CGEF Interview with
On March 8th 2003 Futurama writer and executive producer Ken Keeler won the 55th Annual Writers Guild Award in the animated program category for TV writing. The ceremony took place in the Beverly Hilton Hotel and was attended by circa 2,500 people. The very first award announced was the Animation one, which also was a premiere as animated programs previously did not have a category at the WGA Awards but their own Animation Writers Caucus Awards.
Presenter of this award was the voice of Fry, Zoidberg, Farnsworth et al.: Billy West.
Clips from all 6 nominated shows ("Futurama: Godfellas", three "The Simpsons" episodes, one "King of the Hill" episode and the Xmas special "Santa, Baby!") were shown with "Godfellas" presenting a scene in which Bender talks to the god-like galaxy about hiding one's tracks when playing God.
Billy opened the envelope and proudly read Ken's name who then made his way to the stage for a first wave of warm applause. He accepted the award graciously, thanked the Guild, mentioned that animation writing is a collaborative process, and listed all his fellow writers by name. While Billy and Ken left the stage, another round of applause closed their act.
The morning afterwards we contacted Ken and asked for a short interview by eMail, which he willingly agreed to.
Personal / General
Can't Get Enough Futurama: Executive Producer David X. Cohen said in an interview that you have a Ph.D. in Applied Math and a Masters in Electrical Engineering. How does one go from there to writing for TV shows?
Ken Keeler: Short version: when I was finishing my doctoral dissertation, there were many, many new Ph.D's applying for very few research and academic jobs; meanwhile, people I knew from my college comedy-writing days were getting great TV jobs. So as a crazy form of bet-hedging, I applied to the old David Letterman show (in those days you didn't need an agent at Letterman). Before hearing from them, I got a great research job at Bell Labs -- and then got contacted by the Letterman people with an offer. I felt like if I didn't try writing now, I'd regret it the rest of my life. So after a year at Bell Labs, I went to Letterman. I've regretted it the rest of my life.
CGEF: Did it ever pay off to go through all these years of education?
Ken: Well, sure. For example, Bender's serial number is 1729, a historically significant integer to mathematicians everywhere; that "joke" alone is worth six years of grad school, I'd say.
CGEF: What's unique to working on Futurama compared to other animated shows you worked on like The Simpsons and The Critic?
Ken: The type of stories we could do, which was an obvious consequence of the extremely unusual setting. Also, The Simpsons and The Critic had very very intelligent, very very well-educated staffs, but even they would concede, I think, that the Futurama staff was the most overeducated group of men and women ever assembled to write a cartoon (or any TV comedy, I expect).
CGEF: Which phases does the episode writing process go through before completion and how much control over the actual outcome does the writer have?
Ken: (1) The story is "pitched out" by a bunch of writers, usually about half the staff: a story idea is generated (often but not always by the writer) and discussed in detail with some jokes suggested (1-3 days).
(2) The writer writes an outline (1 week).
(3) David Cohen goes over the outline and suggests some changes (often with my input) -- story elements that aren't working, jokes that could be improved or replaced -- and there's often more pitching out (1 day).
(4) The writer writes a first draft (1-2 weeks).
(5) The staff (including the writer) does an extensive line-by-line rewrite based on David's suggestions (as well as mine and the staff's) (1-2 weeks).
(6) David supervises a quick polish rewrite (1-2 days)
(7) We have a "table read": the actors all come in and read through the script, with an audience of writers and other show personnel, so we can get some sense of what's working and what needs changing, after which the staff rewrites it again, very quickly (1-2 days) before the main dialogue is recorded.
(8) A couple of months later there's a screening of the "animatic" (a crudely animated pencil-sketch version of the show), again for a small audience, and the staff rewrites further. (1 day).
(9) Months later we get the "color", the almost-completely-animated show (minus music and final sound effects); we screen it for the standard audience and rewrite it again (1/2 day).
The writer's involved at every stage, and if he or she really really loves something that's up for cutting or hates something that's been added, it counts for a lot in the final decision -- but not everything.
Former Simpsons Executive Producer Mike Reiss once told me that at the Simpsons, if a writer had done an exceptionally good job on his or her draft, 33% of it might survive to the final version. I think that's a little low, but it's a guideline. Animation writing, in my experience, is incredibly collaborative, mostly because of the long time frame available for rewrites; this is why, as I said in my WGA acceptance speech, it was dishonest for me individually to accept the award.
The WGA Ceremony
CGEF: What were your hopes of leaving the WGA ceremony with a trophy, being pitted against no less than three Simpsons episodes?
