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The TV-Show Futurama: Looking Backward at Present Day America

Examensarbeit 2005 71 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Sonstiges


Table of Contents

1 Introduction
1.1 Starting Point and Goals of this Thesis
1.2 Theoretical Background
1.2.1 Entertainment vs. Education
1.2.2 From 1984 to the year 3000
1.2.3 Allusion and Reference

2 The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave
2.1 Elections, Parties and Presidents
2.1.1 Disenchantment with Politics: 2 Parties, 1 Vote, No Choice
2.1.2 Disliking Nixon: Antipathy beyond Watergate
2.1.3 The Presidents of the United States:
Campaigning and Malpractice
2.2 Futurama and the Constitution
2.2.1 Amendment 1: Freedom and a Flag
2.2.2 Amendment 2: The Right to Bear Doomsday Devices
2.3 America’s Army: An Army of One?
2.3.1 Uncle Sam Wants You: Recruiting Practices
2.3.2 In the Army now: Offering Employment for Life
2.3.2a Decorated Heroes and Sacrificed Pawns
2.3.2b Futurama Boot Camp and Combat Action
2.3.2c Too Fit for Service? Women in the Military

3 Summary

4 Bibliography
4.1 List of Works Cited
4.2 List of Works Consulted
4.3 List of Internet Sources
4.4 List of Relevant Futurama Episodes
4.5 List of Movie and TV References
4.6 Table of Figures

1 Introduction

1.1 Starting Point and Goals of this Thesis

Born on February 15, 1954, in Portland,Oregon, Matt Groening became famous as the inventor of The Simpsons, which was first aired on December 17, 1989. So far, the show has been awarded ten Emmies, its merchandise makes millions of Dollars profit each year, and it has been broadcasted in more than 70 countries. Even George Bush mentioned The Simpsons during a speech in his presidential campaign on August 17, 1992: "Americans should be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons." Meanwhile, the fifteenth season is in progress and 300 employees are working on one single episode for eight months, disposing of a budget of approximately 1.5 Mio Dollars per episode. At the end of the 1990ies, Groening withdrew himself more and more from the production of The Simpsons and turned towards a new project: Futurama.

Together with his friend and colleague David X. Cohen, he developed the TV-show, set in New-New York of the year 3000. The protagonist Philip J. Fry, born in the outgoing 20th century, gets there via cryogenical freezing and is the most obvious connection between the world of Futurama and our present time. With his 20th-century-eyes he marvels at the wonders of the future, with his non-31st-century-compatible 20th-century-experiences he gets himself and his co-workers into trouble, and with his 20th-century-attitude he even manages to save the world – but only after the very same attitude of his 20th-century-coevals – us – endangered it. Futurama does not depict a society how Groening and Cohen expect it to be in the year 3000, it is more the idea of science fiction itself that it is concerned with.

Traditionally, science fiction goes for a sense of wonder with exotic aliens and nifty rocket ships and dastardly villains. We'll have those too - we have death rays and hideous mutants, cyborgs and bug-eyed monsters. And we have robots who want to kill all humans.[1]

Science fiction for the most part operates on a New Age military motif: If we can just follow orders from our benevolent captain then we can defeat the outside evil and everything will be great. Right? I am trying to do something a little bit different from Star Trek and Star Wars. I imagine a corporate, commercial, confusing world where the military is just as stupid as it is currently.[2]

The above quotations are taken from an interview and make clear that Matt Groening intended to employ and serve all clichés of science fiction. At the same time, he distances his work from science fiction-classics as Star Trek and Star Wars by painting a different picture of the future: In Star Trek mankind is united in peace; money and poverty no longer exist. Earth is part of the Federation, a strong alliance of different races and planets, exploring space, making contact with new species, and being victorious over evil outside forces that seek neither peace nor friendship. Gene Roddenberry created a utopia with a perfect human society and maybe he saw a chance for the world as it is today to develop itself into his vision. Groening describes his “vision of the future” in Futurama as corporate, commercial, and confusing, which is not what he expects it to be, and it is not necessarily valuing this world as good or bad. However, he gives away some of his opinion about the world as it is today in the same quotation: The military in Futurama “is just as stupid as it is currently”. Here is at least one feature of our present world that is part of Futurama ’s 31st century. What about the corporate, commercial, and confusing aspects? Groening once stated that in Futurama everything, not only the military, proceeds as it does today.[3]

