A few years after Pendleton Ward stepped away from Adventure Time, he met his friend, comedian and podcaster Duncan Trussell, in a cafe in Eagle Rock, California. It was over coffee that Ward first brought up what would become The Midnight Gospel.
The series, with animation by Titmouse, premiered on April 20th (which happens to be Trussell’s birthday) and is by far the trippiest, weirdest, and perhaps most emotionally resonant series you will see all year. It mixes together intense, zany, and psychedelic animation, with dialogue taken directly from Trussel’s long-running podcast, The Duncan Trussell Family Hour.
It was the podcast — which features Trussell having conversations with a variety of experts in various fields — that brought Trussell and Ward together in the first place. Their friendship started when Ward sent the comedian an email, letting him know he was an admirer of his program. “I was kind of blown away that I got an email from him,” Trussell admits, speaking to IGN over the phone at his home in California. “I was like, ‘the guy who made Adventure Time listens to my podcast, that’s crazy.”
Ward, via email, said that it was Trussell’s ability to “make learning about meditation funny,” and his pure enjoyment in talking to “really sweet people that study serenity,” that appealed to him.
When Ward first came to Trussell with the idea of animating his podcast, “I was trying to pretend not to be excited and play it cool,” Trussell said, “but inside I was like ‘this is incredible!’” By the end of their talk however, Trussell’s inner enthusiasm was subdued when Ward informed him that he was probably too busy working on other things to truly devote himself to the project. That was, until a year later, when Ward called Trussell and according to the comedian said, “‘let’s do that idea,’ and that was the beginning of it.”
The Midnight Gospel follows Clancy (voiced by Trussell), a pink-skinned, purple-haired slacker who lives in an RV in an alternate dimension called The Chromatic Ribbon. “I sketched maybe 30 different ideas out,” Ward said, describing what went into Clancy’s design, “I made Clancy’s colors pink and purple because of Duncan’s podcast theme colors.” Trussell describes Clancy as being, “a version of me many years ago, when I was mistaking my laziness for a revolutionary attitude.”
Clancy spends his time traveling to different planets, each one going through their own unique versions of the apocalypse. He’s able to do so using a very provocative looking multiverse simulator he bought thanks to money loaned to him by his sister. When asked about the suggestive design of the device, Ward said, “Duncan wanted the main character to have an organic computer that he puts his head into, and that’s the first thing that came to my mind… my mom thinks it’s funny.”
Before each planet meets its ultimate fate, Clancy finds an interesting character to interview for his “Space-Cast,” the name of which gives the series its title. In the span of eight episodes, Clancy speaks to a sitting President of the United States who is dealing with a zombie infestation; a fish in control of a humanoid robot who captains a crew of adorable cats in sailor outfits; a warrior woman out to avenge the death of her boyfriend, Death herself, and more. The conversations touch on existence, reality, magic, death, and other topics you don’t get into at your average dinner party. Over the course of the series, Clancy begins to understand the impact he is having on the world, both the simulated ones he visits, and the one that he is still a part of.
One of the first challenges in making the series was trying to merge the dialogue with the animation. “We wanted this show to be a thing where, if you want to listen to some really brilliant people give some amazing downloads on a lot of pretty esoteric topics, you could,” Trussell said, “but if you just wanted to sit back and enjoy crazy, psychedelic animation, you could do that too, and one wouldn’t distract from the other.”
To ensure that there wouldn’t be a disconnect, guests featured in the series — such as Trussell’s meditation teacher David Nichtern, novelist and political activist Anne Lamott, and mortician Caitlin Doughty — were brought in to record new vocals so that the conversations could fit more closely with the story of their respective episodes.
Netflix always wanted eight episodes, but the decision of which eight, out of the over 300 podcasts Trussell has recorded since 2013, was up to the two co-creators. Trussell said that he and Ward chose conversations that, “made us feel better about living in the world.” Ward elaborated, saying that, “I gravitated towards interviews about compassion and meditation, listening, kindness and acceptance.” Once the eight were chosen, the pair decided together the most interesting and compelling sections of each conversation.
