Preface: I had absolutely no memory of having written this until I found it on my hard drive ten minutes ago. It’s apparently the final paper I turned in for IHUM spring quarter, which was read and graded by my decidedly middle-aged TA, who — I’m willing to bet — doesn’t even know what Futurama is.
From the Republic to the Final Frontier: Comedy in Ancient Rome and Outer Space
Two white masks, one locked eternally in a hideous grimace and one trapped forever in rapturous glee, have come to represent the entirety of human theater. While this may seem like a gross simplification of the complexities and nuances humanity is capable of producing, in many respects it is a fairly accurate representation. Comedy is the complete antithesis of tragedy, using the same stock characters and situations in dramatically different ways. In comedy, the stock characters are exactly the opposite of what one would expects—not paragons of virtue or exemplars of honor, but shrewd or bawdy parodies of their tragedian selves. Comedy uses this element of the unexpected—the clash between the anticipated and the presented—to further its humor. This paper will examine the use of stock characters to such effect both in ancient Rome and contemporary society by using the case examples of Titus Maccius Plautus’ comedic play Miles Gloriosus and Matt Groening’s animated television series Futurama in order to prove that—though the two works are in completely different media, about two completely disparate topics, and separated by over two millennia—the idea of these backwards comedic stereotypes are prevalent in both, and used in both as a way to connect to the audience and evoke that most sought after of all commodities: laughter.
Miles Gloriosus, written in the third century BCE, focuses on a boastful Ephesian soldier who has abducted a young Athenian woman and one of the soldier’s slaves’ plot to recapture the young maiden; Futurama is about a pizza delivery boy who is cryogenically frozen on New Year’s Eve, 1999, and wakes up on New Year’s Eve, 2999. Ostensibly, the two have nothing in common. The former deals with aliens (as in those from outside of Rome), while the latter deals with aliens (as in those from the distant nebula Omicron Persei XVIII). However, the same stock characters appear in both works.
Miles Gloriosus has Major Topple d’Acropolis, a man who routinely “preens” in polished shields and whose slaves have never met “a bigger fibber[, a] breezier bag of wind” or one more “full of perfidy, / perjury, / not to mention crap” (Plautus 7-8, 11); Futurama presents Zapp Brannigan, Twenty-Five-Star General of the starship Nimbus for the Democratic Order of Planets (or “DOOP”), self-proclaimed ladies’ man, and velour enthusiast. Both the Major and Brannigan are military heroes—but not the stereotypical heroes of, say, Rambo or The Aeneid, who are the epitomes of honor and courage and are the objects of desire for every female character in the story. The Major and Brannigan are, instead, total and absolute blowhards. They are both supremely overconfident—even when being tricked into losing his love, the Major believes he has “never be[en] lovelier more than [he is] at this moment. / There’s not a second of peace for the hopelessly handsome” (Plautus 72). The overweight, secretly toupee-and-girdle-wearing, utterly incompetent Brannigan is equally deluded and completely oblivious to others’ opinions of him, as seen in a conversation between him and a female space captain, Turanga Leela, after Leela mistakenly sleeps with Brannigan out of pity:
LEELA: You know, Zapp, once I thought you were a big pompous buffoon. Then I realized that inside you were just a pitiful child. But now I realize that outside that child is a big, pompous buffoon!
BRANNIGAN: And which one rocked your world? (Futurama season 1, episode 4)
Both Brannigan and the Major never realize that when, in the words of the Major’s slave Dexter, “the working girls in the streets [. . .] make their usual kissy / faces [. . .], nine out of ten have their tongues in their cheeks” (Plautus 11). Both men are also equally incapable in their professions as soldiers. The Major sends his slave Ingestio “off to King Seleucus. / [Ingestio]’s taking a shipment of freshly recruited hacks. / While THEY guard [Seleucus’] kingdom, [the Major gets] a little vacation” (Plautus 60). The Major is never seen doing any work in the play, and sends his slaves to carry out his military duties. Similarly, Brannigan is renowned for his military victories, exemplified by his defeat of “a horde of rampaging Killbots”—which Brannigan explains by saying “It was simply a matter of out-smarting them. [. . .] You see, Killbots have a pre-set kill limit. Knowing their weakness, I sent wave after wave of my own men at them, until they reached their limit and shut down” (Futurama 1.4). Brannigan refuses to acknowledge his cowardice and overriding tendency to delegate his work to his subordinates, at times urging his troops sent on a suicide mission to “Stop exploding, you cowards!” (Futurama 2.3), and never fully explains his ludicrous ideas to his army (though quite possibly no explanation exists):
SOLDIER: Why is this godforsaken planet worth dying for?