Thus, the assumption of this thesis is that Futurama presents a stereotyped science fiction-world that deals with themes and problems of our present time. This becomes clear when looking at the excessive use of allusions and references to political and historical events as well as to popular and classical culture. The creators comment that way on topics that concern us – or at least should concern us – today. The task of this thesis will be to identify these topics and references (focusing on America as a political entity), and thereby discuss the points of criticism Futurama raises. Unfortunately, the production of the series was ceased after merely five seasons (72 episodes in total – distributed among only four seasons for the DVD-collection), but therefore the selection of episodes used for this paper stays on a concise level.

1.2 Theoretical Background

1.2.1 Entertainment vs. Education

It is a valid question whether an animated cartoon can be subject to a dissertation or not. It is important that it consistently comprises of satirical jokes as well as having the aspiration of teaching its viewers something; it has to make them think. A cartoon does not necessarily only have to be entertainment, neither requesting critical review nor treatment. Matt Groening describes Futurama like this:

It's about a pizza delivery boy named Fry who, on New Year's Eve 1999, gets inadvertently frozen in a cryogenics lab and wakes up 1,000 years later. The themes: If you are a loser, is it possible to reinvent yourself? How do you deal with the desire for youth, for the return of dead loved ones, and what does it mean to be finite in the universe? Boy, is this too pretentious or what?[4]

This quote reveals at least one field of knowledge Futurama is concerned with. It contains many philosophical problems, like the meaning of life, the nature of the universe, the existence of God, and the significance of religion; the political subjects dealt with are just as far-reaching. Naturally, Futurama is entertaining, but it also requires intelligent, literate, and educated viewers in order to be understood completely. All references to philosophy, politics, and other domains of culture concern problems that are up-to-date for us, the viewers, as my assumption in the Introduction supposes.

The idea of projecting problems of the present into the future has its genesis in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward 2000-1887[5]. Unlike famous dystopias like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Looking Backward draws a positive picture of the future in order to encourage his coevals to work towards the society he depicts. In contrast to that, dystopias use current events, like technological breakthroughs or political changes, consider a possible development and present a worst case scenario, which needs to be avoided. In the next two chapters it will be discussed whether Futurama stands in a dystopian tradition and in how far allusions to possible literary and other archetypes are important.

1.2.2 From 1984 to the year 3000

In 1939, the New World’s Fair in New York attracted millions of visitors who wanted to see what the world of tomorrow would be like. General Motors presented their “Futurama” exhibit, showing its visitors a future society without technological and social problems.[6] In Lesser of Two Evils (S02E07, chap 2, min 1:45)[7] Fry, Bender, and Leela visit Pastorama (a past-equivalent to the 1939 Futurama), confirming the origin of the title of the series. The title itself may sound like a utopia, the series suggests rather a comparison with dystopian classics; both have similar claims: dystopias are trying to influence the way we live in order to prevent dangerous social, scientific, or political developments, while Futurama – besides just entertaining us – tries to make us think about the way we live and the way we have lived.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

There are several utopian and anti-utopian elements in Groening’s cartoon: The planet earth of the year 3000 is ruled by a world government and is member of the DOOP (Democratic Order of Planets). Parallels to DOOP could be seen in the Federation in Star Trek as well as in the United Nations (UN) of our time (cp. S02E02, chap 2, min 1:48).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

As in Fry’s case, every earth-citizen is genetically examined by a Fate Assignment Officer, in order to determine his or her best professional aptitude (S01E01, chap 2, min 5:00)[8]. This is similar to the profession system in Huxley’s Brave New World, where all citizens are cloned, according to society’s needs of workers, leaders, and scientists and thereby split up in the α-, β-, γ-, and δ-groups. Leela rejects Fry’s objection that he does not like being a delivery boy – which is his assigned fate – by simply referring to the law: “You gotta do what you gotta do.” A poster advertising this slogan shows a worker with a sad look on his face enthusiastically holding up his thumb (S01E01, Chap 2, Min 5:54). Thus, the duty of each citizen is to perform the task assigned to him by the government and to function as a part of society, just like a part of a machine.

