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It’s the End of the World… And It’s Way Funny in ‘Mulligan’

Showrunners Robert Carlock and Sam Means, and director Colin Heck, preview their and Tina Fey’s new animated series about learning – or not – from humanity’s past mistakes, premiering May 12 on Netflix.

It’s the end of the world as we know it. An alien attack has destroyed much of the planet. There are only 1,132 people left on Earth. In a demoralized and smoldering Washington, D.C., a rag-tag band of survivors must start society over from scratch. It’s an opportunity to learn from humanity’s past mistakes and get things right this time. Or make the same mistakes all over again.

When the creative talents exploring this apocalyptic scenario are the same people who brought you 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, you can pretty much assume it will be the latter. In fact, the mistakes will probably be even worse than before. And extremely funny.

Sprung from the fecund minds of Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, and Sam Means, Mulligan features Nat Faxon as the eponymous Matty Mulligan, a working-class everyman from Boston, who, after single-handedly saving the world, now finds himself in way over his head as the leader of what’s left of humanity. Or, as advisor Dr. Farrah Braun (Fey) concisely summarizes it, “You’re the president… because you’re good at throwing.” Joining Fey and Faxon in the stellar voice cast are Chrissy Teigen, Sam Richardson, Dana Carvey, Phil LaMarr, Daniel Radcliffe, Ayo Edebiri, Ronny Chieng, and Kevin Michael Richardson. The series debuts May 12 on Netflix.

In an interview at least as momentous as the end of the world, we spoke with executive producers Carlock and Means, who serve as co-showrunners, and director Colin Heck (Ben 10, Harley Quinn) about their new undertaking and all that it implies.

Check out the trailer, then learn more about the new series:

AWN: I know how hard it is to do comedy in live-action or animation. But I watched the first episode of Mulligan and it's funny. The hit-to-miss ratio on the jokes is very high.

Robert Carlock: That's good to hear. We take a lot of swings. I only hope there are more people like you. I also think you're touching on something, which is that, yeah, the jokes per page are high, but we do try to write stories. Every time we started talking about an episode, or talking about a story or a scene, it was okay, what's the human level of this? And obviously that becomes kind of elastic in animation; it can get pushed to silly places. But we always like to start in the real to try to earn the comedy. So, hopefully, when the jokes are coming from character, instead of just jokes for jokes’ sake, you do feel it in a different way.

AWN: So what was the genesis of the series? How did it all come together?

RC: I’ve been working with Tina Fey for 20-something years. I did 30 Rock with her, and we did Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt together. We'd always wanted to do animation, and we were kind of trying to understand what that meant exactly. And then one day Sam came into the office.

Sam Means: I was a writer on 30 Rock way back, and I've been working with this these guys forever, and I always want to work with them before anyone else. I continue to hold onto their coattails as firmly as I can. So it's funny, I was just watching the action movie San Andreas on cable one day, in which The Rock plays a helicopter pilot, and the end of it is all earthquakes and disasters. And Carla Gugino is there with him, looking out over the ruins of San Francisco, and she says, "What do we do now?" And he looks out and very dramatically says, "Now we rebuild." And there was this moment with me and my wife just looking at each other and wondering, "Is he going to do it?" That seems like hard work. It doesn't seem like a helicopter pilot is qualified for that. So I went to Robert and Tina, and we talked about fleshing this out as an animated concept – where it’s the end of the big disaster movie, and everything is blown up... and to explore what comes next.

RC: There's a reason those action movies end there. The action, so to speak, is over. But if you continued in the self-serious tone of an action movie, dealing with the aftermath, you'd be in a lot of meetings. We thought, oh, this could be funny. You'd get these different points of view. You have this clean slate, and you ask, "What would you do differently?" Everyone in the show has a vision for what they want it to be. Some of them are very ill-informed, like Lucy, who just has this kind of beauty pageant point of view – let's just all make the world good and be good. And then you have to actually try to do that. How do you do that? To Cartwright LaMarr (Dana Carvery), who's this kind of Republican amalgam of southern conservatism, it's very different and very practiced and he knows how to pull the levers. We just thought, let's put them in a room together, and occasionally fighting aliens together, and see what happens.

AWN: Colin, you're the animation guy in the crowd, so here’s an animation-related question. What's new or different for you on this show compared to your work as a director on Ben 10 or Harley Quinn?

Colin Heck: A lot of things, honestly. I mean, it depends on the show, but typically somebody in my seat doesn't get to tell Tina Fey what to do in records. I did on this one, and that was a new experience.

RC: Only because we're scared of her, though.

CH: “Colin, tell her we don't like that.”

AWN: So you get to be the hatchet man.

CH: It's a very dull hatchet, but sure. But I got to be involved in basically every aspect of making this show – some would say too much. And in terms of new and different, we had to make an entire series under COVID restrictions. Trying to make something that stood alongside The Simpsons and Bob's Burgers and other adult animated shows, and trying to keep morale up and keep everybody moving in the same direction when nobody's in the same room, was a new challenge.

