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Salt Lake City Weekly Ready for Y3K?

Matt Groening, the mind behind the Simpsons, blasts into 3000 with Futurama--and no one is yellow.

By Bill Frost

MARCH 29, 1999:  Matt Groening has drawn Life in Hell for lefty-alternative weeklies--just like this one, comrade--for 15 years. He's also done a little Fox TV cartoon called The Simpsons since 1990. In his long-awaited animation follow-up, Futurama (premiering Sunday, March 28 at 7:30 p.m. on Fox 13), Groening says The Simpsons are still on the air--with original episodes, no less--in the year 3000. But Microsoft, Pepsi, Intel and all of your other favorite contemporary corporations are history.

"If a sponsor wants to pay us enough money, they can still be around," he told Wired magazine in February. "In Futurama, our characters are thoroughly inundated by advertising, especially subliminal advertising that comes out of your pillow into your dreams. We also have tons of vending machines, including a suicide booth ["Stop 'n' Drop, America's favorite since 2008"]. That really disturbed Fox. They said, 'You told us this was going to be very positive.'"

Welcome to the future: Light-speed travel is "convenience drive;" career choices are easy, because children are tested at age 3 to determine what they'll become as adults; everything is under construction, with protruding wires and unfinished buildings everywhere; and the Internet is still too damned slow.

The story of Futurama goes like this: Fry (voiced by Ren & Stimpy's Billy West) is a luckless pizza-delivery boy who accidentally gets frozen in a cryogenics lab during his last drop on New Year's Eve 1999. (The passage-of-time sequence in the pilot is hysterically amazing to watch.) Once revived on New Year's Eve 2999, Fry realizes he has the chance to reinvent himself from loser geek to futuristic cool guy.

Naturally, Fry needs a little help dealing with his new life in New New York circa Y3K, so he becomes fast friends with one-eyed alien female Leela (Married With Children's Katey Sagal), a corporate-drone-turned-anti-establishment babe who kicks serious martial-arts ass in the proud Xena/Buffy tradition.

Suicidal-neurotic robot Bender Unit 22 (Chicago Hope's John DiMaggio), a corrupt robot who shoplifts, drinks beer and loves robot porn (mostly circuit diagrams), also befriends Fry. "But I don't want people thinking we're robosexuals. So if anyone asks, you're my de-bugger," he slurs. Bender is programmed to bend steel girders (hence the name), but secretly longs to be a chef. Unfortunately, since he has no taste buds, the only culinary job he can even apply for is at the Olive Garden.

Groening's trademark sight gags are packed into Futurama to maximum density, even more so than an average Simpsons episode. Tape it and ride the freeze-frame button on playback, you won't be sorry.

In one scene during the pilot, Fry and Bender find themselves in the Head Museum, which is exactly what it sounds like: row after row of 20th-century celebrity heads--alive and blinking--preserved in chemical jars. Among the famous noggins are Leonard Nimoy, Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Gates, Johnny Carson, The X-Files' Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, Dennis Rodman, Liz Taylor, Barbara Streisand and, yes, Matt Groening.

A pickle-jarred Dick Clark also guests: "Hello, I'm Dick Clark's head. Welcome to a special year 3000 edition of New Year's Rockin' Eve!" Not even Groening could pass up that joke.

"We've upped the ante for anybody who does the future--ours takes place after yours," Groening said in the Wired interview, explaining why Futurama is set in 3000. "The future is always presented as monolithic--people all dressed in the same spandex. I think it will have far more variety than the present."

After the March 28 debut, the second episode of Futurama will run in the same post-Simpsons timeslot on April 4 before moving to its less-than-desirable regular spot on Tuesdays after King of the Hill.

Who got the plum sandwich spot between The Simpsons and The X-Files on Sundays? Another new animated series called The Family Guy. If you caught its premiere after the Super Bowl, you know it sucks. Fan-based, unofficial websites (there are nearly a hundred already--and the show hasn't even begun) are crying for the heads of Fox programmers in jars.

But, as always, Groening gets the last jab: "The No. 1 TV show in the future is The Mass Hypnosis Hour," he says. "And no doubt it's on Fox."

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