Comedy Showrunners Week: Alex Hirsch on the real in the unreal of Gravity Falls

Comedy Showrunners Week: Alex Hirsch on the real in the unreal of Gravity Falls

Comedy is a more important part of the television landscape than ever before, thanks in part to a generation of highly visible creators, writers, and executive producers who balance the work of maintaining a show’s artistic vision while also overseeing its day-to-day operations. In anticipation of the new fall TV season, The A.V. Club spoke to a handful of the people who’ve made the industry term “showrunner” a household word. Today, we talk to Alex Hirsch, creator of Gravity Falls

After graduating from the California Institute of the Arts in 2007, Alex Hirsch found work as a writer and storyboard artist on Cartoon Network’s The Marvelous Misadventures Of Flapjack, before jumping to Disney Channel to help develop Fish Hooks. However, it’s Hirsch’s first animated effort as a creator, Gravity Falls, that has turned the most heads: The supernatural comedy, which debuted this summer, quickly became one of Disney’s most popular shows, garnering an all-ages fan base eager to decode its cryptic mythology and lose itself in the mysterious happenings in and around the fictional hamlet of Gravity Falls, Oregon. The adventures of twins Dipper (Jason Ritter) and Mabel Pines (Kristen Schaal) are loosely based on Hirsch’s childhood experiences with his own twin sister—loosely because, presumably, Hirsch and his sister haven’t spent much time battling hordes of gnomes or revenge-seeking wax figurines. The A.V. Club spoke to Hirsch—who also provides the voices of the kids’ great uncle (or “Grunkle”) Stan and his tourist-trap employee, Soos—about balancing reality and unreality, finding clues that don’t exist, and how Coolio and Larry King ended up voicing wax versions of themselves on a Disney Channel cartoon in 2012.

The A.V. Club: You grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, which were a great time for supernatural content on TV—especially on shows for kids. Did you feel there was a lack of that in the current TV climate?

Alex Hirsch: There was a lack of doing it with love. With shows like The X-Files or Eerie, Indiana—even though they would have comedic moments, even though they would have character moments—there was a sincerity about magic. They treated magic not just as a joke but they found a realness to the unreal, which in turn made the drama more compelling, made the comedy funnier in contrast to it. I felt like there were shows out there like, say, The Fairly Oddparents, where, “Oh, every week the kid wishes for something and the fairy godparents make it true,” and the show is so bright and wacky and the characters are so bright and wacky that nothing is real and therefore nothing is magic. It doesn’t feel like magic, it just feels like silliness. Which is a perfectly respectable way to make a show, but it doesn’t give me that feeling that you would get from all those movies in the ’80s—The Goonies, E.T., all this stuff that would sort of contrast the real with the unreal. I felt like that was definitely missing from kids’ programming. 

AVC: So you were into spookier, fantastical stuff when you were a kid—this wasn’t a taste that developed later?

AH: Yeah, my first love was The Simpsons, but in terms of movies and stuff, I loved Back To The Future, I loved Jurassic Park, I loved The Truman Show. I loved stuff that had that impossible mixed with the possible. And if they could make both credible, each one was more interesting in reflection of the other. I was a big X-Files fan growing up, as well. I’ve seen every episode. I need to go back and watch all of them because it was the ’90s. I barely remember it now. I need to dig it back up.

AVC: Did you take any lessons from how Springfield has been built in the last 23 years apply them to Gravity Falls?

AH: [Laughs.] I think the No. 1 lesson I learned from The Simpsons was just that animation could be as funny as live-action. That animation could be funnier than live-action. That animation didn’t have to just be for kids. That it could be satirical and observational and grounded in a sense of character interaction. I think that’s really what got me excited about animation more than anything was seeing, “Oh my gosh! I love cartoons and these cartoons are also making my parents laugh and making me laugh.” As I grow older it makes me laugh more. 

In terms of the world-building, there was always a wonderful thing that The Simpsons did: It respected its audience enough to reward our attention. They’d say, “We’re going to cram this thing with references, with jokes, with little callbacks, and if you are obsessive enough, if you love it enough, it will reward your obsession.” You will notice that it’s the same sea captain in this episode as the last one. You’ll remember that Sideshow Bob is still out there looking for revenge. And that just made the show so much more compelling. I was a kid back then, but if I had to choose between watching The Simpsons when I was 10 and watching any other show [made for] my age group—Simpsons any day, because it gave me a reason to keep tuning in. It gave me a reward every time I tried to watch it more closely.

AVC: So now that you’re on the other side of that equation, placing the same “local kook” in the background of every episode, how do you like keeping track of those details? What are you learning about the process, and how are you doing it?

