How “Final Space” Went From YouTube To Conan O’Brien
Final Space started as a rough web video back in 2010. Now, the story of man condemned to live alone in space as punishment for his early crimes is an animated TV show on TBS, under executive producer Conan O’Brien and the rest of the Conaco crew. It’s a unique mix of delightfully polished animation, slapstick jokes, and surprisingly complex, and even tense moments.
We talked to creator Olan Rogers about, well, how exactly one goes from YouTube favorite to full-fledged show runner.
First of all, where did Final Space come from?
Olan Rogers: Essentially this idea goes back to 2010 when I made a really terrible version of it called Gary’s Fate. It was awful, just images moving across the screen with pretty much no movement at all. I decided I wanted to reboot it in 2015. I got a little bit of money to go out and make a proof of concept. It was just enough to get six minutes made. [laughs].
It stems back from my love of animation and things like early Toonami and Dragon Ball Z. I was watching animation as I grew up. It’s kind of an influx of all the stuff I grew up with as well as my love of sci-fi and comedy.
With Star Wars and Star Trek currently back and Seth MacFarlane landing a network comedy sci-fi show, this seems like a really great time to be into the genre as both a fan and a creator.
Totally. This show was roughly a year in the making and before that in 2015, I think that’s when the new Star Wars started happening. At that moment, you knew that sci-fi was going to get big for the next couple years at least. I didn’t really plan on or expect it, but it’s great. Even just as a fan, I love sci-fi. I’ve been waiting for this cycle to get back to good sci-fi for a long time. I’m loving it.
On a side note – The Last Jedi became kind of a divisive movie. Where do you currently stand on Star Wars? Awesome or abhorrent?
The new Star Wars is so tricky. I grew up on the VHS copies of the originals without the extra effects that were added later on. I don’t know. When I first heard it, I was like whatever, but I enjoyed Force Awakens a lot. And I think Last Jedi probably had one of the coolest moments in any Star Wars when they hyperspace through that fleet. That was unreal. When it went silent, I remember saying “Oh no!”
This show is an interesting mix of slapstick humor and genuine drama. Is that a hard mix to maintain?
Pretty much anything that I’ve ever done, in a weird way….I started doing YouTube and from he beginning I had a weird obsession with doing drama, but I was stuck in the comedy wheelhouse. So I decided I was going to trick my audience into watching a drama by starting it out as a comedy. By doing that, I got my tone and my style.
With this show, as you watch it, you’ll see that it only gets more dramatic and tragic and sad. There are real genuine emotions. You might even find yourself crying at this thing. It gets intense. It only gets darker with each episode. We wanted to create a story that’s funny, but has real emotion.
The show draws obvious comparisons to Rick and Morty—as every animated sci-fi comedy will for a while. Was there any temptation to make it R-rated?
That was always kind of my style was kind of not doing that. That’s always been my style since high school. When I did production back then, my TV production teacher said we couldn’t use any cuss words, so I was like, ‘all right, I guess we’ll follow this rule” and I followed that rule going into YouTube. It made it more challenging. Trying to find comedy that didn’t resort to cuss words. Everybody can do that. It’s nothing new. It’s a lot more challenging to to do it this way, but it’s a lot more rewarding, at least for me. Look at Monty Python and Mighty Boosh, and the Princess Bride. Those are some of the funniest movies I’ve seen and they don’t have any kind of massive adult crude humor, but they’re genuinely funny. It’s something that I’ve always done. There was never a temptation to make this Rick and Morty. I told the writers from the get-go that this wasn’t Rick and Morty. We had to tell it to every writer, every director, every reporter. We had to tell them, “This is not Rick and Morty. This is its own thing. We’re trying to make something beautiful and cinematic.” And after a while, people realized the differences.
The animation looks extremely polished, too. That stands out from some of the intentionally crummy Adult Swim shows out there.
That was one of the things that we wanted to do. Adult Swim has this rough around the edges style that’s not very pretty looking, but it’s funny. It’s funny, rough, animation. With this, the edges are crisp. Even with the space in the show, we took real NASA space images and combined them to make our star fields. It has this really surreal feel to it, but also when you look at the space, it’s a character int he show because it’s so vibrant.