BRANNIGAN: Don’t ask me. You’re the one who’s going to be dying. (Futurama 3.2)
Both the Major and Brannigan turn the traditional military stereotype—the dashing, respected war hero in uniform—into a truly ridiculous parody. The uniform may remain (and, in Brannigan’s case, is made of velour), but the man inside it is, in both cases, less righteously glorious than undeservedly vainglorious.
Dexter, the clever slave in Miles Gloriosus, is a far cry from the stereotypical definition of a slave, something the Oxford English dictionary defines as “a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them” (emphasis added). Dexter is instead the central orchestrator of the plot to steal back the Athenian girl, Convivia, from the Major. He is respected by his co-conspirators as the obvious brains behind the operation—at one point, the Major’s neighbor Hospitalides tells Dexter to “Go search your brain, by all means. I’ll step / to the side over here for a while and give you some room” (Plautus 16). In fact, Dexter is well respected by everyone, including the Major—who never suspects his loyal slave would be betraying him. Similarly, Zapp Brannigan’s assistant in Futurama, First Lieutenant Kif Kroker (a green, amphibious alien—and not the Greek kind), is more like a slave than a military officer. However, Kif is obviously more intelligent than Brannigan—just as Dexter’s mental facilities eclipse the Major’s—and often gets the better of him, whether or not Brannigan realizes it. For example:
BRANNIGAN: Kif, I’m feeling the captain’s itch.
KIF: I’ll get the powder, sir. (Futurama 2.4)
Or, after Brannigan destroys what he believes is analien mothership (with the countless casualties that accompany a typical Brannigan mission), only to see a much larger ship materialize from the depths of space:
BRANNIGAN: What the hell is that thing?
KIF: It appears to be the mothership.
BRANNIGAN: Then what did we just blow up?
KIF: The Hubble telescope. (Futurama 2.3)
Both Kif and Dexter defy the conventional idea of what is expected of a “slave,” providing the exact opposite character that either the ancient Roman or contemporary audience would expect.
The desperate young lover also appears in both Miles Gloriosus and Futurama. The Athenian man who the Major has stolen Convivia from is Nautikles—and alone Nautikles is rather helpless. Though he travels all the way to Ephesus from Athens, Nautikles cannot win Convivia back without Dexter’s help. Nautikles compares himself to Dexter’s faithful solider (a metaphor that runs throughout the play, parodying the Major’s complete military ineptitude) and says he “await[s Dexter’s] orders,” and that he could never “disapprove of something that’s met [Dexter’s] approval” (Plautus 43). Futurama’s main character is Philip J. Fry, a pizza delivery boy who accidentally travels one thousand years into the future, from New York in 1999 to New New York in 2999. Fry falls in love with the cyclopean Leela, who is also wooed (albeit unsuccessfully and continuously) by Brannigan—but is unable to win her heart until he makes a deal with the (robot) devil. Armed with the brilliance of a pair of robotic hands he won from Beelzebot, a robot whose design obviously borrows heavily from the devil, Fry learns to play the “holophonor” (a kind of hologram-projecting clarinet) in the series finale and wins Leela’s love with an opera. The two stories of Nautikles and Fry abound with parallels. Like Nautikles, Fry is rather inept and requires outside assistance to achieve his goals—something much different than the typical “lover” in media other than comedy, who is self-sufficient and willful. While the lover character in the epic or modern-day action genre is supposed to be a knight-in-shining-armor type, Nautikles and Fry are far more comfortable being amorous than armored.
