In the latest chapter of our never-ending effort to stave off the potent combination of ennui and boredom that 2020 and the ongoing pandemic have thrust upon us, my wife and I have taken to rewatching the entirety of Futurama.
Not the reboot years of the series (2010-2013), of course. Or the collection of three feature-length quasi-films that is collectively referred to as Futurama season 5. I’m exclusively talking about the original four seasons of the show that aired on FOX between 1999 and 2003, containing some of the better animated comedy (and unexpected emotional resonance) of the last few decades. It’s a comforting collection of routinely hilarious episodes that many comedy fans overlooked in its initial run, only to rediscover via late night re-runs on Adult Swim in the mid-2000s.
For the most part, this era of Futurama has aged well, even after 20 years in the saddle. Philip J. Fry’s arrival in the year 3000 is a classic fish out of water story, first marveling in the sheer, noisy tumult of the new age and its incredible advancements, before tearing all those impressive accomplishments down to reveal just how little society and humans (or robots with human personalities) have really changed. Sure, folks now travel via pneumatic tubes criss-crossing “New New York,” and your TV anchorman is an alien monster who regularly threatens to exterminate the human race, but even in an age of technological marvels, our heroes still spend their time delivering parcels for a living. They still pine for unrequited workplace romances (Fry), or material wealth (Bender), or to stave off the inevitability of death, in the case of Professor Farnsworth. It’s a setting we still recognize quite easily as our own, with one major exception.
That exception is the President of Earth, Richard M. Nixon. It’s the one aspect of rewatching Futurama in 2020 that now is so difficult to parse, because this comedic portrayal of Nixon—shared between this show and Matt Groening’s other series, The Simpsons—is free to present Nixon as the be-all, end-all of the very idea of Presidential corruption or ineptitude. And after four years of the current Trump administration, that’s become a thought laughable in and of itself. Indeed, it’s made the Nixon satire present in Futurama difficult to enjoy in any real way, as his particular brand of villainy, meant to be comedic through cartoonish exaggeration, has instead become almost mundane in comparison to the things Trump has been saying or doing on a daily basis for the last four years. It’s a case of real-life headlines eclipsing the political hyperbole of the early 2000s in a way that no one could have predicted at the time, to the point that real life has now rendered all previous political satire hopelessly outdated and irrelevant. Hell, even Idiocracy barely feels like a stretch now, which is perhaps the surest indicator of how bad things have become.
The root of the Richard Nixon obsession in Futurama goes back to Groening’s personal combination of fascination and loathing of the 37th President, which made him the frequent butt of jokes in the first six seasons of The Simpsons, prior to Nixon’s death in 1994. Before that time, he appeared more frequently than even a regular viewer might remember: As a member of the “jury of the damned” in “Tree House of Horror IV,” in archival beer advertisements in “Duffless,” and as a “powerful friend” of an influential pig mascot in “Homer Goes to College,” among many other references. Hell, even the first name of Milhouse Van Houten is a direct reference to Nixon. After the former President’s death, the appearances on The Simpsons ceased, but they were then revived when Futurama made landfall in 1999, emboldened by the show’s use of the “preserved heads in a jar” gag to make Nixon a stand-in for all Earthly political corruption as he became a crooked President once again in the year 3000. In an interview, Groening once described the pleasure he apparently felt in “kicking Nixon from beyond the grave.”
A very frequent Simpsons target.
Groening was hardly alone, as this must have been the cultural caricature of Nixon familiar to many who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s—a short-hand figure for the very concept of corruption, thanks to the Watergate scandal and subsequent resignation from the office of President. Since the end of Futurama, however, we’ve seen the bar of what qualifies as corruption and political embarrassment shifted to such a degree that the idea of truly hating Nixon seems almost quaint—as does the idea that the American populace could ever have been so united in derision of a President. If you’re less than 30 years old, can you even imagine a scenario where our current political polarization would allow for a President to be overwhelmingly supported or denounced? If such a thing isn’t possible during the Trump presidency, what would a President have to do at this point in order to lose the support of their own power base? Trump once claimed he could shoot random citizens and not lose any voters, and it’s hard to fault him on that.
