Many explanations have been offered for the creative decline of The Simpsons, from standard seasonal rot to the alleged tyranny of former showrunner Mike Scully. But one of the most persistent theories has been that when Matt Groening created Futurama with Simpsons writer David X. Cohen, he took the best of The Simpsons’ staff with him. While the work of Cohen and other former Simpsons scribes who migrated to Futurama like Ken Keeler, Bill Oakley, and Josh Weinstein cannot be overlooked, the truth of the series’s fall from grace is far more complicated.
But it’s not hard to see why the Futurama theory is so appealing. Futurama came about right when The Simpsons started to lose its fastball. And though Futurama has had its fourth, and presumably final, series finale, while The Simpsons marches on, in many ways Futurama feels like the spiritual successor to The Simpsons’ greatest years. No other show has been better able to replicate the peculiar alchemy of Springfield—the combination of a cynical worldview, a devotion to absurdist humor, and an undeniable grounding in real heart and character moments—than Futurama.
Which is why I was less tentative about this Sunday’s crossover between the two series than I was for The Simpsons crossover with Family Guy. There’s a better fit with The Simpson Family and the Planet Express Crew than with the denizens of Quahog. Bender has made a number of cameos in Springfield. Dan Castellaneta, who voices Homer Simpson, has more than left his mark on Futurama with his recurring role as The Robot Devil. And the two shows even crossed over in comic book form years ago.1
And like the Simpsons/Family Guy crossover, this episode was helmed by someone with experience on both shows. J. Stewart Burns2 penned Futurama classics like “A Head in the Polls” and “Roswell That Ends Well” and stand out latter-day Simpsons episodes like “There’s Something About Marrying” and “Eternal Moonshine of The Simpson Mind”. He’s also no stranger to taking The Simpson Family into the future, having written “Holidays of Future Past” and “Days of Future Future”, which take place decades after the ever-changing “present day” of the show’s setting, and feature several Futurama-style technology gags.3
Despite those sterling credentials and the better meld between The Simpsons and Futurama, the shows did not really need a crossover. While it was perfectly pleasant to see Bender, Fry, and Leela again, Futurama ended with a fair amount of grace and without much more ground to cover. The Simpsons continues to wage war against Gunsmoke’s record for most episodes, but threatens to live up to the crossover’s tagline “A show out of ideas teams up with a show out of episodes.”
But even if neither show truly demanded a crossover, it was nevertheless worthwhile. The story itself was nearly laser-focused by latter-day Simpsons standards. Bender travels back in time with no memory of why he’s been sent to Springfield and strikes up a not-all-that-unlikely friendship with Homer. After some questions and machinations from Lisa and Professor Frink, Bender regains his memory and remembers his mission to kill Homer and save New New York from an attack by mutant rabbits with the Simpson patriarch’s DNA.4
When Bender doesn’t have the robo-stomach to kill his new friend, Professor Farnsworth, Fry, and Leela come back in time as well, and discover that the mutant rabbits actually derived from Bart, after his class’s time capsule combined Milhouse’s lucky rabbit’s foot, Mr. Burns’s radioactive ooze, and a mucus-filled sandwich from Bart himself. With a little ingenuity from Lisa and the Professors, the day is saved; the flesh-wads go back to the year 3000, and Bender shuts down and waits for the future in The Simpsons’ basement.5
While the crossover will no doubt be considered a travesty by continuity nerds, it’s a fun mix of the two shows if you don’t take it too seriously and consider it as something of an extreme Treehouse of Horror episode. The teamup of Professors Frink and Farnsworth with Lisa provided a surprisingly endearing nerd triumvirate. The Planet Express crew traveling to Springfield and The Simpsons venturing to New New York worked without feeling too cheeky or forced. And the tag featuring the Omicronians having Kang and Kodos over for dinner made for an easy fit.
There were also tons of little crossover gags for devoted fans. Bender’s chest cavity attack on Homer resembled the “slow and horrible” setting for one of New New York’s many suicide booths.6 Lisa’s skilful playing of the holophoner was a natural extension of her talent at the saxaphone. And while completely contradicting the established continuity, the Planet Express crew having a missed connection with Fry’s dog Seymour in Springfield made me laugh as well.7
But the bulk of the episode, and the point where it was the strongest, came from pairing up Homer and Bender. Many of the early complaints about Futurama centered on its characters’ similarities to their yellow-skinned counterparts. Fry was compared to a teenage Homer or an older Bart, sharing their laziness and stupidity, but also Homer’s propensity to be an oaf with a heart of gold. By contrast, Bender shared more in the side of Homer that is the personification of an unrelenting id, with a solid helping of Bart’s natural mischievousness and thirst for mayhem, and even a fair amount of the “Jerkass Homer” characterization that diehard Simpsons fans came to despise.8
While Futurama’s characters definitely came into their own and established distinct personalities, it’s not hard to see the basis for the comparison in how well Bender slots into Homer’s world of beer, bowling, and as Homer puts it, bromance.9 Bender was given the most to do of any of the Futurama characters in the episode, and the ease with which he integrates into The Simpsons’ world made his focus a strength. Bart and Lisa pointing out the similarity of Homer and Bender’s character designs poked gentle fun at Groening’s art and those common characteristics, and Homer and Bender’s tender moment at the end of the episode had an undercurrent of sweetness to it that buoyed the madcap nature of the main plot. While not nearly as earned, that coda worked for many of the same reasons that Bender’s bond with Fry works. As the Futurama episode where Bender and Fry have to be taken to karate practice showed, there’s something about grown men having a friendship like ten year old boys that’s somehow endearing.10
If I have one complaint about the episode, it’s that the rest of the Planet Express crew were shortchanged by comparison. I don’t mind that the appearances of Amy, Hermes, and Scruffy were mostly perfunctory.11 But for being the focus of the show, Fry and Leela had just a handful of lines between them. While the Family Guy crossover felt overstuffed with filler, this one seemed like there was more to flesh out in the rich universes of the two series.
