Alex Hirsch On ‘Gravity Falls,’ Mabel’s Sweater Collection And TV’s Fear Of Sincerity [Interview]
The Disney Channel’s Gravity Falls is probably the best new animated series of the year. The combination of sophisticated storytelling, a creepy over-arching mystery (complete with backwards-masking in the opening, cryptic clues scattered through the episodes and a six-fingered hand on the cover of a forgotten tome), and the genuine emotion of the show’s two main characters, Dipper and Mabel, has made it a hit with both its intended audience of kids and with adults.
Now, with the news that Mabel would be adopting a pig this week — which, if you haven’t watched the show, I assure you is a pretty huge deal — I had the opportunity to speak to show creator Alex Hirsch and find out a little bit more about how much of the show was influenced by his own life, the surprising references to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and, yes, Mabel’s truly amazing collection of sweaters.ComicsAlliance: Presumably, your sister never dated a guy who turned out to be six gnomes, but I am a little curious as to how much of the show is based on your own experiences growing up.
Alex Hirsch: Well, the first thing is to start with my sister. When I came up with the show and pitched it to Disney, the thing that I was most excited about — sort of tied in excitement with being able to tell stories with magic, monsters and mayhem — was to make fun of my sister for twenty stories a year. I was really excited to mine my comedic relationship with my sister, to deliver her weirdness to America, and that’s probably the core of the series.
When me and my sister were growing up, we just had very different personalities. I was sort of analytical and took myself too seriously, and she was sort of goofy and nuts and full of love — too much love, she had a crush on a different guy every week. And of course I would just be off in the corner, silently judging and saying “I don’t know about these guys.” One of the joys of the show has been taking my memory of growing up with my sister and fusing them with some kind of magic weirdness. The relationship between the twins is very much based on my relationship with my twin sister.
CA: It’s a really kind of refreshing relationship, because as different as they are, they’re not conflicted at all. They seem to genuinely like each other.
AH: That’s an interesting thing, because that’s something that, as people have been watching the show and we’ve been getting fan reactions, we’ve gotten a huge amount of fan correspondence about saying “Thank you! Thank you for having siblings that don’t hate each other!” Everyone is so used to that, because storytelling is about conflict and so is comedy, so the natural place for the writer is to have characters constantly snipe and dig and dis each other. I think the funny thing is, Dipper and Mabel actually do that. They actually fight and poke and prod each other constantly, but it’s in a loving way.
Dipper will knock Mabel off of a chair or Mabel will completely undermine the purpose of something Dipper’s trying to accomplish, but they both do it with smiles on their faces. They enjoy each other’s company even though they get on each other’s nerves, and I think the underlying fact that they love each other means that we can get away with that stuff and it’ll never feel mean-spirited.
CA: While we’re talking about Mabel, I do have on my notes two words written and underlined: Mabel’s sweaters.
CA: I love those. I love that they’re different every time there’s a scene change and that you can mark the passage of time. Was that something that’s in any way inspired by reality?
AH: My sister, when we were in Elementary school, had one particular lime green fuzzy troll doll sweater with a gem sticking out of the belly and actual hair that stuck to it, and I just remember, even though I was very young, being like “This is unusual. It is weird that she is wearing this in public.”
I was always so amused and delighted by that that I thought it would be fun to put it in the show. As far as the constant changing, it’s such a standard cartoon trope that every character has their same blue shirt and same shoes that they wear in each show, and I just thought that Mabel’s character is so ADD and so fun-loving that she would not be confined to one outfit. We and the artists have a lot of fun coming up with all of her sweaters on a weekly basis, and occasionally putting symbols in the sweaters that might thematically relate to things. It’s very in character for her.
CA: I was really fond of the one that just had a 3.25″ floppy disk on it.
AH: [Laughs] That was her sleep shirt, and it was one of those things where I remember when we were kids, you’d have a big shirt that you’d sleep in, and if it was big, it probably wasn’t yours. It was a hand-me-down, and our thought was maybe Mabel’s dad was at some Windows ’95 conference or something and got some promotional shirt in a bag that he never wanted to wear, and that became Mabel’s sleep-time shirt. We like coming up with histories and digging into where these characters are from.
CA: I know so many people who would be 100% into an art book that was just the story of Mabel’s sweaters.
AH: The origin of each one! One funny thing was, when we had a wrap party, we got the whole crew and everybody together to premiere the first episode. My sister came down, she lives in San Francisco, and she brought THE sweater from elementary school. With a lot of peer pressure, we were able to talk her into putting it on, and it’s funny. When she was a kid, it was huge, now it finally fits her.
