If you're reading this on the day of publication, you're reading it after all eight episodes of The Midnight Gospel have premiered on Netflix. This animated series from the minds of comedian Duncan Trussell and animator Pendleton Ward was born of mutual respect and an affinity of conversations, taking shape because of the Adventure Time creator's love of Trussell's interviews and the podcast he created. Many of these episodes take advantage of Trussell's own deep dives into mysticism, meditation, self actualization, self realization, and numerous other profound topics that can all be boiled down to the common thesis of "holy sh-t, that's heavy."
If you're reading this on the day it was published (or perhaps on its annual anniversary), you're reading it on Trussell's birthday. This is a fitting occasion considering the completely personal nature inherent to The Midnight Gospel, which is, at face value, a show about a kid named Clancy using simulations to interview people and creatures from all walks of life in hopes of gaining just a few more subscribers for his podcast. But at its heart, it's a show that is purely Duncan Trussell, establishing a complex lore that is fully realized and immersive, and yet able to expand with a limitless horizon with no shortage of ends to explore.
You might be brought to this show because you're a fan of Trussell's performances, his interviews, or you want to know what Pendleton Ward has next in his pipeline of critically acclaimed animated series, though there's a good chance you'll get a lot more out of it than 30 minutes of humorous antics and mind-expanding anecdotes.
From the opening episode where President Dr. Drew guides Clancy through a zombie apocalypse while discussing the merits of meditating on psychedelics, to the finale where Trussell himself achieves celestial awareness and ponders the true value of love with his mother as she approaches a certain fate after her cancer diagnosis, The Midnight Gospel challenges the viewers to confront questions of and aspects about real life that people might not be comfortable with facing.
On the eve of the show's release, I had the opportunity to speak with Duncan Trussell about the series, his podcast, his life — and in the process, learning about all of the joys and difficulties in bringing The Midnight Gospel together.
Asking Dr. Drew to Join the Zombie Apocalypse
ComicBook.com: So I guess the first thing I wanted to ask you about, because the show is based on the podcast [The Duncan Trussell Family Hour], and I didn't realize this until I talked to my co-worker who's reviewing the show ... and he made it clear that some of these podcasts were prerecorded, and you chopped and mixed them up and then added these insane storylines to them as far as the animation goes. What I wanted to ask you is how did you decide which ones to use and was there anything that you wanted to use that maybe wasn't available for obvious reasons or not obvious reasons?
The last part of that, what do you mean wasn't available?
My brain kind of goes to, "Well, you obviously recorded new stuff with Dr. Drew, because I don't think during the podcast you guys were talking about getting eaten by zombies and stuff like that." So back in the booth in there, maybe, there was one thing that you wanted to use that maybe wasn't available because someone wasn't able to come in and record new dialogue about being turned into meat pastes.
No, you know, this is the cool thing about podcasting is that it's such a long-form interview that, usually by the end of a podcast, you kind of become friends with the person. It feels like you've just been out to dinner or something. All event animation was completely brand-new territory for me, because I'm a comedian and a podcaster. I'm a fan of animation, and I was aware of how long it took takes and just having ... just because I'm a fan, it's always fascinating to hear the story of how any animated series gets made. So I went in as a neophyte.
I remember one of the conversations that I had with our line producer and with Netflix was the question of, "How do we know for sure these people are even going to let you use the podcast as dialogue for this show?" And I remember saying to them, "Oh, they're my friends." You get to know them. And I remember the reaction was like, "Oh, I don't know. You know, something always goes wrong." And sure as sh-t, every single one of them were kind enough to let us use the podcast. I never got them to sign anything and I certainly didn't want to ... if they didn't want the podcast to go onto the animated series, I wasn't going to do it. I wasn't going to try to force it or anything like that. And then every single one of them was really happy to come in and record dialogue that we needed to glue the conversation to the action, so we had no problem at all with anybody. Everybody was pretty excited about coming in and doing it.
I think that's a testament to how intimate podcasting is compared to other interview forms, where they are a little bit more professional and a little bit more ... I don't know what you would call it, just sort of ... I don't want to say sterile because it makes it ... I love watching interview shows, but I don't know how many friendships from those conversations got Inside the Actor's Studio, for example. But with my podcast, I usually become friends with the people who are guests.
The Duncan Trussell Family Hour
So how did you decide which podcasts to choose and use in these first eight episodes?
