Matt Groening on 'Futurama's' growth, Duff beer and his current TV obsession

matt-groening-feb-2012-gi.jpgDepending on how you count episodes, "Futurama" is about to break the century mark -- a fact that its creator, Matt Groening, doesn't seem aware of when we speak to him in late May.

"Oh, wow. I didn't realize that. I need a chart of milestones*," Groening says with a laugh. "That's great."

*(By one count, "Futurama" reached 100 episodes in September 2010; that includes the four stand-alone movies that aired before Comedy Central revived the show; each movie is the equivalent of four half-hour-minus-commercials episodes. Take those out, and the 100th episode is "A Farewell to Arms," the second half of the show's seventh-season premiere.)

In an exclusive interview with Zap2it, Groening talks about the show's growth over the years and some of the more interesting elements of Wednesday's (June 20) premiere episodes. He also touches on "The Simpsons," "Mad Men" and what else he's watching on TV -- there are even a couple of parenting tips.

It's a pretty long conversation, so settle in.

Zap2it: Over the years, do you feel like the storytelling focus has shifted much? Fry was our way into the show, but it feels very much like an ensemble now.
Matt Groening: We've definitely changed the focus. At first we believed we needed to have one normal character at the center of this crazy fictional world, and we realized very quickly that wasn't important. However, it's still fun to see Fry figure things out, and the heart of the show is his relationship with Leela.

And if Fry was the relatable guy at first, he's clearly now not what you would call "normal."
No. The tendency in comedy is to have a character who's stupid get more stupid, because you're trying to top yourself and not just repeat. So the writers compete in having the characters do stupid things. One thing we're able to get away with because it's science fiction is we can sever various body parts, but they seem to be able to be grafted back on [laughs] with no scars. And that happens a number of times, in addition to, of course, the various heads in jars in the head museum.

The fact that celebrities and presidents in the future will be heads in jars in a museum [Groening laughs heartily at this thought] that no one visits is something nobody remarks on. They're just sitting on shelves. To me that's hilarious.

Because the show has been around a good while, do you find yourselves running into the problem of "Oh, we did that already"?
It gets more difficult to come up with something we haven't done before. We have a checklist: We're trying to be entertaining, we're trying to be funny, we're trying to work in the science fiction genre. Science fiction and comedy are generally a pretty bumpy mix. It gives us anxiety in putting it together. But I'm amazed -- we've come up with some pretty good stuff. I think this could be a regular, live-action science-fiction movie, this premise. So I'm pretty happy with that.

Does everyone kind of know intuitively know when that mix is getting a little too bumpy?
It's all an experiment. Again, you're trying to surprise yourself and also the audience, so we make some missteps every so often and then correct them. Every episode we have a table read and listen to the actors basically do it like a radio show, and that gives us a lot of insight as far as what's funny, but also sometimes it clarifies story problems or just that the premise may be too crazy or hard to make clear to the audience. There are some fairly sophisticated ideas [in the show], and to get them across in a half-hour show sometimes requires too much explanation. Sometimes we abandon ideas, and sometimes we throw the ideas up as a formula on a blackboard and say, "OK, we tried." For those who care, you can try to figure out the formula.

futurama-bots-and-the-bees.jpg What was the formula for figuring out robot sex in the season premiere?
Yeah ... the idea of reproduction and growth in metallic creatures is very curious [laughs]. Also, why you'd program a robot to be as sociopathic as Bender is something of a mystery. But we spent a lot of time talking about soda machines [Bender makes a baby with the new Planet Express vending machine] in writing that script. The kind that's in the show is I think a kind of machine they don't even make anymore, where the paper cup comes down and the drink goes in. We had a long debate -- should it be a can that comes out the bottom, a bottle you pull out? But we decided on the paper-cup machine. This means nothing to anyone out there, but this is the kind of thing we waste our time on.

That was a fun episode, and we thought that even though it's very wacky -- not very wacky, somewhat wacky -- it's got a couple of moving moments in the end. It's good to see Bender care about somebody.

The depiction of being a new parent was nice too. I am one, so that struck a chord.
Oh, OK -- when did you become a dad?

A few months ago.
Well, congratulations. Where do you live, by the way?

In Los Angeles.
It's hard to raise a kid in Los Angeles. I've got two adult kids who grew up here. But I'll just tell you ... you're going to face the anxiety of what school your kids are going to go to. Don't catch the contagious flipping out of parents in Los Angeles over what school is best to send your kids to. It's just insane.

We'll do our best.
I mean, there are some bad public schools and good public schools, and in my observation, almost all of the private schools are pretty good. There are good public schools too -- I tried to send my kids to public school, but when the classroom size became close to 35, I just said no. [Pause] OK -- back to showbiz.

