LOS ANGELES, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- With its combination cel and flattened-out computer animation, "Futurama" has been visually spectacular since the moment its debut on Fox almost three years ago.
The show needed a few episodes for its brainy wit -- spiked liberally with toilet humor -- to blossom. But since then this animated sci-fi satire has developed into one of the best shows on TV.
In fact, I'd say that Fox's 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday night lineup - "Futurama" leads off, followed by "King of the Hill" and "The Simpsons" - is the solidest straight hour-and-a-half of TV comedy I can remember.
Even NBC's fabled Thursday night lineup always has some dismal thing stuck between "Friends" and "Will & Grace."
That more people don't watch "Futurama" reflects its difficult time slot and not its quality. Seven o'clock is just too early.
"Malcolm In the Middle," which was wonderful last year, has gone markedly downhill this season. Its continued strong ratings probably owe as much now to its 8:30 post-"Simpsons" time slot. By 8:30 everyone's done with dinner and safely vegetating in front of the TV.
But "Futurama," which was created by Matt Groening, who also came up with "The Simpsons," deserves more viewers.
Take one of my favorite bits, in which former pizza-delivery-boy Fry, transported cryogenically to the 31st-century, tries out the professor's newly invented smelloscope (it allows you to smell distant planets) while responsible, one-eyed spaceship captain Leela looks on.
Fry: "As long as you don't make me smell Uranus."
Leela: "I don't get it."
Professor: "I'm sorry, Fry, but astronomers renamed that planet in 2020 to stop that stupid joke once and for all."
Fry: "Oh. What's it called now?"
Every 12-year-old boy thinks he could write a joke like that. But the fact is, "Futurama" springs from some very fine minds indeed. Even the lowbrow jokes are set in a richly inventive world informed by a science geek's frame of reference.
Showrunner David X. Cohen, plucked by creator Groening from "The Simpsons" to be "Futurama"'s co-executive producer, graduated from Harvard a dozen years ago with a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's in computer science.
He was known on "The Simpsons" as "the science guy," writing episodes where Lisa finds a weird skeleton, or Bart raises some bird's eggs that hatch into lizards.
"My original plan in life was to be a famous scientist," Cohen recalls. He worked for a year at the Harvard Robotics Lab before turning his comedy writing hobby (which he'd indulged at the Harvard Lampoon) into a career.
Did his experience at the Robotics lab help with the character of Bender?
"Not really," says Cohen. "Our approach on the show is robots are a lot like people. We often try with Bender to purposely have you NOT think he's a robot," so clanking sound effects are removed if the character's being especially emotional, for instance.
What about when Bender falls asleep standing up in the closet?
"Is that human or robot activity?" Cohen muses. "Homer could probably fall asleep in the closet."
Bender had an especially human moment this week on Sunday's Valentine's Day special episode. He fell in love with the spaceship's newly upgraded voice (played by Sigourney Weaver.)
"Futurama"'s never lacked for guest stars. Al Gore (whose daughter Kristin is one of the show's writers) will make his second appearance this spring, and a special episode featuring most of the cast of the original "Star Trek" is planned for May sweeps.
The show tweaks its core fans as much as it caters to them. "Eternity with nerds. It's the Pasadena 'Star Trek' convention all over again," commented an animated Nichelle Nichols, who originally guest starred as "Star Trek"'s Lieutenant Uhura last season.
"I'm not the most advanced degree at 'Futurama,'" Cohen notes. "We have two people with Ph.D.s, one in applied math and one in chemistry."
Like "Rocky and Bullwinkle," which children enjoyed but didn't necessarily get, the great achievement of the best primetime animated TV comedy these days is that morons can enjoy it along with the Mensa set.
What does the future hold for primetime animation? Since Matt Groening started it all with "The Simpsons," and since with "Futurama" he's now a futurist, maybe he should have the last word.
"In the future," he announced confidentially at a press conference, "there's going to be 5,000 networks, but UPN will still be in last place."
"'The Simpsons' will still be on in the year 3000," he added, "but the fans on the Internet are complaining that the last 500 episodes haven't been as good."