The Midnight Gospel is not your average show. It is certainly not your average animated show. There is nothing about the series that could even be categorized in the same realm as being average. It is fascinatingly unique, inventive, fresh, psychedelic, thought-provoking, intense, deep, touching, insanely f*cked up,and definitely something that you haven’t seen before. And this all should come as no surprise for anyone who knows that the creator is Duncan Trussell.
Duncan Trussell is best known for his podcast, Duncan Trussell Family Hour, which has had nearly 400 episodes to date, as well as his frequent appearances on The Joe Rogan Experience. When Duncan started his own podcast, in 2012, it was just as podcasting was beginning to become what it has become today. It was still in the early stages of the DIY creative movement, something that many creative types have now become increasingly reliant on at this very moment, when we’re all in isolation in our homes.
There have been many cases of podcasts being animated. Kevin Smith experimented in this format early on with his Smodimations, where he would animate conversations he had on his podcast, Smodcast. Many others followed after him. But what Duncan has done with The Midnight Gospel has taken the idea a few steps further. He has taken these deep thinking, riveting conversations, taken them out of context, and placed them into another dimension entirely. For example, Duncan’s character, Clancy, might be talking to the President (played by Dr. Drew) about drugs he’s tried while the President stands on top of the White House roof and shoots off zombies in the middle of an apocalypse. It is no longer what it was intended as, but is now something completely different and new. It’s this collision of two worlds that have seemingly little to do with one another, but the closer you pay attention, the more you see just how much they go hand in hand.
The Midnight Gospel, which is streaming now on Netflix, is the kind of show that, we predict, will help inspire others to re-conceptualize their own hours of podcast content and just what you can do with the medium. There’s millions of hours of original content out there by some of your favorite comedians, artists, and all else in between. It is the sort of new show that could definitely be classified as being a game changer. It’s in a class entirely its own, and it’ll be interesting to see what comes of it.
We recently spoke to Duncan about how the series came to be, how he went about choosing just the right conversations to animate, how Clancy is a part of him, the moving final episode, and how lo-fi music helped inspire the series.
Can you run me through how the series came together?
Yeah, it’s crazy, man. I started doing podcasts before people really knew what podcasting was. That was when you would ask someone to be on your podcast and they would say “What’s a podcast?” And now if you ask someone to be on your podcast, they’re like “I’m already lined up for other podcasts.” But in those days, it was still kind of punk rock. You didn’t know what it was. You were just messing around with computers. And then it was a fascinating, weird thing when I started doing a podcast with Natasha Leggero and then people were listening to it. That was weird. And then after we split up, I started my own, Duncan Trussell Family Hour. And Pendleton Ward, just out of the blue, sent me an email saying he liked the podcast. And that was like “Woah. Holy sh*t. The guy who made Adventure Time is listening to my podcast? That is crazy.” I mean, just that alone was so exhillerating.
And then we got to be friends and he eventually sort of came up with an idea of how to animate a podcast in a way that had never been done. Plenty of people are animating podcasts, and I think that’s great. I love the different ways that people are trying to sort of take the medium of podcasting and bring it to television. Because I think once we all figure out how to do that, it’s going to benefit everybody. Because podcasting is such an intimate, long-form kind of entertainment that it presents real challenges in bringing that to any kind of time frame, be it The Midnight Gospel with 20 minute episodes of even a T.V. show where you’re trying to create some sort of narrative with it, it’s just challenging to pull that kind of vulnerability and that sense that you’re sitting with your friends and listening to them talk and bring that to the screen.
And his idea was “What would happen if we replaced the dialogue from Indiana Jones with podcast conversations?” What would happen if during some intense action movie that people were having the kind of conversations that you’d hear on a podcast? That produces a kind of comedic effect. We knew it would be that but I don’t think we realized how poignant that could be, too. We’re all experiencing this bizarre moment in history, which I don’t think is an apocalypse necessarily, but is certainly apocalyptic. And it’s not like we’re just sitting around our homes just talking about covid-19. We’re having intense conversations with people we love right now while all of this madness is happening. So something about weaving podcast conversations into the crazy, apocalyptic, cartoony, violence of Midnight Gospel produced a lot of funny moments, and a lot of really poignant and really sweet and powerful moments, too.
I really loved just how little the conversations seemed to have to do what’s going around them, even though there certainly is some subtext there. It allows you to see a moment of realism in these pretty drastic situations.
That was the big challenge of the show, man. Because when we came to Netflix, we had a three minute anamatic which was something we did with President Dr. Drew on the roof of the white house shooting zombies. And it was funny, but it was three minutes. And the era that we live in is so cool in the sense that you don’t have to do pilots anymore. That’s how it used to be. A network would pay for a pilot, and then if they liked the pilot, you’d get a series. But Netflix saw the three minutes and were like “Okay, let’s do 8 episodes of it.” And then, suddenly, we had to figure out a way to make twenty minutes of podcast conversations seamlessly weave into psychedelic, crazy alien landscapes and these crazy moments that are happening inside of Clancy’s multiverse simulator in a way that didn’t distract from the conversation but also didn’t make the conversation seem like background music for some kind of psychedelic music video. So learning how to do that, we couldn’t find it. There was no precedence for it. We didn’t have anywhere to look, because it hadn’t really been done in this way before. And that’s awesome, but also a little terrifying in the beginning.