So Pendleton was a fan of the podcast before he and I became friends. He had some episodes that he was fond of, and then as we're putting our heads together imagining, "Well, what's our intention here with this kind of show? We're going to make a thing that a lot of people are going to see. Which conversations of the podcast feel like, personally, they helped us?" Because with my podcast, sometimes I feel guilty because I feel like I've lured into my studio these spiritual thought leaders and mystical people to give me personal therapy, which I then record and upload. I just get to have these encounters with people like Judy Goodman or Dr. Drew or any of the people on the show that normally I would probably never meet.
So, for me, it's a question like, "Well, what conversations that I've had really transformed me sitting in the podcast studio? What conversations did I have that really left me scratching my chin thinking about them for a long time?" And I think the same was true for Pen. So we both had a few that we liked, that we thought would work well in that regard, and also that were funny or had an aspect to them that would work as a conversation people would be having while the world them was collapsing in some way.
Creating the Chromatic Ribbon
So that brings me to my next question, because in your letter that you wrote with the screeners, you talk about how the concept came about, like Indiana Jones-style adventures going on while basically this interview is taking place. So I was wondering, because working with Mike [Mayfield] and [and Pendleton Ward], and Pen coming from Adventure Time, which has this vast lore attached to it, and then you obviously, for this show, you guys obviously have something planned for what it looks like. But I'm just wondering, how much of it is free form and how much of it is you guys having a roadmap, fleshing out the entire world? Because you get ... I feel like I get the sense that you're balancing both of those aspects. You know where you're going, but also you leave a lot of room to just make sh-t up.
Well, I'll tell you. The world of the Chromatic Ribbon is when ... as we were beginning to figure out how to do the first episode and introduce this world, which is definitely a very, very surreal, psychedelic, crazy world. We started thinking, just to create a binary here, we either have to choose between doing that thing that some things do, like ... did you ever see The Dark Crystal?
Do you remember in the beginning there's a narrator introducing the whole thing?
And Star Wars. Do we do that, which is very useful if you don't have a lot of time, but, if done correctly, it can give it this legendary, mythical feel, but by now it's a trope, and at the very worst it can seem just lazy. Or even worse than that, it can seem almost condescending, like you don't believe that the audience will be able to assemble what's happening in a way that makes sense to them. And also, in that regard, you can just accidentally alienate audiences who maybe want to decide themselves what the world is. So we decided, we've thought about David Lynch a lot and how some of his shows, it's just like suddenly you're just dropped into the deep end of a world that feels completely alien to our world with very little exposition, and you have to make your own decisions about what that world is. It's an empowering feeling, somewhat frustrating sometimes, but that mystery is really powerful.
So now if you decide to go that direction, then what can happen is you can actually become lazy and just imagine your surrealism is some reflective quality, and then you don't have to make up anything, any backstory or plot or anything like that, and I imagine it could be this lazy writing disguised as surrealism which we certainly didn't want to do. So I spent a long time building the world of The Chromatic Ribbon knowing that many aspects of that world, the lore of the world, the certain history of the world, the way the simulators work, the way the economy in that world works, the way it's connected to our world.
I spent day after day after day building out this massive, massive, massive world with biomes that you'll never hear about. Creatures in it that you might only hear in a passing word or two, because I knew that the more time I spent making that world as real as I possibly could, down to, "What is the soil made out of? Are they able to grow food there? How do these simulators work? Who made the first simulator? What technology is it? Is the world connected to planet Earth?" All these questions, I answered all of them, and I think because we did that, it gives the world a simultaneous feeling of being an alien place, but hopefully not an unmoored place that's floating in some surreal soup. So the answer is, I know everything about The Chromatic Ribbon, and, intentionally, we decided not to go through what that world is or its history, but to let that kind of evolve through the series.
Working with Amazing Cartoonists
That's awesome. Now, I mean, as an aside, it's obvious that Pendleton's bringing his wit and charm in his work to it, but I was looking at the credits and I noticed that one of my favorite cartoonists worked as a character designer. Ben Sears?
Yeah. I love his comics. I first met him at SPX three or four years ago and I've been buying his stuff since. It's really awesome to see that he contributed to the show.
This, for me, is one of the many benefits that I think I got by coming into the animation world with a deeply respected creator Pendleton in that particular world, is that suddenly I got to work with some of the most brilliant animators, storyboard artists, compositors out there, because they all wanted to work with Pen. So it was like ... it's like being friends with someone in the animation Illuminati, you know? Suddenly just being like, "You want to come to the Bohemian Grove and see some stuff?" I'm like, "Yeah, I do!"
