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A Big Piece of Garbage

July 14, 2012

Original airdate: May 11, 1999

Written by Lewis Morton; Directed by Susie Dietter

The first season’s Emmy nominee,* “A Big Piece of Garbage” is another iconic piece of Futurama. It’s packed sky-high with countless moments that, years on, still made me laugh out loud so much I had to pause the DVD and take on some more oxygen before continuing. This episode has always had a special place in my heart and brain as the first real Farnsworth-centric. The Professor is without doubt my favourite character and watching the first seven episodes back, his insane diatribes have provided me with my heaviest laughs. But Farnsworth isn’t just a one-note character. He’s an angry, incredibly old, senile and at least partially mad scientist. But with that, he has a deep desire for at least some form of credit and respect, and after his many decades this desire is all the more greater. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Futurama – despite being set 1000 years in the future with a cast including a hideous lobster doctor, a robot criminal and a Jamaican bureaucrat – is one of the best character-based sitcoms I’ve ever seen. The writing, and the heart, is always so smart and so accurate. And this from an episode about a big piece of garbage.

So what of the garbage ball? And what of the Professor? Well the latter is where we start. It’s time for the annual Academy of Inventors symposium and the Professor is sure he’ll win this time, with his fantastic new invention, the death clock, a machine which tells you exactly when you’re going to die. But unfortunately, the Professor already invented that for the previous year’s ceremony – and it didn’t go down well with Academy’s ‘younger’ members, chief among them, his long-term rival and former student Ogden Wernstrom. The Professor’s hastily sketched new invention – the Smelloscope, which can smell distant odours – similarly bombs. To prove he’s not a failure, the Professor decides to build the Smelloscope – although he soon realizes that he already built one last year.

With the character of the Professor now better set up, we move into the main plot, which is fantastic in every aspect. To solve their garbage problem, the residents of Old New York fired their excess waste off Earth on a rocket. Through the Smelloscope, the Professor discovers that the garbage ball is heading back to Earth, and will smush New New York into a stinky crater. He proposes destroying the ball by dropping a bomb into its core. Luckily, he has a crew moronically suicidal enough for the job… (“Ah crap”) But the crew bail on planting the bomb, because the Professor put the timer on upside down, giving them just 52 seconds to avoid death. All looks lost, but the Professor and Fry realize that another equal-sized ball of garbage will be enough to knock the incoming one into the sun, without raining garbage over the Earth.

In New New York, garbage no longer exists as everything is recycled. Thus, it’s up to Fry to show everyone how to produce enough. (“This picture of your wife? Pure garbage.”) Soon enough New York is back to its old self, tossing literally everything out the window and into the streets. A sufficient ball of garbage is amassed, the plan succeeds, the Earth is saved and the Professor truly does get the respect he has yearned for. While the attempted garbage ball-bombing is a parody of Armageddon, the episode as a whole serves to parody the tropes of the environmental disaster genre in general, in typical Futurama fashion. The danger is entirely man-made, but rather than dwelling on any actual environmental message, the episode turns it on its head, using the problem as a short-term solution, and nuts to the consequences. It’s funny, it’s absurd, it’s a real Futurama classic.

*It lost to the King of the Hill episode “And They Call it Bobby Love”, which I haven’t seen, but I can guess from the title that Bobby falls in love. I assume the staff were going for a non-alien but sufficiently spacey episode for the nomination, but given the dinosaur ways of the Emmy voters, the more trad-sitcomy “I, Roommate” may have fared better. This is totally undermined by the ones which eventually did win the Emmy, but the Emmys have never made sense.

