Futurama, Season Two, Episode Seventeen, “War Is The H-Word”

Written by: Ron Hughart
Directed by: Eric Horsted
DN’s Ranking: Bad / NONESSENTIAL / Essential

This is another all-time favourite that I would comfortably slip into NONESSENTIAL status without that being an insult to the episode. This is definitely in the top five Futurama episodes in terms of how often I, personally, have revisited it, and that comes down not to it being particularly funny (though it is that) and more down to the fact that it’s exploring a topic I personally find interesting. Mainly, it’s the fact that a big chunk of it parodies one of my favourite shows ever, M*A*S*H, and in a way that’s a genuine ribbing of its foibles; on top of the joke at the expense of the way both show and lead character could flip emotions at the drop of a hat, it works in some gags that could, legitimately, have emerged from the writer’s room of the sitcom. What fascinates me, though, is how this is merely one part of Futurama’s expanding confidence. You compare the war movie parody in this with the disaster movie plot of “A Big Piece Of Garbage” and you can see how this is much denser, packing not just more references into the same amount of space but a wider variety of them, and astoundingly none of them feel gratuitous.

Unlike “A Big Piece Of Garbage”, there’s not really an individual movie that “War Is The H-Word” resembles in overall structure. Rather, “War Is The H-Word” works exactly like all those movies and shows at once. The training sequence works like every training sequence you’ve ever seen; the briefing sequence works like every briefing sequence; of course when you get to a military hospital, it works like M*A*S*H. Futurama has freed itself from the need for any kind of scaffolding and has embraced telling a full plot from which references and jokes can logically emerge. The upshot of this is that the story comes from character decisions and emotions that are just real enough to make it compelling and unturnoffable and serve to make the jokes even funnier. Right from the first scene, the entire plot is created out of Fry and Bender’s typical laziness and entitlement setting them in motion to hilarious and over-the-top ‘punishment’, and from there, well, it’s not so much that the episode divides itself between three stories as they are allowed to flow from the action as they require. 

Leela’s story is the first to pop up, as she takes on a male disguise just slightly more effective than that of Iroquois Plissken in an obvious riff on the whole ‘woman in disguise as a man to go off to war’ plot that goes back centuries. It’s not as good as, say, Blackadder Goes Forth, but interestingly it does lead to some gender-based humour that strikes me as harmless if not particularly insightful – this show is, in general, better at making jokes at the expense of dudes than chicks. Fry’s plot emerges next, when he succumbs to cowardice in the middle of his first battle and is forced to reclaim his honour. It’s not much of a plot, but it does work to bridge the early and end sections, and the twisting of sentimentality is effective (“At last, war has made me a man… WHEEEEEE!”). It’s the final section when the fate of the (desolate and strategically useless) world depends on Bender where the episode becomes something grand. We’re effectively hoping that Bender will not be Bender for about twenty minutes or so, which is an inherently hilarious concept and a reflection of how deeply he’s been developed up to this point; every zig away from him saying ‘ass’ is hilarious.

Title Card: Touch eyeballs to screen for cheap laser surgery.
Cartoon Billboard: “Neptune Nonsense”, 1936

Todd Susman reprises his role as the M*A*S*H PA announcer to lend even more authenticity to the parody. Leela expresses curiosity about Fry’s crush on his coworker, which is really weird considering that she knows all about his crush and has frequently rebuffed him for it. It would probably make more sense to me if she was more impressed by him saying nice things about her when he thought she wasn’t around. It at least leads to the great ‘blonde or Chinese or cyclops’ line. When Fry ends up working under Kiff, Kiff becomes an angry and demanding boss, which is hilarious to me. I also think this is the very first appearance of Fry’s favourite song being “Walking On Sunshine” despite the fact that the only lyrics he knows are the title. This doesn’t just have a variety of references, it has a variety of styles of jokes – everything from historical jokes to movie parodies to the extended and extremely funny lowbrow riffs on the aliens being balls. 

“The Brain Balls! They’ve got a lot of brains, and they’ve got a lot of chutzpah.”

The title is a reference to the famous line by General Sherman. A sign out the front of the supermarket references ice-9 from Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle. Zapp briefing the troops in front of the Earthican flag is a reference to the movie Patton. Zapp references a feature from Reader’s Digest. The pinata scene is a parody of Star Wars. The hospital sequence is a parody of the show M*A*S*H. Bender’s top ten most frequently used words is a reference to David Letterman’s Top Ten. The war and the Earthican military uniform are references to Starship Troopers.

Iconic Moments: 4. “War were declared.” | “They stand for everything we don’t stand for. Also they told me you guys look like dorks!” | “That wasn’t cowardice!” | “This isn’t a woir, it’s a moida!”
Biggest Laugh:

Next Week: “The Honking”. “Come Bender, you’ll like being dead!” / “That’s what they said about being alive!”