Recently I had a chance to speak with writer, composer, actor, and all around nice guy, Randy Rogel. And even more recently the geek fueled perma-grin finally wore off my face. Full disclosure, Rogel is a family friend. I remember as a little girl when my infatuation with Batman and my obsession with Animaniacs was just beginning and one day my father mentions “Oh you like those shows? My friend Randy writes them.” I think this was the first time in my life my mind was blown. How could my father, a West Point graduate and career military officer, know somebody that cool? Simple, they were college pals. That whole “Hello, Nurse” line? They used to say that. But early association with such a rapscallion did not hinder Rogel and he has gone on to be a defining force for cartoons. So much of what we see today is clearly influenced by that show style he helped to develop. Just some of his work includes Batman (both the animated series and movie Sub Zero), Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Freakazoid, Danger Rangers, several Looney Toons characters, Tarzan, House of Mouse, The Emperor’s New School and Histeria (of which I still have a demo song recorded on official Warner Brothers cassette). His trophy case includes three Emmys, ten Emmy nominations, a Peabody Award, two Annie Awards, a Promax Gold Award, and an Ovation Award. He now runs an international successful series called “1001 Nights”, which is expected to have US distribution in the foreseeable future.
You have one of the most fascinating career paths, from an accomplished staged actor to Engineering major from West Point, to a renowned writer and composer for Warner Brothers and Disney and now show runner for your own series, 1001 Nights. How did it all start?
I born and raised in San Diego where I exposed to the arts and really developed a passion for theater. I went to West Point for the education, the chance to see the world, and it because it held a lot of prestige in my mind.The military culture was a real shock to me, and I almost quit. In regards to cadet life, as a plebe I did not like the regimentation and hazing. I also didn’t relish going to class all day, six days a week (we only went half day on Saturdays) with a course load like Calculus, Engineering, Language, Physics, Chemistry, History, English, and Political Science. There were no electives in Dance, Voice, Music, Art, or Film. We did a cadet play and it was a hit, but that was about it. Somehow I made it through and met some wonderful friends, including your dad. In fact, it was your grandfather [also a West Point graduate and career military officer] that told me “Don’t take West Point too seriously. Have a good time, enjoy and relax.” And so I did. But when I got out, I went into the military and I was completely removed from theatre and [performing] art.
There was one thing I did do while I was stationed in Italy for about four years. I wasn’t married and I didn’t have anything else to do but go to my job so I got a piano and played for hours and hours. When I left the military, I was married with a kid on the way and needed a responsible job. Corporations like to seek out officers and I was recruited by Proctor and Gamble. We moved to Seattle where I became sales manager for P&G. For fun, Seattle’s a real theater town, I ran into theater again. It had been 10 years and I wondered if it’d be fun to do a show again. So I started acting more and more in spare time. After a time I began to realize what I really wanted to do was work in film and television. So I quit my job and moved to LA. I was sleeping on a friend’s couch (until I found a place) and began writing and auditioning scripts. One thing lead to the other and I’ve been doing it ever since.
After ten years of military life, what prepared you for your career as a writer?
All those script writing classes I took at West Point! No, I think I had a love for it early in my life working in theater doing lots and lots of plays. I was exposed to great writing. And I also read novels, things like that. I had written a couple of plays but writing for theater is different than for television or film. When you’re writing for theater, it is almost all dialogs. There is a visual component to theater but you can’t do cuts, you can’t do time lapses too easily. In television and film, I can take you in an instant from one place to the next; plus the director can really control what the audience sees with close ups. I had to learn that. You had to be very economical in your writing, because you don’t have a lot of time to tell the story. While I was working at Warner Brothers, there were a couple of courses a friend and I went to together just to bone up on it and it was very helpful to me. But really the way I learned was by doing it. (By the time) I got out of batman, I was the only writer, at first, with four story editors constantly throwing scripts back at me saying “This is crap, fix this”, so you really learn pretty fast. You gotta get those scripts out fast and on budget. When you write a feature or a play, you can have years to write it. With television it’s a week or two to do your outline, a week to do the script, and it’s out the door. For as much schlock as you see on television, some of the best writing being done today is on television. They have to be so disciplined. You don’t have the time to do the big edits, to sit back and think about it. [When I started at Batman] the story writers, story editors, we’d all get together and beat out stories and that’s where I got pretty good at that and then writing the scripts, I was just instantly a professional writer. I had tons and tons of scripts, one right after the other and I had to meet my deadlines and they had to be good and it was sort of like being thrown into the water and being told “Alright, now swim”. I don’t think I would have gotten that far if I didn’t have some chops.
