With “The Midnight Gospel,” Pendleton Ward left “Adventure Time” far behind, while Duncan Trussell found new meaning in repurposing his funny, philosophical podcast interviews. Together, they pushed the boundaries of animation at Netflix with their trippy and darkly comic journey through a simulated multiverse undergoing apocalyptic meltdowns. And the fact that the series dropped during the pandemic lockdown makes it seem all the more relevant and therapeutic.
“The pandemic is surreal on its own. I hope the show is enjoyable as a distraction right now,” said Ward, who enjoyed the freeform structure. “That’s my favorite way to work now…to provide a comedy/visual aesthetic direction to work under but to break the rules if someone has a cool idea. Making art exciting and not just a grind!”
Ward’s concept for “The Midnight Gospel” (an official selection of the Annecy 2020 Online festival) was to create a crazy quilt that keeps moving in different directions about spacecaster Clancy Gilroy (Trussell) and his podcasts throughout the dying simulated worlds of his universe. But instead of starting from scratch, the narrative revolves around the “Duncan Trussell Family Hour” podcasts with philosophers and meditation gurus. Ward worked with 2D animation house Titmouse, taking inspiration from Adult Swim’s talk show, “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” “Watership Down,” and “Twin Peaks,” among others. The surreal design, though, was more like “Yellow Submarine” meets “Fantastic Planet.”
But there was a method to the seeming madness of the show. “Pendleton and I both love simulation theory and VR,” Trussell said. “We called our universe The Chromatic Ribbon and somewhere in there Clancy was born, doing nothing to understand the basics of what he’s doing or the culture of the place. He is an outsider, truly, and there’s a sense that he’s running away from something. And we knew that he’s not going to have a universe simulator that works since he bought a used one.”
This led to the idea of these simulated worlds breaking down all at once, with wonderfully imaginative, animated possibilities. Ward and Trussell began with a two-week writing summit with an assortment of gurus and scholars and comedians such as Weird Al Yankovic and Elmo Philips. “It was a dreamy vertigo coming up with the end of the world,” added Trussell. “Writers would come up with a series of beats for the ideas that clicked. And those beats became the plots. And the challenge for every episode was to create a balance somehow between the insanity of what was happening and a conversation that didn’t feel like background noise. And we had to bring everybody back from the podcasts —which was distilled down to 20 minutes — and have them read lines.”
In the opener, “Taste of the King,” Clancy drops into a violent zombie apocalypse on Earth 4-169, interviewing the Little President (Dr. Drew Pinsky). They discuss the pros and cons of psychedelics, among other related topics, while the leader picks off every approaching zombie with his gun. “Given what’s happened in the world, a part of me thinks we should’ve written a show about world peace,” said Trussell. “Has this been a dream? But to me it has something to do with grief and how we initially try not to look at that loss straight in the eye. And we use the [brutality] to heighten the chaos of when things stop working the way they’re supposed to. “
For Ward, there was a lot of trial and error in balancing the story with long-form conversation. “We found a good ratio and ran with it,” added Ward. “With TV schedules, you gotta run with things a lot! Clancy’s arc came about organically. I don’t think we knew where the show would end up. For me, writing feels like playing ‘Dungeons & Dragons’… a lot of improvising in the moment and rarely planning too far ahead. Maybe Duncan knew where it’d end up. Honestly, I can’t remember. After I’m done workin’ on something it’s all mud in my mind.”
One of the most difficult episodes, though, was the prison escape time loop antics of “Annihilation of Joy,” which housed lost souls from previous episodes. “We couldn’t easily nudge the loops shorter or longer because they were locked in visual time, Also, we were tracking a lot of time-loop details and the episode became busier to watch than others.” For Trussell, “My brain was broken trying to work out all the threads.”
But it all came together in the final episode, “Mouse of Silver,” about death and spiritual transcendence, in which Clancy encounters his mother (Trussell’s late mom, Deneen Fendig, from their podcast) and he reverts to a child as they begin to age. “As long as I could remember, we’d have these deep philosophical conversations,” he said. “They were like dinner table podcasts. She was authentically spiritual. Sadly, everyone loses their mother. I was crying and wasn’t sure I could handle being in the edits for this one, so that was a lot of phone conversations. When I finally saw it, it was one of the highlights of my life because I didn’t think I’d see my mom again. Suddenly, there she was in a psychedelic animated show.”
And, for Ward, the experience was therapeutic as well. “And the messages in it have helped me get a grip on how to approach life and death with some calmness,” he said.