AH: I tend not to forget the things that I work on myself, so it’s been pretty easy for me to keep track of what we did in one episode. I’m just surprised and heartened by how obsessively the fans keep track. If you leave a little trail of breadcrumbs, they will follow it and then they will find breadcrumbs you didn’t even leave and demand more breadcrumbs. [Laughs.] That’s been exciting and rewarding and, also, raised the bar for me. Now that I see, “Okay, not only do they find every code, not only do they notice every callback, not only do they catch all of our hints”—a lot of the hints they don’t interpret correctly, but they catch them—they’re also coming up with new theories and noticing things we didn’t intend. I was born on June 18 so we put “618” all over the place in the show just because that’s our go-to number if we need a number. People started to pick up on this, but they weren’t content just to rest with the ones we actually put in there, they started finding hidden 618s that are imaginary, like, the shape of boats from a distance looks like a six and a pillar looks like a one and the letter b, uppercase and upside down looks like an eight. That kind of stuff. I think it’s been really encouraging. The more the fans love it, the more I want to do it. And the more I do it, the more fans want more. [Laughs.] I don’t know—season two might be this meta catastrophe. In the meantime, I’m having so much fun.

I’m also a huge Arrested Development fan. I love the idea that if you watch something twice, three times, four times, you’ll continuously notice new things. There was a little bit of pushback at the studio for the type of attention to detail I would have, because it would often involve me animating something or changing something late in the stage or me going to the design meeting and the background meeting and the prop meeting and saying, “Wait, wait, wait. This needs to match this.” I get some flack and pushback. “No one’s going to notice. No one’s going to care. You’re crazy.” It’s been validating to discover that the audience is even crazier than I am.

AVC: Was there any pushback from the studio like, “This is going to be airing on The Disney Channel—we’re worried that our target demographic isn’t going to be paying attention that closely?”

AH: The creative heads of departments that I’ve worked with have defied every negative stereotype that you would imagine about Hollywood executives. They know that I’m passionate, and they know that I will do a better job if I enjoy what I’m doing and they let me at it. I’d say that the bigger pushback comes in the terms of censorship and the legal department. The Disney legal department is very, in my view, overly concerned. It’s true, Disney’s a rich company and everyone would like to sue us for every perceived misattribution of something, so that makes parody very difficult. On The Simpsons, if Homer wants to listen to any song you’ve actually heard on the radio or reference it, he can. We’re not allowed. We have to come up with our own. Which sometimes is funny and other times is frustrating. But actually, Disney has been very supportive of me putting the stuff in. I said when I sold the show, “I want this to have continuity. I want this to have world-building.” They recognize that the reason I was so excited about that was because it was so rare in animation, and I think we were all excited to do something that was different.

AVC: “Dipper Vs. Manliness” lays out a rough outline of the show’s geography: “The gnomes live in the trees and the mermaids live in the water,” and the manotaurs live in “the man cave.” How much of the Gravity Falls universe is already worked out? And what types of creatures don’t exist in the woods surrounding the town?

AH: We have a storyline. There is a broad storyline that we’ve come up with—a beginning, middle, and end. The tentpoles of the broader, overarching mystery, the origin of magic in the town, the author of the books, what Dipper and Mabel’s role is in all of it, what Gideon’s [Thurop Van Orman] role is in all of it, Stan’s [Hirsch] secrets: We’ve actually solved all that and we solved it a little bit in the beginning of the season and toward the middle of the season, as we were finding the characters, we were able to really click into it. The broader character stories and town mythos has been mapped out. 

In terms of the one-off episodes and where they go, that’s open. I intentionally, by design, tried to create a premise where anything was possible because I believe surprise is really important in entertainment—and comedy especially. We try not to limit ourselves. Probably the only rule I have for the writers’ room is “no aliens”—at least not until our second-to-last episode, just because nothing is bigger. You’ll never do a bigger story than aliens. Once the characters have talked to aliens, what could be more—it’s like talking to God. My other rule is, I’m very anti-wish-stories. A lot of people, the first story they pitch is a wishing-well story and I’m just like, “Tsk.” I can’t handle that. It’s such a kid-show cliché. We try to turn clichés on their heads—we had a clone episode where the clones weren’t evil, they were reasonable, but if we can’t come up with a twist on a cliché, we try to avoid it as best we can because we’re trying to entertain ourselves.

AVC: You’re able to hit most of the beats of a wishing-well storyline with your time-travel episode, though.

AH: Right, right, right. We find a different way to get there. If a writer pitches me a hilarious, blindsidingly ridiculous wishing-well episode and it’s funny and it surprises me, I’ll be proven wrong. As of yet, those tend to be structurally unsatisfying.

AVC: What other clichés and tropes are you looking to turn on their heads?