How did you get involved on “Batman: The Animated Series”?
When I came to Hollywood, I was looking at shows that were on television and thinking “What can I write for”. I had no experience; I was writing scripts and sending them to agents and they would say “You have a West Point degree? Where is your directing degree or your writing degree from USC?” Not too many were taking me seriously. What would happen was I would write a script and send it in and they would call me in and say “hey, this is a great script, but what have you had published, what have you had produced?” and when I would say nothing it was like “Oh, well get out of my office then.” A friend of mine who I had known from my acting days, Kelly Ward (who played Putzie in Grease), a very good writer himself, told me about this show being produced called Batman. I thought to myself that I remember those comics as a kid and I could write something, though I didn’t know anything about animation. So I got a copy of the bible [collection of characters, sketches, storylines, etc. that gives writers a concise view of the show and maintains consistency]. I saw the bible to Batman and it was very well written. I remember reading the first script, Pretty Poison, and after reading that script I instantly understood the show. They didn’t want to write them like silly little cartoons. They wanted to write them like real, little movies. I wrote a script and sent it in. The producer called and said Allen Burnett had read the script and wanted to meet me. When I met him, he was very nice but he said, “I’ve already got my writing staff in place, but I just wanted to know who you were.” I said, “Well good because I want you to know who I am!” I went back and I had another idea for a script; I sent it to him and he said, “Well you didn’t have to do that”, but I said “yea but I had a good idea.” So Allen read it and calls me up “Ok I’ll give you a break.” He’d written a story and he gave me the teleplay to write to test my chops. It was a Two Face episode and he wanted to make it a two parter. We left a cliff hanger at the end of the first one. I came back at Allen and said “Do you have an idea for the second one?” He didn’t so and I told him my idea and he said “Well I really hate that.” So I said how about this [other idea]? That one he liked, so he brought me on staff on a weekly bias and I began writing and he really watched over me; as any good producer or story editor should do.
Batman was a groundbreaking show, hailed for its dark theme and strong, dramatic storylines. What was it like working on that show?
Bruce Timm really set a visual style; Allen Burnett and Eric Radomski were in charge of the scripts; and I worked very close with Paul Dini, one of the best batman writers around, if not these best. I remember seeing the sizzle reel, a 3-4 minute animated piece to show the studio and networks, and I remember how cool it was and how dark it was and people who’d worked for Disney and on Tiny Toons, everyone was talking “This is too dark! People aren’t going to be able to see it!”
When the show came out it was an instant hit. I’d been writing on it for a year and overnight I was writing for a hit show on a major network! I really credit Allen, and anyone else will too. He was a defining force. What you see as the Batman series was because of him. There were other people at first and they were doing it almost pre-schoolie. I remember as a kid watching that old campy batman and thinking “this is really stupid, batman is much cooler than that” So when I got my job on Batman, I was so happy to see Allen’s vision because Batman is kind of a crazy guy and that’s what makes him so much fun. I really liked writing for Batman more than any of the other super villains I’ve written because you can kill him. He has this dark human side to him, he’s haunted by the death of his parents and Allen brought that to bear. I think that’s why that show really resonated with people. It felt real for the most part, but it was still a kids cartoon and we had to deal with that. I’d be careful, I couldn’t have falling through the skylight and breaking glass everywhere or S&P would be all over us. Batman was a ground breaking show in animation. I lucked out that year. The origin of Robin, Robin’s Reckoning, was nominated for the primetime Emmy and the way it works is whoever wrote [the episode] gets the Emmy and I had written it! So I got the primetime Emmy that year with Bruce Timm and Allen and Jean MacCurdy, the head of the studio. I was particularly proud of working on that show and working with some really terrific writers. The proof is in the pudding because after it came out, Disney started doing Gargoyles. Everyone was trying to do a dark show and they really couldn’t come up to it. Batman has continued on, Warner Bros keeps reincarnating it.
