Return of toon has fans buzzing

By going back to the “Futurama,” 20th Century Fox TV and Comedy Central may have given legions of fans hopes that their own favorite canceled series could be brought back to life.

But while the fragmentation of the TV universe helped enable the revival of the Fox animated series, which on June 24 airs its first original episode since 2003, don’t look for a gushing stream of comebacks. “Futurama” needed several ducks lined up in a row to make its comeback possible.

“We are still pinching ourselves,” says Comedy Central senior programming veep David Bernath.

The path to a return was laid out by Fox’s “Family Guy,” which the network took off the air after the program’s third season in 2002. As with many other shows, protests rose up from the core fans. But in this case, strong DVD sales and — perhaps even more important — noteworthy ratings in syndication compelled Fox execs to take a second look.

“Family Guy” returned to the air in 2005, and today is a mainstay of Fox’s Sunday primetime lineup.

“They proved the model was possible and perhaps even profitable for us,” says “Futurama” exec producer David X. Cohen.

Like “Family Guy,” “Futurama” first aired in syndication on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, and when that deal was expiring, 20th negotiated a new one with Comedy Central that included a quartet of new DVDs, each with four firstrun episodes — “a halfway step” to reviving the series, Bernath says.

“They premiered on homevideo, and (Comedy Central) would get them after that,” he recalls. “They weren’t going to be world premieres (for us), but they were still pretty damn fresh.

“As a result of that process, they sort of got the band back together, if you will. They got kind of energized.”

Bernath notes that animated shows have an advantage over live-action skeins when it comes to second chances.

“Animation doesn’t date as much as live action,” he says. “Actors don’t get older. For us, ‘South Park’ sells internationally better than live-action stuff. It travels; it just holds on to something.”

While the DVDs showed that new episodes were a viable option from a production standpoint, Cohen believes that the success of the reruns made a huge difference.

“(It) has something to do with it being a sci-fi show and the nature of the fans of this kind of show,” Cohen says. “They are very detail-oriented and will ing to watch episodes multiple times … sticking by it when it was on Adult Swim and then Comedy Central.”

Cohen jokes that part of the fans’ addiction to the show came from trying to find continuity errors.

“The nitpicking fans are our saving grace,” he says. “We thank the nitpickers.”

Comedy Central and 20th made the “Futurama” revival complete one year ago, greenlighting 26 new episodes of the series — the biggest commitment “Futurama” has ever had. The first 12 will air on Comedy Central this summer (serving as a lead-in to “The Daily Show”), with a holiday episode coming at the end of the year. (Fox network could have aired the episodes but passed.)

Even though half the episodes aren’t being shown until summer 2011, the production pace is pretty frenetic, Cohen says.

“I’d say we’ve slowed it down just a bit, but we also have a little smaller writing staff,” he notes. “I’d say we’ve gotten better at it. It’s a veteran crew — all of the writers have been with the show since the Fox run. We have the same animators, all of the cast is back. I think everyone has gotten better at their respective jobs.

“That was one of the frustrating things about getting canceled the first time. I really felt we were hitting our stride.”

Cohen adds that while they had “a few ideas on index cards that it was really nice to be able to come back to,” other stories had passed their expiration date, and the revival required a lot of new brainstorming. He particularly is looking forward to an upcoming episode in which Bender (John DiMaggio) fights for the legalization of robosexual marriage.

In addition to the trimmed writing staff, Cohen says the other main concession the show made to current economics was a move to synthesized music (a change that came with the direct-to-DVD productions).

On the other hand, the new “Futurama” will have three things the original didn’t: high definition, widescreen presentation and surround sound.

While Matt Groening-created cousin “The Simpsons” is into its third decade on Fox, and “Family Guy” will mark its 150th episode this fall, it remains to be seen if that kind of longevity is in “Futurama’s” future.

Given the offbeat playing field of Comedy Central, it seems a natural question, but Comedy Central contends it hasn’t asked itself yet. Much will depend on the reception the show gets following its premiere .

“We have a deal for 26 episodes, and quite frankly there haven’t been any conversations about anything beyond that,” Bernath says. “The team is fully engaged in producing these 26. We feel it’s the best work they’ve done on the series.”

The new “Futurama” episodes do have the potential to sell in syndication themselves, though, furthering its lifespan.

Cohen wants to see the series continue and believes it might — even musing about a feature film — but in the midst of finalizing the writing and recording of the 24th, 25th and 26th new episodes , he knows not to count his chickens.

“We’re once again in the position of preparing for our last episode ever,” he says.

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