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Y3K Problems

There are certain conceptions of the future which I think are more interesting than others,'' says Matt Groening, the man most responsible for consigning modern fathers to a present and future as pathetic, live-action imitations of a cartoon numskull. To his credit, Groening recently had the decency to issue a blanket apology to all parents for exactly that offense. With his own children reaching the age of gross impertinence -- that would be about 9 -- he finally understands what he unleashed in Bart Simpson.

If the rest of us weren't laughing so hard, we'd be a lot angrier.

Because a cardinal tenet of life in Hollywood is ``One billion-dollar hit show is never enough (even one with unlimited merchandising appeal),'' Groening is preparing to unleash another attack on ``American values.'' This distant son-of-``The Simpsons'' will be known as ``Futurama.''

Set amid the next outbreak of millennial hysteria, in the year 3000, ``Futurama'' may have a Y3K frenzy. It definitely will include the National Rifle Association campaigning for the right to bear death rays, a planet-size ball of Earth's ejected garbage circling back around to squash us, and such fearsome sights as the heads of famous Year 2000 celebrities preserved in glass jars of a kind of Oil of Olay goop.

Real era-defining folks are held in high regard. People like Dick Clark, Leonard Nimoy, Pamela Anderson, Ron Popeil and (we're hoping) whoever came up with the idea of 48-ounce soft drinks, warehouse supermarkets for dog food and 6,000-pound sport utility vehicles.

At the moment, Groening is still working on such details for ``Futurama'' as . . . the pictures. But he brought a half-finished clip of animation to show TV critics last week and promised he'd be ready for prime time by some time in March.

(Because he's Matt Groening, he was unconditionally forgiven for showing up with something so half-baked. What am I saying? Even if Groening didn't have half an idea, if he were completely drunk, slouched against a bar babbling about locust swarms on the horizon, he'd be forgiven -- and cheered -- because ``The Simpsons'' is so utterly vital to the nation's sanity.)

He says he had to think long and hard on what his idea of the year 3000 is going to look like.

``I love the look of the 1940s and '50s and early '60s,'' he said. (This corresponds to the thinking of most of his baby-boom contemporaries. But then, as we all know, things went South in a bad way . . .)

``In the 1970s, things got kind of grim, and in the 1980s, it was, like, dark and drippy. You know, pipes were always dripping in `Blade Runner' and everything. So we decided what we wanted to do was a kind of `Jetsons' universe . . . with dripping pipes.''

Playing against the dripping pipes are Leela, ``a tough, one-eyed chick'' voiced by Katey Sagal, formerly of ``Married . . . With Children''; a self-important Capt. Kirk-type character named Zapp Brannigan; and an incorrigible, slacker robot named Bender, who drinks and smokes way too much and shoplifts his way across New New York, ``Futurama's'' hometown.

Says Groening, ``But parents can't accuse me of providing a bad role model with Bender. I mean, he's a robot!''

So why exactly did Groening apologize?

``When I came up with `The Simpsons,' I identified with Bart, and I felt like a kid myself. And as I grow older, sadly, I identify more with Homer.''

No bleep, Sherlock!

But is that the same as saying Bart is going to change, giving Y2K parents half a chance at credibility?

``Oh, yeah,'' Groening says sarcastically, ``I think that's a really good idea. I think the Bart Simpson `I'm a Little Angel' T-shirts are going to sell like hot cakes.''


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