Hermes Conrad: The Maniac of Futurama

Can a single obsessive interest be spun out into something great?

futurama hermes conrad

You may already be thinking ‘really? Futurama‘s resident bureaucrat, the stuffedest of shirts, a maniac?’, and in principle I agree with you. But mania isn’t just hacking down doors with an axe, and that’s certainly not Hermes Conrad’s MO. Not, at least, without having filed hatchet requisition forms and an application to liquidate the door first. However, the character does have his obsessions, and ones which define him as much as any homicidal axeman is defined by the more conventional sorts of mania.

I’ve written extensively on the devolution of Matt Groening’s comic characters, and it was with Futurama’s move to Comedy Central that this unfortunate tendency finally touched Hermes. Like Homer and Fry before him, the man would go through a period of dumbening – though this had as much to do with what was going on behind the scenes. Hermes had always quietly been a practising Rastafarian with all that entailed, but Futurama’s cancellation and move to Comedy Central threw any hint of subtlety there out the window.

Plausibly deniable lines like “That’s not a cigar…and it’s not mine!” gave way to Hermes openly burbling on about having the munchies in a flatly sub-Cheech and Chong way. A high audience is always grateful for the representation, but is also about as lowest-common-denominator as it’s possible to get. Contrast the original run, which could credit the viewers with enough brainpower to understand the joke in Hermes’s plan to “relax in the traditional Jamaican way…a glass of warm milk and a good night’s sleep”. Here the punchline is the subversion of the stereotype, a subject which will come up again.

This was perhaps affected more than most things by the grand central issue of having to write the 3000s from a millennium beforehand. Like almost all sci-fi from before the fact, Futurama never predicted the rise of the smartphone, fine – but how were they to expect that go-to illegal drug marijuana would be legalised in huge swathes of America by the 2020s?

A surrender to low-hanging stoner comedy wasn’t the only way Hermes’s character got mangled, either. Before the cancellation, he had been as unsentimental as you might expect from a grade 36 bureaucrat (“The 36th highest grade there is!”), and in a cast full of people who despised Dr. Zoidberg stood out as giving the doctor a hard time. In fact, Hermes seemed to kick off that trend of abusing Zoidberg, at one point watching the delivery crew wreck the building – then turning to Zoidberg and declaring “That’s coming out of your pay”.

Then, the Comedy Central years dropped in a woefully mawkish episode in which it turned out Bender was a defective robot, and, in another shocking twist, Hermes had been the quality control man who didn’t have the heart to have the young Bender broken down for parts. This did not at all ring true, coming from a man who had once been the push of a button away from sending the rest of the main cast into the sun – then, after a long, long moment, with his old friend the Professor begging him not to, finally gave a shrugging “mmm-okay”.

The underlying issue is that Futurama’s original run turned out a pair of genuinely affecting episodes (‘Jurassic Bark’ and ‘Luck Of The Fryrish’) that seem to have left the writing staff with the impression that they should be surrendering completely to sentiment on a regular basis. As we see, nothing could be further from the truth. Sentiment is better as a weapon rarely wielded.

For all that ‘Jurassic Bark’ and ‘Luck Of The Fryrish’ are stone-cold classic episodes, it must be admitted that their emotionally charged endings required putting a complete stop to the comedy. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is always dicey territory for a comedy program. And the more times you do it, the less effect it will have – it can never again provide the initial shock of a work of comedy getting serious, even just for a moment.

Fry’s brother was perfect material to be unexpectedly sentimentalised, since we knew nothing about him. But we already knew their mother and father to be prize turds who barely noticed when Fry disappeared, so trying to sell them as caring parents both didn’t ring true, and couldn’t be anything like as funny.

So it was similarly unwieldy to graft a longstanding relationship onto staid Hermes and rowdy Bender, two characters who generally stayed at arm’s length from one another, not even because they particularly disliked each other, but simply because they had little in common. But they needed those emotional beats for the story as written, and so those were the beats they hit, all those years’ worth of established characterisation be damned. Hermes (ostensibly, because this was never followed up) became a kind of surrogate father to a character who really didn’t need one.

What’s particularly damning here is that Hermes was already a father, and not even a particularly good one. His flesh-and-blood son Dwight sought desperately to follow in Hermes’s footsteps and be just like him (“Boring, but prudently invested”), which didn’t slot into Hermes’s vision of a son at all. Instead of encouraging his child, he bought Dwight a pair of remarkably dangerous ‘bamboo boogie boots’, and on a separate occasion when Dwight attempted to start a business of his own, Hermes was scathing to the point of physically kicking his son’s sign.

Ironically, Dwight turned out to be a very prudent investor: one particularly anachronistic joke from a 2003 episode sees him plan to buy five shares of for the princely sum of one penny (“A risk-taker!” chortles Hermes). At the time of writing, two short decades later, Dwight could now sell up for a cool nine hundred dollars.

Hermes’s cool attitude toward Dwight doesn’t necessarily mean he wouldn’t get goo-goo eyes at his first sight of baby Bender – but it does suggest an unpleasant dynamic where Hermes prefers the hard-drinking kleptomaniac to his own adolescent boy. And, what’s more, that this dynamic has been in effect since the beginning.