That was one of the really beautiful parts. I got to meet all these people, and almost instantaneously I realized, my God, I'm getting to work with people who are just not hyperbolic geniuses but genius geniuses, you know? And it was that combination of great talents meeting and Pendleton's ability to allow every single person involved in the show to have a creative voice and to empower them in that way, that I think made the show what it is, which I consider to be just incredible. I don't feel puffed up saying it's incredible, because I know I was one tiny little piece of this throbbing psychedelic brain.
Interviewing Anne LaMott in a Meat Grinder
How did you decide of how to pair the storylines in the simulations with the interviews? Because, I mean, the interview with Anne LaMott and pairing that with what seemed to be this absurdist indictment of the meat industry, it was super interesting, and I was like, well, some of the things pair up a little bit more, but some of them seem less obvious. Like there was a specific reason behind, but it's not apparent at the surface level.
Well, any LaMott conversation was about death and surrender, and sort of ... on one level, you could say, "Oh, it's indicting the meat industry." But then on another level, it's ... we all find ourselves being processed by time in this thing which is default reality. What it was in the old days, we get in our cars, we go commute, we have our day-to-day lives, we go into whatever is entertaining for us, and, to some degree, a lot of the world that we're born into, it wasn't necessarily our choice.
There's a sense of almost being in some kind of ride, which is our human incarnation, and the thing that we're riding around in is whatever particular culture we were born into. That ride is gradually headed towards a complete disillusion of our physical body, and so I think that the assemble of the deer dogs being processed through this meat refinery, which was having all its own sorts of difficulty keeping itself going because of outside forces, was this sort of big, bright, colorful example of how in some way, shape, or form, we're all being turned into sausage by time.
Yeah, that's ... I mean, it's obvious to me, but now I didn't make that connection at first, so I feel dumb because you're like ... it's such an elegant and simple explanation, so thank you very much.
Don't take my word for it. I mean, the reality of it is is that this show ... on one level, it is an indictment, I guess you could say, of consumer culture. It is an indictment of the brutality of meat processing companies. Your instincts are 100% right. And when we were thinking about this show, we were thinking about how it would be nice to make a show where if, on one level, you just want to enjoy bright colors and psychedelic madness and cartoony cute violence, you could. You don't have to listen to the podcast conversation. But then on another level, if you want to tune in to what Anne LaMott was talking about, which is a pretty powerful and for some people a very painful topic, which is just the reality of our mortality, and just coming to terms with that in a way that isn't turning our backs on that truth through booze or drugs or numbing ourselves just with our own ignorance. You could tune into that, too.
As someone who's a cancer survivor and has lost people to cancer, that conversation with Anne LaMott really, in her just general authenticity when it comes to approaching mortality, is quite medicinal for me, you know? But we wanted it to work on a bunch of different levels, so that you could ... many different threads are in that show, and we really wanted people to be able to decide on their own which thread is the one they're connecting to. But I think that is a fair assessment of it. I'm just giving you my interpretation, and I don't mean that in some pretentious way, I mean it like this was a group brain that created this thing. When you see dogs and a deer dog thing being sedated in some kind of carnival carts being moved through a horrific factory of parasitic clown creatures, it's pretty much up to you to decide what that might be.
Interviewing an Acquitted Killer-Turned-Magic Practitioner
Awesome. So I know our time is probably almost up. Do you have time for maybe two more questions?
Yeah man, I got plenty of time. We've all got a lot more time on our hands these days.
That's true. That is true. I'm just used to doing these interviews and someone breathing down my neck being like, "You have time for one more. We have another--"
No. No one's breathing down your neck, man. My jobs today are cleaning up poodle poop in my backyard, and that's pretty much what's on my plate, so please, don't feel rushed.
I can relate to that. I have a poodle too, and he has sh-t everywhere and I have yet to clean up. But one of the things is, you've spoken to a lot of different people and you've asked a lot of tough questions. One of the things that really struck me was in the episode with Damien Echols and just basically asking him about karma and going to prison and what that experience was like. That kind of took me back. Will you explain a little bit about that, in the moment, and how you came to that, and was it difficult for you, were you apprehensive basically interviewing this man who has gone through so much and was sentenced to this pretty heinous crime, and then everything that has happened to his life since then? What was your experience talking to him and asking that specific question?