There have been no shortage of fictional depictions of U.S. presidents as conniving hucksters, but those depictions typically had one thing in common—they at least had the optimism to assume that such a swindler would need to be an intelligent man in order to seize power. No one ever seriously depicted an idiot like Trump winning the highest office in the land, because no one seriously thought such a profoundly stupid man would be able to waltz into office by virtue of simply coming along at a moment of surging white nationalist sentiment and an electoral college system that is so thoroughly broken, the person who wins 2.5 million more votes nationwide doesn’t become the president. When The Simpsons “predicted” Trump’s eventually ascendency in the 11th season episode “Bart to the Future,” it wasn’t some kind of genuine warning of things to come—it was meant to be a joke in the vein of “things that couldn’t ever happen.” Only 16 years later, the nation would prove itself capable of more stupidity than those writers had ever expected.
But back to Nixon, and Futurama. Now vying for the presidency once again, Nixon swipes Bender’s body in the second season episode “A Head in the Polls,” warning the world that “Nixon with charisma” is a force that could “rule the universe.” In doing so, they return to one of the standards of characterization that is consistent with all of Groening’s jokes about Nixon—he’s simultaneously pompous and self-loathing. The cartoon Nixon desires power and respect, but he also quite clearly knows that he doesn’t deserve it, which results in him lashing out bitterly and preemptively against those he already knows he’ll rub the wrong way.
Trump, by contrast, is like this Nixon without even a hint of self-awareness or shame. He genuinely believes that the world exists solely to stroke his ego, and he’s all too likely to say the exact sort of aggrandizing things that Nixon would say on Futurama … but without any of the hesitation, flop sweat or fear of reprisal. Just look at Nixon in the presidential debates, grappling over the question “If you saw delicious candy in the hands of a small child, would you seize and consume it?”
Do you doubt, even for a moment, that Donald Trump would bother hiding his self-serving answer to such a question? Not only would his answer be “I would take the candy, because the child is probably undocumented,” such an answer would be deemed not only acceptable but desirable by a number approaching 50% of the U.S. population. This sort of question is presented as the ultimate “softball”—the joke is meant to be that anyone could answer it, because the morally correct reply would be obvious to anyone running for office, or anyone in the audience. But Trump has broken the mold of obviousness, to the point that you can’t even expect him to reply to questions such as “Will you honor the results of the 2020 election?” with the solemn “of course” that any previous candidate for the last 240 years would have immediately proffered. Nor can you even rely on the electorate to give a shit about things like the President suggesting he won’t relinquish his power after being voted out of office. Anything that once would have been a career-ending statement or scandal can now be survived, as polarization has left us so entrenched that there seems to be no way back.
It all adds up to a setting where political parody and humor become either toothless or borderline impossible, even as we chuckle about the obvious parallels between Futurama’s Nixon sending out “three hundred buckaroos” to citizens “in the form of a Tricky Dick fun bill,” and Trump sticking his own name on Federal stimulus checks during pandemic times. That’s amusing, but it’s harder to laugh when you recall Nixon’s classic Futurama tirade that he’ll “go into people’s houses at night and wreck up the place,” and realize that half the U.S. population would legitimately find a way to rationalize it if the President (or his militarized police goons) did exactly that. Moreover, Nixon backs down on the show from the very threat that the protagonists will release the audio of him threatening to do such a thing, when our actual President was elected DESPITE released audio of him bragging about assaulting women. Imagine trying to explain to someone, 15 years ago, that releasing that sort of audio would not prevent someone from being elected President. They absolutely would not have believed you.
And before you chime in to say that the first half of Nixon’s threat is less likely—the bit about “selling children’s organs to zoos for meat”—well, let’s not forget that our current President has already thrown thousands of migrant children into cages, and half the U.S. population apparently doesn’t care about that either.
What else can you conclude, other than that the political satire of the past can never be viewed in the same way again? When Futurama imagined the most shameful Presidential entity it could conceive, it landed on Richard Nixon. If only they’d known that there was still so much worse on the way.