The gang behind Hulu’s Future Man gets serious about humor.
Of course a visit to the Future Man set would involve a sex doll.
The series, premiering on Hulu November 14, comes from some of the most raucous creative minds working today. Creator–executive producers Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir and executive producer–directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who all worked together on Sausage Party and The Night Before, have joined forces with showrunner Ben Karlin (The Daily Show) on a series that combines time travel, action and hard-R comedy.
If Quantum Leap, The Terminator, The Last Starfighter and Back to the Future had an orgy, Future Man would be their smack-talking baby.
Our hero, Josh Futturman (Josh Hutcherson), is a janitor by day — at a research center for sexually transmitted diseases — and an avid video gamer by night. When Josh beats a game called Future Man, he reaches a level he never imagined. Turns out the game is more than entertainment: it’s actually a simulator sent from the future to find the savior of humanity.
Two warriors soon follow. Tiger (Eliza Coupe) and Wolf (Derek Wilson) suddenly appear in Josh’s room, just as he’s finishing an act of self-congratulation that nobody should ever walk in on. It’s their first clue that they may have picked the wrong savior, and it’s our first clue that things are going to get sticky.
The future is a wasteland. Resistance fighters live in sewers and eat rats while fighting “biotics” who have created a super-cure for all diseases and get to choose who will live or die. The company where Josh scrubs toilets is the inadvertent progenitor of this worldwide catastrophe, a by-product of its innocent attempt to find a cure for herpes.
How far in the future do Tiger and Wolf come from? “I think it’s either 2062 or 2262,” Coupe says, speaking between camera set-ups.
Karlin isn’t quite sure either. “2184? 2182?”
Hunter is definite. “2162.”
Okay, so that’s not entirely mapped out. But everything else is. While the series, shot on the Sony lot, is tremendously silly, its mission is sincere. Like the surprisingly existential Sausage Party — in which a hot dog’s efforts to screw a bun serve as entry to a disquisition on the existence of God — the show contains a sneaky depth.
Coupe, who starred in the relationship comedy Happy Endings, insists that Future Man is the more realistic show. “Here’s the thing that makes it not silly: the stakes for us are so high,” she says. “Seth and Evan and Kyle and Ariel were adamant about this being real for us.” So while Tiger uses that sex doll to train Josh at fighting, they play it straight.
“We didn’t want this to feel like it’s a comedy that’s spoofing the sci-fi genre,” Hunter says. “That would be the worst possible version of this show. We did want to firmly ground the characters in pretty real places — at times very serious, dark places. We felt that if you believed in these characters, then it served the story a lot better, and we weren’t just beholden to our usual dick jokes.”
Not that it’s lacking those. But the raunchiness serves as cover for the deeper themes, much like a bun embracing a hot dog.
Karlin (also an executive producer, along with James Weaver and Matt Tolmach) loves how impossible Future Man is to categorize. “Tonally, this show is uncomfortable for a lot of people, and even a lot of people who work on it,” he says. “There’s something sweet about it, there’s something kind of arch about it, [and] there’s something vulgar about it, and it’s trying to hold all those ideas all at once.”
The actors are more than game, starting with their star. “We’ve got the Hutch, as no one calls him,” Goldberg says via a conference call with Rogen. “We always say he’s like our Michael J. Fox. He feels like that behind the camera, too. You’re like, ‘You are cool, but relatable and funny.’” Hunter adds: “He’s got a real everyman, likable quality that we definitely needed at the center of the project.”
Hutcherson, a star of The Hunger Games blockbusters, has been acting since he was nine. Of all the roles he’s played, Futturman is “by far the most ridiculous,” he says.
He found his way into the Rogen-Goldberg orbit after working two days on James Franco’s Disaster Artist. “A couple weeks later, I got an email from Seth and Evan, and they said, ‘Hey, we didn’t know you were funny. We have this show you’d be perfect for; you want to talk with us about it?’”