[Editor's Note: Damien Echols was imprisoned on Death Row after being convicted of murder as part of the West Memphis Three. Since his imprisonment and subsequent release, he has become a focus when it comes to debates over false imprisonment and uninhabitable incarceration conditions, while Echols himself has become a prominent figure in the field of ceremonial magic and mysticism. Echols' interview is used in an episode of The Midnight Gospel.]
Well, yeah. So yeah, that question ... when the interview happened with Echols, I didn't know. A lot of times the people I interviewed, I've met in some way, or they're friends of friends. I just knew him from the way everybody, most people know him, which is just being falsely imprisoned because he was one of the weirdos in a small town. They thought he was a witch, it was a witch trial basically. He had this book that was coming out on magic, because he's a practitioner of ceremonial magic. So whenever you're about to meet somebody to do a podcast, your hope is that this person is going to be kind, because if you find yourself in ... and I'm sure you have this experience as someone who interviews people. Suddenly you find you're signal-boosting a person who is, you know, maybe that doesn't have great intentions or just however you want to put it.
Then there's this little bit of guilt attached to it. It's not going to be a fun time. And why do I do my podcast at my house, you know? If someone comes into my house and he's got a weird vibe, that's also not the greatest experience. So having never met him, there was a little bit of apprehension that immediately was obliterated when I met him, because he's the sweetest guy ever, and he's got a real powerful vibe that people who have a spiritual practice sometimes have this quality, that the room just sort of lights up around them. There was a sweetness to him, and that immediately put me at ease and helped me feel unafraid to ask a difficult question like that. Which, if someone were uptight or if somebody, you know ... that could come across as seeming like a really weird thing to ask a person, which is, do you think good karma landed you in solitary confinement on death row and that could be met with are justified? Like, what the f-ck are you talking about?
But I could tell that the transformation that happened to him during that time that he spent incarcerated, with having every day to face his own mortality in the most intense way, that acted as a kind of spiritual, I guess you could say "rock polisher," that had, instead of turning him into something bitter, angry, jagged, or at odds with the way the world works, it created this beautiful person. Which is kind of why I ... one of the reasons we named the show "Midnight Gospel." I think Pendleton has his own interpretation of it, but for me, the show itself, that title "Gospel" means good news, and "Midnight," it's like, "It's scary time."
But I found it in these conversations I've had with so many people, it seems that the times in their lives when they were faced with, what, on paper, would seem like the most dire, horrific, and completely undesirable circumstances, a kind of transcendent light or epiphany or moment of wisdom appeared inside of them. A thing where they realized that their happiness or joy was not so much dependent on the phenomena of the external world, and that's a very empowering realization for a person to have. That's why I asked him that question, and that's why I was ... his response was so wild, which is that he would have rather been in death row than be a millennial. Like, holy sh-t.
It's one of the funniest things you could say, but also it points to the suffering that so many people are feeling in the modern world, where all these distractions and all these invitations to dive in to the consumerist lifestyle and get lost in these goals that maybe aren't so fruitful, or making people feel like they're drifting in the wind, you know? And that something about that situation of being in prison gave him the cave in the mountains that you see in movies, the Shaolin temple, the place where, if you're lucky, you get accepted into some mystery school or for some amount of time you get trained and become a better person. I think we're all kind of getting a taste of that right now with this pandemic.
Yeah. It's funny, because one thing that I go back to, which stuck with me when I got hit, is when ... I misplaced the name, but when in the prison episode where he says, "You're grinding--"
Yeah, yeah. When he says you're grinding in World of Warcraft, I was like, "Yes, that is modern life right now."
Yeah. I love that moment when you said that. And having been addicted to World of Warcraft and having gotten to that point in World of Warcraft ... do you play?
I do play. Yeah, yeah.
But you know, at some point, in between addiction cycles with that game, or with any video game, you do realize that all that's happening is you're just going through the exact same cycle but with bigger creatures and prettier gear. But the loop itself is essentially the same thing. This is the myth of Sisyphus, this is [Albert] Camus' essay on the modern world. All of us, at some point, need to come to terms with this strange sense that we're just pushing a boulder up the hill and watching it roll back down and then doing it again. That repetitive activity might be unavoidable, it certainly is being cursed by the gods, but yet, somehow within that situation, there's the opportunity to still discover a happiness within our particular karmic conditions and tracks.
