With a Season 3 renewal in hand prior to the show’s Season 2 May 23 premiere, the prolific co-creators and executive producers, along with star Amy Poehler, have cemented a spot on Fox's all-important primetime animation lineup.
When it comes to 15-year-old slackers, we’ve either been one, lived with one, live next door to one, or sat in front of one in school. It’s an awkward age, when so many of us worked so hard at trying to show how little we cared about anything, and everything. And one particular 15-year-old slacker name Duncan Harris stands/slouches front and center in Fox’s animated comedy, Duncanville. Animated by Bento Box and produced by 20th Television Animation, Universal Television, and Fox Entertainment, Duncanville is co-created, and executive produced by the Emmy Award-winning husband and wife team of Mike and Julie Scully, and Emmy Award winner Amy Poehler, who also stars as our titular slacker boy as well as his parking enforcement officer mom, Annie. The show was recently renewed for a third season ahead of its two-episode Season 2 premiere this Sunday, May 23 (8:30-9:00 PM ET/PT and 9:30-10:00 PM ET/PT), cementing its spot as a hit on Fox’s all-important primetime animation lineup that includes The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Bob’s Burgers.
In the series, Duncan can see adulthood on the horizon: money, freedom, cars, girls… but the reality is more like always being broke, driving with your mom sitting shotgun and babysitting your little sister. He’s not exceptional, but he has a wild imagination in which he’s never anything less than amazing. A fractured reality I know so well.
Julie and Mike are animation and live-action TV veterans who’ve been involved in many popular and successful shows, including The Simpsons, Parks and Recreation, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Napoleon Dynamite. They teamed up with Poehler after she texted them - about doing an animated series - while they were unsuccessfully pitching a studio about a different show. When life gives you lemons… the rest, they say, is history. I spoke with the dynamic duo (had to say it at least once, though I’m sure they’re tired of being tagged with that moniker) earlier this week about the show, their stellar work in both animation and live-action, what we can expect in Season 2, and how best to find humor and a sense of family fun in the life of a non-verbal 15-year-old teenage boy.
Dan Sarto: I was quite the 15-year-old slacker many, many years ago. Who’s the slacker son that inspired the show?
Julie Scully: Oh man. I think the nation of America [laughs].
Mike Scully: I was definitely one. But I think it's pretty common. At 15, you're just kind of on that cusp of something and you don't know what it is. You think you're going to be an adult, but the reality is, you’re still driving with your parents, watching your little sister, and you don't have a job yet. So, it's a fun time.
DS: How did the show get its start? Where did the idea come from? And how did you get involved with Amy?
JS: We we're sitting in somebody’s office pitching something else, and Mike’s phone starts to buzz.
MS: Yeah. And, and it was a text from Amy, saying “Hey, would you want to try to do an animated show together?”
JS: It couldn’t have come at a better time because I don't think we were doing so well in that pitch [laughs].
MS: We were kind of bluffing our way through a pitch meeting [laughs]. So, we got together with Amy, starting from scratch. We knew we wanted it to be about a family that would feel like it fit in with the Fox Sunday night shows. But at the same time, stand out on its own too. We settled in on the arena of teenagers fairly early in the process, because on most of the animated shows… like, you know, Bart and Lisa [on The Simpsons] are 8 and 10, and the Bob's Burgers kids are young… so, 15 felt like an area that hadn't been touched yet.
JS: Also, we know how nostalgia plays well in animation, so we wanted to capture a That ‘70s Show feel where you could go from parents to kids and get stories on either side of the spectrum.
MS: That show has been such a success for Fox, and it really straddled the world nicely, where your world is your friends, but it's also still your family.
DS: Was the show always a Fox project, or was it pitched elsewhere?
JS: Sure… sure… always Fox [laughs]. No, it was definitely Fox.
MS: It was Fox. But it was an idea we had talked about sporadically, because teenagers are such a big part of the animation audience, and there didn't seem to be a show that really features them.
DS: You have done great work in both animation and live-action. What does animation give you as creators that live-action doesn't?
MS: Well, you can set your characters on fire [laughs]. You get to go inside your characters’ heads more, and play with the form, with fantasy sequences, flashbacks, and thought bubbles, stuff like that. But you also get to defy gravity a little bit. I always use the example of on The Simpsons, with Homer strangling Bart. If that had been a live-action show, like if that were Ray Romano strangling his kid on his show [Everyone Loves Raymond], it would be horrifying. But in animation, it becomes a beloved act of child abuse.
DS: Is animation any easier for you? Do you prefer it to live-action from a production or creative standpoint?
JS: Well, for one, I liked being able to have work to actually do on a show, even from home, during this past year. With live-action, that would have been impossible. So, it does afford you that.
MS: Animation was a good medium during the pandemic, and I don’t mean to be talking about that lightly, or in the past tense. But it was the only type of show that we could keep going from a production standpoint. From a creative standpoint, they're all fun. We love like a good multi-cam or single-cam show. You use different parts of your brain for each of them. And they each have their own rhythms. But you're always trying to tell a good story that fits the genre, that's funny and has a little heart to it. That's always the goal. It's just the execution that’s a little different.
