An Oral History of ‘Godfellas,’ the Most Philosophical ‘Futurama’ Episode Ever
In the universe of Futurama, outer space is usually quite small. Characters can depart Earth, grab some Orlon Candy on the moon, then arrive 1,000 light-years away on Omicron Persei 8 — all within the first act. There is, however, one episode of Futurama where space feels vast and empty and where things get so quiet for Bender that the biggest questions about the meaning of life can be asked — and answered.
Season Three’s “Godfellas,” written by Ken Keeler, is often cited as among the best episodes of Futurama ever. In it, the Planet Express ship is attacked by space pirates, and Bender is blasted from the ship and sent hurtling through the emptiness of space. After playing some Chopin on a miniature piano, he is pummeled by an asteroid field, and he ends up with a miniature civilization stuck to him. The Shrimpkins, as they’re called, come to see Bender as god.
While Bender tries his best to live up to their expectations, the people living on him eventually end up divided and obliterate themselves in a miniature nuclear war. Alone once again, Bender grieves the loss of his followers and soon discovers a galaxy signaling to him in binary code. As it turns out, the galaxy is God, or more accurately, “the remains of a computerized space probe that collided with God.”
In the episode’s final act, Bender has a conversation with the entity that’s both hilarious and deeply thoughtful. They discuss how much a god should intervene and how they must use a “light touch.” It all builds toward this line, delivered by the entity: “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”
It was perhaps the most philosophical the show has ever gotten. Some may be surprised to find such depth in the show, but dedicated Futurama fans have come to expect the occasional moment of profundity from the absurdly overqualified writers room of Futurama. A number of those writers recently shared some of their very big brains with us to discuss the meaning of “Godfellas” — and life itself.
Lew Morton, writer on Futurama: For me, writing on Futurama was like being in a graduate seminar that you didn’t have the right prerequisites for. Ken Keeler has at least one doctorate, and before he was a comedy writer, he worked for Bell Labs. He used to delight in telling us that he’d written papers that he no longer had the security clearance to read. It was such a science-y room, and every once in a while, everyone would go spinning off talking about science. I remember one conversation about whether Mars’ moons are geosynchronous with Mars. It was fascinating. Anyway, Futurama was a very nerdy room.
Ken Keeler, writer of “Godfellas”: I pitched the story for “Godfellas” in its most basic form — that Bender gets lost in space and a tiny civilization colonizes him and regards him as God. During our initial discussions, someone suggested that Bender should then “meet God.” That was the point at which David X. Cohen felt like there was an episode, and he added — I recall it verbatim — that it should address the question, “What should a god do?” It was also David who wrote the line, “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”
During the writing process, there were a number of influences on this story. The monastery searching for God is right out of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God.” At the end, the “space probe that collided with God” is an intentional allusion to Star Trek’s Nomad and V’Ger. This was important because we felt that in the Futurama universe — where, for example, the Second Coming has already occurred — we needed at least some kind of mechanistic explanation for the galactic entity Bender meets.
The response, “That seems probable” — when Bender suggests the entity might be a “space probe that collided with God” — is a reference to Lord Dunsany’s “The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men.” In my first draft, I included an epigraph at the top of Act Three from “The Injudicious Prayers of Pombo the Idolater,” another Lord Dunsany story: “Till he fell from the world as, when our hearts miss a beat, we fall in dreams and wake up with a dreadful jolt, but there was no waking up for Pombo, who still fell on towards the incurious stars.”
And although I don’t recall it specifically, I strongly suspect those stories, both of which involve somebody falling forever through space, were where the idea for the episode started.
John DiMaggio, voice of Bender: When I got the script for “Godfellas” I thought it was really funny and a really interesting episode. All those science degrees in that writers room, you can’t compete with that. We had the smartest guys on the planet writing for us. It was ridiculous. And the more science they could jam into an episode, the funnier it usually was. That especially applies to “Godfellas” because of all of the questions asked, and they made the right jokes about what it’s all about.
Keeler: Looking back through the script, I noticed that a lot of my own lines that I still like are very language-based — the funny part is the words that are being used rather than the idea being expressed — like, “That’s not torpedo three! That’s not torpedo three at all!”