But also on a creative level, we were trying to shoot this show as a single cam, with the camera present in the scene, as opposed to proscenium, flatter staging. We needed to do that to push the pace that Robert and Sam were after. Pace was essential, and we needed to pull out every trick that we could to maintain that pace.

RC: Pace and face performance, which we didn't appreciate. We intentionally drew or asked for bodies that were proportionally like humans. We didn't want it to be too cartoony, because characters are often lying on our shows, and so you want to be able to play that in the eyebrows and the face – like, I'm not quite telling the truth, while the joke still plays in the vocal performance or the story moment plays.

SM: That's hard in animation.

RC: And Colin had to do that. That little raise of the eyebrow or that little curl of the lip that told you so much. We knew we needed it, because that's how we write, but we didn't fully appreciate what we were asking Colin to do.

AWN: Sam and Robert, are you finding that this medium of animation offers a kind of creative satisfaction that’s different from what you get from live-action?

SM: That's a good question. When we were first talking about this, an animator friend of Robert’s said, "You guys have been writing animated shows for years. You just had to build the sets and make the actors do it." So, in a way, it was a natural extension of the sort of comedy we'd been doing, and now we can just do it all. We can put it all on the screen. We can start an episode with a space battle, but then go into the kind of show we normally do, which is people talking to each other and telling jokes, and then cut back to the space battle. The world that we're capable of inhabiting in animation is just so much broader in a really exciting way that I think we're still discovering.

RC: Building a world from scratch is complicated. Building this little community of survivors and populating this destroyed Washington, DC is a different kind of challenge. And of course live-action shows, like zombie shows, do that, but it costs a lot of money. Whereas, with this, Sam and I can really concentrate on working with the actors in the booth, and on trying to help Colin solve problems that we don't understand, and concentrate on the page. We don’t have to think, "Right now I'm on location for another show. We're going to be here for 14 hours to do five pages of material." And it's just a different rhythm. Of course, Colin can’t do five pages of material in 14 hours. But on an animation day, I can be thinking about other things.

AWN: Let's talk a little more about the dynamic of working in animation as writers and creators. It’s different from live-action in that, if you can think it, there's the assumption you can create it. But there's a cost to everything, both budget-wise, as well as creatively. How do you figure out what’s doable and what isn’t?

RC: Colin can probably answer this question best. But, as someone told us very early, animation's great because you can draw anything; and it's terrible, because you have to draw everything.

CH: For starters, there are the producers, the line producers, and the people that are in charge of the budget; that's more their purview. I've always seen it as, I'll tell you how to do what you want to do, and these people will tell you whether we can actually do what you want to do. But my MO was like, "Look, this is Robert and Sam's vision. I'm going to do whatever I can to execute that vision and rely on somebody else to tell me when to stop." But there was one time where I read a script, and there was one flashback – one cutaway – that was the entire pre-apocalypse Senate dressed in barbershop quartet costumes, all singing together with Cartwright LaMarr. And I was like, "Guys, we cannot do caricatures of all 100 members of the Senate."

RC: I forgot that was your breaking point. And now I see how ridiculous that was. It was one joke about him having been in an all-Senate barbershop quartet.

SM: Now we know.

CH: I remember, early on, they were like, "Why do crowds look terrible? Why do these crowds look awful? Oh, it's because you draw one character and you repeat it 500 times and it's hard." So then, I was like, "We should limit the number of crowd scenes." But the crowd is important. They're a feature of this show. You can't have a show about governance without the governed. And so we struck a balance.

AWN: Before we finish, can you share a little bit about what we can expect in this inaugural season? Without giving anything away, of course.

SM: We try and explore all of these characters and their motivations. We have some guest stars coming up, which we're pretty excited about. And it's about everyone – much like us with animation – learning the restrictions of this new world and what is and isn't possible. As we talked about earlier, they’re all trying to do their best to build a new world together, and finding what they can and can't do. Over the course of the season, and in future seasons, these characters learn what it means to be people – including Axatrax, the alien general.

RC: When we were pitching it, we talked about it as The Office meets The Last of Us. It’s a world that is recognizable, but it has all kinds of potential for story and comedy because it's broken. And, at the center of that, people are trying to have relationships, and trying to raise children, and trying to reconcile different points of view and different worldviews. So we hope that there's a beating heart at the center of it, but, at the same time, sometimes they have to fight monsters – and sometimes the monsters are literal monsters and sometimes they’re each other.

SM: It’s about rebuilding on a grand scale and a small scale. For example, this couple gets together in the heat of the battle, but then they have to actually get to know each other. They kissed on the flagpole as the spaceship blew up around them, but now they have to find out who they are as people, and if there's actually any relationship there. So we like to explore those interpersonal elements, amidst the broken post-apocalyptic world with spaceships and explosions and all that.

RC: To go back to where we started, we write jokes, we write comedy, and we're hoping this framework gives the comedy a grounding, as big as the premise is. But there's a lot to laugh at. There's high silliness and jokes. Not enough comedies have jokes.

Jon Hofferman's picture
Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.