How Duncan Trussell Turned His Podcast Into a Psychedelic Netflix Cartoon

The comedian talks about the challenges of animating his sprawling conversations for The Midnight Gospel.

In April 2020, the animated series The Midnight Gospel made its debut on Netflix. The show’s bizarre conceit is that it takes conversations from comedian Duncan Trussell’s podcast, The Duncan Trussell Family Hour—which covers an array of spiritual, metaphysical, philosophical, and practical topics—and sets them in a trippy, fictionalized universe animated by Pendleton Ward of Adventure Time fame. Trussell voices the show’s protagonist, Clancy, a “spacecaster” who travels to new worlds to interview their residents, including comedian Maria Bamford, mortician Caitlin Doughty, vipassana meditation teacher Trudy Goodman, and even Trussell’s late mother, psychologist Deneen Fendig.

With The Midnight Gospel, Ward and his team at animation studio Titmouse Inc. have created an ideal environment for both the topics Trussell likes to tackle on the DTFH—magic, death, the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics—and his good-natured, deeply curious, sometimes erratic conversation style. But as Trussell explains, it takes a lot of work to turn 90 minutes of audio into a 20-minute cartoon. Here’s what he had to say about his approach to podcasting and the challenges of adapting it for the small screen.

Spotify for Podcasters: Pendleton Ward got you on board with the idea for The Midnight Gospel. What were the big questions you had while getting started on the show?

Duncan Trussell: We had to figure out a way to make it so that the podcast didn't become the background soundtrack for a psychedelic, animated show. Meaning, if you're having a conversation about whether or not psychedelics are useful in psychotherapy with Dr. Drew, but also you're fighting zombies [onscreen] and you don't mention the zombies, essentially you might as well display anything in the background. So, that was really challenging, figuring out how to not disrupt the flow of the conversation but also figuring out a balance between connecting the characters to the world and keeping the viewers connected to what the characters were talking about.

What were some of the methods that helped you overcome that?

We realized, “The more simple, the better.” In the Dr. Drew episode, when he's cursing, shooting zombies, at one point that was going to be a more complex moment. Then we just realized, "No, it can be so simple." That became the North Star of the entire production: simplicity. That was sort of the general trick we used any time our minds were telling us to complexify the thing, because it's already so complex. So that's one example. And simple noises like, "Ooh! Ahh!"—little sounds to go along with the action tended to work better than using a lot of lines to describe what was happening.

How did you choose which interviews to use for the episodes?

There were a few Pendleton really loved and a few I love. That's how we picked. There are so many other episodes we could have used, but in the beginning—to go back to this “simplifying complexity” idea—we were contemplating using some kind of AI to transcribe all the episodes and drop that into Google Docs. Then, we could do keyword searches, find episodes that had certain themes, and grab pieces from each episode. It was crazy. That was my brain doing all that extra work. Then we realized, "Why don't we just use episodes that we like? Why don't we just think of episodes that we've enjoyed or have guests that we like?" Gradually, we realized, "Wow, this is a show that is about impermanence or death." That just kind of happened on its own.

What steps did you take to protect the resonance of the original DTFH conversations?

There isn't any one formula for how to extract 20 minutes from an hour [or] two-hour conversation then sew it together in a way that maintains what is so wonderful about podcasting in general. It's this kind of mumblecore-style radio on a very human level. In the rawness of some podcasts that are out there, in the honesty that usually comes out, it makes you feel a little less crazy. What was really exciting is that we were taking a medium I’m in love with—podcasting—and trying to see if we could shift it into animation, where Pendleton is, like, a god.

We were taking these two things we both loved and trying to merge them together in a way that didn't reduce one or the other. I've seen various attempts at animating podcasts: Some of them work, but some of them, I feel like they don't grab that vulnerability. It was a challenge for every single episode, and there wasn't any right way to do it. Sometimes, the connection points between edits we would have to make in the podcast, we could fill up with animation or dialogue, create little chapters in the conversation. That was one of the ways we handled it. But a lot of times, it involved making really painful, difficult cuts. We had to take out chunks we might have wanted but just didn't have the time for. Anything that has a temporal restriction on it, there is a kind of quality of butchering something you love. There's no way out of that. You are going to have to do some really intense cuts that feel painful.

—Matt Williams