All Glory To The Hypnotoad: An Oral History of Futurama’s Mind-Altering Amphibian
The competition was fierce at Madison Cube Garden’s Champion Pet Show. Among the contestants was a perfectly trained sheepdog, a mystery pet named “Nibbler” that could devour a ham in mere seconds and even a one-of-a-kind hard-shelled whooping terrier, but none of them could hold a candle to the mind-bending Hypnotoad. With his psychedelic eyes and ominous buzzing sound, the Hypnotoad transfixed the judges of the competition and was crowned the winner.
Like so many other strange creatures in Futurama, Hypnotoad was meant to be just a one-time, throwaway joke. First featured in the Season Three episode “The Day the Earth Stood Stupid,” Hypnotoad wasn’t central to the plot, he was just a odd character to have win this pet show. But, his appearance was so funny — and, according to DVD commentaries, so beloved by Matt Groening — that he soon became one of the show's most reliable running gags.
In Season Four of Futurama, it was revealed that Hypnotoad was the star of his own sitcom “Everybody Loves Hypnotoad.” And, on a Futurama DVD, an entire 22-minute episode of the fake sitcom was made into a bonus feature. Also, when Futurama returned in 2010 after a seven-year absence from episodic television, the first 15 seconds of the show was a “Test of the Emergency Hypnotoad System.” He’s also been featured in a number of other gags and Easter eggs and was central to the plot of a Futurama mobile game.
But Hypnotoad wasn’t just a hit among the Futurama crew, he’s also become an online sensation. On YouTube, there are a multitude of videos featuring the amphibian, from a fan-made episode of Futurama featuring a live-action Hypnotoad to a fake Hypnotoad biography. Best of all, there exists a fan-made ten-hour loop of Hypnotoad’s mesmerizing stare that has 1.6 million views. There’s also a great number of Hypnotoad memes and a wide array of official and unofficial Hypnotoad merchandise.
Indeed, Hypnotoad’s impact on the popular culture has been glorious and, in service to our almighty overlord, it is time to tell the history of Hypnotoad’s origins from the people who brought him to life on Futurama.
Jeff Westbrook, Futurama writer: “The Day the Earth Stood Stupid” was the first epsiode I wrote for Futurama. It was a story that David X. Cohen had in mind, where it was revealed that Leela’s pet Nibbler wasn’t just a cute little animal, but the representative of an ancient alien race that protected the universe from the evil, conquering Brainspawn.
But, to open the show, we needed a set piece to make the audience think Nibbler is just a stupid animal. I’d just been on vacation in England and, while I was there, I turned on the TV and saw these hour-long broadcasts of competitive sheepherding. I thought it might be fun to do the year 3000 version of that. So, Leela trained Nibbler to herd sheep.
Of course, Nibbler had to have some competition, so myself and the other Futurama writers pitched out some crazy animals and I remember Eric Kaplan saying, “There ought to be a Hypnotoad that hypnotizes the sheep to make them do what it wants!”
Eric Kaplan, Futurama writer, creator of Hypnotoad: Yes, that was me, I invented Hypnotoad! As for where the idea came from, there’s some wordplay in the name, of course, but it just struck me as funny that the one to win the competition would be a creature that could hypnotize the judges.
There’s some speculation online about what the idea is based on, and one of them is the mind-controlling V-Frogs from Asimov’s “Lucky Starr” series. Honestly, while I’ve read the Lucky Starr books, I don’t remember the V-Frogs at all. Maybe I read about those, forgot and that influenced it. I don’t know. I have no authority on the inner-workings of my own mind.
Westbrook: Eric pitched that idea in the initial outline and, to think, I could have cut that at any time and there’d be little reason for Hypnotoad to ever come back. But, it was just so funny it just had to stay in. It’s a good thing I did too because, of everything I’ve written, I think I’ve heard the most about Hypnotoad.
Mark Ervin, Futurama director, designer of Hypnotoad: I directed “The Day the Earth Stood Stupid” and designed Hypnotoad. The script just called for a huge toad with hypnotic eyes, and I based him on an Argentine Horned Frog, which I’d seen in a coffee table book I have about frogs. So, he’s not actually a toad at all.
As for his eyes, I looked at those oddly-shaped eyes that a frog has and based it on that. Also, I’d previously worked on The Simpsons episode “Boy-Scoutz 'n the Hood,” where Bart and Milhouse get all amped up on Squishees and have these crazy eyes. It was a bit of a nod to that.
Claudia Katz, Futurama producer: The noise Hypnotoad makes is called “Angry Machine.” I’m not sure where it came from, it might have been Danik Thomas, one of the editors.