To come up with the scripts and the worlds Clancy would visit throughout the series, a two-week writer’s summit was held where Trussell could use what he calls “his comedy brain” a lot. Trussell describes those two weeks as “a wonderful mix of people,” coming together and, “basically coming up with ways the world would end.” Comedian Emo Philips, occult scholar Maja D’Aoust (known as “the Witch of the Dawn”), cult scholar Jason Liu, and even legendary recording artist “Weird Al” Yankovic came in to assist in the writing process. “Let me tell you, that was where I really started thinking ‘this is definitely a simulation,’” Trussell said, when talking about getting to work with Yankovic, “but it did happen!”
For another surreal animated comedy coming soon, check out the trailer for Justin Roiland’s Solar Opposites:
Once the worlds and the beats of each apocalypse were completed, Trussell would present them to the storyboard artists, who would take the descriptions and then add their own ideas. The artists would then hand it to the animators at Titmouse, who would add ideas of their own. “The worlds slowly mutate into existence as everyone on the production line adds in their own creative choices,” Ward said. Trussell compared the process to “being part of one mind.”
Even though he has no experience working on animation, Trussell praised Ward for including him in the creative process, something Trussell said he did for everyone who worked on the show. Trussell said Ward gave everyone, “the sense that their ideas and art was valued, that they weren’t just some cog in a machine spitting stuff out.” That appreciation for the people who work on the show, whose names will not get as much attention as his or Trussell’s, was on display in his email responses. Ward name-dropped art director Jesse Moynihan (who introduced him to the podcast) and Elle Michalka (who designed the environments and colors); production manager Jake Humphrey — who Ward said, “steered the ship through the storm” — supervising director Mike Mayfield, and the animators at Titmouse, saying that they “annihilated this show; it looks so damn good.”
The Midnight Gospel is the first series Ward has directed since leaving Adventure Time, one of the most iconic animated series of the 2010’s — one that made a number of best of the decade lists when it ended last year. When asked if he felt any pressure working on a more adult follow-up to his much-beloved, kid-friendly series, Ward said, “I guess the pressure doesn’t come from past work, but from the pile of work in front of you. I definitely didn’t see myself making a trippy adult cartoon; I just really enjoyed Duncan’s podcast conversations, they made me feel really happy, and dealt with themes that I wanted to make art around.”
Even though, in terms of tone and language, the two series couldn’t be any more different, there are some elements of The Midnight Gospel that will remind viewers of Ward’s previous series. The expressive use of color, a likeable protagonist you want to follow, and the use of music.
There are a number of wonderful musical moments in the series, a highlight being a particularly grim song performed by Johanna Warren. Many will attribute the inclusion of music to Ward, but he informed us that wasn’t the case. “Duncan was the motivator behind the musical moments in the show,” Ward said. “He wrote most of the song lyrics. I didn’t expect there to be a lot of songs in the show, but was really happy when Duncan began adding them in.”
When the series wrapped up, Trussell showed his wife the finished product. “We both teared up and hugged each other,” he said. Throughout the production, Trussell showed her rough drafts of the animation, “versions of the show that had not gotten to the point where it was funny or really working… those were some really anxiety-inducing moments.” That anxiety melted once they viewed the series in all of its colorful, insane glory. “We were so happy that it worked, because if it hadn’t, it would’ve been a dark moment.”
Ward didn’t say if he would be interested in a second season; as for Trussell, he is definitely interested in once again becoming Clancy, even having ideas of who would be in a Midnight Gospel season 2. “I just interviewed Mehcad Brooks, who’s going to play Jax in the new Mortal Kombat movie,” he said. “He had a near-death experience and this conversation I had with him was just so trippy, I keep thinking, ‘man, I hope they let us do another season because this will be a perfect episode.’”
Read IGN’s review of The Midnight Gospel Season 1.