With your experience working on such a dramatic show, how did you make the leap to one of the zaniest shows, Animaniacs?
Kind of a funny story, I’d been writing Batman for two years when I saw Animaniacs going on. I though, I should write for that show, but people said “Hey, what are you, crazy? That’s a comedy show, you write that dark crap.” No, no! Comedy is me.
Tom Ruegger, in charge of the creative side of WB at the time, was really running the show, and Jean MacCurdy ran the business side. Tom was in charge of all those shows and had a real sense of humor. So when I came on, Tom was like “Well who are you?” I told him I really wanted to write for his show and he dismissed me. So I went and wrote that song with all the countries of the world and he liked that. He forwarded it to Spielberg and Spielberg liked it too. They came back and told me to write another one with all the states, and then one about the universe. Finally I said “Guys, I can do more than just write list songs!” I told Tom I could also write scripts, so he gave me a Mindy and Buttons script, and gradually I moved on to Animaniacs and became full time. It usually takes about a year before a show goes on air, so while I’m writing on Animaniacs, Allen Burnett came to me while they were in the next season of batman and says “we’re a little behind on scripts, do you think you could write a little Batman for us.” And I thought, yeah that’d be cool. I haven’t’ written a Batman script in a year, year and a half so it’d be fun to do that. I’m sitting in the Monday morning writer’s meeting for Animaniacs and I tell Jean I’ll be working on a couple of Batman scripts and she goes “But wait a minute, you write comedy, that’s a dark show!” Hey! Lest we forget, I started on Batman!
Are writers often pigeonholed like that?
Yes, and it’s fair. Now that I’m a show runner, I deal with writers all the time and some writers are good at certain things. It’s like actors, some actors are great Shakespearian actors, but they can’t do comedy. Other guys are great at comedy. If you want to have a really terrific action super star, Schwarzenegger is great for that, but would you want him doing King Lear? He’d have to prove himself. There’s millions of dollars involved and you gotta be careful who you take a chance on, once you are established in the genre. Alan Sorkin, really fantastic writer, and everybody is after him now but he had to prove himself first. Steven Bochco, in his early days, nobody wanted to hire him and he had to work hard to make his bones. So that does happen. I have certain writers I look at and they’re very good at writing pre-school or super heroes but my show is a comedy. Just because they can write Law and Order doesn’t mean they can write The Simpsons, and the other way around too.
Were you surprised by the huge adult audience?
Yes we were. I remember listening to Howard Stern talking about how he’d go into the room and shut the door to keep his kids out so he could watch Batman! We were very surprised when we found out that the viewing audience for Batman and Animaniacs was way high into the teens, even young twenty year olds. In the reviews they were really complimenting the writing, which made me feel good but it was the animation also that was so ground breaking visually that everyone just loved it. That was very cool to see that happen.
Did knowing you had so many grownups watching these shows effect the way you wrote them?
It was in the background, but really you’re writing to please yourself. If you know its good then someone else is going to think it’s good. If it doesn’t please you then more than likely it’s not going to please somebody else. The only exception to that rule that I’ve heard is Stephen King, when he wrote Carrie. He hated it, he threw it away, and his wife took it out of the trash! But that’s a real exception, most of the time when you are writing, you have a real sense of the show. So as we went forward, we all knew we were writing for an older audience but we had to be careful too because we had younger kids watching it. Because it was a network television, we had to deal with Broadcast Standards and Practices, better known as BS&P. They have to do their job too but sometimes you would go “Oh please, come on!” They wouldn’t let you do something because they were afraid it would upset the kids. It’s just a part of the collaborative process.
Well it looks like a few things made it to air. How did you get that adult humor past BS&P?
