Creators Amy Poehler, Mike Scully & Julie Scully explain what sets the show apart.
The Simpsons has long held a reputation for predicting the future, but back when the series first aired in 1989, no-one could have foreseen quite how influential it would become. Not only did Matt Groening’s show reshape animation as we know it, but over 30 years, it also helped establish an entire new genre of adult cartoons which thrive off dysfunction.
From Family Guy and King of the Hill to more recent efforts like Bob’s Burgers and Rick and Morty, each animated family who’s entertained us since owes a huge debt to Springfield’s finest — but with each new entry, it’s also become harder and harder to stand out.
Fox, in particular, is chock-a-block with shows of this nature, to the point where they’re now grouped all together in one animation block each Sunday night.
So how can a new animated show channel the spirit of this tried-and-tested format while still bringing something new to the table? This was the challenge faced by Amy Poehler when she started working on what would eventually become Duncanville with Simpsons writers, Mike and Julie Scully.
Speaking exclusively to Digital Spy, the Parks and Recreation star explained that the key to standing out is not to excel at all, but to be average in the best way possible:
“So Mike Scully and I had worked together on Parks & Rec. He was a writer, and, of course, he’s a genius who was behind so many great moments on The Simpsons,” she said. “We had been talking about working together in different ways, and about doing an animated show.
“I think… if I remember correctly, I think I said something like, ‘I would love to do the voice of a teenage boy’. I think about all the great female performers like Nancy Cartwright and Pamela Adlon and others who have done these great characters, and I thought, ‘I think I can do that well’.
“So I think it started from there. What could be this kid? What could it be about? Mike and Julie hilariously started to shape Duncan as this very average kid, and it was really important for us to make sure that Duncan wasn’t special in any real way [laughs].”
The pilot emphasises this from the very beginning, showing off Duncan’s participation trophies and a framed C+ report card while daydreaming about being average. In his imagination, Duncan reaches the top of a mountain first precisely because of his averageness, which enables him to best others who try too hard and know too much.
Duncanville has a mountain of its own to face as well, living under the shadow of other Fox animations like The Simpsons. Thankfully, the show’s three creators all have their fair share of experience writing comedy – and combined, they’re responsible for some of the funniest episodes of TV ever broadcast.
Poehler told us they “really try to pack as many [jokes] as we can into the show,” and Duncanville excels in this regard, spreading them all out evenly among an impressive cast which includes Poehler herself, as well as her former Parks & Recreation co-star Rashida Jones and Modern Family’s Ty Burrell.
The bulk of episodes follow a similar sitcom structure, exploring the various conflicts within Duncan’s nuclear family. So far, so standard, but the big difference here is that Duncan’s father doesn’t take centre stage like he would in most animated shows. Instead, the teenage experience is key here, exploring how young adults live two separate lives at home and at school.
According to co-creators Mike and Julie Scully, that’s also what separates Duncanville from the rest of Fox’s line-up too.
When asked specifically about comparisons to The Simpsons, Julie told us: “Well, we have a teenager at the centre of Duncanville, and most of the other animated shows, at least on Fox, you know, they’re usually around the dad. It’s kind of a dumb dad feeling. So we decided we wanted to do something different.
“We wanted to look like a Fox show. So we do have a family at the centre, but we also like the – I don’t know if you ever saw That ’70s Show? But you go through the parents’ POV or the kids’ POV, and that’s what we wanted to do.”
Mike expanded on this comparison further, saying: “What we like about That ’70s Show is, you have a high-school kid in the middle of it.
“But the kids act kind of one way with their family, and another way with their friends. So we were trying to find a funny balance between the two.”
Bridging the gap between these two worlds is Poehler herself, who decided to play both Duncan and Duncan’s mum, Annie. The Scullys initially cautioned Amy against that idea, pointing out that these dual roles would require “a tremendous amount of work”.
They suggested that “it’s kind of like being Bart and Homer,” but that didn’t deter Poehler, and now, her arguments with herself have become a highlight of the show.
“Usually, in the booth, I try to get Annie done first, because she takes a lot of energy,” she explained. “And then Duncan is always so over it, and my voice has to be lower, so it’s easier to be Duncan after I’ve exhausted myself doing Annie.
“But it’s really fun to play them back and forth to each other, to have me kind of arguing with myself. That’s always an existentially fun exercise.”
Plenty of animated comedies come and go, but the creators’ willingness to challenge themselves further bodes well for the future of Duncanville.
As Julie points out, their show has “far less money, budget, and resources” than something like The Simpsons, which was “already a very well-oiled machine” back when she and her husband joined the show’s writing team. With Duncanville, they “had to build the machine and start oiling it ourselves”.
Developing Duncanville from the ground-up allowed Poehler and the Scullys to take some “big swings” with “a lot of really crazy, big episodes,” and that’s clear to see from the get-go. Yes, the pilot hits some familiar beats we’re used to seeing from these kind of shows, but moments like that cicada encounter at the end tease something both wackier and yet more heartfelt too.
Duncan might be average, but Duncanville is anything but. His little sister Jing deserves a spin-off full of those slo-mo cartwheels alone, and while season two hasn’t been confirmed just yet, don’t be surprised if Fox decides to revisit Duncanville again in the near future.
Mike Scully told us “the future of animation looks really good, because you now have a whole generation of people that grew up with The Simpsons, who now accept animation as not just for kids”. The test now is to see if Duncanville can keep delivering those same family-friendly laughs while still contributing something new to the future of animation.