Robert Funke played football and participated in show choir at Dobyns Bennett High School (class of ‘05). He majored in English and neuroscience at Vanderbilt (class of ‘09), taught special ed for two years in Nashville, and then earned his MFA in screenwriting at University of Southern California in ‘13. He was an intern and researcher for “Mad Men” season 6 and did some unproduced work with Jay Roach at Everyman Pictures, partially as a result of having won the Jay Roach Fellowship at USC. After that, he was a writer’s assistant on a short-lived HBO comedy called “The Brink,” and shortly thereafter wrote the “On Becoming a God In Central Florida” pilot.He’s been creator and executive producer of that series since. He took time out from a writer’s retreat to respond to our questions.
A! Magazine: How did growing up in the Tri-Cities affect your artistic efforts?
Robert Funke: A great deal of the work I do creatively is just about reflecting on and processing life in Kingsport. I was lucky enough to have grown up with a group of really creative friends, and we spent our time on creative projects that would have been considered performance art or guerilla installation art in snootier communities, but for us was sort of boredom-fueled petty vandalism.
I was very protected from the bigger world. Kingsport is a very easy and safe place to grow up if you have some money and a stable family situation, which we did, and so I spent a lot of time reading and making trouble, which are two pretty important aspects of my job currently. On the show, I’m lucky enough to work with Stephanie Riggs, who went to South, and we can triangulate our understanding of where we come from, from two very different perspectives.
A!: Does what you learned here still affect your life?
Funke: Absolutely! I think DB gave me a pretty strong education, in and out of the classroom. Like most industries, the upper echelons of the entertainment industry are pretty crowded with people who come from a legacy of Hollywood success, or people whose families are wealthy and powerful enough to put them wherever they want to be, and I’m incredibly grateful to have had exposure to a very different part of the world than that. For example, very few people with whom I work currently ever shared classrooms or even schools with unhoused students or students with disabilities. A lot of my peers have wanted to be Hollywood successes since they were children and don’t have a frame of reference for much of life outside that ambition. My three years as a DB football player, for example, have probably been a bigger factor in my career — in terms of understanding my limits, values and work ethic — than my years getting an MFA in screenwriting.
A!: How were you involved in the arts when you were growing up here? How did you get started? Who influenced your artistic efforts?
Funke: My mom (Martha) has always been a supporter of the arts in Kingsport. She’s a beautiful singer who did a lot of musicals with the Kingsport Theatre Guild, and I spent a lot of time hanging out around the Renaissance Center, listening to and watching them rehearse. She painted sets and backdrops for them, too, and eventually I got involved in some of those plays — “James and the Giant Peach,” “A Christmas Carol,” “The Best/Worst Christmas Pageant Ever,”and one I’d kill for a recording of: the all-Appalachian production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”I think most of those were Bob Dean productions.
Finally, some of the most comically gifted people I’ve ever met were friends and neighbors in Kingsport. Gigi Boggan and Ina Danko are two people I’ve always reflected on when crafting strong female characters. John Penland, John Bellamy and Steve Baumrucker are all comic geniuses from the region who’ve given me guidance and inspiration at different parts of my life.
In high school I followed in my sisters’ footsteps to become a part of the Impact! Show choir, which at the time I thought was sort of corny and embarrassing and threatening to my masculine self-image, but in hindsight was just an incredibly fun and important time where I found a small crew of friends who weren’t afraid to sing and dance for a couple hours a day. I left the choir but played guitar in the combo that toured with them, mostly because it was a really solid place to meet and hang out with girls.
I had a lot of really great teachers (and a couple crummy ones), but one who always comes to mind is Carol McMurray, the first writing instructor I ever had. I would always take a very antagonistic approach to essay writing — I remember our first assignment was to write an essay about our strengths and weaknesses as a student, and I wrote this really over-the-top satirical thing called something like “Strengths and Lesser Strengths: Life of a Genius.” Rather than punish me for being a smartass, Mrs. McMurray found ways to put me in my place while still nurturing and encouraging that sense of mischief and antagonism, which is a feature of my writing to this day. I’d also shout out my youth ministers, Janie Hobbs and Whitney Ross, who were both total freaks committed to creating completely unique, vital spaces for a lot of kids to figure out how to be decent people.
A!: When and why did you leave? How did leaving enhance your career?
Funke: I left to go to Vanderbilt in 2005. In my teenage years, I kind of figured because my dad (Bob) was a doctor that we were about as rich as people could get. My two sisters and I each had our own cars by the time we turned 18, and money wasn’t a prohibitive factor in choosing a college. Then at Vanderbilt I met a lot of literal, capital-B Billionaires, and it gave me a different understanding of the economic structure of a place like Kingsport, my place within it, and how it plays into the bigger American economic picture, which is something I reckon with in almost everything I write.