I remember a Batman episode where I wanted Batman to break through a glass window and surprise the villain. They said you can’t do that, so we put something else in there where he was in a fight and he throws the Batarang and it severs the head of the other character and it goes rolling down the steps. They came back “Are you crazy?! You can’t put that in!” and it was such an egregious thing that they wouldn’t notice what it was I really wanted to do. So by throwing in the red herring that was the one they cut. And I got the other one through. Animaniacs did try to do some hip stuff like that. I remember we had that big earthquake out here [LA] that destroyed everything and my little boy at the time said why don’t you write a song about an earthquake? I thought “How?” People die. How do you make that funny? I was thinking about it, on my way from work driving home on the 405. This is one of those rare times it comes to you, and I’m going, let’s see. A quake, a quake… and just begins [begins singing] “A quake, a quake, the house begins to shake, you’re bouncing ‘cross the floor and watching all your dishes break”. So I quickly pulled over on the side of the road in the shoulder lane, and I sat there with pencil and paper and wrote that song there in one sitting. It came out of me in maybe 15-20 minutes. What a lucky break! Sometimes you sit there and bleed over these things for a week or so, so that song was written at the side of the 405 in a few minutes. But there was a line I put in it that went “Whose fault, whose fault? The San Andrea’s vault, because Mister Richter can’t predict, they’re kicking our ass-phalt!” I thought, “Oh this is never going to make it through,” but they missed it! It went through and thank god; that song won an Emmy!
If you’ve got 10 minutes, here’s some of the best.
That’s incredible; the song just came to you while driving! How else do you find inspiration?
Once in a while, basically an idea will come to you. Whatcha gotta do is get the hook on the song. Where is the cleverness? That happened to me when we were going into the 3rd or 4th season of Animaniacs, Tom Ruegger opens the door to my office and he says “Hey we just got another season of Animaniacs so we’re going to need another Christmas show. Write a Christmas carol, and make it funny!” And he shut the door! I open the door and say “Well do you have any ideas?” So that’s the episode, it opens up where you’re looking at the Warner Brothers lot, and it’s covered in snow so immediately you know it can’t be real! There’s a Christmas tree on top of the tower; Yakko and Dot are putting up Christmas decorations and Wakko is sitting at the table writing something. Yakko comes over and asks Wakko what he is doing? “I’m writing a letter to Santa Claus to tell him what I want for Christmas.” We do this over the shoulder shot and see “I want a pony and an electric train…”, but he’s spelt Santa’s name “Santla”. Yakko says, “That’s not how you spell his name,” and Wakko goes “It isn’t?” and this is the hook I came up with. He pulls out this big butcher block of paper and starts writing on it, spelling out the name. [Singing to the tune of Noel] To spell Santa’s name, is easy to do; you write S A N T and another A too. But no L, No L, Santa’s name has no L, and he won’t bring you gifts if you don’t learn how to spell! Then later in the song when Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch water from the well, when neither of them could find it, Jill started to yell (and Dot goes) “No well, no well!” So I just kept playing on that riff of Noel. And that sort of the thing you have to discover in a song or a script is where is the heart of the comedy, where is the cleverness. That one took me a while, but once I got that idea the song came very quickly.
With so many outstanding projects under your belt, do you have a favorite?
You know, that’s like asking “Who’s your favorite child?” I remember one of the guys was just a remarkable talent, an animator by the name of Peter Hasting. He’s a rare talent; he really developed the Pinky and the Brain characters. I wasn’t in on this at the time because I was on Batman, but they were developing Animaniacs, and they were trying to figure out who all were the different characters, and there were tons of characters that never made it into the show. Somebody came up with the idea of two mice that try to take over the world every day and everybody started laughing, Oh how ridiculous, and Spielberg liked it too, but it was Peter that made it happen. He figured out how to turn that into a script, how to make that into characters. We all wrote on Pinky and the Brain but Peter certainly wrote the best. So when you ask what my favorite character was, I just think that the original stuff Peter did with Pinky and the Brain was just so clever, I consider that one of my favorite parts on Animaniacs.
What was it like working in the early days of Warner Brothers Animation?
