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He chose to honor his mom's life with a psychedelic cartoon

Duncan Trussell and his mom, as imagined in the show <em>The Midnight Gospel</em>.
Netflix
Duncan Trussell and his mom, as imagined in the show The Midnight Gospel.

I didn't know who Duncan Trussell was before watching his Netflix show The Midnight Gospel (no offense). But after a couple episodes I had to know more about the guy behind this bizarre show where real-life conversations about the biggest existential questions from Trussell's podcast are laid overtop these totally wacky, yet genius animated videos created by his friend Pendleton Ward (creator of Adventure Time).

At first it seems like some drug-induced fever dream — like, why am I listening to writer Anne Lamott talk with this dude about alcoholism, grief and God as her voice is coming out of blue dog with deer antlers while they are riding on a conveyor belt that is ready to chop them to bits? Or the one where Trussell's moving conversation with his mom as she is suffering from cancer is laid over the top of an animation where we see her and Trussell die and get reborn over and over again while she tells him what she needs him to understand before her illness takes her life.

But the longer you live in Trussell's world, the more it all starts to make sense. I think. Or maybe it doesn't and that's OK because it feels like a safe place where you can say things you've never said and there are no wrong answers because everything is absurd and why not scream and wail at all the things that hurt us. But also why not laugh? Why not laugh even through the hardest of things? That's where this conversation starts.

Note: This video contains vulgar language and cartoon violence.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Duncan Trussell: When my mom finally passed, I went crazy. I would read about grief, about how it's a rollercoaster, it's not normal sadness, and thought that sounds horrible. And then suddenly you're just out of your mind. You don't even realize how out of your mind you are.

And that weird thing happens, which is that you become an accidental grief counselor to other people. You've just been sobbing, considering wetting the bed instead of going to the bathroom, and then all of a sudden you're, like, giving this lofty grief advice: "Well, let me tell you about how to handle grief."

Rachel Martin: Oh my God, that totally resonates with me. My mom died of cancer in 2009. And I remember even just a few months later, I went to one of my dearest friend's weddings. I was just in this, you know, weird fog of grief. It's all you can think about.

And I remember a few handpicked people were getting up to give toasts at the reception. I was not one of them. And then all of a sudden I was just like, I feel moved to speak in this moment. And to talk about the significance of life and death and I mean, whatever. I think everybody was like, poor Rachel. Let's not give her too hard a time. Like, she's going through a thing. But you do. It's all you can think about.

Duncan Trussell.
/ Michael Schwartz/WireImage
/
Michael Schwartz/WireImage
Duncan Trussell.

Trussell: Yeah, and I think it's a beautiful thing that you did that. Very brave and good. People are so afraid of death. They want to avoid it at all costs. So to have someone like you, right next to it, then becoming the mouthpiece of it, that's probably a little too much for people who just wanted to talk about how cool your mom was. So, yeah, I think that's great you did that.

Martin: I want to talk more about your mom, because she seemed awesome, based on what I've read.

Trussell: She was.

Martin: You did this amazing interview with her for your podcast and then you turned it into an episode for The Midnight Gospel, which is this very amazing series on Netflix.

Trussell: Thank you.

Martin: How did that interview come to be?

Trussell: Well, she was very close to dying. And I was doing everything I could to avoid what was happening. Everything I could. I was reading The Hunger Games on my Kindle. So anyway, she called me up to her room. I knew she wanted to do a podcast. But I was so heartbroken and I just knew it would be our last podcast together.

Martin: I remember when my mom was going through the same thing, I thought, oh, this is my thing. This is what I do. I talk to people and we share these intimate conversations. And I remember thinking, I don't want to, I don't want to do that.

I was in denial too, because to somehow do that, to interview her, would have been like the end. Like I would be asking my mom for these big thoughts and that that was going to be the end of her. So it was brave of you to have decided like, OK mom, let's do this.

Trussell: Thank you. Yeah. I remember walking up the stairs with my podcast equipment and sitting down. You know, dying people have this present moment awareness. There's something happening there where they're — they're in the truth. They're experiencing truth as it is and they don't tiptoe around anything anymore.

Now, when I watch that episode, which is still hard for me to do, I realize she's telling me things that she knew I would want to hear later. And that she knew I wasn't hearing then. Because she knew I would listen to it later. So I'm so grateful to her for that. That she was smart enough in her last few weeks of life to give me something to answer the questions that I would have asked her now that I have kids if she were still alive.

So it was a wonderful thing that she did and that's how it came about. And then for it to end up on The Midnight Gospel, and now every week people tell me how much it helped them with their grief or letting go of someone, I can just see her smiling. She would think that it was very wonderful that somehow that happened, that it spread all over the place.

A scene from <em>The Midnight Gospel</em> episode centering Trussell and his mom.
/ Netflix
/
Netflix
A scene from The Midnight Gospel episode centering Trussell and his mom.

Martin: When you say that you might not have been open to everything she was saying in the moment, is there something in particular that you can point to that you learned from that conversation only from watching it later?

Trussell: Yeah, a hundred per cent. She was, in a very graceful way, trying to talk about what lasts. And clearly the body doesn't. Or another way to put it would be, if you pull away all of the quirks and the good things and the bad things in your parent's personality, I think somewhere in there is all moms. This raw, primordial love you feel for you kids, that I've experienced now was a parent. That love is all moms. And I think that's what she was trying to say is that, you will always have access to this love.

I think if your mother or a parent or someone you love says something to you that heals you or transforms you, I think its origin point is that kind of love. That's where it came from. And it goes through many layers of personality, identity and ego. It takes on its own characteristics based on the karma of the person saying it, but at its core, it's born from that place. And so I think she was trying to say that to me, or teach me that so that I would have a way to connect with her after she dropped her body.

Martin: It's funny. I've actually never talked about this before, but the last time I saw my mom, she was in hospice, and I was asking her questions, because I was in that desperate place, like, "Tell me things about the world, I don't know what to do without you."

So I asked her what she thought happens when we die, right? And she sat up, which was a big deal, and she said, "So much love."

And I've thought about the construction of that, because it's not that she was going to feel so much love, it's that love was going to happen. Like she used it as an action. Like, what happens when we die? Answer: so much love happens when we die. And it can seem so simple, right? Everybody's like, oh, love, love, love. But it's so much more powerful than our language permits.

Trussell: Yeah. When people say love, it means a million different things. There's that sort of love. And then there's the love where you dissolve in it, the Bhakti kind of love. Then there's the love that breaks your heart because you have to have your heart open to get there. That why they say, "Oh, it's heartbreaking." It's a good thing.

The term heartbreak in this context — I think it means it breaks the shell. Or the armor that you have grown around your heart and spent so much time welding together your whole life. You've been working on this thing, but it's like you were working on it when you were very young.

So imagine it looks like a five-year-old's drawing of armor. That's what you have around your heart. A sort of cobbled together series of things you picked up from cartoons or whatever you thought would protect you and you welded together with your mind. That's what breaks. And that's a really terrifying thing for that thing to break, because you think you're going to get destroyed, or hurt. And then it's the opposite.

Like, imagine if you've been walking around wearing armor made by a five-year-old blacksmith who didn't know much about blacksmithing. It's not going to be comfortable to wear the rest of your life [laughs].

Martin: I love that idea though. The heartbreak is the liberation.

Trussell: Yeah. I think so.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.