In honour of the recently-redeparted, multi-beloved animated sci-fi sitcom Futurama, I thought we could take a look at the show’s complicated and gleefully paradoxical take on the technology and culture of television itself, perfectly exemplified in what is perhaps the most popular non-anthropomorphic amphibian in the universe: The Hypnotoad!
The Hypnotoad is, appropriately enough, an otherwise ordinary-seeming toad with hypnotic powers. It never speaks, but its undulating eyes and disturbing droning sound produce an apparently irresistible mesmerizing effect on humans and other creatures. We’re first introduced to the Hypnotoad when it wins a “Best Pet” contest by hypnotizing a bunch of sheep into a pen (even causing one of the sheep to actually close the gate behind it), and then hypnotizing the contest judges into awarding it first prize. It’s not clear whose pet the Hypnotoad is supposed to be, but by the end of that episode it has already managed to get its own television show, consisting entirely of the Hypnotoad just staring at the screen, which turns out to be quite popular. The show is called “Everybody Loves Hypnotoad.” And it’s true. They do.
While the title is an obvious parody of the also inexplicably successful yet utterly vapid “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the joke is quite a bit more complicated than that. In fact, the Hypnotoad epitomizes Futurama’s attitude toward television itself. “Everybody Loves Hypnotoad” is Futurama’s way of responding to Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message,” and others’ later commentaries on the social (and anti-social) effects of television.
As a TV show that often has TV itself as its subject, Futurama takes the medium-message equivalence pretty literally a lot of the time. McLuhan (who headed the Centre for Culture and Technology at my alma mater, the University of Toronto, Go Varsity Blues!, &c.), argued that, above and beyond the content of any particular program broadcast on television, the nature of the medium of television itself changes the way that we experience communication in general and creates expectations for how communication is supposed to function. This is a social effect that has little, if anything, to do with what we’re watching (i.e. the specific shows that we prefer) and everything to do with what we’re watching (i.e. that glowy, noisy box that sits in the living room).
In terms of television’s influence on negative behaviour, Futurama has come down on both sides of the issue, sometimes simultaneously. In the episode “Bender Should Not Be Allowed On Television,” Bender becomes the new star of popular soap opera All My Circuits by flagrantly disregarding the script and just stealing things and generally acting like a jerk on camera; the result is a national wave of robberies and anti-social behaviour caused by viewers’ realization that Bender’s misanthropic antics are super cool. But when Bender realizes that people have started stealing from him, he immediately joins a group dedicated to banning himself from being allowed on air. So it would seem that Futurama is implying that television does influence viewers’ behaviour; but in the end, the episode advocates a more moderate position – that is, viewer discretion – laying the ultimate responsibility at the feet of parents, to whom Bender directs the Solomon-esque advice: “Have you ever tried simply turning off the TV, sitting down with your children, and hitting them?”
Similarly, another episode credits television with literally saving the Earth – although TV was also the reason that the planet was put in peril in the first place. In “When Aliens Attack,” the ruler of the planet Omicron Persei 8 threatens to destroy Earth if he’s not able to watch the final episode of a show called Single Female Lawyer, the broadcast of which was interrupted a thousand years earlier when Fry accidentally knocked the FOX Network off the air (since Omicron Persei 8 is a thousand light-years from Earth, television signals reach them a thousand years after being broadcast). The Planet Express crew hastily put together an episode that satisfies viewer expectations, tying up loose ends while not actually resolving or changing the show’s status quo. Their attempt is thoroughly amateurish and mediocre, but ends up being good enough for the planet to be spared. So in this case, conforming to TV’s inflexible story structure pacifies the viewer and prevents him from carrying out an act of horrific violence, albeit the motivation for the violence appears to be television’s inherently addictive nature.
These examples look more like a response to specific criticisms that television promotes a certain type of ideology (in this case, whether or not violence is an acceptable or reasonable response to one’s desires or disappointments) that’s conditioned by the pre-existing structure of television’s communication methodology. The medium seems to be the message in that even Single Female Lawyer, a fairly fluffy and non-threatening program, still encourages its audience to commit genocide if its transmission or its requisite tropes are violated; perhaps the most notorious of these being Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” in which the author argues that the medium of television itself, irrespective of content, is designed to condition its audience to accept and even welcome the emergence of autocracy (for which the legitimized use of violence and intimidation to achieve its goals is one key component).
