Eric Rogers is a writer on Futurama and was in the writers room from the first season, scripting the 'Iron Giant' segment of Anthology of Interest I. Since then he has contributed many stories to the Futurama and Simpsons comics and his first solo script will be screened later this season.
He has also worked on many other shows including NYPD Blue, Murder One, Lie to Me and Over There.
Can't Get Enough Futurama: Thanks for taking the time to be interviewed Eric. Firstly, it's been a long road from the premiere in 1999. Did you ever think you'd be back here with a new series proper? There's always been a lot of support but that rarely helps a show return. It must feel pretty special, right?
Eric Rogers: I think everyone started get a sense that there might be light at the end of the renewal tunnel once we saw what FAMILY GUY was able to do via DVD sales and their subsequent resurrection. When production began on the DVD films, those involved were hopeful that this would be the ultimate outcome, but it was a quiet optimism – the show has had so many ups and downs as far as whether or not we would become a series again that to be too confident was just asking for disappointment. But then the DVDs came out, sales were great, Comedy Central and Cartoon Network were getting mad love for the reruns from the fans, and Matt and David were as committed as ever to keeping the show alive... I think Comedy Central and 20th Century Fox Studio realized that there was a future for the show that was beneficial to them AND the fans, and lo and behold, the dream became a reality. So that's my super long-winded way of saying, "Yes, it's very special."
CGEF: The even bigger news this time round for yourself is you're getting your scrawl on a solo script, a first for you on the show. Can you tell us a little about that experience and how fun it's been watching your script come to life through those talented animators and voice actors?
Eric: It was simply the best professional experience of my so-called "career". David latched onto an idea I pitched early in our return to the writers room last year and stayed committed to it for months while we were breaking other stories. So when it came time for my turn at bat, he said, "That idea you pitched, that works, roll with that." Maybe not in those words, but you get the idea. Because I had the idea stewing in my brain for months, I was able to work out a basic outline of what the story could be, so when we finally brought into the writers room, it was pretty easy to get the beats worked out and get me out onto the script stage. Once I finished the script, the other writers took it from decent to amazing (thanks, guys!), and then to hear it read aloud by our amazing cast... I mean, I can't emphasize how much of a dream come true it was. And it was a serious confidence builder as a comedy writer to know you can pitch these guys something that they all stand behind and work their tails off to make great. It's informed so much of what I've done since and continue to do and hope to do in the future.
CGEF: You've done a lot of writing for the Futurama and Simpsons comics. How does that differ from writing for the show? Is one harder than the other?
The comics are a different beast in the sense that you don't have as much real estate (for lack of a better term) to build your story on. Bongo publishes 25 page stories, so as opposed to the show where you usually have Act One of a show script to do a fun set piece to ramp up to the real plot, in the comics you have to get to the meat of your story right away. And obviously you can't rely on actors' voices to sell jokes – you better have that joke solidly built on the page or it won't translate. Futurama Comics also tend to skew to more space-friendly adventures. One of Bongo's mandates is to get the crew out into the universe as much as we can. With The Simpsons or Bart Simpson Comics, you can do pretty much whatever you want in the contained confines of Springfield, but simplicity rules the day: if your idea can't be wrapped up in a one-sentence pitch to Bill and Terry (Bongo's creative head honchos), then it usually won't fly. And with over 400 eps of the show and nearly 200 issues published, finding a fresh Simpsons story gets harder and harder each time – but thankfully they have so many characters in that universe that when you feel like you simply can't pitch another Homer story, coming with something for Comic Book Guy or Sideshow Bob or Milhouse can get you back on track... And hopefully writing!
CGEF: You've also worked on show like NYPD Blue and Lie To Me. Not exactly in the same genre as Futurama. How do they compare? Do you feel more suited to one than the other?
I'm definitely more suited for the world of Futurama. I've always had an askew sense of humor, so I feel like this show, and this style of writing, is a second home for me. Thankfully, writing for Bongo allowed me to hone my voice, which has led to the opportunities I've had this season.
