Futurama, Season Four, Episode Nine, “Teenage Mutant Leela’s Hurdles”

Written by: Jeff Westbrook
Directed by: Bret Haaland
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

We’ve seen a lot of episodes that have really interesting points or emotions alongside the fact that they’re funny as hell. It’s not that they, ya know, just happen to be funny as a side effect of being interesting or vice versa, but there is kind of an oil-and-water quality to the show’s exploration of deeper issues, where they’re both in the bottle but otherwise unrelated. “A Head In The Polls” makes fun of Richard Nixon and Bender’s emotional arc is there to provide structure but otherwise doesn’t have much to do with that satire. This feels a little different – the comic premise feels like it naturally spawns out both Leela and the Professor’s emotional arcs, and the humour feels intimately connected with the real feelings and ideas of the plot as a result. Pulling back and looking both forwards and behind, season four feels like the point where the crew are finding ways to recombine its elements into more complex Rube Goldberg machines of episodes, kind of like how the Beatles shifted from making pop songs to working out how to sequence their whole albums. This is less ostentatious than, say, “The Sting” will be, but almost more impressive for slipping it by us. 

I want to dive into the Professor’s story first, because my reaction to it is highly personal despite it really being secondary in importance. It’s part of the Groeningverse mockery of old people, and it relentlessly mocks pretty much every aspect of the ageing process and every stereotype of old people through him. My father has been declining mentally due to dementia for the past few years, and my intuitive reaction is that I should be upset at seeing what has been a difficult and even traumatic experience dragged onscreen and played not just for laughs but for cruel laughs. But strangely, if anything it’s even funnier to me now. One of the first things that went was his ability to drive, and that was a process that began with him driving slower and more awkwardly before losing it entirely, and yet when the Professor snaps “Because we’re in a hurry, that’s why!”, I cackle harder than I used to. My Dad actually takes the process of his decline easier when people make jokes about it – when it’s a normal thing that nobody holds against him – and I suppose this is something similar for me. I like jokes, and knowing that this terrible experience can be used to set them up makes it easier to endure the memory and future experience of it.

Meanwhile, Leela’s story is an extension of the ongoing story of her parents. The thing that delights me about this episode is how she’s really just play-acting the process of a normal childhood. Now, I’ve never had a traumatic childhood – it wasn’t perfect but Fry’s childhood was more traumatic than mine – but I’ve listened to people who have described their experiences, and what Leela is doing here is actually pretty human. I know there’s at least one form of therapy in which you take advantage of how malleable memory can be and try and replace the bad memories with easier ones, and that’s kind of what Leela is doing here. One thing I see in other people that I’ve never felt myself and that I see in Leela is this feeling that if you’re following this checklist some Normal Person made out; Fight Club is a pretty good movie capturing of realising you followed every step and are still unhappy, and Leela is a pretty good presentation of someone resentful they never got that chance. The episode pokes fun at her (mainly and hilariously through Maurice, who doesn’t understand at all) but it also gets where she’s coming from.

Title Card: Now interactive! Joystick controls Fry’s right ear.
Cartoon Billboard: “Moonlight For Two”, 1932

The gargoyle hunt that kicks this episode off is particularly inspired; not only is it funny on its own (I have often imitated the Professor’s “PAZUZU! PAZUUUUUUUUUUUUUZUUUUU!”), it pulls out some of the Professor’s crustiest old man qualities. Bender has apparently learned the value of seatbelts. The writers have a really good sense of conveying what the characters were like as kids without being too obvious; Hermes as a Bart Simpson prankster is great, as is Bender being a rebel who is all-talk-no-walk, and there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t even really a joke but still hilarious (my favourites being “When I grow up, I wanna be a steam shovel!” and “Shut up, I was gonna say that!”). 

“The devil take this predictable colon!”

The title is an incredibly clever pun on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Professor destroys Deep Space Nine from the eponymous Star Trek spinoff. The oil-eating bacteria the Professor demonstrates are based on Pac-Man. The sewer race is a combination of Grease and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Moose is a reference to the character of the same name from Archie Comics. Pazuzu is, incredibly, a reference to the French graphic novel The Eiffel Tower Demon. “Fiddler Way Below The Roof” is a reference to the Broadway play Fiddler On The Roof

Iconic Moments: “Sir, it’s not necessary or wise to be naked.” / “You sound just like my tennis instructor!” | “With my last breath, I curse Zoidberg!”
Biggest Laugh:

Next Week: “The Why Of Fry”. “Just remember that Scooty Puff Jr suuuuuuuuuuuucks!” / “In a thousand years, I’ll get right on it.”