Such elements might be featured in most works concerning future social developments, but that does not necessarily make Futurama a dystopia. Not only is Groening familiar with the works of HG. Wells and George Orwell, he also admits to be influenced by them.

As a kid I saw the 1956 movie version of 1984 on TV. I kept watching this horrible Big Brother dystopia and waiting for the space patrol to rescue everybody. But the space patrol never came! I realized then, as disturbing as it was, that there were really fun possibilities in science fiction.[9]

Being asked whether he thinks that the world is getting better or worse, according to dystopian literature, Groening answered that when “reading 1984 as a kid [he] found it very creepy and nightmarish. [… But after rereading it, he] was surprised at how mild it was. Reality has gotten pretty bad”[10] he concluded. In the preface of Seeing Ear Theatre’s radio drama to Huxley’s Brave New World, the author, who acts as narrator for the broadcast, states following.

A quarter of a century has passed since the book was published. In that time, our world has taken so many steps in the wrong direction that if I were writing today, I would date my story not 600 years in the future but at the most 200.[11]

The realization that reality is getting scarily close to forecasts made in anti-utopian works, is a criticism of our present day culture.

1.2.3 Allusion and Reference

A lot of talented writers work on the show, half of them Harvard geeks. And, you know, when you study the semiotics of Through the Looking Glass or watch every episode of Star Trek, you’ve got to make it pay off, so you throw a lot of study references into whatever you do later in life.

Matt Groening[12]

We’re really writing a show that has some of the most esoteric references on television. I mean really, really, really, strange, odd, short little moments that very few people get and understand. We’re writing it for adults and intelligent adults at that.

David Mirking[13]

Matt Groening once said that “The Simpsons is a show that rewards you for paying attention.”[14] This statement is reaffirmed that repeat viewing of discrete episodes does not evoke tedium, rather it discloses yet more jokes than previously discovered. The same applies to Futurama; most of the episodes are full of hidden jokes and references. It is not only important to pay attention, furthermore, the show is designed for “intelligent adults” (see above), for well read persons, that is: “If you have read a few books, you will get more jokes.”[15] As already mentioned in the introduction, Futurama contains many references and allusions to TV-series, books, and – more or less well-known – historical and political events and persons. The significant difference, whether a link to an original outside Futurama is a reference or an allusion, is made by profound research and knowledge respectively. But what does that mean for the viewer?

An allusion is an intended reference that calls for associations that go beyond mere substitution of a referent. An ordinary reference allows us to easily substitute one term or phrase for another.[16]

In the episode That’s Lobstertainment, Dr. Zoidberg goes to Hollywood to visit his uncle, who used to be a famous comedian. Taking a sight-seeing tour, he passes the 30th Century Fox-building (S03E08, chap 2, min 4:55). Everybody who watches TV or goes to the cinema occasionally knows that this is a reference to the real production-company 20th Century Fox.

In Why Must I Be a Crustacean in Love, Fry helps Dr. Zoidberg in his approach towards a female on his home planet. While Zoidberg’s main concern is mating, Fry tries to convert him into a romantic (S02E05, chap 3, min 10:50). Apart from amusing scenes deriving from this constellation, only the viewer with the appropriate previous knowledge recognizes the allusion to Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Thus, it requires certain knowledge and a certain awareness to understand Futurama in its whole profundity.