Working on shows like Lie or NY (or any TV drama) are the exact opposite of writing for a comedy. There, you pitch your idea, you and the show runner beat out the story, you go off to write, turn your script in, and then the show runner takes it on his or her own to get it production ready. It can be a very isolating process, particularly since once you hand over your draft, you might not get to see the script again until the show runner has done their rewrite and published it for production. Here at Futurama (and practically every other comedy), we hand in our scripts and work as a team on the rewrite to get it ready for the table read. It's a much more communal, educational, and gratifying process, even if you get your script rewritten from Page 1. At least this way, if something you wrote doesn't work, you can learn why and how from the guys above you that have been doing it for years. You can take lessons away from how they view a joke or a plot point and reason out why it doesn't work, and if you're smart, then adapt those philosophies to your next script. And to say these producers on this show are the best guys to learn from is an understatement – they're masters at this comedy thing. I count my lucky stars every night that I get to sit in a room all day with them. Laughing all day at work ain't a bad way to live your life.
CGEF: How and why did you initially get into TV scripting and was there any big influences on you from TV or film when you were growing up?
When I was junior in high school, I met Ann Donahue (the current showrunner for CSI: Miami) who happened to be a family friend back in Ohio. I always loved writing and knew I was decent at it, but didn't have a clue that you could make a living as a TV writer. After she told me what she did (she was working on China Beach at that time), I was instantly smitten with writing television as a career, and Ann said she'd help any way she could... AFTER I graduated from college. So I went to school, and midway through my senior year at Miami University, I called her out of the blue and told her I was moving to L.A. to pursue this TV dream. And I did just that. She helped me land my first job as a production assistant on Murder One within two weeks of arriving in California. After that, there was just no turning back on moving into a TV writing career full steam ahead. I loved the 5 day a week process, how much control TV writers had over their words, how involved the show runner was with every facet of the show... It all was exactly what I wanted, without even knowing I wanted it. Long story short, those experiences led me to Futurama.
My biggest influence when I was young was Stephen King. To this day, he is the man responsible for me pursuing any kind of writing career. I started devouring his books at a very early age and was intoxicated with his ability to create characters and worlds that, albeit horrifying most of the time, were completely real and tangible and textured. You felt like the things he wrote COULD happen, no matter how frighteningly outlandish.
Ironically, I NEVER watched TV until college and the dream of pursuing it as a career inched closer into a reality. I figured, if I'm going to Hollywood, I sure as hell better know who's who and what I like and don't, and where I could fit into all the madness.
CGEF: How about other writers you've met/worked with in your career? Have there been any particular ones that have inspired you?
Without being too much of a kiss-ass, David Cohen and Ken Keeler are major, major influences. How can they not be! On the drama side of things, David Milch (NYPD Blue & Deadwood) is one of my idols. He's a mad word scientist who writes scenes no one else can... His ability is absolutely mind-boggling to me. Of the shows I'm watching these days, Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) are constantly raising the bar. I'm always inspired after watching episodes of their shows.
CGEF: Can you give us a bit of insight into the writers room? How are scripts pitched and how does someone like yourself get chosen to write a script?
It's a democracy. When it comes time to break a new story, David has everyone write down their ideas and then pitch them to the room. David and Matt will then latch onto something that they think sounds cool and fun and funny, and the room starts to figure out the story from there. The story is plotted first, then we do a joke pitch day or two, then the writer goes off to write. After a couple weeks, the writer returns with their draft of the script, and the room as a collective begins the rewrite to get it table-ready.
I got my opportunity to write an episode as part of my return to the show as a writer's assistant. David knew I had a handle on our world from my many years of writing for the comics and my past working with him and the show, so he didn't have to take much of a leap of faith that I could deliver.
CGEF: On the commentaries there's often been talk of the various notes that FOX gave regarding each episode - like how much Bender should be drinking, what colour vomit should be, etc. What's been the experience this time round with Comedy Central? Have they been more relaxed with some of the more edgy jokes?
From everything I've heard, Comedy Central has been amazing in this regard. They've pretty much said to the show, "Do what you've been doing, we won't get in the way." David and Matt also have great radars for what kind of edgy material the show should be doing as opposed to saying to everyone, "We're on cable, let's go nuts and try to compete with South Park!" They do their thing very well, so do we. It makes no sense to suddenly write jokes for the sake of shocking people... And I think our fans would revolt in a hot minute if we did.
CGEF: Staying with Comedy Central, they're obviously very enthusiastic about the show and are giving it a lot of support. Does that give you an extra boost while writing?
It's just extremely freeing in the room to know that we can do the kind of show everyone wants to do knowing that they are behind us 100%. It's such a rare thing in this business. We're very lucky to have that sort of autonomy.
CGEF: And the premiere scored massively in the ratings, what's been the buzz around the office since then? I'm guessing everyone was bouncing of the ceiling!
