In the seven years since Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog first popped up for free on iTunes, the production of creative TV content exclusively for the internet has become shockingly commonplace. Now that shows made by Netflix and Amazon routinely win Emmys, it’s crazy to think how unusual Dr. Horrible was at the time: made on a shoestring budget, released for free, only on the internet. Of course, it ended up becoming a cult phenomenon and a trailblazer for online content. When the cast (Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day, and Nathan Fillion) reunited with creator Joss Whedon for a panel at PaleyFest moderated by The New York Times’ David Itzkoff, they reflected on the production process and the way it struck a chord with fans.
Here are the most interesting things we learned from the Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog reunion:
-How it came about: Whedon describes Dr. Horrible as his “midlife crisis” — naturally, only the creator of sharp-witted yet emotionally resonant genre-bending works like Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer would have his midlife crisis take the form of an internet supervillain musical. Dr. Horrible was conceived and created during the 2008 writers’ strike — in fact, Whedon first reached out to Day about it on the strike line. Fillion, who had worked with Whedon on Firefly, and Harris, who had buffed his musical chops on Broadway by that point, were already on board.
“I asked if you’d seen The Guild. You didn’t have to say anything! But you said, ‘Oh yeah, I saw it and loved it,’” Day recalled. “You said ‘I’m actually working on a supervillain musical’ and I pooped myself. Later I got an email that was just, ‘Can you sing?’ Signed, ‘J.’ Then I pooped again.”
-No one thought it would work: Harris recalled doing one of the first screenings of Dr. Horrible in Austin and Day telling them about this new thing she and her friends were using called Twitter. “That sounds terrible!” Harris remembered saying.
At such an early stage in the development of our current online landscape, perhaps it’s understandable that people thought the project might fail. Even the cast had their doubts. “We all knew that creatively it was great, the question was whether it was going to have legs or just peter out,” Harris said.
If the packed audience full of cosplaying fans singing along at the pre-panel screening are any indication, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog indeed had legs. Whedon recalled attending a film school reunion right before the first episode debuted, and one of his financially successful classmates brushed it off. Recently, Whedon ran into the same classmate again and got to deploy “my favorite statistic.”
“I made more money off Dr. Horrible than the first Avengers movie,” Whedon said.
-Production was stunningly bare-bones: At the panel, Whedon said that only five months passed from the time he first pitched the project to his brothers Jed and Zach (who helped write and compose) to its online release. This “bonkers” time-frame meant that the team had to work fast and make do with minimal production values. This applied from everything to wardrobe (Day said she used much of her own clothes for Penny) to the lyric-writing process (Whedon hardly rewrote or crossed-out lyrics).
“We were on the fly so it was just like, ‘this works, let’s go with it,’” Whedon said. “I try not to fix things that already work. No second-guessing.”
Harris even said that recording the song sequences sometimes had to involve a crew member standing just behind the camera blasting the soundtrack from a boombox.
-Why villains are interesting: In many superhero stories, the supervillain ends up being the most compelling character (looking at you, Heath Ledger’s Joker). Dr. Horrible took this pheonmenon a step further by casting the supervillain as the relatable protagonist. Itzkoff asked Whedon, who has since brought the memorable villain Ultron to life in the titular Avengers sequel, about the enduring appeal of supervillains.
“Supervillains get to say what we’re all thinking — the world is broken and needs fixng,” Whedon said. “They’re very bad at fixing it, but they’re the mischief, the trickster, the kid, where the hero is the authority figure.”
According to Whedon, what ends up making Horrible so villainous (and so tragic) is his mansplaining. He pines after Penny but when they finally interact, he brushes her off to do evil.
“The reason we had both Horrible and Captain Hammer sing ‘A Man’s Gotta Do’ together is to show they both have this determination to solve problems in a specific way,” Whedon said. “Now when I watch it, that moment makes me really sad, because it’s like, ‘that’s why Penny’s going to die.’ That’s the moment.”
-Dr. Horrible’s biggest fan: When one fan asked Whedon who he was most surprised to learn was a Dr. Horrible fan. Whedon reseponded by admitting that he had just recently written “the dorkiest fan letter” to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the celebrated auteur of the smash Broadway musical Hamilton. Whedon said that Miranda’s response had been, “now you know how we felt when Dr. Horrible came out. #WeDoTheWeirdStuff.”