Each Episode of 'Futurama' Takes at Least a Year to Make

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Executive producer David X. Cohen describes the Comedy Central show's creative process.

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Futurama TM and © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

The seeds of the animated sci-fi comedy Futurama—which returns for its seventh season on Comedy Central tonight—can be seen in the college career of executive producer David X. Cohen. He graduated from Harvard with a B.A. in Physics while serving as president of the Harvard Lampoon, the school's legendary comedy magazine. In the 13 years since its initial premiere, Futurama has earned a group of loyal, obsessive fans by combining offbeat (and often off-color) humor with a genuine commitment to science and science-fiction.

Futurama premiered on Fox in 1999 after a four-year development process between Cohen and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening. Fox declined to renew the show after its fourth season ended in 2003, but the success of fourdirect-to-DVD movies released from 2007 to 2009—the last of which was originally designed to serve as a definitive end to the series—inspired Comedy Central to revive Futurama for a string of all-new episodes. The series returned for its sixth season in 2010, and went on to earn its second Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program (for the episode "The Late Philip J. Fry").

As series developer, head writer, and executive producer, Cohen has shepherded Futurama through its many ups and downs since 1999. In advance of the series' seventh-season premiere, Cohen explains the complex, collaborative creative process that goes into creating each new episode of Futurama, and shares storyboards from tonight's first episode, "The Bots and the Bees."


It's usually somewhere in the vicinity of a year from the beginning of a Futurama episode to the day when you can see it on TV. With "The Bots and The Bees," we actually started working last March. It's a very long haul, and most of it is taken up by the animation. It all starts with a general discussion—"What are some stories we haven't done before?"—which is becoming tricky, now that we're up to almost 140 episodes.

Once we have an idea, one of the writers gets assigned to go write an outline, which I usually work on with them. We go back and forth, and the writer eventually writes a script based on that. Then the real work begins. All the writing staff sits around a table, and we grind through the first draft on a word-by-word, scene-by-scene basis: make it shorter, and funnier, and more dramatic, and make more sense out of it. Everything is on the table, but if we decide at that point to throw out a whole storyline, it's a lot of work. The more we can nail things down at the outline stage, the better off we are. You don't want to pitch a hundred jokes on a part of the story you're going to cut. Next, the actors come in to do a table read. We hear what it sounds like, make some changes, and record it like a radio show. We hand that off to the animators, and then it's their problem. [laughs]

The animators usually have a script for about six months. They get a month or two in the U.S. working on the storyboards [...] which become an "animatic" halfway along the way. It's sort of a pencil version of the show. Maybe one drawing per second—much jerkier than the normal animation you'd see—but it gives us a general sense of how they're planning to stage everything.

We give feedback to the animators about how we think the jokes are playing, and do a little bit of a rewrite there. The same thing happens again when the color animation comes back from South Korea, where they do the coloring and the in-between frames. We can do a little bit of punch-up there. Any big changes we make have to be done fairly quickly, and it's fairly expensive at that point. But thanks to the miracle of modern digital editing, we can change lines, by cutting out the character's mouth and reordering the mouth position.

It's such a long feedback loop. We write something, and we don't know what the fans are going to think—or even what we're going to think, when our minds are clear of it and we watch it a year later. You write an episode, you watch it a year later and decide, "Oh, I like that, I'm going to keep going in that direction" and write another episode—that's not on for another year. So it's really a two-year feedback loop, at minimum.

In "The Bots and the Bees," the Planet Express crew gets a new soda machine, and Bender impregnates it, which leads to the birth of a baby robot [named Ben]. If that sounds unlikely, by the way, we've included an educational film that teaches us about robot dating and reproduction. It all makes perfect sense. [laughs] Since Bender's whirlwind romance with this soda machine gets a little argumentative, we needed somebody who could go toe-to-toe with Bender, who's a pretty loud, forceful character himself. We wrote the script and went, "Who is funny enough and loud enough to be in a scene with Bender?" [Guest star] Wanda Sykes seemed like someone who had the force of personality.

If you introduce a kid into the show and take it too seriously, you change the show—that "Cousin Oliver" thing. We definitely didn't want to have that feel, and by making it a robot, it tones it down a little bit. We tried to introduce him, get our moments of parental joy and heartbreak, and shove him out the door, so you wouldn't feel like the show was changing. [...] We worry about continuity. If [series protagonists] Fry and Leela get married and have a baby, is that where we want the show to be? It might make one good episode, but you lose ten episodes where Fry comes up with the grand romantic gesture. We have to be very careful, but we have gone a little deeper into that [this season], and tried to make it have a bigger, grander arc. It's going to culminate with a grand, grand finale next summer, which—as many times before—may be our last episode ever. But it's our fourth "last episode ever," so...

David X. Cohen, as told to Scott Meslow

Read past First Drafts from Wilco, Will Shortz, Stephen King, Christo, and others.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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