You come from YouTube and a generation of homegrown content creators that built an audience without the help of a network or a big production company. Do you think that’s still a viable path for content creators or has it gotten too crowded?
I think the future is not YouTube. Everybody wants to crack the YouTube or online code and it has become so massive that basically creators just want to stay on that platform. It’s a really weird time for online creators. You’re not really seeing a lot of them wanting to create stuff. They’re starting to just become personalities. It’s a hard thing to analyze because there are really good creators out there, but they aren’t becoming the biggest things on YouTube or Facebook. They’re creating genuine awesome stuff and they’re getting lost in the mix, especially on YouTube where you have people that don’t really give YouTubers a great name like some of the few you’ve probably seen in the new recently.
It’s weird. It’s something that Iv’e been trying to crack for about a decade. I’ve been trying to make that leap out of YouTube and do the things I’ve always wanted to do like features and TV. It’s hard. I don’t think YouTube is helping themselves at all. It’s a weird time right now.
The key to YouTube popularity seems to be more about solving the YouTube math problem than making great content in a lot of cases right now.
That’s the thing. It sucks because that’s what you have to do to survive on that platform and I think it’s kind of choking out the creativity of creators on there. They’re like, ‘Look, nobody is going to watch the thing that I spent five months on. They’re going to watch the thing I spent 30 seconds on.” And that’s just talking into the camera. If you really want to get your voice out there.
My situation is a lot of luck. I had been doing these shorts for a decade and that was like the first one that hit a dart board. Somebody at Conaco was just watching YouTube at 5 AM and found it randomly. If I would have known that was what I had to do, I would have done it way earlier [laughs].
The cast list is impressive for the show (Tom Kenny, Fred Armisen, David Tennant). How stoked were you to get all these people onboard?
Man, this is dream come true stuff right there. Getting to work with a lot of these people gave me a chance to work with people who I genuinely love and respect for how funny they are. And to get somebody like a David Tennant as your bad guy was like ‘Oh my god, are you serious? This show?”
Did you get to pick the people who played the voices?
They asked me to come up with a list of who I’d want to be each person and I came up with a list of two or three people for each role and really only one person passed and it was because they were busy. Everyone else was the first person on the list and they said yes. It was like a waterfall effect. The moment you get one person on-board, the others hear about it. You have like three or four names on there, people jump onboard. You have to get that first person. That’s the toughest.
Funny enough for us, that first person was Fred Armisen. He agreed right away. We were like, “Sweet!”
He has an amazing ability to show up in stuff and just be great.
He’s so funny. And he’s a really good singer. He randomly started coming up with songs in the booth and it was so funny. There’s an angelic voice on that man.
How much of the show was improv? It has a very loose style despite its polish.
What we would do is write the script and go in the booth and record the lines a couple times and then riff. A lot of the funniest lines in the show are improv. A lot of the songs that Kevin (the robot voiced by Armisen) sings are all improv. A lot of Gary’s sayings are randomly improv’d. I’d say the mix is about 60 percent script and 40 percent improv. Any time there was a funny moment, we’d go off the script a little.
The show is clearly kind of a dystopian view of the future and technology in which robots torture us witch cookies we’re not allowed to eat. Do you think it will go down like that in real life?
The consensus is always that it’s going to turn dystopian. That’s he cool version of sci-fi. The world has to end in every sci-fi movie. There’s going to be rugged, dark, cloudy, rainy streets and everything will look like Blade Runner. But, I think the future is going to be a lot of the same. Every time a movie gives us a futuristic date, we say, “by then we’ll have hover cars,” but then we’re still running on fossil fuels. I think it’s going to be a lot of the same.
Leave us with one underrated Sci-Fi movie that we should check out after watching Final Space.
The movie Sunshine. Dude, the score on that is so good. You have to watch it. They try to jump start the sun. Doesn’t that sound entertaining?