As The Simpsons begins its 27th season, Vox decided to pay tribute to the many voices we’ve come to know and love throughout the years. The resulting supercut showcases 11 of the show’s longtime actors who’ve collectively voiced an incredible 119 recurring characters on the series. From Dan Castellaneta’s Homer to Marcia Wallace’s Edna Krabappel, the audiovisual guide will make you appreciate how voice acting (and vocal gymnastics) brings these colorful characters to life. Besides, how could you turn down eight minutes of Springfield’s best one-liners?
More than 50 years since its premiere on CBS on December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of the most beloved holiday specials of all time. Like Charlie Brown himself, the flaws—scratchy voice recordings, rushed animation—have proven endearing. Take a look at some facts behind the show that killed aluminum trees, the struggles to animate Chuck’s round noggin, and why Willie Mays is the unsung hero of Peanuts.
1. CHARLES SCHULZ WASN’T REALLY INTERESTED IN GETTING INTO ANIMATION.
Since the debut of Peanuts in 1955, Charles Schulz and United Press Syndicate (which distributed the comic strip) had gotten a steady stream of offers to adapt the characters for film and television; the artist was also directly petitioned by young readers, who would write Schulz asking when Snoopy would come to some kind of animated life. His stock reply: “There are some greater things in the world than TV animated cartoons.”
He relented for Ford Motors—he had only ever driven a Ford—and allowed Charlie Brown to appear in a series of commercials for the Ford Falcon in the early 1960s. The spots were animated by Bill Melendez, who earned Schulz’s favor by keeping the art simple and not using the exaggerated movements of the Disney films—Bambi, Dumbo—Melendez had worked on previously.
2. WILLIE MAYS PLAYED A PART IN GETTING IT MADE.
Schulz capitulated to a full-length special based on the professional reputations of his two collaborators. The cartoonist had seen and enjoyed executive producer Lee Mendelson’s documentary on baseball player Willie Mays, A Man Named Mays; when Mendelson proposed a similar project on Schulz and his strip, he agreed—but only if they enlisted Melendez of the Ford commercials. The finished documentary and its brief snippet of animation cemented Schulz's working relationship with the two and led Schulz to agree when Mendelson called him about a Christmas special.
3. CBS AND COCA-COLA ONLY GAVE THEM $76,000 TO PRODUCE IT.
When Coke executives got a look at the Schulz documentary and caught Charlie Brown on the April 1965 cover of Time, they inquired about the possibility of sponsoring an hour-long animated holiday special. Melendez felt the short lead time—only six months—made that impossible. Instead, he proposed a half-hour, but had no idea how much the show should be budgeted for; when he called colleague Bill Hanna (of Hanna-Barbera fame) for advice, Hanna refused to give out any trade secrets. Melendez wound up getting a paltry $76,000 to cover production costs. (It evened out: Schulz, Mendelson, and Melendez wound up earning roughly $5 million total for the special through 2000.)
4. IT WAS GOING TO HAVE A LAUGH TRACK.
In the ‘60s, it was standard procedure to lay a laugh track over virtually any half-hour comedy, even if the performers were drawn in: The Flintstones was among the series that used a canned “studio audience” to help cue viewers for jokes. When Mendelson told Schulz he didn’t see the Peanuts special being any different, the artist got up and left the room for several minutes before coming in and continuing as if nothing had happened. Mendelson got the hint.
5. SNOOPY’S VOICE IS JUST SPED-UP NONSENSE.
The early Peanuts specials made use of both untrained kids and professional actors: Peter Robbins (Charlie Brown) and Christopher Shea (Linus) were working child performers, while the rest of the cast consisted of "regular" kids coached by Melendez in the studio. When Schulz told Melendez that Snoopy couldn’t have any lines in the show—he’s a dog, and Schulz’s dogs didn’t talk—the animator decided to bark and chuff into a microphone himself, then speed up the recording to give it a more emotive quality.
6. SCHULZ HATED JAZZ.
The breezy instrumental score by composer Vince Guaraldi would go on to become synonymous with Peanuts animation—but it wasn’t up to Schulz. He left the music decisions to Mendelson, telling a reporter shortly after the special aired that he thought jazz was “awful.”
