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Back to the ‘Futurama’: Show Reborn on Comedy Central

Another animated series is being reborn thanks to loyal fans and a new cable home.

Futurama, a sci-fi parody that spent five seasons on Fox from spring 1999 to summer 2003, returns on Comedy Central tonight (10 ET/PT) with two of 26 new episodes planned for the next year. It follows Fox's own 2005 resurrection of Family Guy, spurred by strong DVD sales, and Adult Swim's return to The Boondocks last month after a two-year hiatus.

Futurama's seven-year break is easily the longest, and tonight's first episode offers a literal "rebirth" for the characters. But after a deadly crash landing of their spacecraft, dipping them in a vat of stem cells avoided the controversial use of fetuses: "They were harvested from perfectly healthy adults," says Professor Hubert Farnsworth, the show's mad scientist, "whom I killed for their stem cells."

Creator Matt Groening says "an outpouring by fans" when Fox canceled the show kept it in the public eye. "It's a real treat to come back, because making the show was so much fun."

Though it never approached the iconic status or popularity of his Simpsons, Futurama shared that show's visual style, love of pop-culture references and subversive humor.

"There's an obvious underdog feeling about the show," Groening says. "With The Simpsons, it was almost anything for a laugh, but on Futurama we were doing a balancing act of being funny but having an underlying interesting science-fiction story at its heart" that "was honoring our love of the genre."

The show's producers, led by David X. Cohen, are "the most overeducated writing staff in the history of TV," Groening says, "voracious readers" with advanced degrees in chemistry or math who peppered episodes with obscure references to movies, TV shows and authors.

"There are times when I'm saying something and I don't even realize what the joke is," says veteran voice actor Billy West, who plays Farnsworth, lobster-clawed Dr. Zoidberg and Fry, a dim pizza delivery guy who is accidentally frozen in 2000 and thawed a thousand years later.

He says it felt "perfectly comfortable" to come back with the entire original cast, after a salary dispute that briefly left their return in doubt. "I always felt this was the best thing I've ever done as far as animation, because of the writing."

Comedy Central bought rerun rights to Futurama's 72 episodes in 2008, and sliced four direct-to-video movies into 16 more episodes over the next two years. Solid ratings, its appeal to the Comic-Con crowd and nearly 2 million Facebook fans led it to ask for more.

"There's a real awareness out there in the social-networking world, which is really where a lot of young fans are," says the network's executive VP David Bernath.

Cable's looser standards allow for more explicit sex jokes than Fox did; tonight's second episode provides a sly reference, as a "death sphere" censors indecent planets.

Groening says future episodes involve the invention of the eyePhone (embedded in your eyeball); the origins of boozy robot Bender (John DiMaggio) at a Mexican factory and his later fight for robosexual marriage rights; a Comic-Con set in 2999 San Diego; and more on the relationship of Fry and love interest Leela (Katey Sagal), the ship's one-eyed captain who's particularly imperiled by that crash in tonight's opener. "We had so many ideas for the show the first time around that we didn't get to," he says.

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