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Inside the Trippy and Complex Universe of ‘The Midnight Gospel’

Co-creator Duncan Trussell explains the process of marrying interviews from his ‘The Duncan Trussell Family Hour’ podcasts with animated visuals from the mind of ‘Adventure Time’ creator Pendleton Ward and the talented hands of Titmouse studio artists.

Welcome to the weird yet intellectually deep journey of one space-caster as he learns the lessons of the universe. From the mind of comedian, podcaster and actor Duncan Trussell, and the vision of Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward, comes The Midnight Gospel, a trippy, complex and thoroughly entertaining animated sci-fi series on Netflix.

The Midnight Gospel is based on interviews recorded for Trussell’s podcast, The Duncan Trussell Family Hour. Since launching the podcast in 2012, Trussell has produced close to 400 episodes, averaging 1,000,000 downloads per month.  The podcast features Duncan and his fellow comedians, outsiders, spiritual healers, and seekers discussing such topics as spirituality, consciousness, psychedelics, fringe theories, existentialism, and comedy. 

Once Trussell and Ward selected audio clips, a separate animated story was created. The result was a fantastical universe centered on Clancy, a “space caster” with a malfunctioning multiverse simulator that he uses to interview beings living in dying worlds.

While chatting with Trussell, he shared with AWN some insights into how such a uniquely bizarre concept was brought to light. According to the comedian, “[Pendleton] was a fan of the podcast before we became friends and then at some point, he just reached out to tell me he liked the podcast. […] He said he had an idea for a way to turn my podcast in animation. And we went and had coffee and we started talking about it. I was pretending not to be excited about it because I wanted to seem cool and didn't want to seem too thirsty or like, ‘Holy shit, this is incredible.’ I mean, imagine making a show with a guy who made Adventure Time. But at the end of the coffee he told me he just didn't think that he had the time to make a show with me. And so, I was super disappointed, but I didn't express that to him. And then I think it was at least a couple of years later, he reached out to me and said, ‘Why don't we get going on that idea?’ And then we really went for it.”

Regarding his work with Ward on the series, Trussell says, “He's so good at creating a kind of equilibrium with the people he's working with, which I think from where he's at requires the ability to really empower people because I think from his perspective it would be really easy to assume a kind of hierarchical position in the flow of ideas and the flow of creation. […] But because he really believes that the people he's working with have the same potential that he has […] we all got this real confidence and I think we all took risks that normally we wouldn't have taken and he encouraged those risks and the end result is Midnight Gospel.”

Moving on to the process of integrating hundreds of podcast interviews together into a cohesive show, and picking what made the cut, Trussell explains, “There's people who have been on the show many times and there are people who I've had conversations with that have completely transformed my life. And so when I was thinking about the episodes that I thought would be good, that was part of the consideration and I think that's ... maybe an overlooked aspect of formal conversation is that it has a psychedelic quality to it and that a really good conversation can alter the course of your life. And I know for certain, when I first started podcasting, I had no idea how transformative it would be and how much I would learn from doing it and how many new ideas I would be exposed to that would shift my thinking. So, those were some of my considerations in choosing episodes. And then I think somewhere mid-season it started dawning on us that we had created a season that seemed to be about loss and dealing with loss and death and sort of the way of confronting the finality of things. But initially we weren't thinking like, ‘Let's do a season about death.’ It just turned out that way.”

Once the audio was selected, it was time to choose an animation style that suited the topics, and a studio that would gel with the overall vibe. “Pendleton wanted to work with Titmouse,” Trussell says. “We took a tour and I fell in love. [It] is a mazy, mystical place with a lot of bookshelves filled with a lot of great art and a lot of weird nooks and crannies and corners and most importantly, it's a real artist colony. It has that feel and they've got, I think, a lot of homegrown geniuses […]  many of the people there have a very specific Titmouse flavor, so to speak. And that flavor is whatever Bigfoot's nipple milk would taste like. Probably sweet, maybe a little salty, but incredibly powerful. I talked with Penn about animation that I loved and animation that had really moved me like Aeon Flux, Watership Down… I think at one point I was showing him images of, I don't know if you've seen those pictures of the artist who painted cats and had schizophrenia and you can kind of watch the onset of the disease and the way the cats took on this really eerie creepy look. There was so many other weird things that I brought to the table […] But then thank God we had people who were immersed in that world, the world of animation, like Jesse Moynihan and Mike Mayfield.”

