Futurama, Season One, Episode Eleven, “Mars University”

Written by: J Stewart Burns
Directed by: Bret Haaland
DN’s Ranking: Bad / NONESSENTIAL / Essential

There’s been occasional discussion in the comments on how, for being done by the most overeducated cartoon writers’ room in history, Futurama rarely churns out sophisticated commentary or insight. I think this is partially because of the show’s aims and philosophy – this is a show that is interested in being funny over all other concerns, and while it doesn’t hide having a particular perspective (like hating Richard Nixon), it’s also not interested in telling you what to think about anything. In this show, the science and math and other nerd crap is simply more fodder for jokes – as much a reference as the Star Trek stuff. Where it gets really interesting is when the show dives into the social expectations of American higher education. Any well-read geek can get the “You changed the result by measuring it!” gag, but episodes like “Mars University” give college dropouts like Fry and me a peek into what students and faculty have to deal with. Playwright, director, and formerly sane conservative David Mamet has a guiding principle for his actors: “invent nothing, deny nothing”. He meant that an actor ought to simply say the words in the script and focus on whatever goal the character is trying to achieve in the scene rather than project an identity, but I’ve noticed it’s a good idea to keep in mind for all creativity; to draw on things that come naturally as a jumping off point for a process. The Futurama writers have a collective database of unique experiences that come from higher education in the sciences, and they can use that to create a more unique artwork with a lived-in feel. What I love about the show’s take on academia is how bitchy, ego-driven, and especially lazy it is. I’ve always loved reading about scientific rivalries in which scientists and academics had the most pointless and delightfully petty fights (the history of paleontology is a goldmine for this kind of thing for some reason), and Futurama takes the view that most scientists are at that level even when they’re not actively, illegally sabotaging each other. The Groening viewpoint is that people will take the shortest distance between two points and that this is true in all positions of society. Bottom-feeders like me can often assume that the people at or near the top know what they’re doing – that while we don’t understand things, there are people in charge who are very well trained and can keep things running for us. Futurama is a reminder that laziness and ego are human traits, and that people will try and sell a much nicer image to us than the gross reality.

What’s interesting, though, is how much sympathy the show has for Fry’s perspective. It’s funny to me that the show commits to Fry being a dumb fuckup and to making fun of him for being a dumb fuckup but somehow never feels meanspirited about it. The central gag of him deliberately aiming to be a college dropout is hilarious and it never feels like the show is cruelly mocking him for his undereducation, possibly because it gets the apathy and laziness that drives it (and also possibly because the show has the sense not to bite the hand that feeds it, seeing as how many undereducated college dropouts enjoy watching the show, though of course this involves carefully avoiding lines like “Possibly a dead weasel or cartoon viewer”). It’s interesting to me that this arc of this episode is Fry’s insecurity in the face of Guenter’s insulting of his intelligence next to Guenter revealing his anxiety in the face of high expectations; I suppose there’s a real desire to live and let live in Futurama morality, to let people be what they wanna do as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, and I find that really appealing. There are some unappealing aspects of nerd culture in Futurama (mainly the blatant sexism), but one thing it absolutely does not have is intellectual superiority or joyless pedantry for the sake of pedantry. Another part of the Groening viewpoint is a love of knowledge just for its own sake – neither this nor The Simpsons uses their references just to look smart – and I think an essential byproduct of that is recognising that you’re not going to know everything, which extends to sympathy for others who don’t know things; I’ll risk pretentiousness here and suggest that it’s recognition of knowledge as something separate from oneself – the existence of the observer effect is no commentary on me. 

Title Card: Transmitido en Martian en SAP
Cartoon Billboard: “Pigs in a Polka” (1943)

I didn’t even go into how funny Bender’s plot with the frathouse was! It was very funny – Bender as Robot Obi-Wan Bluto is great. This is the first episode to contain a remix of the theme in the title sequence. This episode contains two incredibly great Leela lines – “At the risk of sounding like an after-school special” and “I’m staying out of this. Now here’s my opinion:” are such great jokes about her status as the show’s comic foil.

The majority of the plot references Animal House and Good Will Hunting. When the Professor is teaching, the blackboard behind him shows ‘superdupersymmetric string theory’ and ‘Witten’s Dog’ (a reference to Schrodinger’s Cat). The 20th Century lecturer is based on John Houseman’s character in The Paper Chase. The writers forgot where they stole the regatta plot from; The Infosphere suggests it’s from Oxford Blues.

Iconic Moments: 1. “Why… why… WHY DIDN’T I BREAK HIS LEGS?!”
Biggest Laugh: