With his Netflix animated series The Midnight Gospel, comedian Duncan Trussell embraced a novel technique and challenge, juxtaposing fantastic interstellar adventures with audio from a series of podcast interviews.
A collaboration between Trussell and Adventure Time’s Pendleton Ward, the adult animated series centers on Clancy, a spacecaster (or video podcaster in space) living in a dimension known as “The Chromatic Ribbon,” who uses his multiverse simulator to travel to dying worlds.
Framed on pre-recorded interviews with comedians, spiritual teachers and other guests of The Duncan Trussell Family Hour, including Joey Diaz, Trudy Goodman and Dr. Drew, each episode features conversations between Clancy and a being from a distant planet, touching on such themes as meditation, hope and death.
Trippy, existential and heartfelt, The Midnight Gospel emerged as a concept on the part of two-time Emmy winner Ward. “He was a fan of the podcast, and he had this idea, which was, what happens if we take podcast dialogue from The DTFH and replace the dialogue of Indiana Jones?” Trussell recalls. “What would an adventure story look like with heavy podcast chat?”
In an early meeting with Ward about a potential series, Trussell demurred, skeptical of the notion that previously recorded podcast interviews could merge seamlessly with an animated adventure story. But when he viewed a five-minute animatic that Ward had put together, featuring Dr. Drew as a zombie-fighting President, he immediately understood the potential of the idea. “It was this beautiful proof of concept, because what we’re talking about is not necessarily comedic. It’s me telling Dr. Drew the story of almost overdosing on benzo at a party,” Trussell says. “But then when you create this ridiculous situation, where the President is trying to deal with a zombie attack, and listen to this story, while shooting zombies, it becomes really comedic.”
Once Trussell got behind Ward’s basic concept, the pair engaged in extensive conversations about a world that would be appropriate for the show. Described by Trussell as “like the South of France for simulation farmers,” The Chromatic Ribbon reflected interests that he and Ward shared. “We both love virtual reality, and this idea known as simulation theory, that maybe we’re living inside a simulator, and so I was wondering, ‘Well, if we are inside a simulator, why would someone want to simulate us?’” the comedian says. “Then, I realized, ‘Oh, well if you could run a simulator that duplicated The Big Bang, all the way up to the 13.7 billion years that we’ve existed—to right now—and you could do that in a few months, then you would get the works of Shakespeare, all our great innovations.’”
For Trussell, the process of choosing specific interviews to frame episodes on, out of the hundreds he has recorded for his podcast, was something that he was initially inclined to overthink. “I had this crazy idea that we would have to get every episode converted somehow to text, then drop it in Google Documents, and then maybe you could do keyword searches,” he says. “Before we knew what we were doing, there were a lot of ideas about how we could use all that content.” Ultimately, a simpler process based in intuition won out—Ward had his personal favorite interviews, as did Trussell, and that was all they needed to know.
But to properly utilize these interviews in the context of an animated series, a bit of new material was also necessary. “We had to bring people back in [to record pick-ups], because otherwise, the podcast dialogue would become more of a soundtrack than a script. We would use those [added] lines to glue the podcast to the world, and it was really fun to do that,” Trussell says. “What we would do is just let it roll in the VO booth at Titmouse [Animation], and catch natural moments.”
Certainly, marrying audio to picture was one of the biggest challenges of making The Midnight Gospel, given that the series had no precedent from which to build. “You show [Netflix] six minutes of a grainy animatic, and now you’ve got to figure out a way to make 20-plus minutes of podcast dialogue merge with an apocalyptic cartoon world,” he says. “If we were making a show like The Simpsons or Family Guy, we know it’s a three-act structure, we know kind of how the thing works. But this, how do you do it?”
In terms of a single episode, Season 1 finale “Mouse of Silver” proved one of the most challenging to tackle, on an emotional level alone, given that it wrestled with the passing of Trussell’s mother, Deneen Fendig. “That episode is a combination of two podcasts I did with my mom. One of them was a few years before she passed on, and then one was about two weeks before she died. So, that episode is me at maybe one of the lowest moments in my life,” Trussell says. “I didn’t want to interview her, because I knew it would be one of the last conversations I had with her, and I was in denial. You sort of revert to infantile thinking in those moments.
“I think in my mind, somehow I thought by not interviewing her, [I’d] keep her alive longer or something,” he adds. “But she insisted that we do the last podcast, and she had that quality that many people have when they’re passing, which is, they’re just living the truth, and it’s a powerful, beautiful thing.”
Prior to working on The Midnight Gospel, Trussell had only listened to the latter podcast on one occasion—when he was in Georgia on vacation, with his pregnant wife. “We were in a bed in this hotel room, and I wanted her to meet my mom,” he says, “so I played that conversation, and we cried.”
To this day, the comic can’t listen to that particular podcast without crying, and while he knew up front that he wanted to include it in the series, he also knew that he would have to take a step back creatively, placing his complete trust in Ward, and his team of animators, to do it justice. “I knew if I’m sitting at Titmouse doing dailies, weeping in the back, it’s not going to be fair for the animators,” Trussell laughs. “Because they have to make hard cuts. There’s creative decisions that they need to make that don’t need the sound of a sobbing 46-year-old in the back of the room.”