The final look Trussell and Ward landed on is trippy, almost free-form, and sometimes hard for the mind to immediately comprehend. “People might initially look at it and think, ‘God, it's low-fi,’”, Trussell admit. “There's a ruddy quality to it that actually to get there is more difficult than getting a polished look, believe it or not. I found out about all this during the process. I was unaware of any of this, and I was astounded many times by the people I was working with each time I realized just how incredible their depth of knowledge was in the field of animation. And they were speaking a language that I was completely unfamiliar with, frame rate language, color palette language. And so outside of my own general instincts and very broad strokes, when it came to the look, I really learned to step out of the way and to trust that the people who had spent their entire lives working in art and visual art were the people who should be making the final decisions regarding the look.”

The animation was not a direct result of the podcast clips, however. The resulting visuals and podcast narrative drove each other, in a sort of creative loop. As Trussell describes, “We beat our ideas out [to produce] a journey, a kind of story that Clancy could go on with his guests. And then, we put the 20 minutes of distilled podcast dialogue on top of that animation. There were animatics that had podcast dialogue underneath, and from that, we would at least begin to understand points of action, and where it didn't make sense for a conversation to be happening that wasn't acknowledging the madness that was happening. And we understood story points within the visual story that required us to bring people I'd interviewed back in to put lines in that connected the podcast dialogue with the animation. So, what would happen though is that the act of bringing someone back in to do more dialogue, or an artist presenting a visual with a joke that we hadn't considered, would give us more lines for the artist to say. So, it was a back and forth. It was a real dance between the two.”

Creating episodes required visualizing the animation and narrative simultaneously, meshing two plots into one complete picture. “[A good example of this would be] the last episode with my mom,” Trussell shares. “I stepped back because even now it's hard for me to watch. To add to that my own grief seemed like it wouldn't be conducive to the environment that I wanted that episode to be created within. So, I gave Pendleton some ideas in the beats of the journey Clancy took with his mom. I had this idea of a planet with a moon, and the planet is having the conversation with the moon while the planet is being sucked into a black hole. I thought that image really sums up what it is to be saying goodbye to a parent, which is, number one, clearly incredibly sad, because the person who was the first person you met in this universe is being pulled into an unavoidable singularity, that abyss, oblivion, reincarnation or however you want to decide what happens after we die. But then also implicit in that loss is that you're also being pulled into that singularity. And so, there are two sorts of grief happening. I think the most obvious being, ‘My God, I'm losing my parent.’ And then somewhere under the surface is also, ‘My God, I'm being pulled there too.’”

“Another concept was the meat city episode with Annie Lamont,” he continues. “I had that vision on ketamine. I had this vision of what would happen if instead of electricity, we ran our civilization on meat, on meat flowing through tubes. What if there was not only this civilization empowered from meat rolling through tubes, which is I guess what it is to be a carnivore, which I am... many people think I was making a statement on vegetarianism, I wasn't. I was making... there wasn't really a statement I was making. I just had this image of this weird dystopian futuristic city where not only was it powered by meat, but people enjoyed sitting on their patios watching the meat flow through tubes. Like there was some kind of... the way people love having a nice car or looking at some material thing, it was considered high status to have a penthouse suite in the city where you could watch meat flow through tubes. And then, I imagined what would happen if some catastrophe happened and the meat no longer was flowing. I kind of pitched that idea in the writers' room and Brendan Walsh, this brilliant comic, took that idea and started asking questions like, ‘Where's the meat coming from?’”

“That’s one way the episodes came to be,” Trussell says. “There wasn't one specific way, though. It was just in the way that every episode presented its own challenge regarding figuring out a way to glue the dialogue to the animation. Each episode sort of arose in its own spontaneous way. And I don't know that I could say that we had some singular recipe for cooking up the different images in the show. Sometimes you get the dark side of the moon effect, where they say if you play Dark Side of The Moon to Wizard of Oz, it syncs up perfectly. Also, if you play it to Paul Blart Mall Cop, supposedly it syncs up perfectly, but how much of that is the natural aspect of the mind that glues things together? Whenever we could, though, we tried not to depend on that. As much as possible, there was a real diligent effort to not use absurdity as a bypass for storytelling.”