AH: In this season we tackle a body-swapping episode. Body swap has been done a million times, but to see Dipper and Mabel, who are so different, given their worst nightmare of being in each other’s bodies—it was too fun from a character aspect to pass up. I think we get maximum fun out of that premise. For example, a body-swap episode is always “My life is harder.” “No my life is harder.” “Let’s find out!” “I learned a lesson.” Our theme isn’t that. It has to do with Dipper and Mabel being too tangled in each other’s lives and having to figure out what that means. It relates to them having to share a room. We take the discomfort of having to share a room and push it further into the discomfort of sharing a body. We’re able to, I think, do something a little different with it than you’ve seen before.

AVC: One of the unique attributes of the Dipper-Mabel relationship is that they’re so close with one another. How much of that is informed by your relationship with your twin sister?

AH: It’s very much informed by my relationship with my sister. I’d say that the relationship between them is more based on my life than the actual characters. The characters, obviously, are caricatured and pushed and inspired by me and my sister. She did wear ridiculous sweaters. I did wear the same hat every day and plan everything. But we Kristen Schaal-ed it up, because when you have a great actress like that you have to.

I’ve read countless comments on Tumblr, on Twitter, on message boards where people are saying, “Thank you, thank you for showing a sibling relationship where they’re not just sniping and hating on each other all the time.” When I started the show, I didn’t originally begin with a conscious effort to do that. My conscious effort was, “Oh, I want to make it like me and my sister, and I’ll make it funny.” It was intuitive and natural. I didn’t start with the mission statement of, “I’m going to fix sibling relationships in television.” But then when I started working with writers, when I started having to pitch the show, and everyone guessed the tone wrong and assumed they’d be hating on each other, I had to come up with a “10 commandments” of how Dipper and Mabel act around each other. I realized how other people were writing twins and siblings doesn’t feel true to me. It was sort of an intuition that I always had that was always very easy for me to spot a false interaction.

AVC: The other relationship on the show that stands out is the bond forming between Mabel and Grunkle Stan. Was that part of your original conception of the show? 

AH: That was something where Grunkle Stan was sort of inspired by my grandpa Stan, who was this crusty curmudgeon. When you’re trying to create a TV show, you’re trying to create a community of interactions where everyone can be rearranged and reassembled to have interesting takes on each other, and it was just immediately obvious that Mabel’s silly, optimistic, carefree, pre-teen worldview was the diametric opposite of Stan’s cynical, old, con-man way of doing things. It seemed like there was an inherent sweetness that we could get out of Mabel thinking she could help or fix her uncle. We’ve actually got a really great story later in the season where Grunkle Stan’s frustration that Mabel is keeping a pig in the house builds to a head, and Stan wants the pig out and Mabel loves the pig and Stan and Mabel are in direct conflict for the first time. It’s really fun to see those strong personalities rub up against each other. There is something sweet about the fact that she loves her Grunkle Stan unconditionally—because that’s how she’s wired—and Grunkle Stan, despite his crusty exterior, could not possibly be such a curmudgeon that he isn’t taken with Mabel’s charm, because she is the charming-est.

AVC: Plus, it can’t hurt to say you’ve been a scene partner of Kristen Schaal’s on a number of occasions.

AH: [Laughs.] That’s true. It’s absolutely a dream come true that continues to be a delight, to work with her and be allowed, probably against everyone’s better judgment, to do cartoon voices on my own show. 

AVC: How much say did you have during the casting process? Were actors like Schaal, T.J. Miller, or Linda Cardellini wish-list castings that came true?

AH: I knew these characters so well in my head that casting them was difficult because I was like, “That’s not what I’m picturing,” and that’s probably why I ended up doing two of the voices. Because I had it so particular, based on an observation: Grunkle Stan is based on my grandpa Stan, Soos is based on this guy Jesús that I went to college with. In terms of Mabel, I knew from the get-go that it’s got to be Kristen Schaal or there’s no show. I would’ve just stopped working. If we hadn’t gotten her, I would have probably quit. Dipper was hard to cast because he’s got to be a straight man, he’s got to have a youthfulness but whenever we tried to cast kid actors he didn’t seem to have the sharpness that we wanted. But when we found Jason, he and Kristen had such a contrast to each other. 

Disney’s casting department is really great about going out to who we’re interested in and helping us out. For the most part we’ve managed to get what we were after. Linda, T.J., they were happy to do the roles, and they do a great job. Disney is surprisingly good at getting guests. I remember making the call, [Affects authoritative tone.] “Sarah, get me Coolio for ‘Headhunters’” and being blown away that, by the end of the day, that was going to happen. [Laughs.] Directing Coolio and Larry King back-to-back was probably one of the more surreal experiences of my professional career. That and we have Lance Bass of ’N Sync doing a voice of a heartthrob in an upcoming episode as a direct gift to my sister, who was obsessed with Lance Bass at Mabel’s age. I told her, “We’ll get Lance Bass to do a voice and you can meet him,” and I made that dream come true for her. 

AVC: In filling out the ranks of the wax figures in that episode, why choose Coolio and Larry King?