Does "Futurama" have the standard long lead time that most animated shows do? I'm thinking of the Mayan/Martian apocalypse episode that's the second half of the premiere.
We've been working on that for quite some time. Right now we're working on next season, for the following summer. We're working on this season too, but we're also in the midst of production on the following summer. So we're way ahead. That particular episode just came from the notion of the world ending in 2012. ... So that's the one where when I talk about severing body parts, obviously "A Farewell to Arms" is the only title we could have. Not only do body parts get severed, they seem to come off pretty easily.

futurama-farewell-to-arms.jpg They did seem like pretty clean cuts.
Maybe it's because they've lost them before. Also Fry's head has been grafted on to Amy's body. ...

[We talk for several minutes about other episodes in this summer's run, which you can read about here. Groening mentions that the "Saturday Morning Fun Pit" anthology episode may screen, at least in part, at Comic-Con.] "Are you going to that?" he asks.

Not this year.
Not as a new dad, you're not. Getting back to being a dad, you probably don't need to hear this, but take as many photos as you can, because it's amazing how fast they change. Just amazing.

Yeah -- my wife and I each took about 50 shots of her on her three-month birthday.
And you know what? It won't be enough. I'm telling you -- years from now you'll go, "Why didn't we take 50 more?"

I have one sort of very nerdy and specific "Simpsons" question I want to ask, if that's OK.
Sure.

Right after college I lived and worked in Chico, Calif., and there's a bar there called Duffy's. Some of the regulars claimed the name inspired the naming of Duff beer. True?
There was a radio show called "Duffy's Tavern," I believe in the '30s and '40s [1941-51, to be exact]. ... But no -- I'm sorry. I try to confirm all rumors -- people say, "Oh yeah, my friend says he was your roommate the University of Kansas." I never went there, but I usually say, "Yeah, that's right [laughs]." The only thing I know about chico is I used to read the Chico State newspaper -- I liked it a lot -- when I was working on my college newspaper. But nope.

I figured as much, but since I had the chance to ask ...
Yeah. It was "Duff" as in bad, off. And no one ever mentions the rural competition beer we had in one episode, Fudd. What's amazing about Duff beer is it's this throwaway joke on the show, and all over the world there have been counterfeit, unauthorized Duff beers -- in Mexico, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand. I try to get a six-pack before they get shut down. They keep talking about a real Duff beer, but I'm against it.

Although if there were a real Duff Gardens, I'd totally go.
Exactly. ... By the way, have you ever been on the Simpsons ride at Universal? It's pretty good. ... I always think it's like the lost "Simpsons" episode that you can only see in two places in the world. I was pretty happy with it. When I have out-of-town visitors I'm able to take them to the Simpsons ride. ... Then we go to the Kwik-E-Mart gift shop afterward, and I sometimes get recognized, but no tourist is surprised. It's like, "Of course that's where the creator of 'The Simpsons' would hang out."

Why not?
[Laughs] At the Kwik-E-Mart, where he autographs T-shirts.

It's almost like you're someone coming to hang out at Comic Book Guy's shop.
Well I do shop at my local [comics shop], and nobody blinks an eye. I walk in and it's no big deal. That's good -- I like it. So do you have to watch a lot of TV? Does anything excite you, or are you burned out?

We just got to the end of the TV season, so this is kind of the calm before the Comic-Con and TCA storm.
You have to go to all those TCAs? Wow.

But I'm making my way through the pilots for next season and watching "Mad Men," and I'm excited for "Breaking Bad" to come back...
My kids are totally into "Breaking Bad" and I have the DVDs; I just haven't done it yet. They rave about "Breaking Bad." And everybody at "The Simpsons" is into "Game of Thrones," which I'm a sourpuss about. I think it's really well-done, but every sex scene makes me go, "Whaaat?"

That's not an uncommon complaint about the show.
The "Saturday Night Live" sketch was the best take on that. That's exactly right. "Mad Men" has been absolutely incredible -- I'm a few episodes behind, but I'm enjoying it thoroughly. I like "Girls a lot too. It took a couple episodes for me to get into it, but I really like that. ... The guy who plays her strange shirtless boyfriend [ Adam Driver] is great. I think he's phenomenal.

"Veep" is pretty solid too.
I haven't watched that. It's all Tivo'd. I'm curious -- I discovered some Danish film, a gross-out comedy called "Klown," or "Klovn," I guess. Then it said Danny McBride had the rights and is going to do an American version. I said, "That's interesting -- what's this all about?" So I looked it up, and there was a Danish TV series called "Klovn," and I think that's what it's referring to. I had no idea, so I took a chance and ordered the complete series on DVD. It could be good -- I love making discoveries like that.

The recording cuts out at this point, which is unfortunate because we spend a couple minutes talking about the where-is-Springfield hubbub on "The Simpsons" from earlier this year. For us the location has been fixed since the Season 11 episode "Behind the Laughter," when the narrator refers to "this Northern Kentucky family."

Groening says the show picked that location -- since changed for syndication -- because, according to him, it's "the place where 'The Simpsons' is the least popular."

"I have a friend who lived there, and he told me it was weird -- none of the kids in his town were allowed to watch 'The Simpsons,'" Groening says.

"Futurama" begins its new season with back-to-back episodes at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday on Comedy Central.
Photo/Video credit: Getty Images, Comedy Central