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Disney's Gravity Falls is one of the best kids shows on TV. Here's how it got that way.

Dipper and Mabel confront something horrifying in the new season of Gravity Falls.
Dipper and Mabel confront something horrifying in the new season of Gravity Falls.
Disney Channel
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In its first season, the Disney Channel's Gravity Falls proved itself part of a new wave of emotionally resonant, surprisingly thoughtful, wickedly funny shows aimed at kids. The show is the story of young twins Dipper and Mabel Pines, who are sent for the summer to live with their great uncle, "Grunkle" Stan, a cranky old man who runs the Mystery Shack, a tourist attraction in the town of Gravity Falls.

But Gravity Falls is more than just local color and mysterious relatives. It's also the sort of town where every paranormal phenomenon you could think of is real, and where little else is as it seems.

Series creator Alex Hirsch is able to get away with this weird mix of elements because he centers the show so ably on the relationship between Dipper and Mabel, turning the two into one of TV's best sibling pairings. Now, as Gravity Falls prepares to debuts its second season tonight (a second season that will eventually see it moving to Disney XD), Hirsch talked with Vox about finding the right balance between emotion and humor, and why working for Disney is like having a pet brontosaurus.

Vox: In other interviews, you've said there are aspects of the show that are autobiographical, based on you and your sister's summers away from home as a kid. What all did you draw from your real life?

Alex Hirsch: In terms of the autobiographical nature, I think it's more fair to say it's inspired by events, as opposed to based on. The main element that I think I drew from my own personal experience was the relationship between Dipper and Mabel.

Me and my sister, as any siblings do, we would squabble and pick on each other and fight and get in arguments, but when we were forced to spend summers away from home with relatives out in the middle of nowhere, we found that we were all we had and we bonded over those summers. I actually feel like the best times I ever had with my twin sister were those summers we spent, where there was no TV and no video games and nothing fun for miles, and so our imaginations grew to fill the void of sensory input and so did our friendship. That observation, that being in an unfamiliar situation can help you bond to those you're already familiar with was the core of the series for me.

In terms of actual, monster of the week type adventures that happen in the show, most of that is based on what I was obsessed with when I was 12. When I was a kid, I loved The X-Files. I had every single dubiously credited book about the paranormal and the unknown, and I would literally lie on the dodgeball blacktop in elementary school, on the ground, facing up at the sky, hoping that a UFO would land, because those big circles seemed like the perfect spot. This show sort of represents a form of wish fulfillment, where I had many, many summers as a kid and dreamed that these things would happen. This is the infinite checklist of fun things I was hoping would happen when I was a kid.


Alex Hirsch, with a puppet version of Grunkle Stan.

Vox: Do you have limits to what sort of weird elements you can bring into the show?

AH: The limits are mostly imposed by me. My personal, mental restraints are, the mysteries of the show are supposed to feel like they're primarily seen by the kids, because when you're a kid, with your imagination, you are privy to a hidden world that grown-ups don't seem to appreciate or understand. To parallel that experience, I want, generally, the magic in the show to emerge and then retreat back into the shadows by the time it could be seen by the general populace. We try not to do things that would leave too big a mark or scar on the general townsfolk of Gravity Falls.

We have an episode where an arcade game comes to life and a Street Fighter-type character comes out, wreaks havoc, and fights Dipper. Even though he does run through town briefly knocking over people's junk, the actual showdown between Dipper and the guy takes place in a hidden area away from the town. We want it to feel like that glimpse in the corner of your eye that you're always missing.

In terms of content or subject, anything goes. The show was designed to be infinitely malleable in the types of weird nonsense we can cram in, so we can have as much fun with it as possible.

Vox: You really are good at building the stories around the show's core relationships. How do you make sure to keep that emotional element at the core?

AH: The writers know by now and could list, possibly while rolling their eyes, my demands for what needs to be in every half-hour. I am a stickler for the necessity that every episode is, at its core, about some relationship issue or growing-up issue, that we then attempt to explore as best we can with the magic of the week. In a perfect scenario, that magic is thematically or metaphorically connected to that personal issue. We can't always hit that perfect target.

