“Futurama,” which returns this evening on Comedy Central, is not a show for nerds.
Well, okay, it is a show for nerds, but it is not JUST for nerds.
And certainly not for just one type of nerd. But one specific type of nerd owes the how a great debt: the lowly math nerd. “When we do these obscure math jokes, we try to put them in the background or have them fly by quickly so that the people who notice them will feel like they have a little bonus,” showrunner David X. Cohen cautions. “We have not even a single (verbal) joke depending on math.”
The reason he sounds apologetic is that the math jokes in Futurama are many, varied, and complex, with this evening’s ep “Benderama” hinging on a non-convergent equation… THAT JUST MIGHT END THE WORLD.
See? Math can be exciting.
Math can be so exciting for the Futurama team, in fact, that one running gag includes regular recurrences of the Hardy–Ramanujan number (see how many 1729s you can spot throughout the series), and series writer Ken Keeler (one of three PhD’s on the show’s writing staff) actually wrote and proved a theorem that has contributed to a subsection of mathematical studies called group theory in order to solve the plot of last season’s “Prisoner of Benda.”
“It’s probably the only television comedy in the history of the medium in which a mathematical theorem saves the day,” Cohen says of the now-famous episode. “We had all these characters switching brains with a one-way brain switching machine (meaning that the characters couldn’t just switch back without a third person to switch into) and we said, ‘We don’t know if there’s any way for these characters to get their brains back!’ Ken proved that if you can find two more people, you can switch all the brains back.”
And there you have it, folks – real-world application.
Among the numerical intelligentsia (who cherry-picked the mathematical proof off the blackboard by freezing the frame so they could check the math, by the way), this is known – no kidding – as the Futurama Theorem. “It would be great if we can force ‘Futurama’ into textbooks,” Cohen chuckles. “Then the kids would have to buy the DVDs. We don’t care if we make sales against people’s will.”
In fact, nearly every integer or fractional or decimal you see in “Futurama” has some sort of double
meaning. “Most of the time if you see a number in the background, it does mean something,” Cohen says. “Sometimes we use a book called ‘Interesting Numbers.’ Other times we pick something random.” When frequent guest star Al Gore, whose daughter Kristin wrote for the series, shows up as a hybrid taxi driver (the taxi is a hybrid. Gore, like all Futurama celebs, is a head in a jar) in direct-to-DVD pic “Bender’s Big Score,” the number of his cab is “50999897” – the number of votes by which he won the popular vote in the 2000 election.
Obscure? You betcha. That’s why fans dig it – even if you’re not a mathematician, the signs on storefronts and restaurants are full of puns like “Petunia’s Self-Service Bee Farm – Mine Your Own Beeswax” and “Ay! Cantina Turner” (say it out loud).
Of course, there’s plenty of super-specific, non-math-related gags to come – the series is set to go several odd new places in the season that starts tonight. “In one episode, we have the whole Planet Express crew reincarnated three times,” Cohen says. “We have 30’s-style Fleischer animation versions, and anime animation and pixelated 80’s (videogame) animation.
“People really will not get their money’s worth out of their HD TV screens on that last one.”
But for Cohen, numbers have always been lucky – and, if pop psychology is any indication, always will be. “Once at a ‘Simpsons’ party many years ago, they had a handwriting analyst sort of as a party favor – you could go get your handwriting tested and they would tell you things about yourself,” he says. “And they told me what my lucky number, my power number was based on my handwriting.
“It was 1.”