Woke Fantasy: Once & Future Nerd | The Notice Blog

by Remy Litvin & Paul Notice

Let's talk about the award-winning comedic audio drama, The Once & Future Nerd. It was created by Christian Madera, who's taking the fantasy elements of "Elder Scrolls," and combining it with the self-awareness of "Cabin In The Woods." Read on to see how the podcast came together, podcast factoids, and so much more.

The history of The Once & Future Nerd can be traced back to when Christian Madera, the series creator, got on a Skyrim bender following the videogame’s release. In the game, there’s a quest where a character wants the player to retrieve an artifact, specifically a dagger from Mehrunes Dagon. Dagon is the God who almost destroyed the world in the previous Elder Scrolls game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. After returning the dagger, the character suggests going up to a mountain and summoning Dagon. One of the dialogue choices for the player is, “That sounds like a terrible idea”, which Madera thought was funny. Audiences see very strong good, evil, and moral gray areas in fantasy, but pettiness is often absent.

Madera then had an idea, what if there’s a fantasy story with petty characters who clearly did not want to be there? The next logical step meant making the characters teenagers because they don’t want to be anywhere they already are. As a teenager once, Madera certainly didn't when he was young.

To flesh out the story Madera brought the idea to his best friend Zach Glass, who’s the most voracious fantasy reader he knows. Madera knew the comedy wouldn't work unless the world worked on its own so he wanted Glass to help build a world that would function before and after these teenagers were in it. Before writing Once and Future Nerd, Madera and Glass wrote another TV pilot about where they first met; college marching band. The script was a fun experience and cool thing to write. But, with costs like costumes, instruments, large sets, and location clearances the series would be too expensive to produce (especially for two people with then no writing credits). With the likely hood of the marching band TV pilot low, Madera switched gears by writing a fantasy epic.

A rough budget of 30 million dollars was estimated by Madera so it would be a hard sell, but the pair was completely in love with the story. Going straight to a novel or a graphic was possible, but Madera really liked the collaborative aspect of filmmaking and the energy he gets from bouncing off other people. Audio was the way to go as it was something they could reasonably doing it out of pocket without going completely broke and still show to people.

Then came Madera’s next question, “What’s the tone of this world, what are we going to do with it?” Around the time Madera was writing early drafts and figuring out what the show was going to be, he saw Cabin In the Woods in theaters. He loved the film. The viewer knows it’s an instance of the genre and it’s also poking fun at the conventions of the genre. Scream had the approach of, “This happens in every horror movie so it’s gonna happen now.” Cabin In the Woods went the extra step of doing a certain level of social commentary about why these things show up in every horror movie. Why do we feel the need to punish attractive, young people for being young and attractive? With that in mind, Madera started thinking along the lines of, “What’s in need of some pulling apart in fantasy.” This was when the rest of the idea blossomed into covering issues like race, class and gender, all of which gets baked into a typical fantasy world.

It took the cast and crew time to find their legs in terms of exactly how to make the show work. Madera recommends listening to audio dramas then deciding how you want to make your show for an audio format.

Making the first two chapters of Once and Future Nerd "was a disaster," said Madera. The whole cast was crowded around his old living room table in his apartment, similar to a table read.  "It was noisy, with fire trucks a constant sonic background element, and there was no planned schedule," he said. 

The cast was a mix of Madera’s friends who were into the idea and professional or aspiring professional actors. Eventually, Madera was able to use a recording studio with a microphone per person.

While the series has won numerous awards, Madera regrets going into this genre not already having role models to emulate and examples of what he does and doesn’t like.

As an audio drama, it’s all audio but there’s a full cast with everyone playing different parts. There’s a narrator, sound effects, and even music. Once and Future Nerd is like an old radio play, but with a more modern feel.

The show now boasts an incredible cast including Paul Notice. It is a long ongoing story so there are threads to keep viewers hooked. Many viewers have written in commenting that binged it and listened to the whole thing.

When listening to the podcast, there are times where it’ll feel like a sincere instance of the genre. There are moments when everybody will take a breath. There will also be some gentle ribbing of the genre with plenty of laughs and thrills for the listener.

In addition to Once and Future Nerd, other great audio dramas include Bright Sessions, Wolf 359, and The Penbra Podcast. Madera found that there is incredible stuff happening in the audio drama genre that the Once and Future Nerd team stumbled backward into. He is glad the team ultimately got involved in this awesome community.

In addition to creating and directing the show, Madera plays Renaunt. He is a villainous necromancer who’s also a “nice guy” who can’t understand why Nia won’t date him, even though he is literally rotting. Throughout their exchange, the actors really got the tone that Madera wanted in addition to the comedy of the show. Another scene highlight takes place between Paul Notice and Frank Queris, after Billy and Nelson both kill someone.

 Fan Art by Sinead Walshe

Fan Art by Sinead Walshe

While Madera knows where he would like Once and Future Nerd to go, he’s realized after years of doing this that there’s no predicting. The only thing he knows that works is to just keep putting out the best content you know how to make on as regular a basis as you can and then hope for a couple strokes of luck. Madera knows first-hand that you can’t predict or engineer any kind of internet success, but he would like to see the show grow with more people listening. He would also like to see an active fan community, with the next immediate step of fans having self-sustaining conversations about the show and drawing fan art on Tumblr.

While podcasts have like become a mainstay in our current media ecosystem, they have an interesting history. Apple had an idea of On Demand radio. Any broadcaster approved by the iTunes Store could submit a feed in the format of Really Simple Syndication (RSS), which would have information. The feed would get pinged at a specified interval. Anything on that feed would automatically get downloaded to a device that was subscribed to that feed. Apple realized users could put audio on the feed, causing the audio files to get downloaded. The feed would get synced to your iPod, making it a “podcast”. But now, thanks to decreasing production costs anyone can do an RSS feed. People can get podcasts through Stitcher and Google Play.

To show your Once and Future Nerd pride check out the podcast’s store.