Finally, both Miles Gloriosus and Futurama also present similar versions of an “old man” character. In Miles Gloriosus, Hospitalides is a kindly and aged man who aids Nautikles; however, like Nautikles he is completely dependent on Dexter for plans and instruction, complimenting the slave by saying “Your plan is an absolute coup! Too cunning for words!” and then asking for advice—“But what if the Major wants to see [Convivia and her fabricated twin] together, / side by side? Then what do we do?” (Plautus 19). Futurama’s counterpart to Hospitalides is the senile Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, a doddering geriatric who is also Fry’s great-great-great-etcetera nephew. The Professor was apparently was a brilliant scientist and inventor, but has devolved into an utter fool—justifying himself with explanations along the lines of “They say madness runs in our family. Some even call me mad. And why? Because I dared to dream of my own race of atomic monsters—atomic supermen with octagonal shaped bodies that suck blood?” (Futurama 1.6). While the convention might be that age leads to wisdom, Miles Gloriosus and Futurama invert this stereotype,presenting their most wizened characters as the least wise.
The recognizable characters presented in comedy are exactly the opposite of what an audience expects. This is a time-tested method in humor—any time the unexpected or the absurd rears its head, it becomes funny. Humor is the ability to find the absurd in the everyday, to draw out things an audience would never expect to see. It’s the reason Mel Brooks’ singing, effeminate Hitler in The Producers or Mike Myers’ far-from-suave, far-from-deadly secret agent in Austin Powers evoke laughter—they are utterly ridiculous parodies of tyrants and super spies, respectively. Both Plautus and Groening are masters of this same kind of art, crafting characters that deny all conventions associated with them.
Yet the idea that there are, in fact, conventions associated with the characters is an important point. Major Topple d’Acropolis and General Zapp Brannigan conjure up any image the audience has of the military—be it past, present, or future—from ancient Rome’s Aeneas and the legionaries to the modern day’s G.I. Joe and the crew of the starship Enterprise; Nautikles and Fry are reminiscent of any of the famous lovers throughout literature, from Dido to Romeo; even Hospitalides and the Professor may evoke the memory of a grandparent. Though the characters in Miles Gloriosus and Futurama behave nothing like the associations they induce in the audience, the audience is able to connect to the characters immediately because each and every audience member has inherent ideas about who the characters on stage or screen are or how they should behave. The immediate recognizability of comedic characters serves a dual purpose. First, it simply makes the comedy funnier—an element of the absurd is added when a character an audience member knows should act one way behaves entirely differently. But it can also ground in reality what is (in the case of Futurama, for example) otherwise purely fantastical escapism in a land of total fiction. By giving an audience characters they immediately relate to, the audience becomes involved in the characters and situations quickly—exactly what a ninety-page play or twenty-two minute television show needs.
Ultimately, humor has changed little since ancient Rome. The methods and media may be different, but the same things are still funny—whether delivered by an Ephesian major or a DOOP general. Comedy throughout the ages has played on absurdity, and neither Miles Gloriosus nor Futurama is an exception. By using inverted versions of the stereotypes that the audience itself holds, both Plautus and Groening create characters that echo throughout time—as long as there is a military, Major Topple d’Acropolis and Zapp Brannigan will be funny, and as long as there is love, Nautikles and Fry will resonate with audiences. Ancient epic or modern day action movies may perpetuate stereotypes, but comedy thrives on them—and the idea that somewhere there is a character so absurd he goes against everything one has ever known. That character is the goal of any comedy centered around the dramatis personae themselves—as Zapp Brannigan would say, “If we hit that bull’s-eye, the rest of the dominoes should fall like a house of cards. Checkmate” (Futurama 2.3). The recipe’s been around for over two millennia, and—as the Major, or Brannigan, or Austin Powers, or any other comedic star can attest—it hasn’t failed yet.