Creators Mike and Julie Scully talk about new characters, narrative world building, and shameless fan fawning that fuel Season 3 of their hit animated series, premiering on FOX Sunday, May 1.
Now rushing headlong into its third season, Duncanville is the brainchild of the Emmy Award-winning husband-and-wife team of Mike and Julie Scully (The Simpsons), and the likewise Emmy Award-winning Amy Poehler, who also voices the show’s 15-year-old slacker-hero Duncan Harris and his long-suffering parking officer mom, Annie. Duncan is your typical 15-year-old-boy, which is to say, taciturn, chronically broke, and perpetually exasperated (and exasperating). Strangely, this has proven to be fertile ground for comedy, and Duncanville has quickly established itself in FOX’s primetime animation lineup that includes The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Bob’s Burgers.
In addition to mom Annie, who dreams of someday becoming a detective, the other denizens of Duncanville include Duncan's father, Jack (Ty Burrell), a plumber and classic rock enthusiast who's determined to exceed his own father’s parenting skills; his sisters, 12-year-old Kimberly (Riki Lindhome) and 6-year-old Jing (Joy Osmanski); his friends, Bex (Betsy Sodaro), Yangzi (Yassir Lester), and Wolf (Zach Cherry); and his sometime crush, Mia (Rashida Jones); and teacher/guidance counselor Mr. Mitch (Wiz Khalifa).
For Season 3, which premieres on FOX this Sunday, May 1, at 7:30 p.m., the creators have expanded their narrative horizons, digging deeper into the lives of some of the lesser-known characters, while bringing in some new ones as well. Because I asked nicely, the Scullys agreed to talk about the new episodes, as well as the realities of planning ahead in TV production, how they approach storytelling in any medium, and the infinite potential of the series.
Dan Sarto: Here we are again. Another season of fun and animated hijinks.
Mike Scully: Oh yeah. The jinks are higher than ever this year.
DS: Why don't you share some of what's in store for us?
MS: In the first episode of the new season, Duncan and his friends lie to befriend a famous gamer, who's voiced by the gaming superstar Ninja. And they wind up on an island being hunted Fortnite-style. So it's that old chestnut.
DS: Are you going to be stretching the characters in new directions? Are there any overarching themes that we can expect to see?
MS: Actually our goal for this season was to go deeper into the supporting characters on the show, like Duncan's friends. So you'll be seeing more of them, and actual storylines about them.
Julie Scully: Yeah, we tried to cherry-pick them and pull them out a little bit and let them shine. Go a little bit deeper in their lives and that type of a thing.
MS: For example, in the second episode, Duncan finds a knife in a parking lot. We were talking about cool things that happened when we were kids, and it was a very universal thing of how cool it is to just find a knife. So it winds up causing a conflict between Duncan and his friend Wolf, who's played by Zach Cherry from Severance. And Duncan becomes the new alpha at school, replacing Wolf.
JS: And also, Mr. Mitch, Wiz Khalifa’s character. We see him having trouble at home with his girlfriend, whom he desperately wanted to marry.
MS: We actually featured Wiz in a couple of storylines this year. The cast is so strong that we wanted to make better use of them by giving them all a showcase this season.
DS: What's the process for bringing in guest characters? Do you think of actors and then think about how you could use them? Or do you come up with guest characters and cast them afterwards?
JS: I'll be honest. We think of who we want to meet. Then we come up with a story.
DS: So, shameless fan fawning. Is that what you're saying?
MS: That's definitely a big part of it. But for one of our episodes this year, where we wanted to add a coworker for Annie, Amy Poehler's character, we wrote the characters first and then did the casting. They pop up in two episodes. It’s a couple played by Bowen Yang from SNL and Andrew Rannells, who were really funny and a fun addition to the world of the show.
DS: What do you think most resonates with audiences about the characters? And how do you shape the stories when it comes to character development?
MS: Being a show that we want to appeal to the whole family, we try and hit it from different points of view. From Annie and Jack's perspective, it’s the frustrations and exasperation of raising a teenage boy like Duncan. From Duncan's point of view, it's the frustrations of being a teenage boy with parents like Annie and Jack. You want to try to have something in there that everyone can relate to.