There's a balance of ingredients every episode has to have. But every episode must have that element, and I think a lot of the most successful moments of the show are the ones where the character relationship, the ones that I thought I was being the most personal and being the most referencing my own specific life, often wound up feeling the most universal. Dumb little things like, I do remember being in sixth grade and me and my twin sister had always been the exact same height, and I remember the hour, the day, the minute, that my sister was taller than me, and it was infuriating. She was only taller by a millimeter or so, but the idea that puberty was just not happening for me. [Laughs.] It was happening for my sister faster, and now I was shorter than my sister and all my other classmates, which was maddening. So there's an episode about that where Dipper discovers his sister is a tiny bit taller than him, and he loses his mind trying to find magical remedies to the situation. I've had multiple people tell me they had similar experiences of having height competitions with their siblings, marking their height on the wall and being driven to madness not being able to catch up.


Mabel and Dipper

Vox: There is sibling rivalry in this show, even if the kids aren't fighting each other. They're still constantly trying to one-up each other. Where do you draw that from, and how central do you think that is to the relationship of Dipper and Mabel?

AH: It's 100 percent based on my own experience growing up. And it's something that I don't think I ever really articulated or put into words. When you start a show, it's you making a pilot on your own, making a series bible, pitching it, being the one-man-band, and then when you bring on a team, and they start writing parts of the show, you see a reflection of it. Sometimes, that reflection expands it, and other times, you say, "Wait, wait, wait, that's not what it's about," and you have to write out an actual 10 Commandments for how the kids should act around each other.

In my mind, Dipper is a character who wants to grow up too fast. He takes himself too seriously, and he desperately craves respect from everyone around him, particularly from anyone older than him, because he just doesn't want to be a kid. He wants to fast-forward this part of his life.

Mabel is someone who's very comfortable being a kid. She wants to be goofy and silly and have fun all the time. Mabel is a lot smarter than anyone gives her credit for, and she knows in her core that Dipper's quest for maturity is, in itself, immature. So whenever he takes himself too seriously, it is her duty to knock him down a peg. If Dipper is just relaxing and having a good time, Mabel will not give him any harassment. The moment he starts getting too big for his britches, she starts acting intentionally dumb and goofy to get him to take himself less seriously and chill out a little bit. There's a constant tension of Dipper trying to grow up too fast and Mabel trying to subconsciously keep him in that kid space where he should be.

On the other end, there's this inherent tension, which is not spoken much in season one but comes more to the forefront in season two, where Dipper's general ambition and desire to solve mysteries — I imagine back at home he's a lot better academically than Mabel — is something that inherently takes him in a different direction. As kids, everyone remembers their friends in high school, and then they grow up, and friends grow distant, and families can grow distant, too. There's this question of, what will growing up do to the Pines twins? That tension is one that is explored more in the second season.

AVC: In the process of writing a first season, people learn a lot about the characters. You just mentioned how some of the writers would say something that would make you realize something you hadn't noticed before. What were some of the things you realized about these characters?

AH: We're always on a search for what will give us the most stories and what will give us the most fun stories. You enter a series with a roadmap in your head of how you'd like to see characters interact and what you think would be fun. And then you discover which ones of those are powerful limitations and which are limiting limitations.

I think for each character, I discovered a few different things. For Mabel, the main thing I had to consistently remind the writers of is that Mabel is not dumb. She is a ham. It is actually smart to screw with people and have fun. That's not a dumb thing to do. I think, with Mabel, that was the main thing, and that's a thing I always knew. I think the thing I probably discovered about Mabel over the course of the series is that she's actually really hard to write stories for. Because she is generally content to make friends easily, likes herself, and likes her world, she doesn't have a lot that she's at fierce conflict with. Her greatest conflict comes from her fantasy world that she lives in that seems mainly informed by Sweet Valley High and Care Bears. It comes in conflict with the real world when she discovers that she can't always get what she wants, like the perfect boyfriend, for example. Mabel proved to be a little more difficult to do stories about. 

I think the thing I learned about Dipper was that I get a lot better luck writing him when I write him a little more naive than I was at his age. We had an episode that we were trying to break where Mabel was throwing a party, and I was thinking, "What would I be like at Dipper's age?" At Dipper's age, I would want no party in my house. I'd be terrified. I'd just hide and cling to the walls. I wouldn't do anything. So the story was, originally, Dipper tries to stop Mabel's party, and I was like, "Oh God, I hate this kid." [Laughs.] There's nothing likable about a kid whose trait is to stop parties.

