Futurama, which premiered almost 23 years ago, has developed a reputation as the show that keeps coming back. Fox canceled the animated sci-fi sitcom after a four-season run, but once it proved popular in syndicated reruns, Comedy Central revived it for a collection of movies — and then a continuation of the half-hour series. Those seasons came to an end in 2013, but now Futurama is set to return with new episodes once again, now on the streaming service Hulu.
Fans were quick to notice an unfortunate detail of the announcement: “almost” the entire cast had signed on for the revival. Conspicuously absent was John DiMaggio, who voices Bender, a rude, felonious, beer-swilling robot. Worse, there were plans in motion to recast the role.
In another era, replacing one voice actor with another would be uncontroversial. There’s even a joke in Futurama creator Matt Groening’s better-known cartoon, The Simpsons, about underpaying performers and swapping them out whenever it’s convenient. In 2022, however, there’s a growing sense among audiences that the work these actors do — breathing life into some of the most beloved characters on TV — has never been valued as it should. Before Hulu could take a victory lap on the acquisition, viewers had taken to social media to protest the very notion of a new Bender, with some promising to boycott unless DiMaggio got an acceptable contract for his return.
DiMaggio welcomed their support on Twitter and shared statements of solidarity from others in Hollywood, including comedian and impressionist James Adomian, who said that he had dismissed an audition notice for the part. The message has been loud and clear: There is no Futurama without Bender, and Bender is DiMaggio, so the negotiations had better continue.
It’s fair to call this a fresh argument in the world of animation, one with the potential to reframe how consumers approach the medium. That we’re seeing it at all is a testament to DiMaggio’s mastery — just because you can’t see him on screen doesn’t mean anyone would settle for a sound-alike. Bender belongs to the core trio of Futurama, along with Fry, the dimwitted 20th-century slacker who is cryogenically frozen and awakes in the year 3000, and Leela, a tough one-eyed mutant and spaceship pilot. In the midst of their stupid/smart, on-and-off dynamic, Bender is the glue, the X factor, a machine that can do anything but mainly indulges his many human vices. DiMaggio voices him as a sloppy, ribald, overconfident drunk, and beat out 200 or 300 other actors for the gig, he recalled in 2010. He’s quite literally one of a kind.
While cast members of profitable animated series demanding better pay is a recurring affair — The Simpsons team has often tangled with Fox on salary — the combination of a prominent holdout from a cult classic and this galvanized social media response may shift the narrative in future disputes. Not only is the fandom unwilling to entertain the prospect of a DiMaggio impersonator, they haven’t smeared the guy as greedy or selfish for knowing his worth. They want him to have both the credit and compensation he deserves for his enduring influence on Futurama.
Hulu didn’t see the backlash coming, otherwise they would have held their announcement; now they and other studios will have to accept that the public is aligned against them on a labor issue that used to be handled behind closed doors. How funny that Bender — always the first to brashly ask “What’s in it for me?” — would be a leader of that change.