(Robot) Hell is real! And much less surprisingly, it’s in New Jersey! That’s right everybody, it’s time to meet one of the greatest recurring characters in the show. Also The Beastie Boys are here for confusing reasons.
Guys. I was trying to save my country from years of political doom last week. I failed. But we got close. Like 1% close. Unfortunately that meant suspending Futuramarama. AGAIN. I’m legitimately bummed out about all these delays because it’s not like watching one episode of one of my favourite shows ever a week is a backbreaking task. Still, I’m told so long as I repent for my sins all is forgiven. Speaking of which…
Episode: S1E09 | Aired: May 18 1999
Director: Rich Moore | Writer: Eric Kaplan
Opening Title Gag: ‘Condemned by the Space Pope’ (allegedly, not on my DVD!)
We get things started with the return of Madison Cube Garden (which is still a great name) where Fry, Leela and Bender are taking in a Beastie Boys concert. Whoever came up with the concept of celebrity heads in jars for the show made their money ten times over because they get an awful lot of mileage out of it. I mean we’ve already had the real Dick Clark, Leonard Nemoy and Pamela Anderson but step aside guys because 2/3 of The Beastie Boys are here!
Yes, the late great MCA was unavailable for recording, so Adrock performed his parts. While they were difficult to get ahold of, they were at least pretty self-deprecating with their performance and even performed three songs! But why are they even here? To set up the plot for the episode of course!
Bender runs into his friend Fender (small world), an amplifier who works with the band, allowing the intrepid trio to go backstage. Apparently unimpressed with Brooklyn’s finest trio of white rappers, Bender ditches the others to get peer pressured into taking drugs. Well, overloading himself with electricity or ‘jacking on’, anyway.
What an image. Surprisingly, the normally outspoken Bender is hesitant to try the robot equivalent of (insert drug) but of course caves when he hears it’ll make him look cool. We then get a few minutes of junkie Bender looking to score another hit of juice, milking the ‘jacking-on’ joke pretty dry in the process.
Things really come to a head when he deliberately steers the ship into an electrical-storm so he can absorb so much that he actually melts into the ship. Gnarly.
Look how disappointed Hermes, The Professor and Leela are. I haven’t even done anything wrong and I’m sorry. Jeez. Also despite how hesitant the animators are to show Leela face-on due to the whole one eye thing, she looks pretty rockin’ here.
Still, it’s not until sweet baby angel Philip J. Fry states he is ashamed of his best friend that Bender finally realises he has a problem. I love how much these two are friends. Sincerely.
After immediately relapsing by trying to jack-in to a neon sign above a Church of Robotology, Bender begins eavesdropping on a sermon from Preacherbot and becomes so enthralled he falls through the roof where he is quickly converted. That’s right, from a drug habit to religion in 9 minutes. Bender does nothing by halves.
The transformation doesn’t stop there though, as Bender quickly gets annoyingly pious to the point that the crew go out of their way to tempt him back toward his sinful lifestyle of before. Off the top of my head it’s one of VERY few examples of Fry wanting worse for one of his friends. Shame on you Fry.
And where better to corrupt an ‘innocent’ soul than Atlantic City? Yes, though Bender seems mightily committed to Robotology, the call of strip clubs, hookerbots and oh-so snatchable purses is much too much in less than five minutes after converting we get:
You know what? Fair. Bender lives as kings only dare dream.
Unfortunately for Bender returning to his old self isn’t quite as simple as he’d like and in the middle of a jacuzzi session pretending to be a casting agent with a bunch of ladies (schwing) there’s an ominous knock at the door. Furious, Bender goes to see who it is only to be knocked unconscious and dragged away.
Yes, the Robot Devil is real. As real as it gets. Dan Castellaneta aka Homer Simpson knocks it out of the park every time he steps into the role, and for somebody with an incredibly iconic voice, he does a great job of sounding nothing like his most famous characters here.
See Robotology is a far more literal religion than most, with an actual, factual devil figure coming to claim anyone who tosses aside the symbol of their conversion and dragging them down to Robot Hell and singing at them. And in fact, that marks an important milestone; namely Futurama’s first musical number. Christopher Tyng is one of the show’s unsung heroes, providing a tonne of amazing composition throughout the series, including helping out with these intentionally off-kilter songs every so often. They’re almost exclusively fast paced and with an odd rhyming scheme that helps them stick in your mind.
Fry and Leela discover Bender is missing and with the help of Nibbler track him to an abandoned New Jersey amusement park, under which Robot Hell is located. So… not THAT literal a religion I guess.
