Futurama, Season Nine, Episode One, “Forty Percent Leadbelly”

Written by: Ken Keeler
Directed by: Stephen Sandoval
DN’s Ranking: Bad / NONESSENTIAL / Essential

“All your fancy technology will never be able to copy this guitar.”
“Using my fancy technology, I can make an exact copy of this guitar!”

Now here’s an episode with some chest hair. It’s not the greatest episode of Futurama ever, but it’s reliably funny and has a few genuinely interesting central ideas to play with – the most important being the idea of authenticity in art. The episode is hilariously, absurdly resonant with 2023 discussions of AI-generated art; Bender might have a personality, but the fact that he canonically lacks a soul (or any artistic integrity) makes it easy to consider how he does and does not create art in this episode, and the fact that he specifically does a computer analysis of folk songs to note patterns and generate a new one has some uncanny resonance with the technical process of Midjourney. I consider that program straight-up plagiarism – fine for some limited noncommercial utility like D&D character art or particularly niche pornography, but ridiculous and embarrassing to consider for any actual artist. From this perspective, Bender’s imitation of art is ridiculous.

On the other hand, one of the hilarious (possibly unintentional? If you do things right etc etc) underpinnings of the episode is that the arc of Bender’s career as a folk singer uncannily resembles the early career of Bob Dylan. Bender sets out to imitate his hardbitten folk heroes by pretending to have had their experiences; Bender writes folk music by remixing popular themes and images; Bender visits actual rail workers to soak up their atmosphere for his songs. These are all things Dylan did and his work was marvellous. There are two things of interest here. One: if the work is good, what does the story of the person who made it matter? We (the collective we) make fun of reality shows for giving their contestants weepy backstories, but then get excited by the backstories of our favourite artists, as if it’s what created their art more than they did.

“As stupid as Zoidberg’s idea is, it’s brilliant when I have it.”

Two: this raises interesting things about human creativity. Artistic value is famously impossible to quantify, but I think it comes partly from a real intent – even if it’s not a conscious goal the artist is trying to achieve, there is a value system and a sense of prioritising one set of things over another in a really good work of art. I might criticise the show’s political apathy, but I value that this is made by human beings who made decisions, and tracking those decisions and where they took us is the fun of doing this. But I wonder if the robots haven’t got the right idea in kicking off creativity with that shameless remixed plagiarism. The thing about authenticity is that it happens regardless of what we do – if you’re a lazy hack throwing something together because it’s easy, that’ll come through in the work.

Title Card: Any resemblance to actual future is purely coincidental
Cartoon Billboard: “In A Cartoon Studio”, 1931

“Oh my god, reality is infringing Bender’s copyright!”

The 3D printing is the most feasible scifi the show has ever presented, and that includes the concept of Fry holding down the same job for over ten years. In terms of aesthetic, there’s a lot of great stuff going on here but my favourite is the way it presents Bender’s songs. It powers through it, but this episode also has a really great unrelated opening scene that leads us into the plot. The character Dr Ben Beeler is a riff on the name of episode writer Ken Keeler. This contains multiple references to that time Bender was a penguin.

“How could we have thought a guy with integrity was you, even for a minute?”

The title is a reference to American singer Lead Belly. Much of the plot riffs on the Phillip K Dick short story “What’ll We Do With Ragland Park?”. The entrance to the prison is a riff on the film You Only Live Twice. The carbonite stuff is a riff on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Ramblin’ Rodriguez is probably a reference to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. The rap at the end has a reference to the song “The Real Slim Shady”. 

Iconic Moments: N/A
Biggest Laugh:

Next Week:“2D Blacktop”. “I choose to believe they’re alive in some other dimension. Screamin’ in agony.”