The episode was written by David X. Cohen and Matt Groening, and directed by Rich Moore and Gregg Vanzo. Dick Clark and Leonard Nimoy guest starred as themselves. The episode generally received good reviews with many reviewers noting that while the episode started slow the series merited further viewing.
On December 31, 1999 a pizza delivery boy named Fry delivers a pizza to "Applied Cryogenics" in New York City. At midnight, Fry accidently falls into an open cryonic tube and is frozen. He is defrosted on December 31, 2999, in what is now New New York City. He is taken to a fate assignment officer named Leela, a cyclops, who assigns him the computer-determined permanent career of delivery boy. Refusing, Fry flees into the city with Leela in pursuit.
While trying to track down his only living relative, Professor Farnsworth, Fry befriends a suicidal robot named Bender. As they talk at a bar, Fry learns that Bender too has deserted his job of bending girders for suicide booths. Together they evade Leela and hide in the Head Museum, where they encounter the preserved heads of historical figures. Fry and Bender eventually find themselves underground in the ruins of Old New York.
Leela finally catches Fry and he, depressed that everyone that he knew and loved is dead, tells her that he will accept his career as a delivery boy. Leela unexpectedly sympathizes with Fry—she too is alone, and hates her job—so she quits and joins Fry and Bender as job deserters. The three track down Professor Farnsworth, founder of Planet Express, an intergalactic delivery company. The three deserters, with the help of Professor Farnsworth, evade the police by launching the Planet Express Ship at the stroke of midnight amid the New Year's fireworks. As the year 3000 begins, Farnsworth hires the three as the crew of his ship. Fry cheers at his acquisition of a new job: delivery boy.
At the end of the episode, Professor Farnsworth offers Fry, Leela, and Bender the Planet Express delivery crew positions. The professor produces the previous crew's career chips from an envelope labeled "Contents of Space Wasp's Stomach". In a later episode "The Sting" the crew encounters the ship of the previous crew in a space bee hive. When discussing this discontinuity in the episode commentary, writer of "The Sting" Patric Verrone states "we made liars out of the pilot".
This episode introduces the fictional technology which allows preserved heads to be kept alive in jars. This technology makes it possible for the characters to interact with celebrities from the then distant past, and is used by the writers to comment on the 20th and 21st centuries in a satirical manner.
Originally, the first person entering the pneumatic tube transport system declared "J.F.K., Jr. Airport" as his destination. After John F. Kennedy, Jr.'s death in the crash of his private airplane, the line has since been redubbed on all subsequent broadcasts and the DVD release to "Radio City Mutant Hall". The original version was heard only during the pilot broadcast and the first rerun a few months later. However, the line is still heard in the Sky broadcasting of the episode in the UK. According to Groening, the inspiration for the suicide booth was the 1937 Donald Duck cartoon, "Modern Inventions", in which the Duck is faced with—and nearly killed several times by—various push button gadgets in a Museum of the Future.
In addition to the setting, part of the original concept for the show was that there would be a lot of advanced technology similar to that seen in Star Trek; but it would be constantly malfunctioning. The automatic doors at Applied Cryogenics resemble those in Star Trek: The Original Series; however, they malfunction when Fry remarks on this similarity. In another twist, the two policemen who try to arrest Fry at the head museum use weapons which are visually similar to lightsabers used in the Star Wars film series; however, they are functionally more similar to nightsticks. The interaction between the characters was not overlooked. The relationship formed between Fry and Bender in this episode has been compared to the relationship between Will Robinson and the robot in Lost in Space.
Although both Futurama and The Simpsons were created by Matt Groening, overt references to the latter are mostly avoided in Futurama. One of the few exceptions to this rule is the appearance of Blinky—a three-eyed orange fish seen on The Simpsons—as Fry is going through the tube.
Another running gag of the series is Bender's fondness for "Olde Fortran malt liquor", named after Olde English 800 malt liquor and the programming language Fortran. The drink was first introduced in this episode and became so closely associated with the character that he was featured with a bottle in both the Rocket USA wind-up toy and the action figure released by Moore Action Collectibles.
In its initial airing, the episode had "unprecedented strong numbers" with a Nielsen rating of 11.2/17 in homes and 9.6/23 in adults 18–49. The Futurama premiere was watched by more people than either its lead-in show (The Simpsons) or the show following it (The X-Files) and it was the number one show among men aged 18–49 and teenagers for the week. The episode was ranked in 2006 by IGN as number 14 in their list of the top 25 Futurama episodes.