At Vanderbilt, I studied neuroscience with plans to follow in my dad’s shoes and become a doctor. Turns out neuroscience is really hard, and abandoning that plan was incredibly difficult. But there was something exciting about pursuing a career as a writer: there’s no set path, no plan. You have to figure it out as you go along. Eventually I embraced that. It took me another two years after college to get serious about the actual “career” part of it, and that’s what brought me to Los Angeles.
A!: What are you working on now and what do you have planned for the future?
Funke: I’m currently working on a feature script that could end up being either really good or really bad; that’s all I’ll say for now. “On Becoming a God” is hoping to start production on season 2 as soon as we figure out if that’s possible amidst pandemic protocols. My dream is to always be able to take risks and write things that I’m excited about.
A!: What’s it like working with a writing partner (Matt Lutsky)? How did you meet?
Funke: Matt and I have a great friendship. We met at film school and got along great but never really planned on being writing partners. I think after school, we needed structure and accountability, so we decided to write this pyramid scheme thing together, since it played to both our interests. When that took off, we realized we were bound together as a writing team and had to really work to make that partnership functional and productive and not completely consume the reasons we became friends in the first place. As with most relationships, it’s all about communication.
A!: How did you come up with “On Becoming a God in Central Florida?”
Funke: The script came out of an interest in cults and cult behavior, which led us to learning about a lot of different cults and cultlike groups. Then I started reading about Multi-Level Marketing, and realized it was something I’d had a ton of exposure to and experience with — I had a football coach who’d recruit players to distribute Advocare, for example. Before that, cults were interesting because of how bizarre they are — “look at those whackos trying to ride a UFO behind a comet to Heaven,” or whatever. But with the predatory MLM world, the dreams and goals and ambitions were so normal and relatable: people want to live with comfort and work with dignity. Unfortunately, in this country, for a lot of people that’s about as plausible as a UFO trip to Heaven, and so the tactics for recruitment and retention end up being very similar.
We’re still working on making the second season. I think a good deal more people are gonna have to tune in for there to be a third, so if you’re reading this, please find a way to watch or stream it. It’s a great show.
A!: How has the streaming industry affected your screenwriting opportunities or has it?
Funke: It definitely has. OBAGICF first sold to AMC, and then AMC got in a fight with our studio over some of their other shows, so they sold it to YouTube Red, which then became YouTube Premium, and fully collapsed when we were in the middle of filming our first season, and so we had to put the completed show on the market and hope someone would buy it so it could see the light of day — it was touch and go for a minute — but then Showtime bought it. So just on our one show, we’ve lived in both worlds. It’s very volatile, and there are a lot of streaming innovators out there whose main “innovation” is just trying to work around union minimums, but in general it’s pretty great to have landed in the industry at a moment when people were willing to take risks.
A!: What or who inspires you?
Funke: I once saw someone answer this question with “unfriendly kind people,” and I’m going to steal that answer. I am also continuously inspired by my parents. My dad just retired but seeing him serve his community has always been an inspiration, and lately he’s been speaking out more about how we can achieve a more humane, more effective, less costly healthcare system in America. My mom and I are the loudmouths of our family, so seeing him raise his voice is very inspiring. My mom will chat up and forge a friendship with absolutely anybody, and she comes away from meeting new people very excited to talk about what makes them great. In developing characters, that kind of openness to and excitement about all sorts of people is necessary, and if I’d been raised by a more cynical or misanthropic person, I’m sure I wouldn’t be where I am.
A!: Tell us about your career highlights and challenges, please.
Funke: I think the highlight of making our show is getting to work with really incredible, brilliant artists, directors and actors. These are jobs I didn’t really understand before working closely with them and having the chance to elevate my writing with Kirsten Dunst, Theodore Pellerin, Ted Levine, Beth Ditto, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Josh Fadem, and so many brilliant actors is surreal. Oftentimes, prior to this job, I’d get frustrated with collaboration, because you have a picture of something in your head, but the final product doesn’t measure up. On this show, everyone involved makes it better than what I’d imagined. It’s so cool. And they are, top-to-bottom, wonderful, grounded people.
The biggest challenge has always been collaborating with people who want to make the show into something it isn’t, rather than making it the best version of what it is.
A!: What else are you doing other than working on your art?
Funke: Walking my dog and washing my hands.
A!: What else would you like people to know about you?
Funke: There is a rumor that in 2005 I vandalized the administrative offices of Dobyns-Bennett with a lot of seafood and dairy products. That rumor is false.