It was a little scary because there were times where we were scratching our chins like “Can this even work? How can you do it? If there’s too much plot, people are thinking about the plot and not the conversation.” But if the conversation doesn’t react to the environment, then suddenly the conversation becomes the background. So that was the sort of delicate balance we tried to maintain throughout every single episode.
One of the coolest moments for me, as an audience member, is the 6th episode where you sort of break away from the format a bit. Because just when you start to think to know where it’s going, you remain one step ahead and deviate quite a bit from the ground map that was laid out.
Yes! That was an exciting moment that you’re talking about. When we really started playing around with dialogue and plot and scripts and stuff. That was like a really cool moment when we realized “Okay, here’s another way we can do this.” That to me was an epiphany moment for everybody in the evolution of the series.
And with well over 300 podcast episodes, how do you go about deciding which ones you want to be apart of the series? What’s that process like?
It was impossible. When we were in the early stages of it, we were talking about trying to come up with “How do we do this? Do we make each episode a mishmash of different podcast episodes? Take dialogue from one episode with one guest and another and have Clancy encounter them along the way? And if we do wanna do that, how do we even know what we were talking about?” There’s too many hours of content to filter through. We were thinking about using an AI to transcribe the entire podcast and then use keyword searches. Insane ideas like that.
And then finally we simplified it down to the episodes that Pendleton liked and the episodes that I liked that we could recall. So for me, the process of choosing episodes were the episodes where there was moments of someone telling me something that not only I had never heard before but I would be thinking about for the next many years. What happens in podcasts is you meet people who have either studied something for their entire life that you know nothing about or have gone through something that is so crazy that they have acquired some kind of wisdom that they give to you. And then, in that moment of them transmitting that wisdom to you, your whole life changes. And, for me, that’s happened many times over the course of DTFH. Where I just gasp because someone told me an answer to something I’ve been wondering about for years. Or has illuminated something that I thought was real that was completely false.
And so, for me, those were the episodes I wanted to put into Midnight Gospel. And then Pendleton had his own reasons for picking episodes. And they revolved around some pretty big ideas that aren’t necessarily comedic like compassion and love and death and forgiving yourself. Ideas that aren’t necessarily going to work if you’re trying to make something funny or even mildly funny. But that’s what I love about podcasting. It doesn’t have to necessarily squeeze into any given category. It can be funny sometimes, it can be sad sometimes, it can be didactic sometimes, it can be boring sometimes. And that’s okay. That’s what existence itself is like. So we just decided which episodes we felt were the most transformative personally, and then we took 20 minutes out of each of those episodes and animated it.
And did you always know what you wanted the last episode to be?
Man, you know, I think there was an unspoken thing between us where, without even saying it to each other, we knew that was going to happen. And Pen is such a sweet person. I can remember when he kind of brought it up. “You know we’re going to have to do that episode. The conversation you have with your mom.” The way he said it was so wonderful, because that conversation meant a lot to him, as it did to me. We knew that was going to make its way in there. And I never could’ve predicted that it would come out the way that it did. To me, it’s like a person. It’s a miracle in my life that the 8th episode of Midnight Gospel exists. Because it’s true magic. Over a hundred of people poured their souls into that episode, and it created the right direction, for lack of a better word. And to me, that’s pretty mind blowing.
I can imagine it must be surreal for you, certainly. And it’s interesting how you dealt with your character being named Clancy, but having people call you Duncan. By the time you get to the conversation with your mom, it sort of seems to settle all of it.
That was a decision we made. Over the course of the series, people are going to obviously call me by the name that I am called by in this dimension during the podcasts. It’s like “What, do we edit that out?” But for me, one of the beautiful qualities of the idea that we are in a multiverse where there are infinite alternate realities happening simultaneously to this one is that there are so many versions of ourselves that exist. And for me, one of them is a version that is Clancy. And I think that’s kind of what all art and comedy, and comedy is art, and great ideas or not so great ideas… Anything that, you know, we think, where does it come from? It’s like condensation that is sort of drifting in from these parallel timelines, you know?
A big example of this would be when Tesla came up with the idea for alternating current. It transformed the entire world. But where did he get that idea from? What was the origination of that idea? Was it just his brain, like, spewing out some kind of genius juice that made him come up with that diagram that would forever transform society? Or was it that he tuned into some kind of parallel timeline very close to ours where that already existed, and then boom. It came from him into our world and everything lit up, literally, because of it.
So for me, the decision that simultaneously allowed me to be Clancy and me was sort of acknowledging the conceptualization of living in a multiverse.
As you’re going through all these challenges and decisions to make all of this work, transforming your podcast into this entirely different thing, are you thinking “Wow, we are really onto something new and original with this?” Are you very aware of how you’re sort of onto something here?