Despite that gripe, the episode was full of the kind of zany sci-fi fun that Futurama fans came to expect and the amusing character interactions that modern day Simpsons fans hope for; it was well plotted, and, lest I forget, funny! While some gags were a little too cute by half, there were no real duds, and a number of good laughs and nice touches. Crossovers cannot be all things to all people, especially in twenty-two minutes. But at their best, they make you laugh; they make you smile, and they put two worlds together in fun and interesting ways. “Simpsorama” accomplished this and more, and is a worthy addition to both series’ hallowed non-canon.
Odds and Ends
- Look, it’s always nice to see Hedonism Bot, Morbo & Linda, and even dear old Scruffy, but with Futurama cancelled, the least J. Stewart Burns could do is give us one scene with twenty-five star general Zapp Brannigan, possibly hitting on an oblivious Marge.
- I had a mild chuckle when the hole for the time capsule began filling with radioactive goo, and a nervous Mr. Burns dissembled, “that could be anyone’s ooze.” I had a bigger laugh when the atomic energy inspector surfaced in it.
- Kent Brockman’s teleprompter gag was funnier when Anchorman did it.
- Bender’s arrival in Springfield coincided with an electrical storm. If it hits the Van Allen Belt, Homer ought to look out for Lard Lad.
- Speaking of which, the Bart mutants resembled the gremlin Bart saw in Treehouse of Horror IV.
- I got a kick out of Homer reading “How to Read a Book in Bed”
- “Blade-rummy” is the height of Moe wordplay.
- Other fun continuity gags: Bender in a Pin Pals Shirt, a quick shot of Binky with graffiti reading “Crossovers Are Hell”, the return of the Canyonero, Homer casually why-you-littling the Bart mutants, the good ol’ 30th Century Fox logo, and the Bart mutants being lured by people laying fingers on his butterfingers.
- “A strike. A totally legitimate strike!” Looks like Bender’s cheating unit malfunctioned again.
- I may be alone in this, but the more Isaac Asimov jokes, the better I say.
- Marge trying not to mention Leela’s eye and Leela trying not mention Marge’s hair was a great gag.
- “Kill All Humans.” “Start with Flanders.” Cheap, but fun.
- “Good news everyone!” “That means it’s bad.” Ditto.
- “We’re just a package delivery service.” “And not a very good one!” Okay, I’ll stop now.
- In the comics crossover, The Simpsons were fictional characters in the world of Futurama, and the Planet Express Crew were fictional characters in the world of The Simpsons, which helped support one of my Crazy TV Show Theories.↵
- No relation to C. Montgomery Burns.↵
- Oddly enough, two Simpsons episodes written by Burns, “Eternal Moonshine of The Simpson Mind” and “Holidays of Future Past” have been put forth by longtime show runner Al Jean as possible final episodes for the show. “Holidays of Future Past” in particular was intended to be the series finale when contract negotiations threatened to bring the series to an end.↵
- It makes more sense than it reads in print, I swear.↵
- A la “Roswell That Ends Well” and “Bender’s Big Score”.↵
- It’s where Fry and Bender first met.↵
- And yeah, it makes zero sense in terms of continuity. Seymour is in New New York! Or living with soon-to-be Lars! But damn if Futurama hasn’t wrung a good bit of humor out of one of the saddest episodes of television ever. Hermes finding another of Fry’s dogs in “A Clockwork Origin” was one of the best post-revival Futurama gags.↵
- In addition, Leela was derided as a mere grown-up version of Lisa, and Professor Farnsworth was slammed for being a combination of Grampa Simpson and Professor Frink.↵
- I definitely laughed at Homer asking Bender if there was a word for a bromance with a robot, and Bender specifying that it’s “romance.” I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker for redundant portmanteau jokes.↵
- In fairness, Bender is only four years old. As he himself said, “Precocious little scamp, aint I?”↵
- But the people demand Zoidberg by the barrelful! Not to mention the million tumblr posts that would have been launched by a quick scene with him and Ralph Wiggum.↵