When Trussell finally watched the episode, he was “astounded” by its beauty. “Somehow, these animators had captured my mom’s spirit in it, just from her voice. It’s one of the most astounding things, and it really shines a light on how powerful the medium of animation is, in the sense that, that is my mom,” he says. “The whole time I spent working on Midnight Gospel, I was gradually realizing what an incredible medium animation was. But that hit it home, when I realized that there’s a resurrective quality to it that I don’t think exists in any other form I’m aware of.”
From Trussell’s perspective, the episode also highlights themes and ideas at the core of the series, the most important of which is that, even in the most catastrophic of situations—even heading towards a potential apocalypse—humans manage to find a way through to the other side.
Little did he know how resonant this idea would be upon the series’ release in April, with the coronavirus pandemic in full swing. “When all of this first began, the first night that they started Safer at Home…We still don’t know completely, but at that time, we didn’t know what COVID was. This could have been some kind of smallpox; no one knew. I remember just how every moment came into focus, underneath the umbrella of this pandemic—how the smallest things seemed really powerful and sweet, that normally, you might not notice at all,” he says. “So yeah, I think [the show] unfortunately did seem to sync up with this period in history.”
For Trussell, the quarantine brought on by COVID-19 has been difficult in many ways. Like most stand-up comics today, he has been itching to get back up on stage. “I am feeling it, because it’s more than just performance. It’s a community at The Comedy Store, and it was definitely something I took for granted, much like every single thing that I did before the pandemic,” he says. “And now, I look back, just thinking of every single moment that I can remember on those nights, just rubbing shoulders with people, shaking people’s hands. So, nothing is going to scratch that itch until we’re able to be human with each other again.”
That being said, for creatives, the pandemic has had its small silver lining. “One of the positives of all of this is that it has forced all creators to figure out new ways to do live performance. I’ve been doing a meditation every week on my Patreon, and these gatherings every week on my Patreon, and then sometimes late at night, I’ll stream music from my synthesizers, just weird, montage-y stuff,” Trussell shares. “None of it replaces the itch, but I do think it is definitely creating new forms of performance that might never have been explored if not for the pandemic.”
In the comedian’s mind, the pandemic has a silver lining for all people, if they are willing to look hard enough. In speaking with Trussell, or listening to his podcast, a clear sense of optimism tends to cut through. And yet in The Midnight Gospel’s fifth episode, “Annihilation of Joy,” he addresses the concept of hope, describing how hope can become a kind of prison for people. So, how can there be optimism without hope?
“To answer your question, I was driving through a Trader Joes parking lot with my wife, and standing in line, distanced from each other, are all these people waiting to get food with surgical masks on. Somebody cut me off, people are driving weird, and I start having a real meltdown. I’m just telling her, ‘This is f**king horrible. I cannot deal with this. This is all wrong; everything’s wrong. This shouldn’t be happening,’” Trussell recalls, “and she said to me one of the most brilliant things, which is, ‘It looks scary, but what you’re seeing is people taking care of each other. The aesthetic of the mask and the distancing looks like something out of The Twilight Zone, but behind that, it’s people who are really, really trying not to kill people, who really don’t want to infect someone’s grandma or grandpa. So, even though it looks scary, it really shows love.”
For the comedian, the same can be said of the protests unfolding across the United States, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. “What Fox News would like you to believe is some kind of chaos, or their President wants you to believe is thuggery, what you’re actually seeing, globally, is humans who are standing up against oppression, and that, to me, is what humans really are,” he says. “Even in the worst situation, where you could die of a viral pneumonia for going out in the street and marching with people, people are still doing it.
“Now, this, to me, I don’t want to call it hope, and the reason in the show, I say what I say about hope is because hope implies that there’s something we need to get to,” he adds. “I think humans are fundamentally good, and that’s where we’re at right now. So, already what’s happening, though it really is incredibly inconvenient, and horrible on so many levels, if you look at one channel of it, which is what people are fighting against—if you just click the knob up, one more click—you realize that we are simultaneously fixing a global pandemic, while evolving out of systemic oppression on a global level. We’ve decided to multitask, [so] to me, we’re doing pretty good.”
Looking toward the future, Trussell is hopeful—for lack of a better world—that there will be more seasons of The Midnight Gospel to come. “Obviously, there’s a writhing part of me that is deeply in suspense, waiting for a decision to be made, one way or the other, and if I said that wasn’t there, everybody would know I was a horrible liar,” he says. “But that being said, they let us make this crazy thing! To me, it’s just the wildest thing to imagine that any network would let me and Pendleton roll with this wild idea—and now, it’s living on Netflix forever.
“That’s glorious. But if you have any kind of magical powers, or even better, some connection to Netflix, give us a second season! Please, I want to make more,” he adds. “There’s so many more stories to tell about The Chromatic Ribbon. You know, we mapped out that world, and we barely, barely got into that world. But nothing you’re seeing in that show—not a single word, not a single moment—was unintentional. It all connects to a really big history, and a very deep story.”