Kif Kroker: Zapp Brannigan’s Buddy

Can you turn a one-way power dynamic into a character of its own?

kif futurama

Matt Groening’s shows The Simpsons and Futurama are, for the characters therein, in many cases tales of their declines. Mr Burns went senile, Flanders became a religious nut, and Homer Simpson, as Professor Lawrence Pierce of the University of Chicago memorably put it, got stupider every year.

When Futurama rolled around, Fry, that show’s own main man, went through a similar process of dumbening – but rattled through this process a great deal faster. Homer, as the show helpfully illustrated for Pierce, was on a fairly consistent downward trajectory, but Fry simply fell off a cliff one day.

Fry was never an intellectual, proudly describing himself as a “certified college dropout”, but in the first season he was bright enough to know having a liquid alien filtered out of him in a centrifuge would end with the crushing of his bones (and it was established he had majored in Physics, down at Coney Island Carnival). Yet as early as the second season, Bender was suggesting that an alien creature might have “only learned to talk as a parlour trick, like Fry” and had Fry himself chime in “Like Fry, like Fry!”. It was a short but very dramatic drop.

Yet even a decline as startling as this has a certain kind of internal consistency. Fry began as a quintessentially gen-X slacker/loser type – those don’t have to be dumb, but typically aren’t brilliant either. By contrast, a decline that came out of absolutely nowhere was that of Kif Kroker.

Kif was introduced as first officer and aide-de-camp to Zapp Brannigan, Futurama’s louder cartoon version of Captain Kirk. It’s appropriate, then, that Kif started off with a Spockish stoicism – though, I hasten to add, none of the same affection for his CO. In his first appearance he was quietly contemptuous of not just his commander, but also of Leela, one of our protagonists and usually the most capable of the bunch. Granted that may have been a guilt-by-association thing, since Leela had (in a moment of weakness) slept with Zapp, something which Zapp would never, ever let her forget.

Later on in the first season, he returned as a hapless functionary during Zapp’s ill-fated command of a cruise spaceship actually called the Titanic. When things inevitably went wrong and Zapp flew the coop, leaving Kif in charge, it was too late for him to save the day, but he conducted the evacuation with dignity and verve – not least by literally sweeping Amy Wong off her feet.

(This, incidentally, is another Spock parallel – a lot of the female fans of TOS found his alien unflappability incredibly sexy.)

So Kif came to us already fully formed: a career man who, all too understandably, detested his incompetent boss, casually dismissing him as “the jackass” and “the fatso” out of earshot. This is a familiar archetype, Kif breaking the mould only in that he was some kind of alien frog – something which Zapp seemed only tenuously aware of, once rounding off an episode by musing in full Shatner mode “…in the end, is that not what man has dreamt of since first he looked up at the stars? Kif, I’m asking you a question!”

But no more than two episodes into the second season Kif was turned on his head into the pathetic figure he would remain for the rest of the show’s lifespan, too lost for words to even protest when he got the blame for Zapp’s latest disaster. With them both dishonourably discharged (“Come, Kif, it’s time to begin our life as civilians…that’s an order, soldier!”) and walking the streets, in a short time Zapp was literally pimping him out.

When they ended up working for Planet Express, Kif ended up gushing a little too much about his joy at being free of Zapp’s command, recounting to Leela’s disgust the kind of undignified and possibly insanitary orders he’d suffered. This does fit his character, but him sticking with Zapp in the first place doesn’t. Nor, indeed, does him getting court-martialled alongside Zapp, a cartoonish leap in logic which, unusually for a cartoon, has actual consequences.

There is an obvious Doylist reason for both those things: the simple rule of funny. And the same rule dictates that they must stick together in a straight-man/funny-guy duo. Without that, in isolation, they’re merely a competent military man and a delusional womaniser, and it must be said Kif fares worse there. Zapp could probably be funny on his own, but Kif as originally conceived could not. In the same Doylist sense, Kif as a character was quite literally dependent on Zapp – and it is perhaps this dependence that started to manifest itself in his sudden transformation into a spineless slug.

(To the show’s credit, Kif is literally spineless, having no internal skeleton but instead a ‘system of fluid-filled bladders’.)

Kif was always put-upon, but originally he didn’t resort to woe-is-me whining about being made to shave Zapp’s armpits (though granted, that would grind anyone down). Is the newer-model Kif funnier on his own merits? Perhaps, but the more salient question is whether he had become what Chris Morris once described as “an underdog so ugly the audience is incapable of any sympathy no matter what befalls him”.

As he had once been ancillary character to Zapp’s larger persona, from here he became in large part a second wheel to Amy – who was at least plausibly ditzy enough not to notice his alarming personality swap. And while Kif was contrasted with Amy’s previous, more he-mannish lovers, this was never explored too much, even when they had children together (it is perhaps telling that it was Kif who fell pregnant, the alien biology here an excuse to feminise the character) and eventually got alien-married.

The most supine betrayal of Kif’s original character, though, was how this came about: he actually accepted dating advice from Zapp, with scarcely even a grumble. Obviously lines like “I find the most erotic part of a woman is the boobies” didn’t work, you don’t need me to tell you that. And Kif shouldn’t have needed anyone to tell him that, much less needed to actually try it out and see what the reaction is. Leela, not even the target of this insult, was particularly shocked, and it’s easy to see why, since she would remember his days as a wry stoic.

Occasionally a remnant of the original Kif shone through. We saw a brief glimpse of him capably dispatching some Spiderians during Earth’s war with Tarantulon 6, only to then be flattened by Zapp’s jeep – and being immediately undone by Zapp was how these moments would tend to play out. Again and again, we come back to Kif’s character only truly existing in Zapp’s orbit, as if being an ancillary character to Zapp managed to seep into his soul.

Kif’s original incarnation, the groaning witness to Zapp’s unsinkable boor, was not so much an actual character as it was a one-way power dynamic. And when the writers poked the walls of that structure by exploring Kif’s character further, it turned out there was nothing underneath.

(There is of course an irresistible comparison to be made to The Simpsons’ Waylon Smithers, another eternal subordinate who took that role to its logical conclusion – just in the opposite direction, actually falling in love with his boss.)

This isn’t strictly a criticism. Spinning something out of nothing is what telling a story’s about. And interestingly, Dr. Zoidberg, a member of the main Planet Express outfit, went through a very similar transformation from softly-spoken alien to pitiable wretch – in Zoidberg’s case, bearing the additional crosses of being dirt-poor and smelling terrible.

The reason I haven’t focused on Zoidberg is that unlike Kif, initially he wasn’t particularly well sketched-out, being by far the most underused member of the Planet Express crew. He was an alien doctor who knew nothing about human medicine (which would later become knowing nothing about medicine, period), but beyond that it was hard to get a handle on him. More than anything, he seemed to be a fellow academic Professor Farnsworth had adopted and forgotten about. When it came time for the writers to poke the walls of that structure, it collapsed, violently and dramatically.

A character’s flaws are what make them interesting. But – Fry became an idiot, Kif lost his spine, Zoidberg angered God – when Futurama dishes them out they do not screw around.

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