AH: [Laughs.] When your writing assignment is, “Write 10 random wax figures,” you want to have the maximum contrast: Some old literary figures—Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes—and then just the most random celebrities. I wanted something iconic. Larry King’s face is something that will be burned into the mind of everyone who’s seen it forever, and Larry King is just this evergreen, weird icon, so I thought of that first. Then we thought, “We need to have some kind of rapper next to Larry King, because that’s the opposite,” and just that image of Coolio in the ’90s with those crazy braids—we couldn’t get it out of our heads. The idea that we could perhaps have Larry King flicking Coolio’s braids or Coolio flicking Larry King’s suspenders, it tickled everyone in the writers’ room. We’re like, “That’s so stupid. We have to try it.” We were shocked that Disney complied and made our stupid dreams come true.

AVC: When you were recruiting a writing staff, what were you looking for? Of the writers who’ve been credited with Gravity Falls scripts so far, a few have only previously worked in live-action TV.

AH: In terms of finding writers, we just cast a wide net. We’re just like, “Anybody who seems like they can do it,” because our show is such a mix of things. It’s a mix of mystery, adventure, action, character, comedy, cultural references, observational humor, and wacky cartoon gags, and because it’s hard to find a show that has all those things we’re like, “Let’s try to find people who have different [experience] and get them all in one room and mix them together to try and find that stew.” It is very difficult. It’s very difficult to find people who can balance that stuff. We basically just read a hundred scripts, and the three that made us laugh, we called them up. That was our process.

We knew from the get-go that there were very few kid shows that did anything similar to what we wanted, particularly in animation. My favorite current kids show is Adventure Time, and most of those shows are not written in script form by writers—they’re written in comic form by board artists. That’s a whole different pipeline, a whole different way to do a show, but identical skill sets: the ability to write character dialogue. But most people who are amazing board artists, you put them in front of a keyboard and say, “Write a script,” and it freaks them out—like you’re trying to bathe a cat. They’re some of the best writers out there, but they’re not called writers, they’re not credited as writers, they don’t write scripts. 

AVC: And how is a Gravity Falls episode written?

AH: Usually, I’ll go into the writers’ room and I’ll have—in the shower—thought, “Pterodactyl swallows the pig. Okay. There’s an episode. How do we get an episode out of that?” We’ll bat it around, we’ll try to break the acts, and the hardest thing is always to find a character story that actually uncovers, explores, or pushes tension—on something our characters care about—that is properly explored via the magic or monster or impossibility of the week. Finding a marriage between those two is the core of every episode, and it’s the biggest challenge because sometimes we’ll come up with a great character conflict that does not need a goblin. Other times we’ll come up with the world’s coolest goblin and there is no way that reflects on Mabel’s insecurity about her braces. That’s a challenge. But once we feel like we’ve found a good area, we break a B-story, we break an A-story, we send a writer off to do an outline, they come back, I give my notes. Usually my notes are, “There’s no stakes. The first- and second-act breaks are the same. Our second act [has] no choices.” Are we ratcheting up the tension? Are we telling a character story? Or has this started to veer into standard kids cartoon where things elevate for no reason until a twist?

[The writer] will do a draft. I’ll give notes. I’m very hands-on—me and my creative director Mike Rianda, tend to get in there and both personally do a draft before the final script. When the writers hand in a final script, me and Mike do our pass on it. We often rewrite a huge amount of it, which is not a discredit to our writers—it’s just we have a very particular vision. In particular, I usually rewrite almost all of Dipper’s dialogue and most of Mabel’s dialogue, just because I have them in my head. Me and Mike will stay up for about 48 hours prior to the delivery of every script. We’ll take the weekend, we’ll work all night, we’ll drink Red Bull, we’ll sleep on the couch in shifts like maniacs, we’ll slap each other in the face. One time I asked Mike to splash water in my face and film it so that the splash of cold water and the embarrassment of being caught on film would wake me up enough to write. [Laughs.] 

Then we turn in that script to the board artists, the board artists present it to me, I give a bunch of notes. If a joke isn’t working, “This needs to be restaged. We need to have a low angle here. We need to have a big shadow here,” then they give that to me. I then do a pass on the drawings. I go through the thing and I fix expressions and I add gags. Then I will pitch the storyboard to the network, get everyone in the studio all in a room, clicking the spacebar and going through the episode in drawings, and I’ll be doing the voices and pitching it. That’s sort of the first provable moment—that’s our version of a table read. We see, “Is it playing?” at that stage. If it is, we add a couple jokes and send it off to editing. If it isn’t, then we go back into rewrite and do whatever we can in the very small amount of time we have. That usually involves me and Mike doing more late nights. [Laughs.] Sorry, that’s probably an overly comprehensive answer to your question of how a story is broken on Gravity Falls.

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