2 The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave

“Welcome to the world of tomorrow.” These are the first words Fry hears as he awakens in the year 3000; but actually Groening’s fictional futuristic world is very much like our world today. The following subchapters will be concerned with several aspects of the United States’ democratic system, regarding their electoral system, the office of President and some of its incumbents, as well as some political and democratic aspects of the U.S. Military. The topics will be introduced and discussed, while regarding their relevance for our time. The subchapters will mostly concentrate on one episode mainly which is concerned with the current topic. Although the relevant episodes are very yielding for their field of analysis, relevant scenes from other episodes will also be investigated.

2.1 Elections, Parties and Presidents

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(S02E03, chap 4, min 18:09)

This quotation gives an insight into Nixon’s character as Matt Groening sees him. Furthermore, it hints towards another important topic of the episode A Head in the Polls: The importance of registering and voting. While the 2004-presidential election of the United States had the highest voter participation for decades (around 60%), the turnout of previous elections was rather weak. The biannual elections for the House of Representatives achieve an almost equally high voter participation, but only if they are held together with the elections for president; in the years in between the presidential elections the turnout is dramatically lower.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig 4 - Voter Participation

A reason for this kind of voting behavior may be found when comparing it to that of other democratic countries. A Table in Democracy under Pressure shows the voting turnout of elections for the national legislation in other nations.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig 5 - Voting Turnouts

A towering majority of the presented examples surpasses the turnout of US-elections. Percentages of ninety and more percent stem from compulsory voting and/or registration (Australia, Belgium, and New Zealand). Some of the governments of these countries, e.g. Great Britain and Germany, register their voters themselves.[17] Citizens can be preliminary excluded from the process, just like Bender:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(S02E03, chap 2, min 3:37)

Such an exceptional rule does not suffice to explain the low voter participation in the United States – crime rates are not that high. The United States are the only country where it is the citizen’s responsibility to exert oneself for receiving the right to vote. Cummings and Wise mention a presidential commission that concluded that “the average American is far more likely to vote if few barriers stand between him and registration.”[18] And indeed, Idaho, for example, that “used roving canvassers to remind people to register to vote [had a significantly higher voter participation] than the national average.”[19] Thus, the arguably highest hurdle on the citizen’s way to the polling booth seems to be that he himself has to take the initiative.

It is to assume that the percentage of non-voting registered voters is much lower than that of non-registered citizens. Nevertheless, it still might appear unnecessary to the individual to take the initiative of registering and voting, depending on his or her domicile. In the US-American voting-system, the winner takes all, therefore the votes for the loser of an electoral district are lost and do not count in the final result. Thus, if a constituency is traditionally Democratic or Republican, it will be more than unlikely that the competing party will win that district. This means that the absence of the voters of the underrepresented party does not influence the outcome of the election at all. It seems that the reason for America’s weak voting-participation lies within the system, which hampers the citizens to exert their right to vote and leaves millions of votes unvalued. That problem and Groening’s approach to it will be subject of the next subchapter.

2.1.1 Disenchantment with Politics: 2 Parties, 1 Vote, No Choice

Futurama takes this topic on by using Fry and Bender as stereotypical consumption-depraved and politically unenlightened persons. At the beginning of A Head in The Polls (S02E03, chap 2, min 0:30) the two are sitting in front of the TV, watching The Scary Door, a skit of mystery TV series like Twilight Zone[20] and Outer Limits.[21] It reports about the last man on Earth, trying to enjoy solitude by reading books “for all eternity.” Suddenly he breaks his glasses, but consoles himself by turning towards the large print books. Then his eyes fall out, but fortunately he knows how to read Braille. Then his arms and head fall off. Fry and Bender discuss the utterly stupid programme; both shudder and are given the creeps. Bender’s analysis of the just seen (“Cursed by his own hubris.” S02E03, chap 2, min 1:30) is simply inapt and excessively profound. Leela joins them and switches to a presidential debate featuring the candidates, John Jackson and Jack Johnson. Bender and Fry fall asleep immediately.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(S02E03, chap 2, min 2:32)

