When Steve Rogers lost his job, he hit the road. What he was looking for in the beginning he wasn’t quite sure. The plan – well more of a conversation – was laid out in the back yard of his Red Bank home a couple of years before. He knew he wanted to find people who were willing to tell their stories. Real and interesting people with all of their foibles and flaws and eccentricities.
What he wanted to do was show the New Jersey he knew and loved, the one hidden behind the ludicrous caricatures of Oompa-Loompa-tinged hard bodies and bubblegum-snapping big hairs and frumpy sweatpants-wearing wannabes who ask for gabagool at the deli counter without the slightest bit of irony.
The product of Rogers’ effort is Driving Jersey, a web video series that is a reflection, he says, of the most misunderstood and misrepresented place and people in the entire country. Together with Co-Creator Ryan Bott – the two men comprise the entirety of the Driving Jersey crew – the honest exploration has taken the duo from the top of the state to the bottom, and now to Los Angeles. Driving Jersey has been nominated for an Emmy in the New Approaches category of the Daytime Entertainment Creative Arts Emmy Awards.
Rogers, a frequent Patch contributor, whose writing, photography, and video work has appeared on multiple sites, recently left with Bott for Los Angeles to attend Friday night’s awards show. With a plane ticket purchased by his brother and the promise of a waiting couch to sleep on during the stay, the two-man Driving Jersey team will see if it can topple competitors like the Ellen DeGeneres show and MTV, and their associated crews of sometimes as many as 20 or more people.
Before leaving for California, Rogers sat down to discuss Driving Jersey, its grassroots quest for honesty and, ultimately, its recognition by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
“People always ask us how our show compares to the Jersey Shore,” Rogers said, his arm stretched over the back of a booth at the Broadway Diner on Monmouth Street in the heart of downtown Red Bank. “Our show is not staged. We don’t edit in a way to make a contrived, dramatic plot. We go to a place and we meet people. We can spend a few hours or a few days filming to get their story.”
In Driving Jersey’s first video, a five-minute trailer posted on YouTube nearly four years ago, Rogers wonders how and why the Garden State and its residents have come to be defined by outsiders. There’s got to be some identifiable difference in the residents of New Jersey, he surmises, something more than simply being a fan of the Boss. “Out there,” he asks both the audience and himself. “Could I find the real meaning of New Jersey?”
Over a bowl of soup, Rogers recalled some of his earliest subjects. There was Lord Whimsy, a mustachioed chap who practiced dandyism and was on a quest to see chivalry come back in vogue. There was the promise of adventure, and maybe even a little danger out on a tug boat, but when Driving Jersey showed up the crew of the boat remarked that it was quieter and the water calmer than they’d ever seen it.
The videos feature all sorts of people: men and women and children, young and old, black and white, somebodies and nobodies alike, each with a different story, a different philosophy, a different delivery. The connecting thread, of course, is New Jersey, not merely a state, but rather a notion they all share.
“People immediately started contacting us and asking us to do an episode on this place or this person,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of friends join us along the way. We would go out to a location, maybe for a week, and come back to Red Bank each night. That’s the great thing about New Jersey, you can literally be anywhere in two hours.”
Rogers, 40, has an aura of cool, an intonation in his voice that’s not exactly charming, but, rather, inviting. Its how he gets the people he interviews to open up and share themselves with the camera. Often donning a cap, with shoulder length brown hair with a bit of gray showing at the edges pouring out of the sides, Rogers’ look is reminiscent of an early 1960’s era John Phillips, or maybe mid 1990’s indie rocker, somebody like a member New Jersey’s own The Wrens.
It could just be a vintage look, or maybe it’s just Steve Rogers’ look, unassuming and unpretentious, something similar to the videos Driving Jersey has and continues to produce.
Driving Jersey has been featured on television and on more than half-a-dozen college campuses around the state. It’s a kind of work Rogers hoped would eventually get recognized, something he thought he could submit to the Emmys for a chance at having his work seen by executives, never imagining, he said, that it would actually lead to a nomination.
“We decided to enter it because we were trying to get more views,” Rogers said simply. “We had absolutely no aspirations or illusions that we would be nominated, that really wasn’t the intention.”
Rogers learned of the nomination via a text message from a former coworker in May. In many ways, the nomination is familiar feeling. It wasn’t too long ago that Rogers was on the other side, working as a correspondent for the Emmy awards in New York before a nasty lawsuit levied against New York by Los Angeles – the two organizations are both part of NATAS and both give out Emmys but have often clashed over niggling issues of propriety – led to significant cuts to the east coast Emmy staff, including Rogers.
The concept of awarding new media with Emmys, Rogers said, originally came out of the New York office, out of planning meetings he was once intimately involved in – Rogers assured us, with a smile, that his previous contacts did not earn him the nomination. The concept, previously called New Approaches to Entertainment, was introduced without approval from LA, prompting the lawsuit. Though New York suffered a significant loss the new media award was retained regardless.
“The irony is,” Rogers said, pointing out his nomination. “Is that the category they created to honor online content is the one that cost the academy a lawsuit and me my job.”
Still, the nomination represents something great. Though Driving Jersey is a bit of a David against industry Goliaths, its name is still out there, right along side of studios with dozens of employees and, perhaps more importantly, major funding. When his competitors need to replace equipment, they expense it, add it to already large budgets. Rogers doesn't have that luxury. Instead, duct tape has become a familiar aid in the work of Driving Jersey.
A bit overwhelmed by the nomination at first, Rogers said it represents an opportunity for he and Bott and the future of Driving Jersey that’s hard to deny.
“As we get further from our own self-doubt we get we kind of feel the category was created for people like us,” he said. “People creating content outside of the box, outside of the television box. My partner and I are very much cynical dudes, but, potentially, we have a chance at winning an Emmy award.
“It would be a game-changer.”
To see some of Steve Rogers' work for Patch, follow the links on the right of your screen. To check out Driving Jersey, visit www.drivingjersey.com.