Futurama, Season Three, Episode Eleven, “Insane In The Mainframe”

Written by: Bill Odenkirk
Directed by: Peter Avanzino
DN’s Ranking: Bad / NONESSENTIAL / Essential

This is one I haven’t seen in a while simply because its subject matter bothers me. The sexism of the show only rarely actually bothers me; I’m fully comfortable with and even enthusiastic about jokes about sexist people, like all the jokes about Zapp, Bender, and even Fry engaging some kind of sexist behaviour. In the comments, I’ve seen people implicitly and occasionally explicitly asking ‘why did they tell jokes about people being sexist?’, to which the answer is two-fold: first, because it was funny, and second, because it was true. Comedy is based on truth, even and especially when it’s absurd and out of reality. When Jack Donaghy says “Well, it’s like business drunk. It’s like rich drunk. Either way it’s legal to drive,” it’s not that 30 Rock is saying this is true, and it’s not even that it’s saying that rich people and corporate executives literally believe that, it’s that this feels emotionally like something a corporate exec or rich person thinks because they act as if they’re above the law. Bender and Zapp’s sexism feels like two different flavours of sexism that comes from a man being sociopathically self-interested; Fry’s sexism is genuinely interesting to me, in that it shows a very specific kind of male sexist who would otherwise describe himself as a nice guy, but not only does he not question the sexism of his friends and peers (to the extent that Zapp could be called anyone’s peer), he joins in. Some of the responses to this are usually something like “Fry is the loveable hero, and people watching could interpret Fry as being in the right”, to which I would respond that this is a fundamental misreading of the character and the show; Fry is and always has been an antiheroic schlemiel who has a big heart but perpetually brings his own loserdom down upon himself. Any reasonable viewer can discern that Fry’s statements ought to be questioned.

(To which some may respond “why not have a whole plot dissecting the sexism so that unreasonable viewers can be shown that sexism is bad and why?”. To which I would respond: that would suck. That would definitely suck. If this were the type of show that would patronise its audience like that, it wouldn’t be a show I would write about in depth like this. The apathy of Futurama might lead to some politically untenable episodes, but it also leads to the emotional and comedic highs. The bad Futurama sexism jokes aren’t bad because they’re about sexism, they’re bad because they don’t reflect truth – rather than a joke about sexist mindsets, they treat sexist principles as reflecting reality.)

All this being buildup to my point that I do get why people might not want to spend their free time in the company of sexism at all, regardless of how it’s presented or characterised or satirically remarked upon. I am aware, of course, that much of my tolerance of sexism in fiction is an extension of being male and not having to deal with it directly every day of my life, and that I’m not pre-emptively exhausted and bored of it before turning on my television. I know this because I, too, have things I respond badly to, and one of those things is the way mental illness can be presented in media. Like I said, comedy is based on truth, and I know enough about mental health problems to be very aware of the way generic gags on the subject are almost violently false. This episode wasn’t as bad as I’d expected it would be. It does have a lot of generic Wacky Mentally Ill People gags, and one of the fundamental premises is a violently crazy robot – not only do I know that people with psychosis and other severe mental health problems tend to be less violent than mentally healthy people, I’ve known more than one person who suffered terrible abuse because of that kind of perception, so I’ve never really been able to find Roberto funny.

(I’m also deeply annoyed that the episode perpetuates the utter myth that criminals can plead insanity to get out of jail easier. Jail is bad, but being considered criminally insane is worse by every measure.)

On the other hand, I found myself less put off by the premise of the episode than I expected. Any hack can write ‘someone healthy ends up in a mental health facility and driven insane by it’, but having it specifically happen by putting a human in a robot hospital reminds me of what beloved commentor Raven Wilder said about “Fear Of A Bot Planet” – this isn’t really a commentary on anything, it’s just a human literally driven insane by a ridiculous situation caused by laziness and bureaucracy. It’s a very Douglas Adams kind of premise for an episode, actually. It’s sufficiently out of reality for me to be able to laugh at it; Fry is effectively put through a particularly horrific riff on Lucille Ball on the chocolate factory floor, and the jokes about Fry thinking he’s a robot are really about Fry’s idiocy carrying over to the current situation, as we see his incredibly misinformed attempts to pass for a robot (made even funnier by his sheer confidence). There are also some gags that take hacky jokes and push them out of reality entirely – “I WAS BORN IN TWO HUNDRED LOG CABINS” got a laugh out of me, and I loved absolutely everything to do with Malfunctioning Eddie (“Actually, we’ve met once before.” / “WHAT?!”). My problem isn’t that the episode makes jokes at the expense of the mentally ill or the mental health profession; it’s that many of the jokes aren’t based on the truth of either.

Title Card:  Bender’s Humour by Microsoft Joke
Cartoon Billboard: “The Mild West”

The opening scene is some classic Zoidberg. His ability to find joy in pathetic things never fails to amuse me. “Huzzahs are in order” is another bit of the show’s language that has infected me. I don’t like the ‘psych ward > jail/ aspect of the plot, but “Well, for one, they done hired me to represent them” is my favourite Hyperchicken Lawyer joke. The final method for getting rid of Roberto is a really funny and elegant solution to the plot. Bender sure looks handsome, insightful, and witty in his Napoleon hat for some reason. “I age! See?!” is a classic dumb Fry gag.

“I guess his prices really were insane!”

The title is a reference to the Cypress Hill song “Insane In The Brain”. Nurse Ratchet is a reference to the character by the same name in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. One of the robots is modelled on the Mad Hatter from Alice In Wonderland. The robot psych ward is named after HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Linctron is modeled on the robot Abe Lincoln in Disneyland’s Great Moments With Mr Lincoln show. Fry’s plot is based on the ROsenhan experiment.

Iconic Moments: “I don’t like having discs crammed into me. Unless they’re Oreos. And then only in the mouth!”
Biggest Laugh: Speaking of things that infected my language.

Next Week: “The Route Of All Evil”. “Hey, hey! We can all fight when we’re drunk!”