“It’s like I always say, make new friends but keep the old. One is silver…”
“The other’s gold!”
Bender is in a perverse tradition of favoritism with sitcom characters, where typically the flashy supporting member rises to the top — think George Castanza, Adam DeMamp, or Charlie Kelly (which was always surprising to me, because Dennis Reynolds is the most insane in that cast). It’s true that Fry appears to be the everyman proxy, and Leela is the ‘girl,’ so maybe it was inevitable that the hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-loving robot would most capture our imaginations.
But I have a soft spot for protagonists (I often felt sole stalwart on team Ryuko back in ot-13), and Leela’s actually one of my favorite characters in fiction, so Bender was only ever vying for second place. In truth, the heroic trio at the blackened heart of Futurama doesn’t do well to ranking — they have a great chemistry, and Bender’s role as wildcard is probably what makes him stand out no matter the situation they stumble into.
He is funny — his love of self and excess, but the show also compliments that with its general robot humor. One of my surprises upon revisiting the series is that my favorite third-tier castmember is probably Joey Mousepad (“This guy’s an ox! He’s got oxen-like strength! Hey, he needs a nickname, right? Let’s call him Clamps!”) — the Robot Mafia is such a dumb, one-off joke, but applying computer terminology to mobster movie dialogue is so charming, as in: “Oh Donbot, look into your hard drive and open your mercy file!” “File not found,” before a hail of gunfire.
Being new to the sitcom, a robot does open a wider universe of potential humor, but what makes Bender compelling is the way his humor operates on a solid foundation. And to again reference Futurama’s heart, you might remember this show as the one that nerds say made them cry.
Like The Simpsons and none of the other carton sitcoms from America, Futurama sometimes left an unexpected bruise. “Sting” is the most emotionally sustained throughout, but doesn’t have the gut-punch ending of “The Luck of the Fryish,” or of course “Jurassic Bark,” whose pun titles belie their legitimate effectiveness, which in turn belies the point of sitcoms.
Like Bender, Futurama itself is an odd duck, but this is what happens when you take a careful approach to ‘comedy, only it’s in the future.’ That premise means science-fiction, which comes with its own set of rules that have to be considered. For example, continuity is immediately effected, otherwise the show ends up being farce with a scifi gloss. That does happen with shows, where Futurama is equal parts scifi and comedy.
But Futurama continuity is a tricky thing. And so are pilots, re: continuity. But this is where my favorite piece of Bender characterization comes in, at the very beginning, in “Space Pilot 3000,” which I was always so convinced was an MST3K reference, but more likely it’s just borrowing from the same vague futurey trope.
In the first episode, we’re introduced to Bender waiting in line behind Fry, who’s still too new to the future to tell the difference between phone and suicide booths. As Bender later explains, he’s a bender, designed for the singular purpose of bending steel girders. But when he found out what the girders were being used for (suicide booths), he decided to kill himself (in a suicide booth). He only survives because Fry sees in him a friend, and judging by Bender’s confusion, robot/human friendships are not so commonplace.
“You’d really want a robot for a friend?”
“Yeah, ever since I was six…”
In light of his premise, his continued self-worship is actually kind of inspiring, and is an implicit statement on the virtue of life as adventure — space adventure, even. And space adventure as diversion should briefly remind us of Spike Spiegel. But where the bounty hunter was drifting from fantasy to fantasy in order to stave off a horrific noir death, Bender bounces around the galaxy just being wild — being himself, as he’s been allowed to become. Of course, his self-aggrandizing ways are often played to a fault, but maybe that’s why he always has the rest of the Planet Express crew to keep him from getting too out of hand (unless you turn him human, at which point he Benders himself to death in a week).
No robot is an island. If you leave one alone, he’ll act out a function forever or choose deactivation, but if you surround him with a de facto family, he’ll define his own purpose — become his own programmer, even if his newfound purpose is laziness and crime. Bender’s vanity might be comedy, but it comes from a place of healing for a once-suicidal individual.
Ever since The Wire, I always watch for the Prez character with every new show I start. You know, the guy you just hate off the bat, but know you’ll eventually warm to. Like Jesse Pinkman or Pete Campbell (though his arc was stretched over seven seasons so it was impossible to notice in the moment). The writers of these characters might just understand that the asshole in the cast is in a unique position to underscore poignancy — when they’re being sensitive, it isn’t garden variety, you’re seeing a new side of someone.
Bender might be on-and-off again evil, so when he’s truly devastated by the nuclear annihilation of the shrimpkins that took him for God, or shedding a final tear for robosexual lover Calculon, it works. Again, Futurama isn’t just about the laughs.
That being said, Bender was, after all, the first in the cast to fall victim to the point of no return on television which lies heavier than any shark-as-surmountable-obstacle — that thing where sitcom characters get louder or higher-pitched as time goes on. For Spongebob Squarepants, it was a kind of infantilization or mental recession (but maybe he only seemed like an adult in earlier seasons, to my young mind), and for the cast of The Office, it was definitely volume. What kind of office is this where everybody yells to make whatever inane point?
Bender’s character becomes exaggerated too (but not nearly to those lengths), possibly along a similar mathematical line as how two of the four Season 5 movies were named after him. But that’s part of the limelight thing. A character this iconic may eventually become a caricature, with the writers remembering only what made him iconic. So what, over his development, had gone into the creation of this icon? On the most recent side, there’s baby Bender, acting out and being shameless, seemingly manufactured for the sole purpose of GIFs or image macros in the days before Tumblr (he was like the original Orphan Black!). But what truly made him was in his roots, the fact that an actual character grows here, and the rest is all fluff, though absolutely inseparable fluff at that.
“Wait, my cheating unit malfunctioned! You gotta give me a do-over!”
“Sorry sir, but the house limit is three do-overs.”
For more on Futurama, check out this Monday’s Futurama episode!