Op-ed: How Animated Shows Like Futurama Can Unite Us All
The classic ’70s latchkey kid, I bounced from homes and caregivers so often that I like to say it took a village to raise me. And if that folksy saying applies, the mayor of my village was clearly television. Don’t get me wrong, I loved magazines — Teen Beat, Tiger Beat, pretty much anything with androgynous young people like Kristy McNichol and Leif Garrett on the cover — but it was TV that I felt closest to. It was the companion with which I whiled away my hours. Because I was also a (mostly failed) child actor and some of my rotating rosters of friends were child actors, I often confused television with real life — assuming Vicki Lawrence from The Carol Burnett Show was my real aunt Luanne, for example.
As an elementary school student, I watched everything from the colorful minds of superproducers Sid and Marty Krofft, including Land of the Lost, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (Sigmund was so different he was kicked out by his family), Lidsville, The Bugaloos, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, The Bay City Rollers, and H.R. Pufnstuf. Pufnstuf (with its clearly queer, countercultural undertones and dykey female villain) and the news series 60 Minutes (which I watched alongside Hee Haw when I visited my father) were my faves, along with a Scooby-Doo rip-off about a Revolutionary War-era ghost and groovy ’70s teens called Funky Phantom.
The thing is, though relatively obscure, Funky Phantom was a lot of kids’ favorite show, because we were all able to escape in to it, watching this goofy fey ghost and his pet cat help solve mysteries let us all ignore the changes the disco ’70s foisted on our families: the oil crisis, the Kent State shootings, Watergate, the Eastern Airlines Everglades crash, the rise of divorce, the Me Generation’s parental detachment, and the popularity of both TV dinners and leisure suits.
I did not love my childhood, but neither did Billy West, who used cartoons and comics — and his own ability to create comic voices — to escape his abusive, alcoholic dad. He didn’t have many friends either, and got called "faggot" and "queer" for making up the kind of voices that people now pay (hopefully big) bucks for.
West, who is one of the most accomplished voice actors out there today, channeled this talent that got him through being different into some of the voices you already know and love from Ren and Stimpy to classics like Bugs Bunny, Popeye, Woody Woodpecker. Though he didn’t start his career until he was 30, he’s done voices on dozens of TV shows for kids and adults and in LGBT-specific projects like Queer Duck, Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in All the World (where he was Dr. Hunk, Carlton, and Log Cabin Tom) and he voiced the transgender bar owner Anita Bidet on The Oblongs (among other voices).
He’s probably best known for his work on Futurama, where he voices the 20th-century guy around whom the show revolves, Philip J. Fry, as well as Professor Hubert Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, and plenty more. Futurama, it turns out, is one of my all-time favorite animated shows. The Emmy-winning show’s newest season is premiering Wednesday at 10 p.m., for what Comedy Central calls its second final season. The show was canceled once before by Fox, then creator Matt Groening and the cast made several films. After myriad fan protests Comedy Central sent it back into space for the last few seasons. (Did I mention the show is set in space, sort of, and in the future?)
Now there are 13 episodes left — and as usual, with a cast of LGBT-friendly guests, including Sarah Silverman, George Takei, Adam West, and Burt Ward — and I hope that this final season, which Billy West thinks might not really be it’s last, is as subversively feminist, sex-positive, and LGBT-friendly as you can find on TV. It always has been.
“I have separation anxiety already,” West tells me, though he hopes Netflix or Hulu or some new TV distribution channel picks the show up. “Well, because it was my favorite show, and I thought it was the best show I was ever involved in. I loved it. I would've been a fan of the show even if I had nothing to do with it because of the writing, it's just so great.”
Like The Simpsons (also by the famously pro-gay Groening), Bob's Burgers, and the Seth McFarlane trio on Fox (Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, and American Dad), Futurama deals with LGBT issues subversively, perhaps more than any of those other series. Sure, there are gay characters (Randy the jewelry guy), bi characters (Fry’s grandfather Enid, who's going with girls only because he’s supposed to), pansexual characters (the randy Hedonism bot), and characters who do queer things and may be identified any number of ways (the Professor, Zoidberg).
But the show is at it’s best toying with conventionally held ideas about sexual orientation and gender identity like in the episode “Bend-Her,” in which Bender undergoes a robot transition to become a woman robot, or in “Neutopia,” an episode in which the main characters find their gender switched by an alien being and get to battle sexism on both sides of the fence. There’s a cross-species dresser in yet another episode and more subtle references to sex, orientation, and gender that’s nonconformist at the very least.
Something that can be read as “different” and coded as speaking to LGBT viewers seems to appear on every episode, and lest you think I’m reading into things (which I’m fond of doing), one episode clearly showed Futurama’s political and social commitment to its LGBT fans.
“Proposition Infinity” spoke directly to the creators of Calfornia’s ban on marriage equality, Proposition 8, even making the allusion super clear by using the infinity symbol (essentially a sideways 8). In that episode, Bender (a robot) falls in love with Amy (a human), but relationships between the two species are taboo. They want to marry like everyone else and must battle preachers, fogeys, and haters who say robosexuality is wrong, while many young people don’t care and support them.
The year is 3012, and same-sex marriage has long been legal. But the battles, baggage, and people fighting for the rights of robosexuals are familiar: There’s a rainbow-hued parade and rally; a preacher teaching reparative therapy while jonesing over the “robo” couplings; a effeminate robot who tells the preacher that “Esquire says some robots are hardwired to be robosexual”; and when Amy’s parents come to rescue her from the relationship they take her back to her home planet, they pass a sign that reads “No Brokebacking.” We got it. This is an episode that's all about us and not mocking us, actually mocking anyone who doesn't believe in our civil rights.
