Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Looking for References in Futurama

Note: I did not expect this blog entry to come out looking like a lesson plan. It just worked out that way.
“Futurama” is (at least in my opinion) a highly intelligent TV comedy that makes use a lot of external cultural references for jokes as well as for other purposes. Its sister program, “The Simpsons”, also uses this too which is significant to me because I noticed it’s the only way I’d actually watch the show. The show’s characters and world in general have worn so thin for me over 20+ seasons that the only two episodes I’ve bothered to watch in the past ten years were because they were spoofs on The Departed and The Social Network. Thus, external references keep shows interesting in a way beyond the established world and its characters.

The exercise here when watching Futurama is to look for external cultural references as they relate to a previously created source (what I believe is called “intratextual”) or some other aspect of society and they need to be specifically attached to some source.

These are jokes that require significant cleverness of the writer and effort and discernment on the part of the viewer. When one gets the reference, there is a subsequent reward as if solving a mini-puzzle that enhances the joke. For example, the TV show Futurama has, by some coincidence, writers on staff who have pHd’s in mathematics and they occasionally throw in mathematical riddles. It’s highly rewarding to be subtly given a mathematical riddle in the plot and then solve it to gain a reinforcement of the plot. There are two such examples at 9:00 and 10:16 of the Futurama episode “Free Will Hunting”: I believe the joke at 9:00 is that he’s reading the digits of Pi after the 3 because Bender says “Delivery for ‘14757378927464148’ but I think Pi is 3.14159. The second, (n+1)st national bank, is something I have NO IDEA about, but I’m sure it would be rewarding to know.

Some objectives in closely studying the references for an episode would be 1) Determining the degree to which cultural references comprise the overall humor of the episode 2) Identifying the purpose of each cultural reference: Does it provide a quick sight gag, does it contribute to a larger humorous motif or overall joke, does it help build the world, and/or does it help move the plot along? 3) Looking for patterns of the sources (as in external to culture or another source) 4) Analyzing the effectiveness of the joke

For example, I will take you through this watching process from 9:58 to 14:40 of the Futurama episode “Free Will Hunting” which comprises five scenes.
To give you a recap on the first 10 minutes of the episode:
Bender is acquitted of a series of crimes because his lawyer (who is, of course, a giant rooster) has argued that Bender can’t be held guilty of a crime because he has no free will. Bender is devastated to found out all of his actions are preordained and while making a delivery on the evil robot homeworld, he flees from his delivery duties to embark on a soul searching mission to resolve this internal conflict.

The inside scoop on my thought process during this exercise:
The first scene relies on the cute visual gag of the way that the robot rush hour is extremely synchronized. This is an internal reference. It relies on people having seen a season 1 episode in which people have seen the robot planet and provides the reward of people identifying the scene from before.

The second scene provides what will be my first external reference for analysis. The external reference is societal and not intratextual (based on another movie, tv show or other work of art). In this case, it is a Swiss cuckoo clock which often features an elaborate show of preprogrammed dancing figurines in the same pattern that the cop chases the bank robber. This external reference is used to advance forward the plot notion of Bender fearing that his actions are all preordained and highly predictable like Swiss cuckoo clock figurines.

In the third scene, Bender visits a simpleton farmer who advises him: “Son, philosophy is for them’s that don’t gotta work for a living, but me I got a sick child to feed so…..” Now let’s analyze the joke:
It works as a cute inversion on the typical scene of the rustic farm, because the robot has been needlessly given the human characteristics of a farmer (i.e. speaks in rural jargon, dressed up in the clothes of a farmer). We would imagine an agricultural futuristic robot to be purely functional and not needlessly given human characteristics. There is also a visual gag that Bender passes by: A scarecrow made up of vacuum tubes and robotic parts of some sort.

These might both be references to something more specific but I can’t pick them out. In this case, I might have failed to identify a reference or there might be no reference there to begin with. Either way, I don’t count either as a reference.

The fourth scene is an internal reference to a funny scene in the original episode where Bender visits the robotic homeworld and the elders begin each sentence by saying “Silence!”
I am almost sure that there’s an external reference in the robotic council of elders to a Socratic council, but I am not well-versed enough in Greek history to know for sure. The show’s writers have encoded the reference with Greek style togas and wigs to help me decipher the clue. Again, the fault might lie with myself. The nature of the building where the elders reside might also be a reference to something (perhaps Kafka?) that I can’t decipher.

In the fifth scene, Bender visits a monestary to get enlightenment. The entire premise of a robot monestary is highly enjoyable but the question in order to count it comes down to “Is it a play on a specific monestary?”

I count three or four specific references and the first intertextual reference here:
1. The first and only intratextual reference in this passage is coincidentally based on the most popular text in history: The bible. The bible is commonly referred to as the “Good Book.” Thus in a futuristic society made up of robots, it’s rechristened the “whole ebook.” The joke is very well thought-through. In an automatic robotic way of thinking where things are either 1 or 0 with no middle ground, would not “good” translate into complete or “whole”?
2. The second is a play on binary code which is what robots and chants are played out of.
3. The third is Quaker State Motor Oil, which is the source of food. It is entirely a visual gag. It’s another simple transference of a cultural reference translated into a robot world.
4. I think the concept of a stained glass window is close enough. It’s a culturally specific concept and relates to medieval times and a specific style of architecture. In this case, it’s a world-building tool and a visual gag. Because the robots were founded by mom, then naturally the robots’ form of worship would revolve around mom. The joke is framed in a specific cultural frame of reference.

What references did you identify and how effective did you feel they were?

Now, on your own, watch the episode Viva Mars Vegas (chosen because it’s the last episode to air when this blog entry was written) and tell me which references you spotted, what they were based off, the concreteness of the reference and the nature of the reward you felt for getting it; the effectiveness as jokes and how the humor were employed; and what specifically the reference was used for. You can check which ones you missed (and therefore, measure your pop savvy) at the www.theinfosphere.org and I will soon post the ones I caught in the form of a highly subjective answer key:

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