DM: When I talked to Billy [West], he mentioned that the writers are always trying to sneak in scientific references. How much do you try to get that part of your background into the show? Are there specific things that you were glad you snuck in?
DXC: There are people with much better science resumes than me writing on it: We have a writer, Ken Keeler, who has a PhD in applied math, and in the past we’ve had two other PhDs working on the show: Bill Odenkirk with a PhD in chemistry, and Jeff Westbrook with a PhD in computer science. So, all of us have an agenda.
We try to stick [those jokes] in the background: maybe on a chalkboard if the professor is lecturing, or floating in four-dimensional space if they’re in a weird land of floating equations. Those are all things that you can do in animation that would be… difficult to do in a live action comedy.
As for me, it started when I wrote for the Simpsons, which is what I was doing before Futurama started. And there was one episode, which was in the early days of 3D animation, where we did part of a Simpsons Halloween episode in 3D, and there were some equations floating around.
I wrote that portion of that script, and I snuck in a little reference to Fermat’s Last Theorem in the background, which had not been proven at the time. I wanted to show what appeared to be a counter-example disproving the theorem, and I wrote a computer program to find some very near misses to being counter examples to the equation—A to the N plus B to the N equals C to the N—that were so close to being correct that, on a standard calculator with eight digits, it would appear that I had found a counter example, due to people’s calculators rounding up. So I put one floating in the background, and to my great delight, when I checked the Internet over the next few days, people said, “What’s going on here? He seems to have disproved Fermat’s Last Theorem.”
DM: Do people contact you directly about stuff like that? Or is it more glee for you to go through fan pages and find out if people got the joke?
DXC: It’s mainly me trolling around secretly, and monitoring people’s reactions. But there are websites that keep track of these things, and there’s a mathematician at Appalachian State University named Sara Greenwald who actually lectures on the mathematics on the Simpsons and Futurama. I’ve gotten to meet her a couple of times. We even filmed a lecture she did and put it as an extra on one of our DVDs.
That’s a sign that some real, actual mathematicians are taking notice. So, that is a badge of pride for us.
DM: The show itself is sort of rife with references to old sci-fi and not-that-old sci-fi. Were you a big sci-fi nerd growing up?
DXC: I would say I was a big nerd, but a medium-sized sci-fi nerd. I was certainly a sci-fi fan, but not to the degree that I dressed-up in costume or went to conventions. But I enjoyed reading sci-fi, and I am probably most influenced by the original Star Trek. That’s a big influence on Futurama, just in the sense that we have a ship flying around with this mismatched crew doing stuff that—although it’s in the future—we attempt to make relevant to our life today. Of course, I view Star Trek as the straight line, and our version, hopefully, as the satirical, humorous variant on it.
DM: But rather than Star Trek’s utopian, clean version of the future, you have suicide machines and leaking robots.
DXC: That was a big topic of discussion between me and Matt Groening when we were first talking out the idea for the show. What type of future do we want to portray? Do we want it to be utopia, or do we want it to be a horrible dystopia, which were the two things you usually see? And ultimately, we said, “Well, wait a second. If the idea of this show is that it be relatable in some way, even though it’s set in crazy future with space ships and bunches of aliens, we probably can’t make it all grim or all wonderful, but it has to be more parallel to life today.” So, we tried to steal from everything.
Therefore, we have the suicide booth on the one hand, for those characters who find the future unbearable. But we also have some really great stuff, tube-ways and rocket ships that can whisk you around to amazing places and relative harmony between the robots and the humans—most of the time. Things are working out about as well as they are now, it’s just that there are more cool things to look at. We have been able to tell a lot of stories that are relatable and don’t feel just like we’re going to random planets populated by random monsters. I think people do see an element of today’s world in our future—at least on the episodes where we succeed.
DM: So would you stick it out if you found yourself accidentally transported to the Futurama 31st century, or head for the suicide booth?
DXC: Oh, I’d certainly stick it out. It seems pretty awesome to me to hang out with a giant lobster and a girl with one eye.
I should add: The suicide booth never seems to work right, anyway. So even that’s not quite as bad as it sounds.
DM: If you want to kill yourself in the future, you can’t.
DXC: Right, and Bender has personally inserted his coin into the suicide booth about 35 times, and he’s still walking around. There’s always a malfunction there to save the day.
DM: Is that part of the accessibility that you were referring to? In a lot of sci-fi, whether it’s dystopian or utopian, everything seems to work. But, in Futurama, nothing ever works.
DXC: That’s right. That’s another theme. I’m afraid I’ll have to swear you to secrecy, now. You’ve hit upon the formula. Show the fabulous invention, and then have it not work. Pretty good formula.
Next: The laws of physics and heads in jars