While the series became a creative dance between the animated story and the recorded interviews, there was still a delicious disconnect between the two. In explaining whether the dissonance between the two was intentional or by chance, Trussell says, “We sat for two weeks in a writer summit and we came up with all these ideas for various apocalypses. And then, the ones we liked the most, we sort of beat out like what would happen during this journey. For example, the first episode with Dr. Drew. That was much more complex than what you see. We came up with a real fascinating maze of events that happened to Dr. Drew and Clancy, including Dr. Drew going off on his own. Dr. Drew having to gather ammunition and bullets, just pulling from different zombie movies that we loved. And then when we were writing this out, we began to realize that if you put too much plot into it, then it really pulls you out of the conversation that's happening. And so, this was the challenge of the show: figuring out the perfect amount of plot that you could put in visually without detracting or distracting too much from the story. As far as the disconnect goes, at some point you realize there's going to have to be a disconnect because it would completely destroy the flow of the idea of the conversation to suddenly throw in someone reacting to say a demon shitting fire in hell. And so, all of them were logical decisions regarding that. And also there were some really hard cuts that had to be made and some awesome moments of the animation just because there was no way to fit the dialogue and the animation together; it was impossible to glue it together without losing the flow of the conversation.”

“So. you could say that first we had the episodes we liked, then there was distilling those episodes down to 20 or 25 minutes,” he says. “Then we had the apocalypses that we liked. Then it was pairing the apocalypses with a particular podcast conversation. And then, looking at the animatics, looking at the storyboards with the dialogue underneath it, very rough, realizing where we needed to either cut the dialogue or where we needed to glue pieces of dialogue together in a way that was more cohesive. And then from there, gradually, the dialogue and the animation would become increasingly woven together. And somewhere, at that time, at the very last moment, at the last moment possible, before they would have to animate, they'd have to lip sync, and we would bring the actors in to do dialogue. That would help glue the conversation to the animation.”

Despite being an animated series based on clips from a comedian’s podcast, the show, and the topics it covers, are quite profound and thought provoking. Trussell explains what he hopes the audience comes away with after watching the show, and his views on what technology can do to help our civilization as a whole. “Well, if I'm not careful, I spin off into some kind of utopian dream, not just for my show, but for anybody making anything these days,” he says. “Once, when I was at Burning Man, someone said that Buckminster Fuller said that one of the most important questions a person could ask is, ‘Is world peace possible?’ It's an incredibly lofty, silly, freshmen college level inquiry, but I think it's may be one of the most important inquiries we've got right now. Is it possible? And if you think it's possible, which I most certainly do, then can you help? Even in the slightest way, not like you're going to make world peace happen in some idiotic manic, messianic, ridiculous and ultimately completely embarrassing way, but if there are scales ... like, in the prisoner episode where your heart is being measured against the feather. In this case, if there are scales where on one side of we've got climate change caused by ignorance and war and all the sorrows of the modern world, and on the other side, we have this frustrating amalgamation of philosophical understanding and technological promise. If we just could maybe get that side of the scale equalized or add a few more drops of wisdom or technology or both to that side of the scale, maybe it would start balancing out and then maybe not only could we balance it out, but maybe it could actually swing towards world peace.”

“I hope that Midnight Gospel joins the ranks of any other thing that has behind it the intention of potentially inspiring whoever the next Gandhi is,” Trussell says. “I think that's what we all should be doing. Eventually one of these kids is just going to have the big idea. I don't know. Maybe not a kid, maybe an older person. I don't want to be an ageist here, but I think at some point in the next few generations someone's going to have a really big idea that's going to be a way for us to connect that isn't so much based on war or economics. I'm not that person. I'm a podcaster comic. But I think that collectively I hope Midnight Gospel at the very least inspires somebody to start thinking about the possibility that maybe we could have world peace. Thank you. My name is Miss Los Angeles. I'm running for Miss America.”

“I went through a lot losing my folks and getting cancer and I took a lot of comfort in a lot of different types of art,” the comedian concludes. “And I hope that folks out there who might be going through a rough spot at the very least get some nice hedonistic comfort out of Midnight Gospel. That's a little less lofty of an answer.”

You can watch Midnight Gospel now on Netflix. It pairs well with popcorn, some Mary Jane, and a weighty philosophy textbook.

Laurén Alexa's picture

Laurén Alexa produces social media and entertainment blurbage for AWN.