Futurama is an animated comedy that has withstood the test of time as one of the greatest sci-fi series of all time. What was initially commissioned by Fox to be the sci-fi Simpsons was taken by Matt Groening, David X. Cohen, and what has been infamously referred to as "the most overqualified cartoon writers in history" and made into a loving and surprisingly well-researched parody and home to sci-fi media.
Sporting over 50 combined years at Harvard University and several Ph.D.'s and Master's degrees in Mathematics and Science, Futurama is a show that's smarter than you think and probably smarter than you. As such, the world of drunken robots, evil aliens, and mad scientists is filled with a litany of references and jokes that a lot of people have missed. Let's run down just 8.
This is already a pretty well-known one within the Futurama community but still mind-blowing nonetheless. If you haven't caught it, please go back and check out one of the greatest instances of continuity in television history. In the Season 4 episode, "The Why of Fry," it was revealed that Leela's alien pet, Nibbler, was the one responsible for pushing Fry into the cryogenic chamber that froze him into the future. This is "foreshadowed" however all the way back to the pilot, where one can catch Nibbler's shadow under the desk as Fry falls in. Day 1: This crew is already predicting the future.
If you're an Art or Marketing major, you probably already caught this. However, if you're a normal person, the world design of Futurama probably went over your head. As futuristic as the world design of Futurama is, its design sensibility isn't all that futuristic. The round shapes, sharp edges, and metallic structures are actually based on Populuxe design, an aesthetic outlook for the future that was popularized in artwork and advertisements in the U.S. during the 1960s. Populuxe is famous for its distinct visual interpretation of what the future would look like, with sleek, metal buildings and flying cars that were essentially Cadillacs with dome tops. If anything, the world design of Futurama most deeply reflects that of The Jetsons, which is funny considering that The Simpsons is often made fun of for ripping off The Flinstones. Hannah-Barbara is more influential than we know.
If you've seen any of Matt Groening's works, you might notice that a lot of people oddly have the middle initial "J," such as Homer J. Simpson, Bartholomew J. Simpson, or Mona J. Simpson. This is no different for Futurama's main character, Philip J. Fry. While not every J. of Groening's is defined (Homer's just means Jay), the infamous middle initial is actually a tribute to the creator of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, Jay Ward. Ward's characters are subsequently named Rocky J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose. Matt Groening's main character, Homer Simpson and Philip J. Fry, are also named after Groening's father, Homer Phillip Groening.
If Star Trek and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien have taught people anything, it's that good world building requires made-up languages, and Futurama is no different. What initially started out as a simple cipher soon turned into a Da Vinci's Code level puzzle as the languages hidden in the background became more complex in response to fans decoding the show's early messages too easily. During a majority of Futurama, the creators would hide bonus jokes in the background in the guise of their ciphered alien language as a sort of way of rewarding dedicated fans and people with Tivo. While it would be hard to list them all, one of our favorites is the above that reads "Tasty Human Burgers."
This is an example of an "aside joke" becoming serious world-building. During the episode "The Luck of the Fryish," everyone's favorite thieving, drinking robot slyly remarks that his middle name is "Bending" and that his full name is Bender Bending Rodriguez.
From here, we not only see the series consistently refer to him as such, but they even adapt it into his backstory, where the creators even place the factory he was built-in within Tijuana. He and Hermes even venture out there in "Lethal Inspection," as they search for Bender's inspection records. It's character development at its finest.
The number 1729 appears several times throughout Futurama. Bender's unit number is 1729. In "The Farnsworth Paradox," one of the parallel universes is labeled "1729." Zapp Brannigan's spaceship, the Nimbus, even has the registration number 1729. The reason behind the mysterious number's frequent appearances is because of one of the show's writers, Ken Keeler, a mathematician who's a fan of the more famous mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan who famously stated that 1729 "is the smallest number expressible as the sum of 2 cubes in two different ways." I hope we all learned something.
During the early years of Futurama, the identity of Taranga Leela's parents and race was a mystery. For much of the early episodes, she was often referred to as the last of a long-lost alien species. Fans would later find out in the Season 4 episode "Leela's Homeworld" that she is actually a mutant baby as she finally meets her parents.
This is directly teased in Season 2 at the end of "A Bicyclops Built for Two" but saw foreshadowing as soon as the first season. Impressively, Leela's parents are directly shown in the background of a crowd within the episode "I Second that Emotion." This is a show that knows how to do early teases.
Here's how smart the Futurama writers are: they invented a functioning math theorem. That is an achievement unheard of in cartoon writing, but these writers managed to pull it off, specifically Ken Keeler, aka the 1729 guy. He invented a mathematical theorem to solve the body switch dilemma in "The Prisoner of Benda." Keeler would go on to win the Writer's Guild of America Award for Outstanding Animation for the episode and even acclaim within the mathematics community for what is dubbed the "Futuram" or "Ken Keeler Theorem." Try this theorem at home, at your own risk.