When people talk about humour being dated, they’re usually talking about social sensibilities. Dated humour normally refers to jokes which revolve around racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia or some other discrimination; if you think humour is dated, it probably means you now feel guilty about jokes which punch down on minorities. They’re no more or less funny than they used to be… it’s you who has changed. If you find humour dated, that just means you’ve grown.
In Futurama’s case however, it means something very different. It rarely went in for shock jock jokes which played on stereotypes, but it’s most unique selling point – being set in the year 3000 – can sometimes prove to be its downfall on a rewatch. Futurama’s humour sometimes feels dated because the year 3000 we could imagine in 2000 is very different from the one we could imagine in 2020.
There are a handful of obvious ones which come to mind, but the straight forward jokes that time rendered untrue make you feel like Comic Book Guy, sat in The Android’s Dungeon, pointing out flaws to an empty room. For example, in the pilot, we learn that Suicide Booths have been operational in New York since 2008, when in the real world, they haven’t. Haha! Take that, foolish cartoon show! You call yourself Futurama, yet you have failed to predict the future!
There’s a smattering of other gags like this, but nothing that’s ever going to spoil your viewing. Heck, nothing here is going to spoil your viewing, but there are a few more thematically interesting examples which prove how much the world has changed these past 20 years, and how much these changes have impacted our view of the future. To that end though, they’ve also proven to have a stunning insight into our future in other areas, as well as having a massive influence on animation in general.
We’ll start with some negatives though, and like so many negatives these days, that means starting with the President.
While Nixon isn’t the most evil President the US ever had (slavers, KKK members and those who propagated the genocide of Native Americans are easily ahead of him before you even get into policy debates), he is the most cartoonish one. At least, he was, until Cadet Bonespurs headed to the Oval Office. I’m not suggesting Futurama could have predicited Trump – even if The Simpsons did – or that it would be funnier or better than Nixon if they did. Futurama’s fiction Nixon is a great character, a brilliant villain who slots in the world perfectly, and an essential part of their world building. Replacing him with Trump clearly would not have improved the show.
But undoubtedly the gag is that the worst, most over the top supervillain President is back in the White House. It’s a joke that’s just less impactful these days. A little over a decade after Futurama joked that a resurrected Nixon would be the worst possible choice for President, real life went and served up someone even more terrible.
There’s also some contemporary issues Futurama addressed, and rewatching them with modern eyes feels jarring. Again, this doesn’t mean the show is bad, or in the wrong, or that watching it is less enjoyable now. Indeed, looking back at Futurama’s take on things can act as a time capsule of how we see saw things in circa 2000. Other shows from the same time period occasionally touch on similar issues, but the fact that Futurama’s whole deal is that it’s in the future puts a much closer spotlight on them.
One example is climate change. In the episode A Big Piece Of Garbage (aired 1999), we see the biggest environmental issue is… littering. Sure, they future it up by having it be a litter asteroid they once launched into space, but still… litter. Very quaint by today’s standards. Later, the stakes get raised by Crimes Of The Hot (2002), when the big issue is greenhouse gases, the ozone layer and the planet’s temperature rising. This is closer to our current view of the climate crisis, but again it’s a bit quaint. Here, the climate issue is because robots give off too much pollution, and it’s a great insight into our developing attitudes.
Global warming is still the broad issue we’re concerned with now, but rather than just the pollution boogey man, we understand the issue is capitalism’s ceaseless hunger for resources, failure to develop adequate sustainable energy sources and mass produced single use materials. Futurama’s limited depiction of global warming fits with how little we as a society understood the problems of the climate crisis. We knew the basic issue and problem, and the way Futurama scratches the surface highlights the very rudimentary understanding we had of the issue twenty years ago. While relatively little has changed in terms of our trajectory since then, we’re all at least a lot more educated on the issue.
While these examples are negatives in the binary sense that they’re jokes or episodes which are less relevant or effective in 2020, they don’t really speak to flaws in Futurama’s storytelling. Once you get to the Comedy Central revival seasons though, more tangible cracks appear. The biggest issue is that while the earlier seasons riffed on modern life, their version of the year 3000 was still its own coherent thing. Too often, the Comedy Central episodes were less ‘year 3000’ than they were ‘year 2000 but future’.
Social media is an every day part of our lives now, but Futurama only has it featured in any meaningful way once: in the 2011 episode Attack Of The Killer App. This features eyePhones (iPhones in your eye) clearly styled around Apple, and just feels like a lazy parody of iPhones and Twitter. There’s no originality, nothing that makes use of Futurama’s unique premise, and felt a little dated even as it came out.
The robosexual marriage episode Proposition Infinity which immediately followed did the same thing for gay marriage, but at least tried to tell its own story by using robots. Killer App though scrambles for a very in the moment relevance, doesn’t really land that, and sells out Futurama’s key ideas in the process. The Comedy Central episodes don’t live up to the original Fox seasons, and this switch in attitude is a huge part of that.
Into the equation, there’s also a fair few things Futurama got right. The smelloscope and the Oculus Rift were both correctly predicted by the show, and NASA really did use a rocket to knock an asteroid off course; albeit one made of asteroid and not of garbage. Perhaps the most timeless part of Futurama though is the way it influenced cartoons which came afterwards.
Futurama was one of the first cartoons to have a meta continuity; each episode existed as a stand-alone story, but they could be woven together into more meaningful arcs. Leela & Fry’s long running love story, Kif & Amy’s marriage, the Nibblonians… these stories don’t seem too risky in isolation, but to attempt them all together while creating one of the best episodic cartoon series of all time is a huge feat.
It’s much mocked that Fox turned down Rick & Morty over fears it was too similar to Futurama, but at the same time, Futurama proved the sci fi genre worked as a mainstream cartoon. They didn’t always need to be centred around a family just trying to get by.
In short, time as eaten some of Futurama’s jokes, and while some stand up as fascinating time capsules, others have already began to rust. The humour might be dated, but strangely, that’s often a positive, and it’s difficult to understate how much Futurama’s influence has impacted both modern cartoons and modern sci fi. As time goes on, it’s likely our vision of the year 3000 will continue to divert from the one Futurama first gave us in 1999. But hey, we’ll always have Paris. Uh, New New York.