DS: What do you enjoy most about producing in animation?
JS: A lot of actors will say yes to doing something that's outside their comfort zone because it's animated. And so, they'll try something different, or they'll say yes to something they normally wouldn't say yes to in a live-action setting. And that's fun.
MS: Sometimes, you're working on a live-action show and you're in the room pitching and you'll suddenly have an idea like, “Boy, it would be great if this could happen in the scene,” but realize there's no way to produce that. But, in an animated show you could actually make it happen.
Each comes with certain parameters and guidelines. In a multi-cam, you're limited to three or four sets per show. So, it’s like a play. Single cam is a little more like a short film. Probably the biggest misconception about animation is that you can just do anything and keep changing it right up to the last minute. But there are points where you have to lock in, make your decisions, and stick to the story you've chosen. You can't just keep erasing everything.
JS: Another misconception is that animation is easier to produce. I wholeheartedly disagree with that. It's the hardest. It takes the longest.
MS: It takes 66 weeks to do 13 episodes. But we love doing them all. That’s why we never want to do just one type of show.
DS: Live-action and animation are so fundamentally different in how you craft great performances. With animation, often the funniest, or most compelling moments of a show aren’t realized until very late in the production when the artists do their visual magic. As writers and producers, how does your creative process differ for an animated project?
MS: You always want to go in with as strong a script as possible, and then have it keep getting elevated. The actors’ performances take it up a notch, and then the animators get involved. We try and give as much guidance as possible in the script to let them know what we're envisioning. But then you want them to take it to the next level by coming up with things that you hadn't thought of. Everybody contributes their little bit. It's fun to watch it get built over all the months it takes to put together. You get to come back to it with fresh eyes, which is nice.
Once you record it and it goes to the animators, you don't see anything for a couple months. You're working on other episodes. So. when you get it back in the black and white animatic form, you can kind of look at it with fresh eyes and maybe solve some problems that you couldn't figure out the first time around.
I definitely think it's a collaboration for sure. It's like a good marriage. Hopefully, everybody brings something to the table, and you work it out. You go through stages. “Try to see if this works. Now let's try it this way.” Everybody contributes ideas and you end up with something excellent. Hopefully.
JS: The directors will add some great character movement that you didn't see coming, or a facial expression, or the actors put a spin on a line that you didn't hear when it was originally pitched, that actually makes it funnier. Right down the line, from the animation to adding music and sound effects, everything takes the show up another notch.
DS: What did you get to do in Season 2 that you didn’t or couldn’t in Season 1?
MS: In Season 2, we all felt comfortable that we knew the characters better and had found some funny character dynamics that we wanted to explore further. It helped with the storytelling in Season 2. We're very excited about this season's episodes. Probably the biggest puzzle we solved was Duncan.
JS: How do you stay right in the middle? Not too aggressive, not too passive, just the guy in the middle.
MS: A lot of 15-year-old boys are not super verbal. Which is a challenge in animation. How do you show somebody not caring about something? That can get boring to watch and makes the audience not care about it if your lead character doesn't care. So, we came up with this thing called passionate indifference [laughs], where he wholeheartedly believes why he doesn't care. It gives him a chance to express that. And so that helped us a lot in Season 2 stories. But the whole family really jelled as a unit. We found there was no combination of characters that didn't work. It was fun to pair off characters in different storylines and see how they played off each other. It's a real strong core to the show.
JS: The same with our supporting cast too. I mean, Mr. Mitch, played by Wiz Khalifa, Rashida Jones as Mia; everybody is really strong. There's no weak link with any of them.
DS: Your cast is so strong. How much do you let them ad-lib? How often can you just draft off their improvisational talent?
MS: When you have a cast this good, you always record the scripted version and then let them play a little bit. Because when you have people as funny as Amy Poehler, you don't want to not get every laugh you can out of their brain. Sometimes they come up with great stuff, in the moment, that gets into the show.
JS: And Ty Burrell. We’ll give him one line, and he’ll give us 12 different ways to hear that line that you didn’t know were possible. It's super fun.
MS: It really makes it a lot of fun for us. And then there are the guest stars. The first episode airs this Sunday night at 8:30 after The Simpsons finale, and we've got a mini-Parks and Recreation reunion. So, joining Amy and Rashida are Adam Scott, Aubrey Plaza, Retta, and Nick Offerman, as well as Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things.
DS: Last question. Amy Poehler is a unique talent. She’s a brilliant actor, comedian, and creator. Tell us a bit about the working dynamic between you all.
JS: Oh man, she’s so demanding. Print that [laughs] She's everything you want her to be. She's everything America thinks she is. Super fun. Easy.
MS: She has great respect for the process and everybody's contributions to it. She comes up with a ton of funny stuff.
JS: And thank God she had two boys for us, right? We've been mining that for a while.
MS: They're a great source of material for the show. I’ve known her now for 10+ years, I guess, since the first year of Parks and Rec. That was her process on that show too. That's why they were able to build such a strong ensemble on the show. People felt they had the freedom to try things and it was very clear that it was a collaborative process. She's like Julie says… she's everything you want her to be and more.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.