7. CHARLIE BROWN’S HEAD WAS A NIGHTMARE TO ANIMATE.
Because Melendez was unwilling to stray from Schulz’s distinctive character designs—which were never intended to be animated—he found himself in a contentious battle with Charlie Brown’s noggin. Its round shape made it difficult to depict Charlie turning around; as with most of the characters, his arms were too tiny to scratch his head. Snoopy, in contrast, was free of a ball-shaped cranium and became the show’s easiest figure to animate.
8. SCHULZ WAS EMBARRASSED BY ONE SCENE.
Careful (or repeated) viewings of the special reveal a continuity error: in scenes where Charlie Brown is standing near his tree, the branches appear to grow from moment to moment. The goof annoyed Schulz, who blamed the mistake on two animators who didn’t know what the other was doing.
9. IT ALMOST GOT SCRAPPED BY COKE.
Mendelson recently toldUSA Today that an executive from McCann-Erikson—the ad agency behind Coke—paid him an impromptu visit while he was midway through production. Without hearing the music or seeing the finished animation, the ad man thought it looked disastrous and cautioned that if he shared his thoughts with Coca-Cola, they’d pull the plug. Mendelson argued that the charm of Schulz’s characters would come through; the exec kept his opinion to himself.
10. CBS HATED IT, TOO.
After toiling on the special for six months, Melendez and Mendelson screened it for CBS executives just three weeks before it was set to air. The mood in the room was less than enthusiastic: the network found it slow and lacking in energy, telling Melendez they weren’t interested in any more specials. To add insult, someone had misspelled Schulz in the credits, adding a “T” to his last name. (Schulz himself thought the whole project was a “disaster” due to the crude animation.)
11. GOOD THING HALF THE COUNTRY WATCHED IT.
Viewers weren’t nearly as cynical about Charlie Brown’s holiday woes as his corporate benefactors. Preempting a 7:30 p.m. EST episode of The Munsters, A Charlie Brown Christmas pulled a 50 share, meaning half of all households with a television turned on were watching it. (That amounted to roughly 15 million people, behind only Bonanza.) CBS finally acknowledged it was a winner, but not without one of the executives getting in one last dig and telling Mendelson that his “aunt in New Jersey didn’t like it.”
12. IT KILLED ALUMINUM TREE SALES.
Aluminum Christmas trees were marketed beginning in 1958 and enjoyed fairly strong sales by eliminating pesky needles and tree sap. But the annual airings of A Charlie Brown Christmasswayed public thinking: In the special, Charlie Brown refuses to get a fake tree. Viewers began to do the same, and the product was virtually phased out by 1969. The leftovers are now collector’s items.
13. THERE’S A LIVE-ACTION PLAY.
Up until 2013, anyone staging a live-action rendition of A Charlie Brown Christmas for their local school or theater had one thing in common: they were copyright infringers. The official rights to the story and characters weren’t offered until recently. Tams-Witmark fields licensing requests for the play, which includes permission to perform original songs and advertise with the Peanuts characters—Snoopy costume not included.
14. THE VOICE OF CHARLIE BROWN WAS ARRESTED.
Peter Robbins continued voicing Charlie Brown until he turned 13 years old, at which point puberty prohibited him from continuing. In November 2015, the 59-year-old Robbins pleaded guilty to making criminal threats against a mobile home park manager and a sheriff. According to CBS News, the troubled former actor claimed that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder led him to make the threats. He was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison.
In 1999, Matt Groening followed-up the monumental success of The Simpsons with an idea for a sci-fi comedy that he’d been tinkering around with for years. With influences ranging from groundbreaking sci-fi movies like Blade Runner to shows like The Jetsons and pulpy ‘50s comics like Weird Science, Futurama proved to be yet another winner for the cartoonist. Characters like Fry, Bender, and Leela quickly became fan favorites, rivaling Homer, Marge, and the rest of Springfield for quotability. The show was also a hit with the critics, winning plenty of Annie and Emmy Awards along the way.
Never a ratings juggernaut to a larger audience, the show only lasted four seasons on Fox before being cancelled in 2003. Neither the production staff nor the series’ loyal fan base would give up on Futurama, though, and the series was revived for an additional three seasons on Comedy Central from 2008 through 2013. Here are 10 things you might not know about Futurama.
1. THE SHOW’S NAME COMES FROM AN EXHIBIT AT THE 1939 NEW YORK WORLD’S FAIR.
Though Matt Groening’s Futurama takes a comedic look at what the future might hold for us, the name is based on a very real-world version of the world of tomorrow. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair in Queens, GM built a mammoth attraction called Futurama, which was a scale-model city showing off the predicted wonders of 1960.
