This summer, Polygon sat down with writer-director Joss Whedon for a singular occasion: the 10-year anniversary of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, one of the first purely online, TV-like phenomena to make it big. Whedon was at San Diego Comic-Con for a Dr. Horrible reunion panel, and to announce that he’d return to the setting in a totally new comic.
A refresher: In July 2008, Whedon directed Dr. Horrible from a script he wrote with Zack Whedon, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. Its first episode was released on DrHorrible.com. The comedic musical followed also-ran supervillain Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) in his pursuit of Penny (Felicia Day), a kind and unsuspecting woman, and in his enmity with Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), a shallow and egotistical superhero.
The three 14-minute episodes, released over the course of a week, won the series critical acclaim, a broad fan community, and enough profits to pay everyone who’d worked on it. That success wasn’t just about compensation, but also proving that successful, professional productions were within the reach of artists even without studio support — a vital message in the midst of the 2008 WGA Strike.
Dr. Horrible: Best Friends Forever, a one-shot story from Dark Horse Comics featuring Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer, is on shelves now. In our conversation below, Whedon discusses the huge changes in online video content and the pop culture status of superheroes in the decade since Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog hit the internet.
[Ed. note: This interview has been condensed.]
Polygon: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog has been around for 10 years, and that means it’s been 10 years since the writers’ strike. Originally, it was just a side project during the writers’ strike to keep your friends occupied, right?
Joss Whedon: Well, it wasn’t a side project in the sense that it was — I was doing it as part of the strike to prove that we could make things without the studios. But then the strike ended before we started shooting. So by the time we put it out, the point was perhaps lost. Though not entirely, because it did make such a splash. Obviously, by the time I was filming it, I was making Dollhouse, so there was a side-y-ness to that.
Is it a surprise to you that it’s something that people still like to cosplay and get into, 10 years on?
It’s never a surprise because that’s what you’re always hoping, secretly, when you’re writing it. And it keeps you going when you have an idea as idiotic as that. It was the same thing with Buffy, where so many people are like, “Nope!” — that you become this insane, harried ... you become like [Dr. Horrible], you have delusions of grandeur. So in that way, it’s not [a surprise]. But it still sells CDs, and that still happens and that is hugely surprising. I did think people would remember it, but then I thought they would just remember it, and not still be watching it and showing it to other people and buying it in the present.
What do you think it is about Dr. Horrible that has kept it so prominent?
[With humor] Really, the writing and directing. [Sincerely] No! I, you know, I think that it’s just — it surprised people because there was a very low bar for anything that was put out on the internet. There had been disasters, like Quarter Life. There were the extended Battlestar things — which were actually great. The Guild existed, but nobody had worked at that level.
And also, people love musicals. They love them. They can’t always admit it, but they love them, because if you can get people, if you can get them in? With Buffy, when we did the Buffy musical [“Once More, with Feeling”], we had the inoculation of, “Why did we start singing? That felt weird, I don’t like that,” so that everybody in the world would be lulled by the first thing in the song being, “That doesn’t happen!” Here’s them saying it. And then they’re like, “OK, I’m with it.”
But with Dr. Horrible, not only did we not do that, it was, “Oh, it’s just a guy talking to a camera. Oh no, wait, wait, what?” We really hit them in the face with it. Thing is, if you get the music to a place where it sounds contemporary enough, if it’s funny, and lifts you up? It works. There is something so pure about something that is sung.
That was going to be my next question, about the musical nature of it and how that can keep something alive. You can sing a song over and over again.
Yeah. It’s hard to get a scene stuck in your head.
Here’s a dumb story that isn’t even a question — I’m part of a nerdy a cappella group in New York —
— and for years we’ve had a song from Dr. Horrible, composed. Why haven’t we learned it? Well, it’s because we’ve been busy. But! It’s still a thing 10 years on. People want to, certainly people in my group, want to participate in that by doing it.
I think “participate” is an important word. I think that there is an element of engagement with an audience. First of all, it was on the internet — you went and sought it out. And now to find it, you have to get a CD or get iTunes or whatever, and you sort of are in the club. And it definitely had that “let’s put on a show” budget, and it has that sort of ramshackle feeling. And then we did the fan videos for applications for the Evil League of Evil — we got, like, 600. I feel like any good fiction, you feel like you’re a part of the universe. But in this case, it almost feels like you’re part of the universe, but you’re also part of the troupe of creative people who made the universe. And I think that’s something that’s rare that I’ve never thought about before, but I think that’s part of that.
Back in 2008, I’m thinking back, people made “webseries,” and now we’re getting original video projects for YouTube and original-to-streaming stuff. Do you think it would be easier — notwithstanding the writers’ strike and the motivation — do you think it would be easier to do Dr. Horrible now? Would it be even bigger as it came out now? Or would it just be another thing among many?
Hard to say. It’s always like, you can’t take something and put it in a new landscape and go, “This is [it].” It definitely wouldn’t surprise people as much as it did, because there have been a lot of things since then in that territory. And we’re all conversant in social media and computers in a way that we weren’t then. I’m a bit of a grandpa, but I think a lot of people are, so there’s an element of [...] there’s all this crazy good entertainment that’s available from the strangest sources.
[Dr. Horrible] might be bigger, and people would be like, “Oh good, make more!”, and we could. But I think it wouldn’t have been — we wouldn’t have been pioneers if we let somebody swim over first. Not that the people didn’t, because Felicia definitely did. She was definitely on a boat before the Mayflower.
And certainly we’ve evolved in how to put things online — and we also have much more of a cultural understanding of what superheroes are, and superhero tropes and supervillains.
I think that we’re a part of a lineage of [depicting the schlub hero, the day-to-day life of the hero]. And it was early days then. We were being very serious about our characters while we making fun of them. Now it’s hit the mainstream, and now they can make fun of their characters while they’re being very serious about them, which is a nice place to be at. You can do it without breaking the fourth wall.
You’re returning to Dr. Horrible with this one-shot comic — who is it focusing on, and why did you want to come back to them specifically?
In a way it, was sort of created backwards. I was like, “We should do a one-shot,” if we’re going to do a reunion panel, just to celebrate our partnership with Dark Horse, and it’s been a while. And then they were like, “OK, well, we need a cover image.” So I picked a cover image. And then I pitched the copy on the cover image, and then I wrote the comic. But it was great, because it gave me this great loose focus.
The cover is Captain Hammer and his best friend Dr. Horrible, and it says “Buddies!” And then under, it says, “Plus! The return of Penny! Not a dream sequence!” And then in parentheses, “It’s a dream sequence.” And so I knew I had that, coming in. They’re best friends for some reason and ... there’ll be a dream sequence.
This was one where I followed it. Usually I’m insane about structure, but was like, “I know how I want to start.” And then it just kept unfolding. And it really unfolded in like, “Oh, this is a very classical structure, and here’s where the dream sequence goes, and here’s why it’s in there. Oh, and it’s sort of sad! I can make it a little depressing too. Put a little of that flavor in there.” After 20 pages of idiotic jokes.
So it was a lovely process of just hearing these guys talk to me again and just going off. I don’t get to be that silly very often.