Futurama's David X. Cohen on the trials and errors of love, comedy, and science | TV | Interview | The A.V. Club
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AVC: Some of the sci-fi concepts in the later episodes get pretty intricate. Generally speaking, do you feel that you loosened your approach to the “science” in science fiction as the series went along? Or was that the result of taking it more seriously?
DXC: Both of those. We loosened up with the [genre definition of] sci-fi. We did a fantasy movie that was in the realm of Lord Of The Rings, and those kind of fantasy books that we had steered clear of. In terms of the actual science, I think we did take it more seriously as we went along. That’s actually one of the most interesting aspects of this show, I think: At the beginning, we were very nervous about how seriously to take the science, the real science. And also the science fiction, honestly. Because when you’re doing a comedy/science-fiction show the question arises: “Are we making fun of science fiction, or are we doing ‘funny science fiction?’” It’s a subtle distinction. We quickly found that to take the sci-fi story seriously worked much better, and we worked harder and harder over the years to come up with what I would say are serious sci-fi stories, and then lay the comedy on top of it, but without undercutting the sci-fi story or setting itself.
One of the rules we had in the beginning that we stuck to a little bit better was actually written on a white board: “Science Shall Not Overrule Comedy.” We wanted as much as possible to honor real comedy and show that we knew what we were making fun of, but when push came to shove, make sure that the show was funny, and not a dry lecture. Whenever we violated the laws of physics—for example, when the ship goes faster than the speed of light—we always tried to indicate to viewers that, even though we’re violating science, we understand what it is we’re violating. For example, we did an episode where we explained that, no, they’re not going faster than the speed of light; science had readjusted the speed of light in the year 2999, or whenever. We always try to tip the fans off that we’re not violating science out of ignorance.
We actually had quite a good representation of science on our writing staff. Three Ph.Ds—Ken Keeler, Jeff Westbrook, and Bill Odenkirk—worked extensively on the writing staff of Futurama. We did one episode in our modern era of the show, on Comedy Central, where Ken Keeler wrote a mathematical theorem, for our brain-switching episode, “The Prisoner Of Benda.” A question arose: “Could this machine that could switch people’s brains—but not switch them back—get everybody’s brains back into their respective bodies, if it kept switching them through intermediaries?” It was actually not clear to us, when we first thought about this device, that it was possible. Ken proved the theorem, which we actually flashed onscreen, for one second, so as not to distract the people who weren’t interested, but to show the people who were interested what was going on. I feel super proud of that. When you think what did we do in the history of Futurama that you would never seen on any other show, that’s always at the head of the list.