Yeah, man. It’s exciting. To me, it’s exciting because I love podcasting. I love chatting with people. I just love the medium of podcasting with all my heart. There was a time when cynical people would be like “Everybody’s got a podcast.” I hated that attitude because it’s like just start a podcast. Just don’t use downloads as metrics for the podcast’s success. In an interview I did with Sharon Salzberg, she told me that the Dalai Lama said “Don’t measure how great your work of art is by how much money it makes you or how many people listen to it, but how it transforms you as an artist.” And I think that podcasting is a transformative medium. It’s transformative for the podcaster, it’s transformative for the people who are being listened to. We don’t know how to listen to each other these days. We’re all distracted. I’m distracted. Everybody’s distracted, and there’s a lot to be distracted by. But in the sanctuary of a formal conversation that is created by two microphones and the idea of “Okay, now we’re really going to talk,” something really magical happens. So, for me, anything that helps that form evolve and helps that form jump beyond its limitations is wonderful in the sense that it continues to expand the form. And if I get to be a little part of that expansion, I can die happy.
Of course. And I wonder if the series will also help more people discover the podcast.
Yes. That too. I’m excited about that, obviously. I love more people to listen to DTFH. And really more important than that, to me, it’s exciting to imagine that some of these conversations that I’ve had that have changed my life that people could hear some of these conversations and have those insane moments that I have. What’s really crazy about it, having now watched each episode of the show so many times because you have to when you’re making a show, I’ve realized how much I’ve missed in the initial conversations. I still learn things from listening to Trudy Goodman talk about compassion or Annie Lamont talk about sort of surrendering to our mortality or David Nichtern talk about mindfulness. Every single time I watch it, I still learn from it. And I’m the one who was having the conversation with these people. So, to me, that’s really thrilling that some of the data on the show is actually going to get broadcast to the whole planet. And the way it’s being broadcast is in this cartoony, psychedelic way. It really is a joy.
It is. And in addition to the conversations, you’ve got some really cool original music and songs present. What can you tell me about the process of those songs coming together and finding the right tone, musically, for the show?
Yeah. Well, Pendleton was friends with this brilliant, brilliant composer/musician Joe Wong, who did the music for Russian Doll and he’s just amazing. And I remember feeling very strongly that I wanted there to be a specific type of music in the show. Because for me, growing up… or when I went to college, I was introduced to a style of music that is often called lo-fi. And that’s like Daniel Johnson, Stefano. It’s all sort of based around the idea of you don’t need to have amazing gear or an incredible guitar or a recording studio. You just need to be you and be authentically you and that’s all you’ve got to do to make something beautiful. Because you are wonderful and beautiful and unique, even in your sadness or whatever. That, to me, is how I understand lo-fi music. And when you listen to Daniel Johnson, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The first time you hear it, you might think “My God, this sounds blown out or the guy sounds crazy or whatever.” But the more you listen, you realize you’re hearing someone’s soul. You’re hearing someone bare their soul, and all they’ve got is like a sh*tty guitar or a piano at their house. And it’s shaking you to the core.
So that aesthetic in music is very important to me and Joe Wong completely understands that. He understood that style of music, that genre of music. And also was completely open to collaborating with me, someone who just loved to sing and make music for fun, not a professional musician. So it was just amazing to get to collaborate with someone like Joe Wong. It was just like “Oh my god.” Being around that level of musician who can just dial in what you’re looking for in this precise way but then add his own genius to it, it’s like “Wow!” It was incredible. It’s like getting to work with Gandalf or something. It’s like some form of minds merging or telepathy. It was a beautiful experience.
So yeah. Pendleton let me put my own music in the show because I put my own music in the podcast and it just make sense that way.
Your passion for the music definitely shows. And the final thing I want to ask, that I always like to ask everybody, is what do you want your legacy to be?
Wow. (Long pause). Hm. You know, I think there is a really important question that every single person should ask themselves, which is “Is world peace possible?” Is there some possibility that there can be global harmony? The end of all wars and the unification of all humanity into a kind of infinite family that expands out into space forever. Everyone should ask themselves “Do I think that’s possible?” If you don’t think that’s possible, you’re off the hook. Congratulations. If you think “No, we’re just these monkey-like things that are going to be fighting each other forever,” it’s a cynical outlook, but if you truly believe it, you don’t have to worry anymore about how you can contribute to global harmony. But if you have the inkling that yes, indeed, we all share the same desire to be happy and to have food in our stomachs and to enjoy each day and that that is what connects all of us and that also we all share the reality that we are all here for only a little bit of time and that we’re all going to die… And therefore because of these shared mutual goals and mutual realities we are all deeply connected. If you imagine because of that there is this possibility that we can work out all of our stuff, not just vocally but inter-personally, then to me I think the legacy I would want to leave is to be apart of whatever the ripple was that moves our planet into a global consciousness that wasn’t so focused on violence and war and materialism and was more focused on love and compassion.
The Midnight Gospel is streaming on Netflix now.