JS: We also try to layer the characters. Nobody is just one thing. So you have good days, you have bad moments. You try to find their Achilles’ heels. Amy Poehler is super-great at finding quirky things about characters. She's our go-to for that. Maybe it’s her SNL training, but, oh my god.
MS: She is great, particularly with Duncan. Amy has two boys of her own, who are 12 and 13 – that age when boys kind of hit the monosyllabic stage of communication. So she's very good at adding stuff.
DS: Do current events impact the writing of the show?
JS: They definitely do. We will only use things that we think will go the distance, that will stay relevant over the years. We don't try to do any overnight type of thing. We sometimes get the opportunity – as long as the lip flap is what we need, or if we can recycle it – to put in new jokes at the last minute. You're going to see some things you've seen the past year coming out of our characters’ mouths.
MS: Because the production of an episode takes about nine months, it's hard for a story to be current. We have the same problem on The Simpsons. If something was happening when we first were thinking of an episode, we had to ask, "Will this still make any sense nine months or a year from now?" Or will you be the last one to the party?
DS: You've done a lot of live-action, as well as animation. When you're defining new characters, is the process the same for you regardless of the medium?
MS: For both live-action and animation, the emotions and the conflicts are very similar. The difference is in how you execute them. In live-action, they're usually executed in a more dialogue-driven way, because of the constraints of filming, particularly, say, in a multi-cam situation, which is more like a play. In animation, you can get into the characters’ heads and fantasies and flashbacks, and things like that, as a way to express the conflict or emotional issue a character is having.
DS: You mentioned The Simpsons, and of course The Simpsons has been around for what feels like centuries now. Could a show like Duncanville have that kind of longevity?
JS: I think it could. The cast is so strong. And this year really highlights how we can hang a whole episode on whoever we pick out of the group. It's amazing. That doesn't always happen. And, of course, we're building the town and all of that stuff. So, yeah.
MS: It's insane to say, "Oh, 33 years? Sure." But we definitely feel, as we're expanding the show and getting to know characters more, and adding new characters, that it's the same process as in The Simpsons. You're building out a world, finding what's funny, which characters play off each other well. And that leads to new stories. This year, it was a lot of fun for us to explore stories in that fashion, as opposed to limiting them to just the family.
JS: As long as people have dripping hair dye on a hot day, there'll always be stories to tell.
MS: There's one little speech that Annie makes in an episode this season that’s going to be familiar to people, although they might have to look it up to see where it came from. There are a few moments like that. We also deal with a trend that one of our writers brought up. It's called “sharenting,” which is when parents share their kids’ pictures and videos online without their permission. I believe there was a case where a teenager tried to take their parents to court. But it's a real issue that we felt wasn’t just the trend of the week. It will be relevant whenever this episode airs.
DS: With the rise of streaming, the business model for animation series has changed. The streamers tend to burn through series. Does being at FOX, which will stick with a series for years, or decades, affect your approach to making the show?
MS: You always kind of approach it as if you could be canceled the next day. The broadcast networks are rethinking their business models too, based on the streamers and the short order seasons. And how long do you keep a show on the air? The syndication market isn't what it used to be. So we just take it a season at a time, an episode at a time.
I hope the streamers are starting to see that maybe it's not a great idea to just do two or three seasons of something and then get rid of it because they're bored and want to move on to something else. The shows that stand out on the streamers are still repeats of The Office, Friends, series like those, because you have so many episodes to keep going to. You don't have to keep watching the same 30 episodes over and over.
JS: Really, the big difference between broadcast and streaming is that the rules of broadcast are more constricting. I wish there was a little more wiggle room. But there are standards and practices locked into place that you can't cross over. So that makes things more difficult. We're not as free as we would be if we had started on a streamer.
DS: Speaking of those standards, are you good at self-censoring? Or do you tend to push things and hope they get through?
MS: I think we're good at self-censoring because, you know, you don't want to push something just for the sake of pushing it. So we go up to the edge a little bit, but we do a lot of self-censoring. Oddly enough, the broadcast networks seem to have gotten more conservative over the years. There are things that we did on The Simpsons 20 years ago that we would not be able to do now.
JS: Yeah, that's frustrating.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.