Keen to save their friend from eternal ironic damnation, the plucky pair exploit a stipulation in the Fairness In Hell Act 2275 that states if anyone can best the Robot Devil in a fiddle contest their soul is saved… and they win his sold gold fiddle. And if they lose? Fry dies. Leela agrees to the terms as she is not Fry and Fry is.
Naturally, the Robot Devil is straight fire on the strings, like a young Matt Waters, and thus Fry’s life is forfeit to the Temple of Robotology. Yikes. Well it was a fun show but it had to end some time.
Saving Fry and Futurama itself, Leela forgoes her turn with the gold fiddle in order to beat the Robot Devil senseless with it and facilitate their escape. What an elegant solution. Bender yanks the wings off a literal iron butterfly and together the trio soar to safety where the episode ends with Bender promising to be neither too good or too evil.
And that’s NOT too evil?!
But hold up. The Robot Devil can and frequently does leave Robot Hell. He grabbed Bender without any problems this time. And they lost that fiddle contest. What’s stopping him from recapturing Bender and straight up ganking Fry?! The magical reset button that is the ending credits of cartoons, that’s what.
Oh and during these ones, the Beastie Boys improvise a little ditty including some names they’re clearly reading off cards.
* * *
This is probably going to be my first ‘controversial’ ranking, because this may be one of Matt Groening’s four favourite episodes, but it sure isn’t one of mine. I just don’t really like episodes that are this Bender-heavy. He’s Barney Stinson. He’s a phenomenal sidekick with some of the best one-liners in the show as well as being its most marketable character, but that shouldn’t fool you into thinking it’s a good idea to make him the star. You should absolutely give every character on an ensemble show their own focus episodes in order to explore and develop them for the good of the overall show, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to lead to great individual content.
And we don’t really learn much about Bender here, which is sort of the point of the exercise. Sure, there’s that moment of hesitation to try ‘jacking in’, and the genuine appeal to join a religion, but none of that sticks and he’s the same Bender at the end of the episode. I know that’s the entire idea of the story, but they could have given us a little something to justify stealing focus from Fry and the rest of the gang.
That being said, The Robot Devil is a god (for lack of a better word)-tier recurring character and there is something to be said for this episode setting the tone for what the series would quickly become, firing off a lot of jokes in a short space of time, all the while dripping with satire. But those things don’t do enough to leapfrog the pathos of the pilot or even the powerhouse debut of Zapp Brannigan.
- I, Roommate
- A Big Ball of Garbage
- A Fishful of Dollars
- My Three Suns
- Space Pilot 3000
- Love’s Labours Lost In Space
- Hell Is Other Robots
- Episode 2: The Series Has Landed
- Fear of a Bot Planet
* * *
I’ll never begrudge someone dropping a hot diss on New Jersey even if it is low-hanging fruit. I also like the sequence at the end with a winged Bender acquiring a laser-halo and then revealing the reason they’re drifting upwards so slowly is that Leela is still holding on to the tremendously heavy solid gold fiddle. But I’m going to give the props this episode to Preacherbot having a pull-out keyboard necessary to continue ceremonies.
Finally a commentary with some meat! This episode features some difficult celebrity guests, the first musical number and even some controversy. Strap in.
- David X. Cohen is a huge Beastie Boys fan. He and Ken Keeler flew out to New York for three days and just waited by their phones for the trio to confirm availability. They never did and the session was instead done at a later date. They also refused to perform ‘Fight For Your Right’ for whatever reason.
- John DiMaggio achieves the electrocution sound effect by rapidly rubbing his Adam’s apple with his finger. That sounds painful and unsustainable but he’s the professional.
- One staff member refused to work on this episode, taking offence to how religion was portrayed. Matt Groening also received an angry call from a Scientologist.
- Ken Keeler won two Emmys for songs he wrote for The Simpsons. DiMaggio found it difficult to sing the episode’s musical number in such a low register. Seth McFarlane probably doesn’t get enough credit for all the different voices he sings in on Family Guy.
- A jettisoned plot point featured Leela studying the theremin and being mentored by The Beastie Boys. They cut a LOT of material for this episode.
3 – Billy West (Fry, Professor, Zoidberg)
2 – John DiMaggio (Bender, Fender)
2 – Phil LaMarr (Hermes, Preacherbot)
2 – Tress MacNeille (Hookerbot 5000, Purse Lady)
1 – Lauren Tom (Amy)
1 – Katey Sagal (Leela)
1 – Frank Welker (Nibbler)
Special Guest Stars: Adrock & Mike D (The Beastie Boys), Dan Castellaneta (Robot Devil)
I’m about 45% sure the waiter is Billy West. No voice actor is listed for the Preacherbot’s deacon and I can’t actually tell who it is. Danny Jacobs and Susie Geiser are listed as ‘other voices’ so perhaps the former.