Trivia and Quotes

  • You know it’s going to be a good episode when you have to stop yourself writing down the entire script for the first minute. This will suffice: “Good news everyone! Tomorrow you’ll be making a delivery to Ebola 9, the virus planet./Why can’t they go today?/Because tonight’s a special night, and I want all of you to be alive.”
  • Wernstrom! Old people have always been a ripe source for comedy, and bickering old people are even better. “I was inventing things when you were barely turning senile!” The Wernstrom-Farnsworth feud is aptly nerdy in origin: Farnsworth had the audacity to give Wernstrom an A- due to poor penmanship.
  • The whole scene at the Academy is just grade-A. Wernstrom’s invention – the reverse scuba suit to allow fish on land – is impressive yet so mindblowingly pointless.
  • “Oh dear, I’ll have to invent something new in the next 10 minutes. Perhaps some sort of death clock!”
  • Ron Popeil’s not exactly the most memorable guest star, but at least self-voicing guest stars are used sparingly in Futurama, and always have a point.
  • Farnsworth’s pitiful exit when laughed out by the Academy – I’ve said it before, but man this show has a lot of sincere emotional moments, and we’re still a long way off from its most famous ones.
  • “No Professor, don’t give up! There were plenty of times in my century, when I was gonna give up, but I never did, never. Hey are you even listening to me? Oh, I give up.”
  • Unlike the reverse scuba suit, the Smelloscope is a highly useful invention. It’s just impossible.
  • “I’m sorry Fry, but astronomers renamed Uranus in 2620 to end that stupid joke once and for all./Oh, what’s it called now?/Urectum.”
  • The garbage ball information video is one of the absolute best they ever did. The music alone gets me, and Billy West’s narration is top-draw: “The repulsive barge circled the oceans for 50 years, but no country would accept it, not even that really filthy one. You know the one I mean.” “Some experts claimed the ball might return to Earth someday, but their concerns were dismissed as: depressing.” And of course, as it’s from the internet, it’s also porn. (Sadly, no porn here.)
  • “Hey, you have no right to criticise the 20th Century. We gave the world the light bulb, the steamboat and the cotton gin./Those things are all from the 19th Century./Yeah, well, they probably just copied us.”
  • Here we meet more of the show’s excellent supporting cast. Mayor Poopenmeyer, (“It’s time to take action. Stephanie, cancel the maid for today, have her come tomorrow. Well, I’m out of ideas.”) Linda and Morbo (“All in all, this is one day Mittens the kitten won’t soon forget/…In lighter news, the city of New New York is doomed.”)
  • Speaking of the Mayor and Wernstrom, David Herman really deserves more credit. He does a huge amount of the more minor recurring and one-time characters and his voices are always fantastic. The Mayor doesn’t have a single dud line and Herman’s delivery is a big part of that.
  • “Now now, they’ll be plenty of time to discuss your objections when and if you return.”
  • Nice Simpsons reference with the Bart Simpson dolls. (“mmm shorts”) The Simpsons is a TV show in the Futurama universe, and vice versa, and that’s the only way it should be.
  • Props to Susie Dietter and the other animators for this one. The scene on the garbage ball in particular is beautifully animated.
  • Other than Bender’s reference to looting and a brief shot of some people fleeing and screaming for some initial garbage break-off, New New York seems to be dealing with its impending destruction in a decidedly orderly manner.
  • Fry’s finger missing the giant red button: it’s so simple, yet so effective.
  • “I now present you with the Academy prize, which we confiscated from Dr. Wernstrom after it became apparent that he was a jackass.”
  • “Should we really be celebrating? I mean, what if the second garbage ball returns to Earth like the first one did?/Well who cares? That won’t be for hundreds of years./Exactly. It’s none of our concern.”
  • And we end with “We’ll Meet Again” over the end credits. Classy.
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3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2012 3:26 am

    “The Simpsons is a TV show in the Futurama universe, and vice versa, and that’s the only way it should be.”

    Except Bender being in Future-drama and Fry being on the couch in HOMR, of course 🙂

  2. July 24, 2012 2:24 pm

    “Fry’s finger missing the giant red button: it’s so simple, yet so effective.”

    And no undo attention called to it. If that would have happened on a modern episode of the simpsons, the kids would have yelled “DADDD!!” and homer would have A) looked sheepish and said sorry, then pushed it or B) homer scream.

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