Midnight Gospel materialized on Netflix this morning as if out of nowhere. The new animated series, from Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward and popular podcaster/comedian Duncan Trussell, feels like the kind of thing to emerge out of thin air: fully formed and weird as hell.
But that's not what happened. In fact, Midnight Gospel has been roughly seven years in the making,
"It came about in the early days of podcasting," Trussell tells Inverse. "I got an email from Pendleton Ward and he told me he liked listening to my podcast."
Obviously, that's not the end of the story. It would be years before they decided to work together, turning Trussell's hour-long psychedelic podcast episodes into even trippier 20-minute cartoons. Midnight Gospel eventually brought Ward out of semi-retirement (he left Adventure Time after Season 5) and introduced Trussell to a whole new world of animation, but for a long time before that happened, it was barely even an idea.
This was "around 2013" — Trussell says he archived his Gmail years ago and can't find the original email — and it was one of the first times anyone he respected as an artist had reached out. In other words, even just a few kind sentences from Ward meant a lot.
"It was just mind-blowing to me because I am a fan of Adventure Time," Trussell says. "That someone who had created that series was listening to me have these long-form conversations with people was empowering and scary and awesome. So then, of course, I invited him on the podcast and he agreed to do it."
About a year later, Ward left Adventure Time. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he explained that maintaining creative control over the show just became too much. When asked in 2014 if he wanted to create a new series, he replied, “No, never. That sounds like a nightmare!”
What Ward didn't reveal to Rolling Stone, was that at around the same time he was already taking his first steps toward doing exactly that.
"He reached out to me and said he had an idea for how to animate my podcast, which was another big thrill for me," Trussell says. "I never thought it would turn into anything more than a podcast. I mean, how could it?"
The two met for coffee. Trussell was understandably nervous.
"I'm trying to like play it cool," Trussell says. "No big deal, just the guy who made Adventure Time wants to maybe animate your podcast — I was living in a sublet at the time. But at the end of the coffee, he was like, 'Man, I'm just too busy right now. I don't think I'll be able to have time to do this.'"
In response, Trussell basically lied, claiming he was also too busy to take on a new project.
A few more years passed before Ward reached out again, this time with the news that he was ready to make Duncan Trussell's podcast into an animated series. From there, Ward created a rough concept, taking a podcast conversation about drug addiction and playing it over an animatronic of Trussell and his guest fighting off a zombie invasion. (The concept made it into the final version of Midnight Gospel, which also includes a trip to hell paired with a conversation about the death-industrial-complex and a Dungeons & Dragons-inspired adventure through a demon dimension.)
Once production began, Trussell describes working with Ward as "literally the most enlightening artistic collaboration I've ever had in my life." He says one of Ward's biggest talents is empowering the people he works with, which gave Trussell the confidence to include his own original music in several episodes of Midnight Gospel.
"It doesn't feel like some kind of pyramid where Pendleton's at the top," he says. "It's just more of like this animated brain where everybody feels connected and important and empowered."
"What's so wonderful about Pendleton is that he is really good at not being intimidating," Trussell continues. "He's had the experience of being revered by so many people and I guess when that happens, you can either let that give you a big ego and puff you up and then eventually destroy you. Or it can make you into someone who's incredibly grateful and compassionate and somebody who loves humans, and that's what Pendleton is."