At the height of the Prop. 8 push, this episode ran on national TV. Even better, it came with an ad, from the proponents of Prop Infinity, that underscored the lunacy of modern, real-life anti-equality campaigns.
West says that cartoons can be subversively educational and I think Futurama is proof. “I think they were rather brave,” West says of Futurama’s writers, "for the most part on the show. In the beginning, they had to adhere to the beginning sets of rules when you're first coming on, like Fox and stuff. But Comedy Central was, I think, a little more liberal. And I think you can choose to take it a little further or even more puerile. It just depends on how everyone was feeling that week when they were writing.”
He adds, “Even Ren & Stimpy had even little veiled nuances of it. But they didn't have to spell it out, they didn't have to bang you over the head with it, it was just cute.”
Futurama’s 140 episodes reached perhaps more people — especially young people — than many of our LGBT political campaigns. On the show nobody’s sexual orientation is spelled out; sure, Fry loves Leela, and Kif loves Amy, but the words "gay" and "straight" are rarely uttered, and you get the sense that in a different storyline Kif could love Fry and that’d be OK with both West, the show’s writers, and the mostly straight and viewers.
West says the ladies’ man on the show, Zapp Brannigan, has been written with “open-ended speculation” that perhaps he’s a closeted gay man who tries way too hard to prove he's attracted to women. Here’s where West reverts to Brannigan’s deep baritone, repeating an oft-quoted line from the show, “Kif, I have made it with a woman. Inform the men.”
Though I talked with West, who is now 61 years old, for the first time this week, I’ve known his work for eons. But I realized I don’t know how he identifies. I assume he's gay because I generally assume that about anyone in Hollywood until told otherwise. He's vocally blessed, clearly, and he’s done several gay projects. I ask what drew him to Rick & Steve.
“I'm dying to come out of the closet, I guess!” he teases. Sadly, it’s another joke. “No, it wasn't that, it's just that I'm a journeyman. Whenever something comes up and there's an audition for it, I'm likely to do it, because if you want to work then you've got to audition. And, you know, the subject matter never frightens me unless it's just something that I know is not going to work. But Rick & Steve was fun, it's always fun to not be the star of the show and just fill in with different incidental characters and all that, that's a challenge. If you are a star of the show or stars of the show, exponentially, you don't have to worry about the voice every week, you already got it. But if you get hired to be Astronaut #1 and then Carpenter #3 and Little Boy #1, you’ve got to reinvent, you got to reinvent every week, something new. Which I've done, and I love it. It's a good challenge.”
He played a transgender character, Anita Bidet, in The Oblongs, which is one of my favorite shows that now reruns on Adult Swim in the middle of the night. I talked with Angus Oblong, the enigmatic creator of the series, which was a comic book long before it was a TV show, at the Long Beach Comic Expo just weeks ago, so I grill West about his work on the series. What I remember most though is how Anita was heartfelt and inoffensive. It was clear she had not had gender reassignment surgery yet (if she ever planned to, who knows?), but everyone in the town and bar saw her as who she was: a woman. A part of that is how West played her, a rare out trans character in animation.
“I try to put something that's rooted in reality so people can have a thread of something to identify with, and so that it's not completely cartoony,” he says.
West says he’s “always been straight,” but “those kind of questions don't mean a lot to me.” Meaning he’s straight (“I see a few ladies here and there,” says the divorced actor) but he could care less about anyone’s sexual orientation — his, mine, or yours. He's not alone. There are millions of comic fans worldwide who feel the same way.
And that’s what cartoons do. They unite us. Nobody watches Scooby-Doo or Home Movies (also on Adult Swim, watch it if you can) while thinking hateful things about gays. It just can’t be done. That’s why I’m a fan of what West does. And he has plenty more fans.
Every July at the queerest geekfest in the world, Comic-Con in San Diego, West gets “love-bombed. If I feel like nobody cares about me and I get into that, ‘Oh, I'm never going to work again, nobody cares [mood],' you go to a convention and these people tell you that they've grown up with you. I'd have bikers come over with their ham hands shake my hand and go, ‘Dude, you were my whole childhood.' And fighter pilots that have been to missions in Afghanistan, and they're up in the sky doing drills and they're running dialogue from Futurama. I've been told that more than once. And they're people [for whom Futurama] has gotten them through near-death illnesses, or somebody will tell me that their dad loved the show so much and it kept him going. There are a lot of stories like that, and it's like, 'Yeah, that's what real life is about.' Ever since time began, it was always bread and circus. You got to eat, and you got to be entertained. Otherwise, we'd starve and go crazy."
That’s why West is going to try to work at least another 25 years (as am I) and I’m going to go to sleep tonight while listening to his voice, watching episodes of Futurama, a nighttime ritual I've had for eight seasons and four movies. I have every DVD and I play them in rotation as I fall asleep every night. Billy West and I are united by comics, his voice is in my head as I sleep, and sometimes the first thing I hear when I wake up in the morning.
DIANE ANDERSON-MINSHALL is editor at large for The Advocate and editor-in-chief of HIV Plus. She's a Lambda-nominated Bold Strokes Books mystery author, an L.A. Pride and NLGJA honoree, and one hell of a wife.