Danik Thomas, Futurama editor: Yes! I did that! I recorded that sound way back in October, 1992. I was in Fort Wayne Indiana doing this music video and, during some down time, I was in this cavernous water treatment plant with this great, echo-y sound to it. I had this old analog signal generator that made all these different noises, so I hooked that up to my bass amp and recorded it with my microphone. It was the most obnoxious sound ever.
For years afterwards, I would prank people with that and have it pop up when people were using their computers. It particularly seemed to annoy Paul Calder, who I worked with on Futurama, so I would get him with that a lot. I labeled it “Angry Machine,” which just seemed appropriate.
When it came to Hypnotoad, I put Angry Machine in as sort of a temp sound, hoping they’d stick with it for the actual episode, which they did.
Westbrook: Once we heard this giant, droning buzz, it was just hilariously perfect. It was fantastic.
Peter Avanzino, Futurama supervising director: That scene was all there was supposed to be for Hypnotoad. We had no idea he was going to show up again.
Gabe Cheng, comic book creator and co-host of Another Lousy Millennium podcast: Hypnotoad was an instant classic Futurama joke. It was such a strong visual and that sound was so funny and perfect. I mean, whenever you see a picture of Hypnotoad, you instantly hear that sound in your head.
Futurama had a really strong, online community of fans right from the start. It was a special show, not only because of its link to The Simpsons, but because it was so rewarding to science-fiction fans. Because of that, it kind of set up this feedback loop where the fans would react to something, then, the Futurama writers would see that and work it into the show more. That might be why Hypnotoad appears again in Season Four, where he’s got his own sitcom, Everybody Loves Hypnotoad. That was the last season of Futurama before it was canceled the first time, but Hypnotoad continued to grow online.
Westbrook: We didn’t know it at the time, but Hypnotoad was so perfectly meme-y.
Don Caldwell, internet historian and editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme: Hypnotoad is definitely one of the older Futurama memes. It was cemented into internet culture via places like 4chan and it was such a strong visual that it made sense that it would take off. It makes such a great GIF and, those eyes were so striking they could even be put on other images and people still knew what it was.
Kaplan: I didn’t really know that Hypnotoad had this huge online life, but, I will say, the notion of an attention-leech that monopolizes our attention to pursue its inhuman goals is a pretty good metaphor for the internet. So, the internet kind of is Hypnotoad.
Cheng: After Futurama was canceled after Season Four, the online community for the show stayed strong and Hypnotoad continued to grow during that downtime. So, when it came back with a series of direct-to-DVD movies in 2007, Hypnotoad appeared in that as well, particularly in the first of those movies, “Bender’s Big Score.” My favorite Hypnotoad appearance was in that movie, where he makes a TV announcer kill himself for interrupting his show with a presidential address from Richard Nixon.
Also, they even included a full episode of Everybody Loves Hypnotoad as a bonus feature on the DVD that’s just him staring into the screen for a half hour. I remember watching that and, ten minutes in, I was like, “Is this it?” I then fast-forwarded through the rest and realized, “Yeah, that was it.”
Westbrook: David X. Cohen, Ken Keeler, Patric Verrone and Dan Vebber worked on that. I think a lot of people watched that episode waiting for the big moment where something happened and it never does. It’s so funny.
Katz: Hypnotoad became much bigger when the show came back. We all loved him and we knew the fans loved him, so he came back more and more. They made plushies of Hypnotoad and vinyl toys of him too.
Westbrook: He got so big he even ended up on The Simpsons twice. After Futurama, I started working on The Simpsons and in 2014 we did the “Simpsorama” crossover episode. The other writers and I were discussing how much of Futurama we could cram into this episode. Someone mentioned Hypnotoad and it was like, “Of course!”
Then, I wrote a “Treehouse of Horror” episode where Guillermo del Toro did the couch gag. It had all these crazy horror and fantasy elements to it and, in the storyboards he sent us, Hypnotoad was in there! That was when I was like, “I can’t escape this creature!”
Avanzino: We also did a little movie for a Futurama mobile game in 2017 and Hypnotoad was in that. He was doing something to the world, I forget what it was, but we had him meet a female Hypnotoad. All we did for the female version was stick a bow, lipstick and eyelashes on her, pretty much like Ms. Pac-Man. It’s that stupid.
And, while I can’t say anything officially, it’s probably a safe assumption that he’ll show up again in the new episodes coming out.
Katz: Yeah, that’s probably safe to assume. Actually, when they recently announced the relaunch of the show, we created some new artwork to help promote it. Because we love him so much, Hypnotoad was one of those new images we made to help make the announcement.
I just love when tertiary characters like that break out and people become enamored with them. Hypnotoad is one of those characters that, you really have to know the show to know who that is. Most people can identify Bender, but you don't know Hypnotoad unless you’re actually a fan of the show. And, we’ve gotten an impressive amount of mileage out of him, especially since he’s truly a one-trick toad.
Futurama will return in 2023, on Hulu.