Brannigan is a 25-Star General in the Democratic Order of Planets, and captain of its flagship, the Nimbus. He is first introduced in the fourth episode of the series, "Love's Labours Lost in Space", in which he plays a major role. In the episode, Brannigan becomes enamoured with Leela, whom he attempts to woo for the remainder of the series. Brannigan is portrayed as a respected military hero in the eyes of his superiors and the general public, but strongly disliked by his own crew, most notably his long suffering second-in-command, Kif Kroker. Though famed for his bravery and strategic genius, it soon becomes very apparent that he is sexist, vain, and often very cowardly and inept. Most of his military battles were successful because of significantly weak or non-hostile enemies or even pacifists. Brannigan is also completely indifferent to military casualties, and it is implied that most of his victories have been pyrrhic, achieved only by sacrificing soldiers in vast numbers.
Brannigan is based on the Star Trek captain James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner; Brannigan and Shatner meet face-to-face in the episode "Where No Fan Has Gone Before". The creators of the series envisioned Brannigan as similar to what Shatner himself would be like as a starship captain. Cohen describes him as being "half Captain Kirk, half actual William Shatner", and that the initial premise for the character was "What if the real William Shatner was the captain of the Enterprise instead of Kirk?". In the episode "Amazon Women in the Mood" the DVD audio commentary describes Zapp Brannigan's reinterpretation of "Lola" as a spoken word song as a reference to what William Shatner did with "Rocket Man". Brannigan also wears a girdle to appear thinner and in another episode nearly loses his toupee, seemingly a parody of similar accusations aimed at Shatner. Originally Brannigan was to appear fatter in every shot throughout the first episode in which he appeared, but the animators were so disgusted by his ultimate appearance that the idea was dropped.
Zapp Brannigan is voiced by Billy West, though he was originally intended to be voiced by Phil Hartman. Hartman insisted on auditioning for the role, and "of course, just nailed it" according to creator Matt Groening. However, due to Hartman's murder, West was given the role. On the Futurama DVD commentary, Groening reveals that Zapp's character and mannerisms were established in Billy West's original audition for the character, and any similarity to Phil Hartman or his other well known cartoon characters (Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure) is simply coincidence. On the other hand, in an interview for the website TV Squad, Billy West states that his Zapp Brannigan is an imitation of Hartman and also "modeled after a couple of big dumb announcers I knew."
^Booker, M. Keith. Drawn to Television: Prime-Time Animation from The Flintstones to Family Guy. pp. 115–124.
^Cohen, David X.; Groening, Matt; Kelley, Brian; Sheesley, Brian; Moore, Rich; Vanzo, Scott; DiMaggio, John (2002). Futurama: Volume One DVD commentary for the episode "Love's Labours Lost in Space" (DVD). 20th Century Fox. Oh, the gut was supposed to grow and grow over each scene, but it got a little too grotesque, so we had to pull it back a bit.