With characteristic ambivalence, Everybody Loves Hypnotoad is Futurama’s way of saying that McLuhan and Mander are, on the one hand, not wrong, but, on the other, why it also kind of doesn’t matter very much. Everybody Loves Hypnotoad doesn’t have any storyline, conflict, character development – no narrative of any kind, or anything resembling what we understand to make a television show compelling. It’s only popular because it keeps its audience in hypnotic thrall – but its audience knows this, and doesn’t care. Of course they don’t care precisely because their minds are being controlled, but it’s a curiously voluntary and harmless sort of mind control. The medium has no message. That’s the joke, of course, and the metaphor. But if we look at Everybody Loves Hypnotoad through the lens of Mander’s Four Arguments, its nonconformity to Mander’s objections raise some interesting points. Mander’s arguments are as follows:
- While television may seem useful, interesting, and worthwhile, at the same time it further boxes people into a physical and mental condition appropriate for the emergence of autocratic control.
- It is inevitable that the present powers-that-be (or controllers) use and expand using television so that no other controllers are permitted.
- Television affects individual human bodies and minds in a manner which fit the purposes of the people who control the medium.
- Television has no democratic potential. The technology itself places absolute limits on what may pass through it. The medium, in effect, chooses its own content from a very narrow field of possibilities. The effect is to drastically confine all human understanding within a rigid channel.
Now, Everybody Loves Hypnotoad is, first and foremost, not useful, interesting, or worthwhile. It doesn’t pretend to be and nobody ever claims that it is. That’s not the point of it. While it absolutely does box people in physically and mentally – as any other television show it requires sitting in front of the device you’re watching and being in a passively receptive state to whatever is happening onscreen – it’s not that this does anything to condition its viewers to accept autocracy or anything else. The controllers or powers-that-be in this case can be nobody but the Hypnotoad itself, and despite Mander’s insistence that the very medium of television must be some kind of political tool to turn us all into sheep (and the Hypnotoad has some experience with sheep) in order to control us for its own purposes, the Hypnotoad’s behavior shows absolutely no such aspirations.
The Hypnotoad is apolitical. It doesn’t care whether you’re a Marxist Revolutionary or a Free-Market Capitalist, as long as you’re watching. Its only agenda is for you to watch; viewership is an end-in-itself and not a means to any other eventual end. Everybody Loves Hypnotoad is not a long-con for the Hypnotoad to gain eventual autocratic control over society, and it’s not a way for Earth President Nixon to sneakily increase his power due to voter indifference; presumably the President is just as big a fan of the show as everyone else on the planet.
Further, quite in contrast to Mander’s assertion, the Hypnotoad doesn’t do anything to restrict the audience’s other activities or behaviors, and doesn’t even attempt to monopolize the medium of television, let alone make itself the only channel through which human understanding is permitted to flow. Everybody Loves Hypnotoad is a weekly, half-hour program (twenty-two minutes, excluding commercials); when it’s on, you’re watching it, but when it’s over it’s over. The other 167.5 hours in your week can be spent doing anything you like. You can watch other shows or not, deliver pizzas or steal from orphans – it’s all the same to the Hypnotoad. To emphasize this again: Hypnotoad has no politics, no agenda, it promotes no ideology and restricts no freedoms. It is pure medium with no message. The Hypnotoad wants nothing except to be seen; as long as people are watching, it doesn’t require anything more.
Futurama agrees, in a basic way, with McLuhan that the medium of television is, or at least can be, the message. But it disagrees with Mander in that Everybody Loves Hypnotoad, the ultimate archetype of the TV’s medium-message identity, is not inherently ideological. Mander insists that you can’t really improve television by making its content more pro-social or enlightening, because the medium itself by its very nature damages people. Futurama counters this by reducing television to its most basic form – just staring at a nearly-static image accompanied by a meaningless sound – at which point watching it becomes an aesthetic experience rather than anything narratological, let alone ideological. In this way, Futurama argues that television at its most primary level is more like some modern visual art than any other form of communication. Everybody Loves Hypnotoad doesn’t communicate, it only sensates (if I may co-opt an adjective and, uh, verb it). It’s messageless but not meaningless, devoid of discourse but not of content. When Bender and Fry watch Everybody Loves Hypnotoad, the experience and effect is more akin to taking half an hour to consider Andy Warhol’s Slurm screen-prints than when they’re getting cooking tips from Essence of Elzar or laughing along at Late Night with Humorbot 5.0.
Sure, the medium is the message. But the message is more than just the medium.