Futurama, Season Two, Episode Three, “A Head In The Polls”

Written by: J Stewart Burns
Directed by: Bret Haaland
DN’S Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

There are so many levels on which this is an essential episode of Futurama. Of course, there’s the fact that it’s one of funniest half hours of television anyone has ever made, and the shock isn’t just that it’s so funny, it’s that the show would manage to top it many times in the future. But it also introduces what would become an essential part of the Futurama mythos: President Richard Nixon’s Head. What’s interesting to me is that he has an energy here that he’ll never quite have again, and I think that’s very reflective of the kind of show Futurama is. The central joke here is a subtle meta-gag in a way I’ve never really seen anywhere: they’re not just criticising Nixon, but going into wholesale character assassination that gets as petty and stupid as possible where the joke is a little bit on the crew for how ridiculous they’re being. Billy West’s performance sings in harmony with the writing here – it’s drawing out all the crusty, sweaty bitterness of the real man and amplifying it until he practically collapses into some kind of feral monster, and it feels in the best way like someone riffing on a joke and mining deeper and deeper levels of absurdity, until he’s screaming about wrecking up people’s houses for no reason and finally slavering and AROOOOOOOing as he smashes up the White House. We all know that Nixon was never at risk of descending into a werewolf that would harm children, but we also all know that if anyone deserves to be relentlessly bullied like this, it’s Nixon. Later episodes would continue the kind of gags we see here, but even as they’re funny, they wouldn’t feel as hysterically divine as they do here, because they don’t have that relentless sense of purpose. What fascinates me about the mythos of Futurama is that things are usually invented for one specific thing and then are allowed to become something much weirder, and sometimes reinvented for new purposes.

Another level on which this episode works is in articulating the political aspect of the show’s agnostic apathy, and in doing so showing how the world has changed since it aired in 1999. I’ve seen people discussing whether or not the show’s apathetic political stance was irresponsible, especially in this episode where the Democrat and Republican stand-ins are bland clones – something that comes off positively quaint today. I absolutely agree that it was a naive stance, even then, but I also see where it was coming from, and I do find it an understandable part of the show’s overall morality and, more interestingly, a valuable historical artifact. I’m delving into my personal perspective here – one that had and has limitations from gender, class, location, age – but I remember being seventeen in 2008 and feeling like I was in the end of history; that there were no more heroes and no more inventors and we had to spend the rest of eternity recycling history’s greatest hits. On top of this was a feeling of mass apathy, where it felt like terrible things were happening and even the people who cared didn’t care that much. Things have changed – I feel as if I spent most of the 10’s being shocked or surprised by the things the world was capable of, as new and wondrous and horrifying things have emerged and we’ve reached a point where you either take a side or find one taken for you (even centrists and the apathetic have to loudly declare who they are). When one says that Democrats and Republicans are the same now, it doesn’t mean they’re basically exactly alike, it means that whilst one is a group of grotesque monsters in suits and the other is displaying their pronouns in their Twitter bios, both are still bombing children in Syria and lining their pockets with corporate backing.

But the thing is, watching this made me think about how one didn’t just turn into the other, but caused it. One of the most frequent talking points about President Trump is that he was the product of a long period of anger gestating before being birthed fully formed – the typical conservative resentment that rises in response to progressive movement, of course, and the anger at seeing people of colour, women, and queer people make advancements for themselves in the culture (like people who voted for Trump because they were angry Obama got in), but also people who wanted an outsider like Trump to break a system that had become stolid and unworkable. I can see how people saw every election as Jack Johnson vs John Jackson and became so exhausted and frustrated by it that they would either lob some kind of grenade into things or embrace a political platform and group that finally spoke to them and allowed them to articulate their observations (certainly, that second one happened to me). Delving further into our characters, I was specifically intrigued by how Fry fit into all of these thoughts – one of the things that drives political apathy is finding the aesthetics of politics boring, and one of the defining things of the ‘10s has been people who otherwise proudly describe themselves as apolitical finding themselves so moved one way or the other by the vivid imagery they’re seeing. The real Frys (Fries? No) of the world are getting the circus they’ve been wanting, one in which they are members of a titanic battle between cartoon characters. I don’t know if this episode had a good effect or bad effect on the world, but I do know that it feels true.

Title Card: From the makers of Futurama
Cartoon Billboard: “Ko-Ko Needles The Boss”, (1927)

Claudia Schiffer guest stars as herself, and it’s a hilariously brutal cameo (“Couldn’t hurt!” is such a painfully cheerful line). I completely ignored that Bender carries the whole episode, mainly because the emotional arc feels almost perfunctory – it would be better described as structural, pushing the comedy from one premise to another, but I also don’t really care, nor am I really supposed to. It’s an example of Bender being comically shortsighted and comically egotistical. His mocking Leela over bowling and then getting hit in the face with a bowling ball is both an archetypal Bender gag of him being an asshole and then suffering, as well as a great example of the show setting up an obvious gag and paying it off in an obvious manner and that only making it funnier. It also has a casual mention of Bender caring about robots when he’s initially horrified by an accident entombing them (“The plan is basically to pave over the area and get on with our lives.”).

This introduces the multi-episode runner of Hermes being controlled by a brain slug. There’s also a weird animation detail of Fry eating from what appears to be a dog bowl. The noises Billy West makes when Nixon is dancing make me laugh and I tend to imitate them when I’m sarcastically dancing, which comes up more than you’d think. 

“Ah yes, John Quincy Adding Machine. He struck a chord with the voters when he promised not to go on a killing spree.”
“But, like most politicians, he promised more than he could deliver.”

Almost everything Nixon says is a reference to the real man’s career. This contains the first showing of The Scary Door, a parody of The Twilight Zone. This episode specifically parodies “Time Enough At Last”. I’m not going to bother listing all the book parodies that appear in only a few shots in the parody, nor will I list the celebrity heads that appear. Nixon sings a line from “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. The stoner saying “Dave’s not here man” is a reference to a Cheech & Chong sketch. Bender drops one of James Bond’s catchphrases. Bender says “Tie a yellow ribbon ‘round your neck!” which is likely a reference to the folk tale “The Girl With The Yellow Ribbon”. The Bull Space Moose Party is the single most obscure reference this show ever did, combining a 1912 political party with the underground comic Space Moose.

Iconic Moments: 2. “I think your three cent titanium tax goes too far!” / “And I think your three cent titanium tax doesn’t go too far enough!” | “The less fortunate gets all the breaks!”
Biggest Laugh: This was really hard to pick, because this is a hilarious episode and I wish I could fill the whole article with the lines I love. Ultimately, the obvious won – I’m always reduced to tears of laughter by this, moreso because it’s the climax of an episode of absurdity.