Then I thought, okay, what if I was a little less cynical and a little bit more naive and a little bit more positive? Well then, I guess I might try to dance with the girl of my dreams and get shut down. So I realized I needed to write Dipper as actually more sweet, naive, and positive than I was at his age, in order to make stories happen. Larry David often says, when people say, "Oh, is that character really you on Curb Your Enthusiasm?" he says, "Oh, it's me if I was completely unlimited by my inhibitions. If I did what I always thought about doing." I learned Dipper kind of has to have a little more guts to do the things I wanted to do as a kid in order to function as a character. 

The thing we discovered about Stan over the course of the season was just that Stan is a potent spice. He's a big, loud jerk, and if you put too much of that spice in there and have him be too big and too loud and too much of a jerk all of the time, he can become grating and a pain in the neck. Stan should not be mean, I think was the main thing. Stan's out of touch. He means well. He's never taken care of kids before, so he'll inherently say or do the wrong thing, but it comes not out of ill will. It comes just out of a general cluelessness. Those became the rules: Mabel's not dumb; she's a ham. Dipper is smart, but he's still sweet. Stan is not mean; he's out of touch.

Vox: This show perfectly captures that age when you're old enough to not be a little kid but not quite old enough to have some of the responsibilities of being a teenager. How do you and the writers work to remember that time?

AH: We definitely in the writers' room tell stories about when we were that age. We all are familiar with each other's most repeated anecdotes about the most frustrating aspects of growing up. I, myself, I think my brain grew a lot faster than my body when I was about that age, and so every trauma, frustration, thwarted effort and ambition of the middle school years is locked pretty clearly in my mind and heart [Laughs.] to be expanded into entertainment in the show. I think the thing that we always have to keep reminding ourselves of is that it is this age, because it can be easy to write the kids as either too young or it can be easy to write them as little adults. I think we just keep trying to bring it back to real life and trying to look at the things that we cared about when we were 11 through 13.


The cast of Gravity Falls.

Vox: You also have some teenage and adult characters. The teenagers are kind of mysterious. Their motivations aren't always understood. Meanwhile, the adults seem like they're almost there to be disappointed or even angry in a way that the kids don't always understand. How do you guys approach those characters, especially knowing parents and kids will be watching this together?

AH: The show is meant to be seen from the perspective of Dipper and Mabel and being as they are in that 12-year-old, not quite kids, not quite teens, nowhere space, we try to write every character from their perspective.

Grunkle Stan, in their perspective, you spend the summer with a relative that you don't know, and they always feel very mysterious. Me and my sister spent our summers with our great-aunt Lois, and at 8 o'clock every day, she'd say, "Alright. It's book time for three hours." We'd have to be locked in our rooms reading books. God only knows what she was doing during book time. Maybe gardening. Maybe taking a nap. Maybe running a crime syndicate. It could be literally anything. So Grunkle Stan's general, larger-than-life mystery comes from that way you feel when you're a kid about your older relatives, particularly the more distant ones, like gosh, this mythical sense of who on Earth are they?

In terms of teenagers, I remember when I was middle school age, there was literally nothing on Earth more terrifying or more alluring than actual, real teenagers. Nothing could possibly make you feel better than to get approval from a real teenager when you're 12, and nothing could possibly be worse than having to be with one of them who didn't care for you. So that's really all that comes from how can we make this feel the way things felt at that age?

In terms of appealing to audiences of all ages, the question I get asked the most is like, "Oh, so, how do you try to plan it so parents enjoy it as well as kids?" and "Oh, you throw stuff in there for the parents, huh?" Pretty much every single article I've ever read about animation, you can just copy and paste this: "There's something in there for the parents too. There's something in there for the parents too." That is not really how animation writers, at least the ones that I've encountered, think about what they make. There's never this moment of, "Wait, it's too young. Throw in a winking joke about something for the parents." Literally, the whole thing is just us trying to make the funniest thing we can for ourselves. It's always like that. I think I myself am sort of a weird manchild, and so if I like something, there's a good chance that it will appeal to both men and children [Laughs.] simply by virtue of being made by somebody who is sort of in that strange in-between space. I find that you get the best result if you just try to make yourself laugh and not worry about what other people think. If you're tuned in enough, it'll turn out good. And if not, you'll get Darwin'd out of the process and start selling lightbulbs or something.