I also like when Leela says, “This is by a wide margin the least likely thing that has ever happened.” I like this because the joke is almost entirely in the word order. Just saying the event is unlikely isn’t particularly funny. It clearly wouldn’t have been as funny if the line were merely, “This is the least likely thing that has ever happened.” But it wouldn’t even be as funny to say, “This is the least likely thing that has ever happened, and by a wide margin,” which is completely logically equivalent. I think what’s going on is that the sentence structure is so complex that, without consciously realizing it, we sense that Leela has somehow thought very carefully about how to express her amazement, even though she should be too overcome by amazement to say a sentence that complex.
Another favorite of mine is when Bender asks, “Do you think what I did was wrong?” and the Entity says, “Right and wrong are just words. What matters is what you do.” God’s line sounds like it’s meaningful, but it’s not; he completely missed the point of Bender’s question. Sometimes, when you say something stupid in a serious enough way, people won’t be sure you haven’t said something deep.
Also, as far as jokes go, there are a lot of great jokes in this episode that I know aren’t mine. Like Patric Verrone wrote, “O cruel fate, to be thusly boned. Ask not for whom the bone bones; it bones for thee.” Also, I’d especially single out this one, which I think was from Eric Kaplan:
“Being God isn’t easy. You have to use a light touch, like a safe-cracker, or a pick-pocket.”
“Or a guy who burns down a bar for the insurance money!”
“Yes, if you make it look like an electrical thing.”
DiMaggio: That joke, about “making it look like an electrical thing” is so genius because it makes Bender completely understand what God is all about, through a crime. That’s how Bender would get it — that’s the secret of the universe.
Susie Dietter, director of “Godfellas”: Originally, I was supposed to do a different episode, “Roswell that Ends Well,” but I ended up doing this one instead. I think “Godfellas” was a much better script for me though. This tapped into all my years of watching Star Trek and other science fiction. I also took an astronomy class in college because I was really interested in that stuff — what art major takes astronomy? Anyway, “Godfellas” really spoke to me.
I knew what it was supposed to look like. We couldn’t just use a regular starfield in this episode because space is a character in this show. Normally, on space shows like Star Trek and Futurama, space seems a lot smaller — it’s like driving to the next town — but in this episode, Bender had to be alone. And for Bender to be God of his own little universe, space had to be really big again. I wanted to bring out the vastness of space and the idea that our planet is one tiny little speck of sand among a million grains of sand.
Claudia Katz, Futurama producer: Normally, you can imagine Bender falling from the moon back to Earth. That seems possible in our reality, but this episode really does feel like he’s floating alone out there in the great big expanse of space. It’s the space equivalent of being on the open ocean.
Peter Avanzino, Futurama supervising director: The way we treat space derives from the needs of the story. When space is small, they have to go to a place and it takes however long they have to talk in the script to get there. But the point of this is that he’s adrift in endless space, so this space was treated differently than we usually do it.
Dietter: I wanted to show the scale of things, like macro science and micro science, and that it’s all relative. You’ve got a society living on Bender, then you’ve got Bender talking to God. It’s all meaningful and meaningless at the same time. In the vast corners of space, who cares if one little civilization blows itself up? It’s the human dilemma — why are we here? What’s our purpose? Also the role religion plays in that dilemma and how we use it to answer those questions.
Katz: Considering that this was an early episode, when I rewatched it recently, I was struck by how good it looks. The starfields looked amazing. It’s also a really funny, smart and thoughtful episode. It’s also sincere, which I like. It’s very poignant.
Dietter: I was at a Comic-Con once and someone asked Ken Keeler about “Godfellas.” They said “Godfellas” is the best piece of science fiction since Star Trek, and I went “Yeah!” I mean, if someone thinks that about it, I did my job. And while I’m usually my own worst critic, I look back at this one and I’m really proud of it.
It holds up really well, and I think it holds up because it’s not preachy — it just asks a bunch of questions and the questions are timeless — that’s still the human condition. We’re all still fighting, and over what? We’re all just floating on a Bender in space.