(Though here, one could tie in Hermes’s tragic experience as an Olympic-tier limbo dancer, where he witnessed an overenthusiastic young fan break their own back. While saying, of all things, “I’m just like Hermes!”. Small wonder, in that light, he’d rather his own child be anything but that.)

Having brought in the wider Conrad family, what are we to make of Hermes’s wife, LaBarbara Conrad? Hard to say, as she never took the spotlight in the same way as Dwight. For want of any better comparison, I have to see LaBarbara as a figure much like The Simpsons’ Bernice Hibbert, another unexpectedly glamorous wife to another buttoned-down white-collar black man – which should say something about how little material there is to work with here. Though it’s not hard to imagine that like Bernice, LaBarbara would also quietly lapse into functional alcoholism.

The Comedy Central years also struggled with this, and ultimately plumped for the not-particularly-funny suggestion she was cheating on Hermes with his perennial limbo rival Barbados Slim. This was lazily retreading the capper of Barbados’s first appearance, when he trounces Hermes at the ‘men’s 500-metre limbo’, and LaBarbara reassures her spouse with the words “If I’d wanted a human Adonis for a husband, I’d have stayed married to Barbados Slim”.

Better writers could probably have done something with this love triangle beyond ‘ha ha, adultery’. Though it begs the question of the circumstances that led to LaBarbara divorcing “that mahogany god” in favour of pudgy, homely Hermes. To be sure, for any red-blooded women in the audience there’s no massive choice between the two. But from what little we see of Barbados, he’s the kind of self-regarding braggart whose act would get old quickly (and who would probably sleep around). In other words, he’s the cad. So we can make an educated guess of why LaBarbara might ultimately ditch him in favour of boring-but-prudently-invested Hermes.

Perhaps this dynamic presents LaBarbara as a bit mercenary, but it did lead to a stable marriage with a surprisingly well-adjusted son – and suggests she’s a fairly prudent investor herself. And even if Hermes and LaBarbara weren’t a Gomez and Morticia Addams sort of a couple, who seemed like they’d be at it like knives the second they were offscreen, clearly they did care for each other. Knowing his tragic history with the sport, LaBarbara did once reassure Hermes that not getting down for a limbo didn’t make him “any less of a man” – words that would take on new resonance when we later learned that it was on the competitive limbo field that the generally manlier Barbados “whipped (Hermes’s) fat ass every time”.

But just as Fry’s mother was more interested in pro football than in her own flesh and blood, and was a funnier character because of it, any affection Hermes had for LaBarbara could only ever come second to the man’s love of bureaucracy in all its forms. LaBarbara’s dalliances with her awful ex might come as a blow, but as we’ve explicitly seen, it was being caught without his files in order that had Hermes up on the roof threatening to jump – and only a senior bureaucrat’s threat of having him “posthumously demoted” that got him down from the ledge.

Much has been written, including by me, about the tendency known as ‘Flanderisation‘ where one aspect of a character’s personality gradually eclipses all others. Ned Flanders went from good neighbour to religious nut, characters who have a fondness for cheese graduate to sticking up lorryloads of Wensleydale. But this is something quite different to those who were always monomaniacs, whose singular obsession defined them from the start and crept into their bones long before we ever met them.

Here we have to think of characters like Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, or Red Dwarf’s Talkie Toaster – whose own obsessions came down to that most basic of human lusts, food, even though one of them wasn’t even human. Hermes is at bottom a slight sophistication of the concept, and his obsession being something deliberately boring doesn’t hurt at all (Groening’s works have always had a sublime hand with the deliberately boring).

But if Hermes has a problem, it’s that this kind of character was born to be ancillary. Hermes ends up on the choppy waters of being a single-issue man and also being a central member of the gang. Not too central, to be sure, he’s rarely out on the away teams, but nonetheless one of the core cast. So inevitably there’s the temptation to try and flesh him out, and this can be done badly, by, for instance, abruptly making him Bender’s long-lost stepfather.

Futurama’s older brother The Simpsons ran into the same problem repeatedly as time went by, trying to give spotlight episodes to secondary and even tertiary characters who didn’t quite have the substance for it. Beloved national stereotype Groundskeeper Willie, for instance, had to suffer through an inconsequential My Fair Lady spoof.

(Like Willie before him, Hermes didn’t reach his full form as a character until Phil LaMarr pulled out a suitable accent in the recording booth.)

Hermes is also a national stereotype, but one tempered by his love of bureaucracy – and it must be a pleasant surprise for Jamaica’s real bean-counters to unexpectedly see themselves represented onscreen. And when Hermes took the spotlight, it was through these inbuilt character traits rather than an arbitrary makeover plotline.

So there’s a lesson to be had from Hermes, and it’s this – don’t go completely over to stereotype. And note that ‘completely’. The limbo, the cannabis, the dreadlocks (even the bobsleighing!), somehow these all seem so much less the hoary old cliche when applied to a hopelessly anal bureaucrat. Sure enough, Hermes’s first spotlight episode gave him a groovy Caribbean musical number – all about his implacable love of filing. You don’t even have to subvert a stereotype that much to spark freshness and joy out of it.

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