Futurama, Season Four, Episode Four, “Less Than Hero”

Written by: Ron Weiner
Directed by: Susie Dietter
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

There are Futurama episodes that are essential because they’re emotionally vivid, there are Futurama episodes that are essential because they explore a really interesting concept, and there are Futurama episodes that are essential because they seed new elements of the plot. This is one of those Futurama episodes that’s essential because it’s screamingly funny, and while it doesn’t reach the sustained comic high of “Roswell That Ends Well”, it leans even harder down on one aspect of the Futurama ethos: its use of language, or more accurately, abuse. One of the side effects of the show abandoning meaning in favour of whatever’s funniest is that it, you know, finds the funniest way of conveying straightforward statements. Consider the “They just can’t get the spices right” monologue on The Simpsons, in which the comedy comes from the precision of the choices; every word Skinner uses implies a different aspect of what motivates him or how he sees the world, with offhand statements like “even though I didn’t quite understand it” chosen to convey not only what he doesn’t see about himself but why he doesn’t see it. Contrast this with “Give several reasons why!” just being an amusingly awkward way of wording a simple sentence. “Why’s that?” is how most people would say it, “Give me some reasons,” would be an elongated way of saying it, “list some reasons” would be how I would say it, and the actual product we get creates a jarring link between the first two words. It’s funny! And the episode is covered in these kind of choices.

With the premise, I find myself wondering how much my lack of investment in what it’s parodying affects the fact that I find it so funny. Regular readers will recall I found the video game parody shallow and uninteresting, which comes from the fact that I know enough about video games to know all the references they’re making and to have heard all the jokes they make. I’m less inclined to care about them botching references to superheroes despite them arguably being just as often parodied (and just as often badly parodied) as video games. I do think the parody is much stronger in this case, partly because they actually follow the rules of the genre to make comedy as opposed to slavishly recreating elements of it. Captain Yesterday, Clobberella, and SuperKing aren’t weak parodies of real superheroes, but rather the exact superheroes that Fry, Leela, and Bender would come up with. Much of the setup is lifted from the superhero genre (or at least the campiest elements of it) but the punchlines are all Futurama.

It helps to have a specific Futurama emotional hook too. Back in “Leela’s Homeworld”, beloved commentor Drinking With Skeletons remarked that he liked that introducing Maurice and Munda actually changed the status quo of the show, and this is the first real example we get of that. Leela has to actually navigate the reality of having parents; typical parent/child relationship issues are given extra emotional heft by how desperate Leela is to make it work. I never really thought about it before, but Leela’s relationship with her parents is one in which she’s trying so hard to play out the role of Offspring, meaning stuff that’s fairly straightforward for me (as someone who has known his parents his whole life) is completely new for her. Thinking ahead, almost all of Leela’s episodes involving her parents has involved some different aspect of the relationship adults can have with their parents, at least when filtered through Leela’s sophisticated New New Yorker sensibility – obviously, this one climaxes with her learning the acceptance of mild and constant shame that goes between one and their parents, and how that doesn’t affect the love that also goes between them.

Title Card: Soon to be a major religion
Cartoon Billboard: “The Dover Boys”, 1942

The way the show has built story out of changing the status quo actually reminds me of The Good Place, which made this its central driving concept. That mugger that sets the plot in motion amuses me with his honesty, and the fact that his robot is named Andrew is another funny example of choosing words less for their meaning and more for their comedic value. Apparently, the mayor personally hands out mutant passes. Building the plot out of Maurice blabbering about Leela is a great plot turn – Leela’s parents are riffing on good ol’ American Midwestern values, and this feels like something a Dad would do. 

“Hey, guess who I just got off the videophone with!”
“No!”

Much of the plot and superhero aesthetic are references to the 60’s Batman TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward. SewerCom is a reference to SkyCom. 𝛑kea is a reference to Ikea. Hermes requests Leela pick him up a licence to kill, which is a reference to the James Bond franchise. The line ‘ability to command the loyalty of sea creatures’ is a reference to Aquaman. In the superhero theme song, “And the rest” is a reference to an infamous line in the Gilligan’s Island theme song. 

Iconic Moments: “Maybe we’re all wearing magic rings, but they’re invisible rings, so we don’t even realize it! Also, you can’t feel the rings.” | “CITIZEN SNIIIPS!” | “Oh no! Our superhero cream is out of itself!”
Biggest Laugh: Zoidberg being angry and assertive is inherently funny.

Next Week: “A Taste Of Freedom”. “Anyone who laughs is a communist!”