We were STOKED. The fans that made it possible for us to be back on there showed up and have given us a lot of love so far. I think they're going to love every thing they see over the 20-plus episodes and the numbers will hold steady, or better yet, go up.
CGEF: At the end of Wild Green Yonder, Fry and Leela were getting their kiss on and seemed to be 'together'. Seeing as they never seem to be plain sailing, how are you guys approaching their relationship this season?
I think "Rebirth" very cleverly set the tone for how their relationship would unfold, with Leela saying she wanted to be friends but making sure Fry (and the audience) realized that she cared for him deeper than that. So off that springboard, we have some stories where Fry is driven to impress Leela and show her he can take care of her and give her whatever she's looking for, and conversely, Leela questions what she and Fry have, where it's going, and what kind of future they can have together in this zany world. But these questions and issues all service the comedy first and foremost, as opposed to us suddenly turning it to a Ross-and-Rachel thing.
CGEF: Futurama has had some mythology running through it since the beginning. What's the plan for this season? Will we see more of the Nibblonians or Leela's past? And what about some of the potential stories that have been alluded to like the Killbots?
We address a little bit of that. We have a couple of "origin" stories coming up, one concerning Hermes, another that reveals how the Professor and Zoidberg became friends.
CGEF: There's certainly some bizarre story ideas that come out of the show (Bender as a penguin is a particular favourite of mine). Has there been many that have been rejected for being just TOO weird?
Without giving away any ideas that may be resurrected someday due to timing or what have you, the easy answer is "of course". That's part of the fun with this show – you can pretty much pitch the most outlandish idea you can come up with. Sometimes David and Matt say yes, sometimes they say no. I think the trick is grounding a crazy story idea in something emotional or heartfelt. If you can convince them that a story about Fry turning into his own planet will work because it affects his relationship with Leela or Bender in an adverse way, they may go for it...
CGEF: We've seen stories involving the iPhone, Twitter and Proposition 8 this year. Any other current hot topics being incorporated into this season?
There's a great story that involves the mutants living under New New York coming up. I think this story strikes right at the heart of the illegal immigrant issues our country has been dealing with, especially the situation in Arizona.
CGEF: Any re-curing characters to look out for?
All of them! Hedonismbot is showing up a lot. Hyperchicken, Sal, the Robot Devil, the Robot Mafia, Morbo and Linda... Name a character you love and I bet you'll see them at least once.
CGEF: David Cohen, it would be fair to say, is the day-to-day show runner. How does Matt Groening get involved with each episode? Is he an all knowing OverLord over-seeing the show or does he get stuck into the nitty gritty minutiae of each script? Or both?! Already this season we've seen his name on the first 2 scripts which wasn't a common occurrence during the original run.
Matt is involved with EVERYTHING. He's in the writers room every day, he's in editing, he's in Post... Matt is very invested in this sucker being around for a while.
CGEF: You've got some great guest voices coming up. Care to name a favourite?
Al Gore's return is money. And next season [the second half of season 6], we have Patton Oswalt, who voices a really funny alien character.
CGEF: How about new writing staff or directors? Any new names to look out for?
As far as the writing staff goes, it's everyone from the past that the fans love, except for Eric Kaplan (The Big Bang Theory is his day job these days). And our directors are all super talented. To single out one as better than the other is disrespectful to the others, because they're all fantastic. The show couldn't be more pleased with their work.
CGEF: Seeing as I know how much you love Glee[note sarcasm readers ;)], any musical numbers coming up this season?
Of course! As a matter of fact, next season's episodes are all musical, with Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Justin Bieber tributes. Plans are also in place for a live tour next summer. (I kid, I kid... We do have some music being concocted. Our holiday episode will be a stocking stuffed full of that goodness, as a matter of fact.)
CGEF: If you could have someone not on the show write an episode, who would that be?
Is Brad Bird available? How about Christopher Nolan? Yep, I'd like either of those two minds on the case.
CGEF: 90-odd episodes so far. Do you have a favourite and why?
My favorites are "Jurassic Bark", because it's the first animated episode of anything that ever made me cry at the end, and episode 10 of this current season, because it may be the epitome of what this series attempts to do every week: the perfect blend of science fiction and bust-a-gut humor.
CGEF: Thanks Eric!
This interview was conducted via eMail in July 2010. Questions were posed for CGEF by Reed.