CA: You talked about infusing the relationships with magic, and that’s one of the things that I really like about the show and that I think kids as well as older viewers can really respond to. It takes those childhood problems and presents them with a sort of magic realism.
AH: Sure, yeah.
CA: Obviously you’ve go the episode with the Gobblewonker that’s about spending time with your family, and “Dipper vs. Manliness” is a really good example, too. Is that difficult to approach, or does it flow naturally from exaggerating those childhood problems?
AH: It is a challenge in terms of writing. I’d say that my sensibilities lean more towards straight comedy, but my feeling was that if I was going to do a kids’ show, if I’m going to be working on a kids’ network, I’m not going to be able to go full-on crazy hardcore intense comedy, because that won’t be allowed here. So my feeling was, if I can’t be this crazy intense super-comedy, I’ll be as funny as I can but I’ll try to be something else. I’ll try to be… how about sweet and sincere?
I’ll try to have some magical realism and do my best at doing stories that have some emotional truth to them, because that would round out the entertainment meal. It’s one of those things where I’ve pitched to other networks before and I’ve talked to people in different studios, and I think there’s sort of a fear in some places, particularly at networks that have an over-emphasis on being cool or trying to follow what they think the zeitgeist is this minute. There’s a fear of sincerity, and a fear of characters being emotionally invested. There’s kind of a “can’t the characters all just be kind of sassy jerks who don’t learn anything?”
I was raised in the ’90s. I love Seinfeld. You know what I mean? I love it. But I kind of thought it would be an interesting challenge and it would be a rewarding challenge to create something that had stories with some kind of, not melodrama, but drama. Personal drama. And in terms of infusing it with magic and stuff, that’s a challenge. It’s a challenge figuring out how to take a conflict that’s internal and how to externalize it with some sort of visual metaphor, and how to make that adventure fit with our world. That’s the challenge of writing on the show, and sometimes we do it better than others. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun.
CA: Was there any particular episode that fans responded to along those lines?
AH: Yeah. I mean, really, all of them. We’ve gotten a great response to one of our recent episodes, “Double Dipper.”
Dipper clones himself to try to have someone help him out over-planning this perfect moment with the girl he has a crush on, Wendy. The fans really loved how funny and crazy it was that he made these clones, but they also loved that even though he and the clones end up getting in a fight, at the end, he and the main clone end up sharing a soda together on the porch and having a talk about life.
That was something they never saw coming, that the biggest, most shocking surprise is that instead of being evil, his clone is kind of reasonable and they share a moment and grow a little bit. I think that both informs the story and it’s also surprising. It’s also funny. Sometimes a sincere moment is the most surprising thing you can write.
CA: One thing I wanted to make sure to ask you about, this is another one that got double-underlined on my notes: There are a lot of surprising references to Twin Peaks on the show.
CA: That’s something I’m a huge fan of, and something that, on the adult side of things, deals with very adult issues in a way that has that same kind of magical realism to it. Is there a lot of crossover between Twin Peaks fans and Gravity Falls fans?
AH: Twin Peaks fans have existed for decades, and Gravity Falls fans are only just beginning, so the crossover… I haven’t seen a Venn diagram, but more people picked up on it than I ever thought. I love Twin Peaks, and because the show takes place in a similar Pacific Northwest location and has some of these magical themes, I thought it would be funny to… not even parody it, but acknowledge with some design choices that influence. I’ve been very surprised and pleased that people have picked up on it and embraced it.
CA: The distinct look of the show is really cool. I loved the club that’s shaped like a Club, which was where one of those Twin Peaks references came in.
AH: That was one of those things where “How about we make it look like a David Lynch nightmare? That might be a fun change of pace.”
CA: Chris Haley and Eugene Ahn, who do the Gravity Falls Gossiper Podcast, are two good friends of mine.
AH: Ah, those fellas. You know, I’m a little worried about them. I think you need to get them some girlfriends or something, because, uh… [laughs] I am so excited and delighted and amazed that they care enough to put in the kind of fan love that they put in. To even make a podcast, I mean… my goodness. When we wrote these episodes, we didn’t know if anybody over the age of seven would be watching them, and man, is it rewarded. The kind of fan outpouring that we’ve been getting already has been great, and they were cool enough to ask me to do some Grunkle Stan for their podcast. That was a lot of fun.
CA: I haven’t listened to that yet because I just got caught up on the show this weekend.
AH: It’s a little rambly. I have a hunch that next time Stan speaks publicly, it’ll be a little more polished.
Gravity Falls airs every week on Friday at 9:30 Eastern on the Disney Channel. It’s well worth checking out!