Ken: My hopes of winning oscillated wildly between arrogant overconfidence and absolute despair (remember, The Simpsons defined prime-time animation, and neither Futurama nor King of the Hill is imaginable without it.) However, my hopes of leaving with a trophy were high, because I planned to steal one if we lost.
CGEF: Seeing that Godfellas has a highly religious theme, what is your own take on religion and how did you arrive there?
Ken: I don't believe in God in any sense whatsoever and I never have. (Unlike some atheists, I recognize the POSSIBILITY of his existence, though only in the same sense that I think more or less anything is possible). I took great pains in the script never to say that the Galactic Entity (as we called it) was in fact God, and fought some battles over that point during the rewrite.
CGEF: Cartoon Network edited out the word "Jesus" in the line "Sweet Zombie Jesus" from their 11PM airing due to a sensitive audience in the USA. Was there any discussion about having a religion-centered episode including some "blasphemous" parts which would air at 7PM?
Ken: I don't recall any, since (see previous answer) I thought we were never really saying anything about actual God. (Certainly there's nothing blasphemous about Bender acting as God; bad taste, perhaps, but not blasphemous.) I don't think we got any heat for it either. (Unlike, e.g., "the Series Has Landed", for which we got a nasty letter from some idiot lady who was enraged at how we were misinforming America's kids, since, as she said, everyone knows there's no sunset on the moon. Idiot.)
CGEF: Do you think that fans over-interpret the episode in parts? For example, one of the scores played in Godfellas is "Also Sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss. It is named after Nietzsche's work with the same name that included among other things the famous "God is dead" line. Lost you?
Ken: Based on what I've seen online, fans over-interpret EVERY episode in ALL parts (but that's their prerogative). The use of "Also Sprach Zarathustra", for example, is manifestly a reference to "2001", as is the shot over which it plays. End of story.
On the topic of overzealous fans, how is it that somone out there is obsessive enough to identify the song in the two-head episode (2ACV07) as the very obscure Scruffy the Cat's "Moons of Jupiter", but so far as I've heard, NOBODY identified the piece Bender's playing on the piano in "Godfellas" as Chopin's Polonaise in C Minor? I ask because that's actually me playing it, and I was hoping to see some fan misidentify the performance as some well-known pianist's recording. Way to drop the ball, people. (I'm not a big classical music fan, but the Polonaise is one of two pieces I remember from piano lessons as a kid.)
CGEF: How much additional material never made it into the episode? Can you tell us any cut scenes you really would have liked to stay in?
Ken: The thing that breaks my heart about every rerun I see is the memory of stuff that never made it in. In "Godfellas", I remember an interlude where Bender landed on the asteroid from St. Exupery's "The Little Prince" and got into a fight with the Little Prince himself, who ended up blasting him out into space again with a rifle. There was a lost front end to the mountain-climbing scene with them ascending first above the height where trees could survive, and then above the height where blizzards could survive. But the real heartbreaker was a sequence of Bender dreaming inside the torpedo tube that I'd originally written for "The Honking" (when he's welded to the wall) that Susie Dietter (who directed both episodes) did a great job with but it still got cut from both shows. I'll quote it verbatim because we both tried so hard to get it on the air:
INT. TORPEDO TUBE - CONTINUOUS
Bender is sleeping restlessly, visor down. We DRIFT IN.
(RESTLESS NOISES, SNORING)
At the bottom of the screen we see Bender's internal clock counting from "11:59:56". The main screen shows a menu reading "SELECT DREAM" and two soft buttons reading "I AM NAPOLEON" and "I AM ROCK STAR". A cursor arrow CLICKS on "I AM ROCK STAR". The main screen changes to show a SQUARE LABELLED "BENDER" with a crudely rendered guitar.
SQUARE LABELLED "BENDER"
(MONOTONE) Yeah yeah yeah.
The main screen goes blank; the words "DREAM OVER" appear.
CGEF: Bar a renewal by FOX, your episode "The Devil's Hands are Idle Playthings" might be the Futurama finale. Did you have to fight to get that episode or did no one want to take the burden of writing it?
Ken: There was never any fighting over ANY assignments, so far as I know. When 4ACV18 came up, I hadn't written an episode that year and everyone else had, so I don't think there was anything to think about.
CGEF: Think you did a good job?
Ken: No. But I've never been totally happy with any of the episodes I've written. (A possibly controversial statement: in my opinion, the best thing I ever wrote for TV was the "Principal Skinner is an Impostor" episode of "The Simpsons", which is often named as their "Jump the Shark" moment.)
CGEF: Thanks for giving us the chance to have a Q & A session and good luck for your future.
This interview was conducted via eMail on March 10th/11th 2003. Questions were posed by [-mArc-] and Kelly H. aka "edel".