When I started at Warner Bros, we were kind of the rebels. If you remember the days of Chuck Jones, when he was writing bugs bunny and the road runner. Then Warner Brothers animation kind of dyed out, it wasn’t really present in the 70’s 80’s. There were no Warner Brothers cartoons being done then so Disney really owned the Saturday morning cartoon, along with Hanna Barbera. And then, again, everything starts with Steven Spielberg who was approached by MacCurdy. He [Spielberg] loves cartoons; Spielberg is a big damn geek! He’s the one that said “I love all that Chuck Jones stuff, so why do we do Tiny Toons?” Spielberg is a funny guy; he would come into meetings and have all these neat ideas. He can smell a good script, and he can find a gag anywhere. He even found a gag in Schindler’s List! When the heads of the studio heard that Spielberg would be willing to work with Warner Brothers Animation, they started funding Warner Brothers Animation again! At the time it was just Jean MacCurdy and Tom Ruegger, and it grew into 600-700 people. Warner Brothers branched out right away, doing Batman on their own. They had a hit on the comedy side and a hit on the dramatic side and while we were there during the mid-nineties, Spielberg formed DreamWorks. So he came to us, “I’m really not allowed under my contract to come up with any new shows with you, but any characters I develop with you prior to that, I am permitted under my contract to make new shows,” so that is why they made Pinky and the Brain. He brought this culture to us, we were still young, and not a lot of people were looking at us so we could get away with what we really wanted to. Not everybody in the corporation trying to get their hands into it.
After almost 10 years with Warner Brothers, what did you notice while working for Disney?
Different culture, Warner Brothers was more open. Disney, in the days of Eisner, was a much more corporate field. It’s a tremendous organization, a quality organization. While I was there I had to deal with a few more layers, a lot more people get involved, and sometimes that’s not good. Too many cooks, you have to be careful of that. I had my office on the Disney lot, it was very fun and I worked with such talented people, and amazing animators and artists, just some of the best in the world. Disney, their animation department was so entrenched over the years; that’s why John Lasseter got fired from Disney. I remember when we were at Warner Bro and we had a nice budget thanks to Spielberg and we didn’t have a lot of rules on us so we just said “well let’s make Animaniacs, let’s make Pinky and the Brain, let’s make Batman” and when I got to Disney it was more established. They wanted to use their characters, doing new stuff was a lot harder with them.
Now you have your own show, 1001 Nights, based on One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales. What can you tell us about this project?
I’m really excited about this show, and if you like the other shows I’ve written, you’re really going to love this. A Thousand and One Nights is an important part of literature; there are people with their PhDs on it. In fact, some of them we have hired as advisors for the show. It goes on all around the world and frankly, we want to be true so you don’t insult the material. The stories were created over a millennium in ancient Persia, now Iraq. They took place from Bagdad all the way to India, to China, all across Asia; they were told verbally, and migrated across to Europe. The stories you’re probably familiar with, Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad, those were developed in France! These came long before the Brothers Grimm and in fact you can see a lot of influence from these stories in the Brothers Grimm tales. So we really wanted to be true to them, but a lot of the stories are very dark and violent and sexual; obviously that’s not appropriate for a kids cartoon. So we tell those stories in the style of Princess Bride, and we’ve turned them into wonderful morality tales with lots of comedy. Comedy first, and a terrific story, and after that naturally pop in a little lesson on why it’s important to share or why you don’t want to steal. That sort of thing. It’s getting great ratings and I can’t wait for it to air in the states because it’s going to get a great following. It’s made independently by our own little studio, Big Bad Boo. The production facility is out of Canada and we have all our own animators in house, all our own story board artists in house, we don’t have to send anything away to Korea or Japan or something, our animators are right there so we can deal with them directly. Currently, 1001 nights is on air in 60+ countries, 15 languages. We just got North American distribution on two big Canadian channels and hoping for US distribution soon. The two heads of the studios have been in talks with Disney, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon. We know soon as it hits the air it’ll be a hit.
And Big Damn Geeks will be sure to tell everyone about it when it does! Thank you!
After the interview, we chatted and he told me all these great stories about my father and him and their adventures as USMA cadets. He shared this story about his experience in the traveling production of Singing in the Rain. It didn’t exactly fit in the rest of the interview, but I just had to share it anyway.
Dan Nolan taught me gymnastics, I was not a gymnast. I was afraid of it and he said “Oh knock that off, come here.” He got me to do a standing back flip, which I never thought I could do, then that turned a into round off, back handspring, back flip. I owe him because I went on to be known for doing Cosmo in “Singing in the Rain”. I’ve done 26 productions of that show. I have to run up a wall and flip on it and I never thought I could do this, but I thought “No, no, no, Danny got me to do this.” So I went into a gym and I got it down. In fact I even did it for Donald O’Connor and I always thought I wouldn’t be able to do this if Danny hadn’t made me do this.
Be sure to check out http://www.randyrogel.com/ for more videos and clips and to find out more about upcoming work!