Futurama spends an entire episode setting us up for a punchline, but instead decides to gut punch us with emotion.
This episode constantly bounces between Fry’s life in the 20th Century and his life in the 30th Century.
In the 20th Century, we see Fry (Billy West) being born on the day that the Mets win the World Series (which doesn’t really track, since the Mets won in 1986 but Fry is 25 in 1999. Presumably in the Futurama universe this is 1973 and the “You Gotta Believe” Mets team didn’t lose to the Oakland Athletics in Game 7. This is all the baseball I know.). His father, Yancy Sr., (John DiMaggio) names him Philip after the screwdriver. Fry’s brother, Yancy Jr. (Lauren Tom as kid, Tom “Ice King” Kenny as adult), quickly establishes a trend of being jealous of anything Fry has, including the name “Philip.” As kids, Fry is shown to be worse than Yancy at most things, until Fry finds a seven-leaf clover which makes him unnaturally lucky, even at things which would normally be considered skill-based, like basketball or break-dancing. Yancy is always jealous when Fry is successful and tries to take the clover, but Fry runs home and hides it in a Ronco Record Vault inside The Breakfast Club’s soundtrack.
In the future, Fry is having a streak of bad luck at the racetrack. Not only does Bender (DiMaggio) drug Fry’s horse, resulting in a shameful loss, but when his last dollar gets blown onto a power line, he gets struck by lightning, twice, and blown into a dumpster. Back at Planet Express headquarters, Fry mentions the clover and Zoidberg (West) points out that it might still be in the ruins of Old New York. Fry, Bender, and Leela (Katey Sagal) head underground to the remains of the New York of the 20th Century and make their way to Fry’s old house. However, the clover is no longer in the vault. The three give up on finding the clover, only to run into a statue of Fry’s brother with the clover in his lapel and the nameplate reading “Philip J. Fry.” Fry, incensed, punches the statue and breaks his hand, declaring that his brother “stole his life.”
A video on the internet informs the crew that the Philip J. Fry that is immortalized on the statue was actually a massive celebrity in the 20th century, famous for his perpetual luck, culminating in him being the first man on Mars (if you don’t count the native Martians). He was buried with the clover, so Fry tells everyone that they’re going to go rob the grave. At the graveyard, Fry, Leela, and Bender start digging up the body, but Fry knocks some of the moss off of the other Philip’s grave.
In the past, Yancy breaks into the Ronco Record Vault to find music for his wedding and takes the clover in memory of Fry. Later, Yancy and his wife name their first son Philip after the brother Yancy says he misses every day. In addition to the name, he gifts young Philip with the clover.
In the Future, Fry finds out the truth: The Philip J. Fry they’re digging up is actually his nephew, who was, per his tombstone, “named for his uncle, to carry on his spirit.” Although Bender does dig up the clover, a tearful Fry leaves it to rest in his nephew’s grave and smiles, realizing that his brother wasn’t taking his legacy, but making sure it endured.
Holy flaming carp, this episode. I mean, everyone remembers “Jurassic Bark,” and I already have cookies ready to deal with that episode’s punch to the feelings, but this one’s not far behind for me. The difference is what kind of emotions this episode evokes compared to that one, and the fact that this one actually could potentially have been building up to a comical misunderstanding, but instead decided to change it into a powerful dramatic moment.
Throughout this episode, the B-plot in the past portrayed Yancy as the kind of person who actually would bother to steal his dead brother’s name, because from the day Fry was born, Yancy wanted to be Philip. The show presents this idea to us in a little bit of a deceptive manner, showing us a few objective moments of Yancy, while the rest of the time we’re only hearing about Yancy through Philip’s perception of him as jealous. The few objective moments we have don’t contradict Fry’s perception, so it cements that image in our minds. That’s why it’s so surprising when it’s revealed that, upon losing Fry, Yancy spent the rest of his life missing his brother, to the point of entrusting his son with Fry’s legacy. That’s why the moment we share with Fry is so powerful, because we’re going through the realization about Yancy’s true nature at the same time as Fry. We aren’t hit with a wave of sadness like watching a dog waste away waiting for its master, it’s more of a complex series of emotions related to the realization that people aren’t always who you think they are, but that sometimes you don’t learn that until after they’re gone. It’s sad that Fry couldn’t find this out about his brother while he was alive, but he does finally get closure and a reassurance that they did love each other, which is still beautiful.
The key to this episode is the perfect interplay between the A and B plots, allowing for both of them to progress rapidly by letting the audience just assume that nothing important happened between the time that we leave one plot and return to the other. If you’re looking for some gold-standard examples of this, check out the Rick and Morty episode “Meeseeks and Destroy” or the I Love Lucy episode “Job Switching,” but this episode also uses it to great effect, particularly with how it finally has the two plotlines converge into something beautiful and meaningful to both. Interestingly, Matt Groening, David X. Cohen, and writer Ron Weiner used The Godfather II as a model for writing two timelines simultaneously and organizing them by using different colored storyboards.
Overall, this is one of my favorite episodes of the show. It’s also typically rated in the top 10 on most fan polls, so I don’t think I’m insane for that. I don’t think it’s the best, nor even the second or third best, but it is brilliant and touching and writing this review made me tear up a few times.
First, a joke amendment that I didn’t find out until this episode. When looking into Fry’s stuff, there’s another pennant for the Whitefish from Coney Island College, the same roller-coaster college Fry says he dropped out of in “Mars University.” At the time, I thought that the choice of whitefish for Coney Island was a hilarious joke about how crappy the university was. It turns out I missed two pieces of information:
- “Coney Island Whitefish” is a song by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts about a guy who is a complete waste of time who never tries to improve or do anything. That kinda fits Fry during the 20th century.
- Coney Island Whitefish is also a slang term for a discarded used condom, because humanity is gross. I’m hoping this doesn’t apply to anything on the show.
I’ve updated the previous entry in “Mars University” and now I never need to admit to making a mistake.
Second, a wonderful observation and set-up is the fact that Fry’s dad, brother, and his great-grandfather are all named Yancy, as were all of the other men in the line going back to the Revolutionary War. The fact that Fry’s dad doesn’t mention his father is also named Yancy is the first hint we get that there is something unusual in Fry’s lineage, because the Yancy name skips one generation… due to Fry being his own grandfather. Also, I can never prove it, but I think the name Yancy was picked because Billy West who voices Fry also voiced Doug Funnie on Doug. Doug’s middle name was Yancy, and he hated his middle name with a passion.
Last, the actual best joke, when the horses cross the finish line at the race, they announce a measurement by Electron Microscope which results in a winner by “Quantum Finish.” The Professor (West) immediately shouts out: “No fair! You changed the outcome by measuring it!” This is one of the best jokes in the series, because 1) it works if you just think the Professor is complaining that he was going to win until they announced a different winner and 2) it works better if you know that the Professor is referencing the Observer Effect of Quantum Physics, which suggests that the mere act of measuring something on a quantum level inherently changes the outcome. This is a perfect example of Futurama’s humor: Works if you know the joke, works if you don’t.
Well, that’s it for this week.
See you next week, meatbags.
PREVIOUS – Episode 35: A Tale of Two Santas
NEXT – Episode 37: The Birdbot of Ice-Catraz
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.