Not only are they not very well versed in politics, Fry and Bender do not have the slightest interest in it.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(S02E03, chap 2, min 2:32)

Fry is not registered. Casually, he mentions that he is not vaccinated either. It is well known and very obvious that it is careless and irresponsible not to be vaccinated; the same attributes could be assigned to not-voting. Someone who does not get his tetanus-shot might think that he will not need it anyway, but if an infection occurs and he or she has to bear the consequences, the “inconvenience” of going to the doctor and getting vaccinated seems slight. It is the same with voting: one might think that a single vote does not make a difference, considering the millions of other voters, but every each and single vote determines who gets to represent and run a country. Only the votes of a majority of the citizens can guarantee that lunatic fringes do not come to power. This is also on the behalf of those who are not going to the polls. Groening gives the same regard to both voting and vaccination, because both are equally as important and necessary and should go without saying. Fry gives both the same disregard, because he is obviously being incapable of being responsible.

In Futurama, New New York offers its citizens an incentive to register, so the Planet Express-Crew goes to a “registration fair”. A banner over the entrance to the venue promises: “FIRST 100 CUSTOMERS GET EXTRA VOTE” (S02E03, chap 2, min 3:14). Fry and the others inspect the assortment of political parties, which are presenting their political agendas: The Futurama -equivalent of the Democrats are the Tastycrats, while the the Fingerlicans refer to the Republicans.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(S02E03, chap 2, min 3:17)

This conversation tells the big parties and the third parties apart. Socio-politically, the two big parties do not differ much (only in their approach); the third parties seem to offer “real alternatives” to the political agenda of the big parties. Since “only weirdoes and mutants join third parties,” it is conjecturable that their political goals are very special. There are several third parties represented at the “registration fair” too. Some of them with and some of them without real-life examples:

- The Green Party, represented by green-colored aliens
- One Cell, One Vote, a party of colossal unicellular life forms
- Dudes for the Legalation of Hemp, a party with a single goal
- The NRA, written out in full as the National Ray-Gun Association
- People for the Ethical Treatment of Humans, represented by Martians
- The Brain Slug Party, a party of parasites, manipulating their aboulic human hosts
- The Voter Apathy Party, a contradiction in terms

Other Parties present are the Rainbow Whigs, the Antisocialists, and the Bull Space Moose Party. Some of them are merely gags, but the others refer to real parties or political topics. The discussions, the protagonists have with the party representatives, reveal some typical voter notions and bear some statements of the Futurama team on political topics.

- The Green Party is of course referring to the actual Greens, those political parties which are especially concerned with the environment. Concurrently it alludes to the Martians, which are representing the party in A Head in The Polls, and are also referred to as “Little Green Men”.
- The One Cell, One Vote Party refers to the slogan of the women’s movement “One Woman, One Vote”. This mere reference gag provokes in another context. It raises the question after its right to exist. Unicellular life-forms – even though they are organized in a party in Futurama – are too simple to be even able to have an opinion, let alone consciousness or apperception. Every democracy knows the phenomenon of small third parties, which represent such small factions, that their political influence is almost nonexistent. These parties are represented in Futurama by such exotics.

There were only two American 3rd Parties in the 20th century that were quite successful: Ross Perot with his Reform Party gained 19 percent of the 1992 Presidential Election. This was the highest result a third party ever achieved since Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party, which received 27 percent of the votes in 1912.[22] The Bull Moose Party is caricatured by the Bull Space Moose Party that is present at the registration fair. “The party's popular nickname of Bull Moose was derived from its characteristics of strength and vigor often used by Roosevelt to describe himself.”[23] None of the attributes describing Roosevelt seem to apply to the Bull Moose sitting in the booth. This reference seems to simply comment on that uncommon and admittedly funny name for a party.

Prof. Farnsworth informs himself at the NRA-counter (S02E03, chap 2, min 4:18), the contents of this conversation will be attended to under 2.2.2 The Right to Bear Doomsday Devices.