The cast of Gravity Falls.

Vox: What are the influences on the show's sense of humor?

AH: I can't answer an influence question without saying The Simpsons, first and last. I grew up on The Simpsons, and The Simpsons was what showed me as a kid that animation could be as smart and funny as live-action and sometimes smarter and funnier.

I, personally, loved comedy. I love the comedies that are out there right now. I grew up in the '90s. I watched your Seinfelds and your Simpsons and now I watch your Parks and Recs and your 30 Rocks. I'm crazy about those shows.

My goal was never to work in kids TV, and I was not even attempting that or planning on doing that, and then Disney called me up right out of college and said pitch us something. I thought, aw heck, a kids show, gosh, what kids show on Earth would I even want to watch? I thought, okay, I'd love to just make a straight-up, balls to the wall comedy but I'll never get away with half of the jokes that make me laugh on other networks on the Disney Channel. So if I can't just be a pure, crazy comedy for comedy's sake, maybe I need to be one part comedy, one part mystery, one part sweet, family adventure. I come from comedy, and all the other ingredients in the show are the departures. Those are the things that I'm actually not familiar with that I'm inventing as I go along.

Vox: The serialized story in season one played out in the background, then became very important. How much of that did you plan out?

AH: On season one, most of that stuff was pretty planned out. We wanted season one to be pretty continuity light. There were a few tentpoles that we knew about from a distance, about places where the series was heading, and so we had five or six things that we knew for sure, okay, this will happen in this season, so we can reference or hint about it in this season. Season two has way more of that stuff, because season one was an experiment.

I think a lot of folks who don't work in kids TV don't realize this, but kids animation is its own strange subset of the entertainment industry, and animated kid shows, made in America, on the big three networks, Disney, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon, they are always 11 minutes. They are short. They are like SpongeBobSpongeBob is a show that's 11 minutes. Adventure Time is a show that's 11 minutes. They are over in 11 minutes. They have two 11s in a half hour, and they have their own short structure, and then usually shows like SpongeBob push a reset button. If something explodes in one episode of SpongeBob, in the next episode, it is rebuilt, it is beautiful, right where it used to be, with no indication that it ever exploded.

As a kid that would drive me utterly insane, because I think as a kid I was spoiled by shows for an older audience that wouldn't forget their own canon, and then I'd watch shows from my own age group and be like, "Why do they think I can't remember this?" I think things like Harry Potter have shown us that kids, if given a reason to pay attention, will memorize a thousand character names and their family lineages if you only let them.

This show was an experiment. I thought, I'm not going to make an 11 minute. I'm not going to make a show that resets every time. In this limited kids TV pipeline, I'm going to try to make full half-hours, and I'm going to make this thing be one big growing story because that's the kind of thing that I would have begged for as a kid and never found enough of. I also thought, gosh, why doesn't anybody do this? Why aren't there any shows like this in kids TV? Not on anime kids TV. Anime's been doing it for years, the serialization. Western kids animation's basically never done it. I thought everyone was just being lazy.

I've since learned my answer for why they don't do it [Laughs.], which is, we have smaller budgets and faster turnarounds, and it's really, really hard. [Laughs.] Coming in I was just like, oh, nobody's had the balls. But they've just been scared away, because it's a nightmare to try to do this with so little time and money. I think it's been a rewarding experiment. It makes it like nothing quite else on the kids TV landscape, and I've had such an overwhelming fan response come at me and say, "Thank you for making something worth looking closer at." So that's been really rewarding.

Vox: Season one had really haphazard scheduling, but it didn't really seem to effect your ratings all that much. What was that experience like? Did you get assurance from the network?

AH: Disney is a giant, powerful company, and having it as your friend is sort of like having a brontosaurus as a friend, which is to say, "Wow, it's cool. Look at my pet brontosaurus. It takes over the block. Its neck can stretch over and it can grab anything. It's also kind of big and dumb and might knock over my house or step on my arm. And I know it doesn't mean it. I know it loves me. It's just so damn big." [Laughs.]