The model was the brainchild of industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes and his team of hundreds of artists and builders. It spanned an impressive 35,000 square feet, and gave audiences a glimpse at what a city might look like in the next 20 years, with the highlight being a monolithic utopia peppered with mountainous skyscrapers and a web of superhighways for futuristic GM cars to travel on. Visitors would sit in chairs that moved on a conveyer belt around the model, showing off all the wonders they could look forward to.
To pay homage to its namesake, the first thing Fry hears when he’s defrosted in the future during the pilot episode is the bellowing sound of a lab worker proclaiming “Welcome to the World of Tomorrow,” which was one of the heavily advertised themes of the fair.
2. THE THEME SONG WAS INSPIRED BY A TUNE CALLED “PSYCHE ROCK.”
Futurama’s main theme, composed by Christopher Tyng, bears a striking resemblance to the song “Psyché Rock" by French electronic artist Pierre Henry. The songs are so similar that the Futurama theme basically acts as a remix to Henry’s work. The song has also been remixed by Fatboy Slim, which is even closer to the Futurama version.
3. GETTING THE SHOW ON THE AIR WAS A DIFFICULT PROCESS FOR MATT GROENING.
Though Matt Groening and the team over on The Simpsons have the freedom to mostly govern themselves, getting Futurama off the ground was a different story. When asked by Mother Jones in 1999 about getting the show on the air, Groening said, “It has been by far the worst experience of my grown-up life.”
He further explained that, “The second they ordered it, they completely freaked out and were afraid the show was too dark and mean-spirited, and thought they had made a huge mistake and that the only way they could address their anxieties was to try to make me as crazy as possible with their frustrations.”
Despite the battles with the network, Groening and his team didn’t cave, saying, “I resisted every step of the way. In one respect, I will take full blame for the show if it tanks, because I resisted every single bit of interference."
4. CO-CREATOR DAVID X. COHEN IS A MATH WHIZ.
When Groening was developing Futurama into a pitch, he had one key Simpsons writer in mind to collaborate with: David S. Cohen. Cohen (who is credited as David X. Cohen for Futurama) was known for some of the most popular Simpsons episodes of the mid-‘90s, including "Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie," "Lisa The Vegetarian," and "Much Apu About Nothing."
“After I assembled a few hundred pages of ideas, I got together with David Cohen, one of the writers and executive producers on The Simpsons, who is also a lover of science fiction and has a great knowledge of science and mathematics,” Groening told Mother Jones.
The emphasis on mathematics may sound odd, but it became a hallmark of the series. Dealing with sci-fi plots allowed Cohen to bring a certain authenticity to some of the more complex episodes; he was also able to sneak in all sorts of esoteric mathematical jokes for the like-minded viewers. This is similar to how math played a role on The Simpsons for years without ever becoming distracting to casual viewers.
Cohen’s mathematical background goes far beyond the norm. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in physics, and from the University of California, Berkeley, with an M.S. in computer science. This knowledge gave way to plenty of in-jokes, including the creation of a numerical-based alien language and countless background gags that only the brainiest viewers would have a shot at deciphering.
5. ZAPP BRANNIGAN WAS GOING TO BE VOICED BY PHIL HARTMAN.
The character of Zapp Brannigan was originally written with actor Phil Hartman in mind for the voice, but he was tragically killed before he would have begun recording. The role then went to Billy West, who also voices Fry and Professor Farnsworth. In an interview with The New York Times, West says he based his Brannigan on disc jockeys from the ‘50s and ‘60s. There's also a bit of Hartman's signature, Troy McClure-esque sound in there.
6. JOHN DIMAGGIO ORIGINALLY AUDITIONED FOR PROFESSOR FARNSWORTH USING BENDER’S VOICE.
Figuring out what Bender would sound like wasn’t an easy task for the folks in charge of Futurama. Would it be a human voice, or something more synthesized like Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet? The crew auditioned dozens and dozens of voice actors in an attempt to find the perfect Bender, with no luck.
At the same time, voice actor John DiMaggio was auditioning for a role on the show against his agent’s wishes, who worried about both the money and contract being offered. At first he auditioned for the role of Professor Farnsworth, using a boorish, drunken voice he partially based on Slim Pickens. The voice didn’t work for the professor, but according to the DVD commentary for the show’s pilot, the producers asked him to try it out for Bender. The voice instantly clicked, leading to the creation of the show’s breakout character.