The star — whom Shaffir calls “unflappable — there’s nothing you can throw at him that’s going to turn him off” — is also a producer. “Since I was really young,” he says, “I always wanted to get behind the camera as well.” He recently directed a short and is preparing to direct a feature. “They were really great about bringing me into that fold and having me be involved in the creative side.”
Coupe is grateful for the chance to control material of a different sort. She jumped at the chance to play the leader of the resistance, but was initially wary of what that might entail.
“I really didn’t want anything to be overly sexualized and objectifying,” she says, wearing a fitted, yet practical, black warrior ensemble. “Before I even said anything, that was never their agenda, which is very cool. That’s the kind of part I want, and also the kind of show I want to be in, with people who are like-minded.”
Rogen notes that Tiger was “an incredibly hard role to cast — someone who embodied everything that the lead female character in a video game embodies, and is also incredibly funny and a really good actor. Eliza was literally the only person who was able to do all that.”
Josh — Futturman, that is — still lives at home with his over-solicitous parents, played by Ed Begley, Jr., and the late, great Glenne Headly, who died suddenly on June 8. Future Man was the last project she worked on; she’s in more than half the episodes.
As it was to the greater community, her death was a shock to those involved with the show. “She was brilliant,” Coupe says, still reeling. “And strong. She was probably the strongest gentle woman I’ve ever met, which is a hard thing to accomplish.”
“She was the best mom,” Hutcherson says. “She was so funny and sweet, and her relationship with Ed Begley is perfect and beautiful. She brought real life into it.”
While still absorbing the loss, the writers had to work quickly on the remaining episodes. “We’re trying our best to honor her through the work that she did on the show, and write her out of the show in a way that feels good and appropriate for the character,” Karlin says. “That’s the best we can do.”
“There’re actually incredibly emotional moments in this,” Coupe says of the series. “Normally with a comedy I feel like the defaults of the character are reset every episode, because that’s what you come back to watch.”
But these characters get to change and grow, more like film characters. “They made it like a movie,” she says, adding that the production shoots two episodes at a time, “so I have no idea what’s going on. People are joking that it’s called Feature Man.”
It stands to reason: the show started out as a movie script. Once Shaffir and Hunter added a time-travel element, they realized they had too much story for a movie, so they shifted to television. Since they had no TV experience, they invited Karlin to join as showrunner. (They had previously worked with Karlin, as well as Goldberg and Rogen, on the 2011 feature 50/50.)
Coming from three years on Modern Family, Karlin brings structural knowledge, along with a comic edge he honed on The Daily Show and, before that, at the satirical news empire The Onion. “And he is an Emmy magnet,” Shaffir notes. Karlin won nine Emmys for his work on The Daily Show and two more for Modern Family.
Rogen and Goldberg weigh in on every aspect of the show when they can, but they also have a slate of other projects keeping them busy.
“Right from the beginning, they had a really good attitude, which was: ‘Don’t wait for us,’” Karlin recalls. That said, he adds, “They’re a great resource, especially on the action. They’ve done a lot in the action-comedy world, half-hour shows typically don’t do sophisticated action set pieces.” And Rogen loves discussing what time travel might look like.
“We tell people, ‘Don’t limit the scope of the show in the writing,’” Rogen says. “That’s the director’s job, to take something that seems impossible to execute and come up with a way to do it. If it’s impossible, believe us, someone will tell you.”
Apparently, nobody told them. As the series progresses, “It goes totally insane,” Rogen says cheerfully. The whole crew of creative hooligans is delighted that Hulu is dropping all 12 episodes at once.
“The narrative is so dense that I’m hoping people watch it all over the course of a couple nights,” Karlin says. “Otherwise, they’re really not going to follow the story.” Adding to the binge-ability, each episode ends with a big cliffhanger.
“We wanted to do a serialized comedy, which is not really done,” Shaffir says. “To lean in and make this feel less like a standard television show, and more like a six-hour movie.”
A seriously silly one.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2017