Comedy Central resurrects 'Futurama'

New episodes begin airing mid-2010

"Futurama" is coming back.

Taking a page from the "Family Guy" resurrection guidebook, the long-canceled Fox animated comedy is returning with an order from Comedy Central for 26 episodes to run over two seasons.

"Futurama" creators Matt Groening and David X. Cohen already are working on stories for the new batch of episodes of the sci-fi cartoon, slated to premiere on Comedy Central in mid-2010.

As with "Family Guy," whose improbable return was triggered by big DVD sales and solid ratings for the show's reruns on Cartoon Network, the performance of "Futurama's" repeats on Comedy Central and on disc was key to its resurrection.

"When we brought back 'Family Guy' several years ago, everyone said that it was a once in a lifetime thing -- that canceled series stay canceled and cannot be revived," 20th TV chairman Gary Newman said. "But 'Futurama' was another series that fans simply demanded we bring back."

The order was preceded by four feature-length original "Futurama" specials: "Bender's Big Score," "The Beast With a Billion Backs," "Bender's Game" and "Into the Wild Green Yonder," which have done well on DVD and on Comedy Central. The most recent special, "Yonder," premieres in September on the network.

Comedy Central was happy with the specials and with the 72 produced episodes of "Futurama" it acquired from 20th Century Fox TV in 2006.

"Yet there is nothing like new, self-contained episodes week to week," said David Bernath, Comedy Central's senior vp programming. "This is all about reinvigorating the franchise, giving it a new burst of energy."

"Futurama," which aired from 1999-2003 on Fox, centers on Philip Fry (voiced by Billy West), a pizza delivery boy who accidentally freezes himself on Dec. 31, 1999, and wakes up 1,000 years later with a "diverse" new group of friends including Leela (Katey Sagal), a tough but lovely one-eyed alien, and human-like robot Bender (John DiMaggio).

When the series returns with originals, it will have been seven years after the show's last original episode aired on Fox. That is a much longer hiatus than the three years "Family Guy" spent on the bench before being summoned back.

The four "Futurama" specials, produced in the past 2 1/2 years, helped bridge the gap, said Groening, who also created Fox/20th TV's "The Simpsons."

"It was a great way of keeping the show alive," he said, "and one of the great things was that everyone enjoyed doing them, so it's been relatively easy trying to get everyone who was originally on the show to come back."

Though no deals have been closed, all key voice cast members are expected to return for the new episodes, along with the series' core writing team.

As for the story lines, the new episodes will pick up where "Yonder" took off -- with the main characters fleeing death and flying into the unknown.

But after four epic feature-length films, "what we will try to do is go a little bit back to pure comedy, characters and sci-fi," Cohen said.

As with "Family Guy," 20th TV has the right to shop the new "Futurama" episodes to a broadcast network, with Comedy Central getting a second window for a reduced license fee. Fox is the prime target, and the studio had had a preliminary conversation but no serious talks are expected in the near future.

If Comedy Central remains the only outlet, Newman admits that "the economics will become more challenging," but the studio bets on more strong DVD sales. And with the new 26-episode order, "Futurama" will have 98 standalone episodes (plus another 16 from the DVD specials), allowing the show to be taken out for a broadcast syndication sale.