7. THE NIXON LIBRARY EVENTUALLY CAME AROUND TO HIS HEAD BEING IN A JAR.
Richard Nixon famously proclaimed that the media wouldn’t have him to “kick around anymore” back in 1962; little did he know the jabs would keep coming for decades in the real world, and centuries into the fictional future as a nightmarish version of the former president with his head preserved in a jar was proclaimed President of Earth in Futurama.
With Billy West providing the jowly voice of the former Commander-in-Chief, Nixon became a villain for a whole new generation. And the Richard Nixon Library wasn’t very happy about it at first.
“[E]arly on in the show the network got a letter from the Richard Nixon Library saying they weren’t pleased with his portrayal and would we consider not doing it,” Cohen told WIRED.
But a few years later, things changed.
“We didn’t really stop, however, because we liked it, but the strange thing is that … a few years later we got another letter from the Nixon Library saying can we provide some materials because they’re going to do an exhibit about Nixon in popular culture and they’d like to include Futurama, so they came around.”
8. WRITER KEN KEELER INVENTED A NEW THEOREM JUST FOR THE SHOW.
In addition to Cohen, Futurama is staffed by a roster of Ivy League graduates with backgrounds in science and math. But while writing one episode, the staff had created a plot so complex that the crew soon found itself stumped.
The episode was “The Prisoner of Brenda” from the sixth season, and it involved a brain-switching machine that could swap the minds of any two people that stepped into it. There was only one problem: once used, the machine couldn’t be used twice to swap the same two minds back to normal. This means numerous pairs of other characters would have to use the machine in a roundabout plan to restore everyone’s mind to their proper body.
Though the idea sounded like a winner to the writers, Cohen recalled that they soon realized they had to create a mathematical explanation that could get everyone’s mind back. It was like a nightmarish SAT problem for the staff. That is until writer Ken Keeler, who has a PhD in mathematics, created a completely unique theorem that proved this plot was possible.
“Ken comes in the next morning with a stack of paper and he said, ‘I’ve got the proof,’ and he had proven that no matter how mixed up people’s brains are, if you bring in two new people who have not had their brains switched, then everybody can always get their original brain back, including those two new people,” Cohen told WIRED. “So I was very excited about this, because you rarely get to see science, let alone math, be the hero of a comedy episode of TV.”
In the episode, the mathematical heroes that solve the problem are none other than the Harlem Globetrotters, who are among Earth’s elite intellectuals in the 31st century.
9. THE SHOW’S USE OF FORESHADOWING IS INTENSE.
Futurama touts more than just science and math cred; the show is also one of the more intricately plotted animated series of the past 20 years. The show is notorious for leaving morsels of foreshadowing in episodes that pay off weeks, months, or even years down the road.
Plot points like Fry being his own grandfather and Leela’s mutant heritage were all hinted at before they became reality, but the most obscure piece of foreshadowing came right in the pilot episode. It happens right as Fry is leaning back in the chair that would “accidentally” topple over and send him into the cryogenic chamber, leaving him thawed out in the 31st century. For a brief moment, a shadow flashed across the screen with no explanation—at the time, it likely went unnoticed by many viewers.
Fast forward to the season 4 episode “The Why of Fry,” and we learn that the shadow belonged to Nibbler, who had traveled back in time to 1999 to push Fry into the chamber because he was the key to stopping an alien invasion in the 31st century. It's just one example of the type of intricate world-building that the writers of the show poured into every episode.
10. EACH EPISODE TOOK ABOUT A YEAR TO COMPLETE.
Every episode of Futurama is a labor of love, with each joke and frame of animation put under intense scrutiny. Because of this, there is a lot of work involved in the show—about a year’s worth for each episode.
“It's usually somewhere in the vicinity of a year from the beginning of a Futurama episode to the day when you can see it on TV,” David Cohen toldThe Atlantic.
This starts with a story idea, which is then assigned to a writer for an outline and first draft. From there, the first draft is dissected in the writers’ room on a “word-by-word, scene-by-scene basis.”
Then it’s recorded by the actors—like an old-timey radio show, according to Cohen—and then it’s given to the animators. That process involves animatics and final animation, which can take around six months to finalize.