Brain slugs are small gelatinous alien life-forms, which suck themselves to human heads and control the brains of their victims. The humans then serve their parasites by carrying out all orders, even those that harm them. The Brain Slug Party is represented by a man and a woman, both with Brain Slugs on their heads and staring into space.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(S02E03, chap 2, min 3:48)

Fry tries to get informed but his mistrust of politicians prevents that he really understands what they are saying. He assumes empty promises behind political agendas and is biased against them. Attaching brain slugs to the working man would actually mean to enslave him. This is more a threat than a promise. Fry does not grasp that, because he takes everything told by politicians for a lie and does not really listen. Admittedly, it really occurs that promises are made during campaigns but not kept in the term of office. Bender and Professor Farnsworth know about such a case.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Bender: Ah, yes! John Quincy Adding Machine. He
struck a chord with the voters when he pledged
not to go on a killing spree.

Prof.: But, like most politicians he promised more
than he could deliver.

Leela: The point is, one vote can make a difference.
And even though it won't, I'm still taking you
to get registered.

Prof.: Yes, let’s all go register.

Fry: Since when did you become so obsessed with

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(S02E03, chap 2min 2:42)

In this scene, Groening stresses once more the importance of voting. At the same time he addresses again the paradox of the single vote, which can make a difference without really making it. Additionally, he brings up the cliché that elderly people are obsessed with voting, although they are not too much engaged in society anymore. However, this scene can also be understood differently: Since wisdom is the virtue of old age, Professor Farnsworth realized the importance of voting as soon as he was ‘wise’ enough to do so. The name of the Robot President John Quincy Adding Machine is a reference to John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States. There is nothing in Adams’ biography that indicates any allusion connected with Adding Machine’s name, empty promises, and/or killing spree; apparently, Adams has been chosen rather randomly as an eponym for this anecdote. But what is interesting, is Professor Farnsworth’s comment on politicians. According to him politicians break their promises very often.

These examples express deep disappointment and also mistrust towards politicians. It seems to be the fruit of unsuccessful political commitment and the realization that it is not always the good and right things that prevail. Yet, it is rather unlikely that Groening and his co-writers only want to express their frustration.

I want to show that the authorities are not on your side, even though they want you to believe that […]. Their rules are not in your interest but on their own behalf. What we are trying to get across in both series [ Futurama and The Simpsons ] is: Don’t believe everything you’re told.[24]

Groening claims to try and raise the viewer’s awareness and his ability to think critically. Firstly, he leads Fry’s opinion on voting ad absurdum with the vaccination-comparison. Then he brings up many prejudices and political clichés. The following subchapters on Richard Nixon and other real US- and fictitious Earth-Presidents will deepen the insight of which clichés and prejudices Groening uses.


[1] Kelly

[2] ibid.

[3] cp. Rauscher

[4] Kelly

[5] cp. Miller

[6] cp. History Study Aid

[7] References to Episodes are sorted after broadcast; the DVD mapping can be found under 4.5.

[8] Every reference to Futurama in this paper will be quoted like this: season, episode, DVD-
chapter, running time.

[9] Kelly

[10] ibid.

[11] Seeing Ear Theatre

[12] Irwin. p. 61

[13] Irwin. p. 61

[14] ibid.

[15] ibid. p. 92

[16] ibid. p. 82

[17] cp. Cummings. p. 360

[18] Cummings. p. 359

[19] ibid.

[20] The Twilight Zone (USA), 1985. – all movies and TV series referred to in this paper will be
listed like this: director: title (country) year.

[21] Outer Limits, (USA), 1994.

[22] cp. Boyer. p. 1066

[23] Encyclopædia Britannica Online. “Bull Moose.”

[24] Tuncel. p. 157 (retranslated by Christian Schlegel)


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
810 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz – Amerikanistik
Futurama Simpsons Culture Studies Politics Amerikanistik American Studies Groening pop culture social criticism Gesellschaftskritik Politik Military Elections US Wahlen Nixon



Titel: The TV-Show Futurama: Looking Backward at Present Day America