I will say this: Disney greatly supports the show. They love Gravity Falls, and they are doing everything they can to make it a hit. I'd say that myself and the network sometimes differ in our opinion of how to best execute this mutual goal, but that is Disney's ultimate goal. The way that they premiere things, the way they pull episodes around, it's all part of their programming departments mission to put episodes around certain tune-in events so that they will maximize ratings and stuff. If it was up to me personally, I would just put the episodes on as soon as they were done, as fast as possible, so that no one would have to wait so long. But it's not up to me. It's not my department.

I will also say that some of the haphazard scheduling is my fault. Some of it just comes down to the fact that the show is hard, and sometimes, we have to delay episodes because they're not done yet. I share a hand in some of the crazy scheduling. But I want to squelch any rumors that any of this comes from a lack of support. Disney loves Gravity Falls. They just sometimes show their love in weird ways.

Vox: You've mentioned The Simpsons and The X-Files and some of these shows that are big influences on the show. What are some of the smaller influences on the series?

AH: I went to California Institute of the Arts animation school at this weird, unique, Petri dish time where I was friends with and went to school with Pen Ward, who created Adventure Time; J.G. Quintel, who created Regular Show; and Thurop Van Orman, who created The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. All of us were in this same Petri dish. Primordial soup bubbled together, and as the result, we also worked together. There's a lot of cross-pollinization of style and of taste and of humor.

Some people have said, "Oh, all these shows coming out from these CalArts kids look or feel kind of similar. They have a similar taste. They're all ripping each other off." The truth of the matter is we all worked together. We're all friends. We all have some similar tastes. There's definitely a "CalArts in 2006" college vibe to my show that can be seen in some of the other shows that are on TV right now that, like I said, comes as a consequence of generational flavor. I think a lot of us grew up in the '90s. We watched The Simpsons. We wanted to make our stuff smarter and weirder and edgier, and there was, in the '90s a lot of the cartoons on TV were sharp and stylized, very slick. There was this inherent rebellion and attempt to make the cartoons a little bit more naturalistic. A little bit less slick and more human. Having the characters be a little more dimensional and caricatured in a more subtle way. I think some of that comes from observation and some of it comes from trying to make something different from what's out there.


Dipper and Mabel head out for an adventure with Soos.

Vox: You're kind of, sort of, on a new network this year. What's that been like, and what does season two look like, in general?

AH: In terms of the network stuff, our job is, we make the show, and we make the best show we can. How the show is promoted, where the show is placed, where it's moved around, are things that are completely out of my control, and so it's not something I have any bearing on. So that's that. [Laughs.] The pros and cons of working for a giant company are that you're seen by a billion kids, and the cons are, it's not really your show, and they can do whatever they want with it.

In terms of season two, basically, our mission has been to take the mystery elements that are seen in season one and to just expand them, tell them more broadly, tell them more mythically. The stakes get higher in this season. There's a much greater focus on continuity and on mystery this season, and I think a lot of that comes from the fact that season one we tested the waters with it. We didn't know if anyone would like it or care or pay attention or take it seriously and when we found that overwhelmingly, yes, our audience was excited by these turns and wanted to see where they were going, we said, alright, we can proceed as originally planned and dig deeper with some of this stuff. Season two tells bigger stories, delves deeper into mysteries, and really starts getting some answers as to how the things in Gravity Falls are interconnected.

I would say beyond that, we see our characters tested in ways they haven't been tested before. Stan is now leading this double life, wherein he is being proprietor to the Mystery Shack, and also we are now privy to the fact that he is got some mysterious project down in his basement, the motivations of which are actually become uncovered over the course of the season. Dipper finds himself more monomaniacal than he's ever been about trying to get to the bottom of how everything is connected. Mabel finds herself, this season, looking a little bit more keenly about what is growing up going to mean for her, and that's a new thing that we look at this season. Wendy, I think, is a character who we try to explore a bit more in this season, less as just a pure love interest and more as someone who can be an adventurer with the rest of the team.

The second season of Gravity Falls debuts tonight on the Disney Channel at 9 p.m. Eastern. Future episodes will debut on Disney XD.

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