Yeah. So, last thing, and this is my hard question, just because watching the last episode in those final ... not the final moments of the episode, but the final moments of the interview, I started crying. I'm not lying, I'm not trying to play up the effect, that conversation just really hit me. I know since you already did the interview and then everything that you went through afterwards and then doing the show, was it difficult to prepare this episode, to make this particular episode?
[SPOILER ALERT: The final episode of The Midnight Gospel features Trussell's interview with his mother Deneen Fendig, which was conducted shortly before she passed away in 2013]
Well, yes, it was. Okay. So that interview with my mom, that happened weeks before she passed, and she ... I don't know if you've experienced the loss of someone very close to you, but if you have, then you know, I think it's probably ... it depends on the person and the training that you have, and how open you are. Some people, their response to losing someone they love very dearly is doing as much as possible to pretend it's not happening. And this is a common thing. People go to someone who's dying and they say, "You look great today." Like when my dad was passing. The last thing I remember, he called me like, "People are coming over telling me I look good." He's like, "I know they are lying. I look like old paint." And you're like, "That was a beautiful thing to say!" But because we are so overwhelmed with grief when someone's passing, you want to pretend it isn't happening.
So anyway, my mom ... I was downstairs, I think I was reading The Hunger Games on my Kindle, just brokenhearted because I knew she was passing, and she said, "Duncan, come up. It's time for us to do this podcast." And I went and we recorded that interview that turned into an episode of the show, and then I put it out to the world and the response was great. So many people who've lost their parents or lost loved ones or are losing loved ones or dying themselves wrote back saying how much it meant to them, and so I couldn't listen to it.
And the only time I listened to it before the show was I played it for my wife so that she could meet my mom, because it's all I've got left of my mom. We both lay in bed in southern Georgia, in coastal Georgia where I grew up, where my mom grew up, because we were going out there to just take a trip because we both come from that area, and we cried. I felt like my mom was there. So when Pendleton came to me and said, "You know, I really think we should use that interview." And I told him, "Look man, we can use it, but I can't be as involved. I'm not going to put upon all these animators the feeling of watching me cry every day as we work on this." And he totally understood that.
So I distanced myself from that episode in a sense that I wasn't doing dailies. I just didn't want to put people in a weird position. I didn't want people to be afraid to talk about something that they might think would offend me, because it's a conversation with my dying mom. So when I finally did see it, it was one of the most beautiful moments from my life, really, because all of a sudden it was like somehow they captured my mom. Through that conversation, they animated my mom back to life forever. Having a child that's never going to meet his grandmother in the flesh on my side of the family, this is what, to me ... outside of just the fact that he took me under his wing and let me learn the animation business, Pendleton has given me an un-repayable gift in transforming that conversation into the episode you're talking about. Even now, I can't watch it without crying. Or even now I feel like crying just thinking about it.
I understand, man. And yeah, it just seems like it would be super difficult just because of the ... I mean, obviously this is art and everyone's an artist working on that, but you know, in television production, there is a mechanical aspect of it where you have to break down everything, and just ... who could possibly approach it like that, a conversation like this?
Yes. How do you do that? How do you maintain ... but to me, this is one of the great things I learned from this collaboration, is trust. Whoever you're collaborating with, trust them, and trust that when people gather together with a shared intent that has within it benevolence or making something beautiful to bring into the world, trust that and know where you have a place that you can truly offer something and where you can step out of the way and let the circuitry of the creative process do its thing. That's something that Pendleton is so really good at, and that he must have learned from all those years on Adventure Time and all those other incredible animated shows and software and art that he's put out there, is that he is so good at empowering everyone around him and in a way that really allows the trust I'm talking about to flourish.
I'm so glad that I did trust enough to let him do something with that conversation, because, had it not come out the way it did, that it somehow reduced my mom or had it just been out of tune even just a little bit, that's forever, too. I feel like, for my mom to suddenly have the experiences, past experience ... I do believe she's still around. I don't think anybody really goes anywhere. But to me, she's one of the most amazing things, that her foresight on her deathbed to get my grieving ass upstairs to record that conversation is now set [to spread] like a dandelion out into the entire planet. To me, that's one of the biggest miracles in my life outside of meeting my wife and having a son.0comments
The Midnight Gospel is now streaming on Netflix.