fi genre and preserved the look of Groening’s original drawings, but in which things were still recognizable.

“The science-fiction aspect of the show makes it very complicated -- we have to work out how aliens and robots walk and talk,” says producer Claudia Katz of the Rough Draft animation studio. “When we first got the show, we worked with Matt to flesh out all the designs. The more polished the drawings got, the more we wished we could go back to his originals -- there’s something about Matt’s drawings that captures a personality, and they’re funny. The question became how do we clean them up yet keep that personality.”

“Futurama” co-creator David X. Cohen, who shares duties as executive producer, recalls, “Matt would do 10 or 20 of these very rough scribbles in a row, putting a new sheet of paper on top of the last one, tracing what he liked and changing whatever he wasn’t happy with. He’d come up with something that was really funny to look at and had a lot of personality, but it was messy. Design director Bill Morrison would take Matt’s sketch and do a beautiful cleaned-up version of it, but it would lose a little of the goofiness.

“So Matt would take that drawing and goof it up a little more. They’d go back and forth, until they found the one that was simple and clean enough to be drawn 8 million times but still had the personality Matt was shooting for.”

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Although everyone recognized the importance of preserving what Groening calls “my basic chinless, bulgy-eyed, overbite, doodle style,” they also knew that they needed to give “Futurama” a graphic identity that would distinguish it from “The Simpsons.” Bill Morrison notes, “Unlike any other animated series, ‘The Simpsons’ has had hundreds of characters. How do you design new characters that don’t look like ones that have already been done in Matt’s style?’ It was a real challenge to keep it fresh and different, so people wouldn’t look at a character and say, ‘That’s just a rehash of Mr. Burns.’ ”

They solved the problem by pushing the character designs in strange directions: Leela, the heroine, became a Cyclops. “I was a big fan of Emma Peel, the Diana Rigg character on ‘The Avengers,’ ” says Groening. “I wanted to draw a strong, beautiful female character who could [fight] and still be sexy. But I couldn’t let it alone; I gave her one eye.” Fry, the hapless delivery boy transported to the future, was given spiky cowlicks to make him recognizable in silhouette. Dr. Zoidberg suggested a cross between a manatee and a lobster.

Looking back over the series, Groening cites a few favorite moments: “We had Al Gore on the show twice, that was a thrill, and Stephen Hawking. But I think our finest moment was reuniting the entire cast of the original ‘Star Trek’: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and all the other actors, who played themselves. We basically made a new ‘Star Trek’ episode.”

“Every episode on the DVD has what I guarantee are the liveliest audio commentaries you’ll ever hear,” he says. “We have the actors Billy West, John Di Maggio and Maurice LaMarche, along with the relatively subdued writers and animators. They not only comment on the show, they act out their own show as Dr. Zoidberg, the Professor, Bender the Robot and the rest.”

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Top that, Paul McCartney.


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