Retrofuture Shock: Moonbeam City and the Music and Style of the '80s

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If you tune into Comedy Central at the right time tonight you’ll think the 1980s crawled into your television and died. It’s just Moonbeam City, the network’s latest edgy cartoon, which is an elaborate homage to the music, style and sensibilities of the Reagan era. It even features the voice of ‘80s pin-up Rob Lowe as the vain and irresponsible cop Dazzle Novak, with Elizabeth Banks, Will Forte and Kata Mara playing his boss, rival and partner, respectively. The art style is ripped straight from Duran Duran’s Rio and the walls of every nail salon in America. Created by Conan writer and Funny or Die filmmaker Scott Gairdner, Moonbeam City throws every ‘80s reference and absurd joke it can get away with into a blender and pours the resultant concoction directly into your home every Wednesday night. Paste recently spoke to Gairdner about why he loves the ‘80s and what to expect from Moonbeam City. And if you want to see a musical clip from tonight’s premiere, click here.

Paste: What’s your frame of reference for the ‘80s? Were you alive and aware at the time?

Scott Gairdner: I was only alive for half of it, and aware for even less. The roots of the show are definitely in my vague, fleeting memories of being in like Tomorrowland in Disneyland when I was 3 and how much I responded to Tomorrowland at the time, with pink neon everywhere. There was like a Tron tunnel. I feel like I have these infant affections for like neon and lasers and grids. But a lot of the show is definitely aiming for what I’m now fond of that I wasn’t alive for. Because the early ‘80s I missed entirely. Stuff I’m retroactively interested in.

Paste: Have you been on Space Mountain recently? As an adult?
SG: I’m at Disneyland so constantly. I’m a mega-Disneyland fan.

Paste: I try to go there whenever I’m in LA and that blast of retrofuturistic nostalgia when you go up that tunnel as it’s like spiraling around you, it’s so amazing.

SG: You’d think Disneyland fandom would be this tumor that ruins our life and make you unrelatable to most people, but my wife and I are both huge Disneyland and Disney World fans. We’ve both found this affection for Epcot Centre. It opened in 1982 and is this imagining of the future from the point of view of the ‘80s. We’ve been there a few times and it blows our mind, there’s just something so cool about the cross-section of the ‘80s and the future. There’s a ton of that at Disney. I’m also a huge Back to the Future 2 fan also, and Robocop and Blade Runner. ‘80s future was such a great, fruitful time, aesthetically. So many great movies and TV shows come out of that.

Paste: I feel like we haven’t surpassed it yet. Nothing has seemed as futuristic as future stuff from the ‘80s seemed. I don’t know if that’s just because we haven’t had such a clear-cut “future” aesthetic since then, or if I just happened to be a kid when that was the idea of the future.

SG: Even ‘50s and ‘60s future is full of synthesizers and silver. Once that was first portrayed on film or in comics, or whatever, it just stuck. I don’t know when we get there. When we get to be, like, “in the future.” I’m ready for it. We’re in the year of Back to the Future 2 year, and what gives? No hover boards, no hovercards. That’s what Moonbeam City is trying to rectify. Although we don’t specifically have hover boards in the show.

Paste: What specifically about that aesthetic do you think is still so powerful today?

SG: Especially musically, there’s this angsty, inspiring feeling that I get from really cool synth stuff. I feel like a long time the take on the ‘80s was that it was stupid with corny keyboards and big hair, but a lot of people now are discovering what’s cool and magical about that time. I’m a megafan of Prince and the Cars, and that kind of stuff, just layers and layers of synths and drum machines that create these emotional experiences. I’m happy that people are playing in that world a lot now. This Carly Rae Jepsen album is really freaking me out. I think she’s also in that world, trying to be Prince, somebody who you’d think would be a corny pop star is trying to do Prince stuff.

Paste: Did Rob Lowe or other cast members give you pointers on the era when making the show?

SG: Any glimpse you can get of Rob’s past in the ‘80s is just amazing. I feel like he doesn’t remember a lot of it? There are a lot of big holes in his memory? But I’ve listened to his audiobook, both of them, front to back, and there are so many great stories in those. I feel like he just interacted [with everybody]—every recording session we’re tempted to go in armed with five names of big figures from the ‘80s and see what stories Rob has. Because for almost every one of them he does. He revealed in our Comic-Con panel that he stole a girlfriend from John Taylor from Duran Duran. He just threw that fact out and it got picked up by Deadline as a tabloid story. But that’s just a drop in the bucket. Somehow we started talking about Don Simpson, the producer of Top Gun and stuff, and Rob’s like “oh, he loved me. We had a lunch a lot and tried to do something that never worked out.” He was on the floor for the “Showtime” Lakers all the time. He talked about being on stage with the Beach Boys in Detroit or something and he’s like “I think Glenn Frey brought me up.” He was just in the nexus, exactly in the crosshairs of that era. It makes him such a perfect guy to have for this. In our first recording session with him we showed him a mock-up of what Dazzle was going to look like, and he said “oh, I remember when I looked like this.” Which was very true. Even before he signed on, young Rob Lowe was one of our main visual cues for Dazzle. He is such a perfect guy to do this because he’s so steeped in that world.

Paste: Speaking of the visual style of Dazzle and the other characters, when did you strike on that cocaine-skin Patrick Nagel art style?

SG: I knew that aesthetic, but didn’t even know it was associated with a specific artist. I knew it from like laundromats and nail salons, there’s a version of that kind of artwork. I knew that primarily, from those kind of paintings rusting in windows in my neighborhood. Also Jem and the Holograms is a big influence on the style of the show, I was kind of scared of but also in love with any ‘80s cartoon where the characters looked more human than not. They just always kind of freaked me out.

Paste: When I watch Moonbeam City it also makes me think of videogames like GTA: Vice City or Far Cry: Blood Dragon, and the bad guys seem like they could be from Double Dragon. Were videogames an influence on the show?

SG: I’m not a huge gamer myself, but a lot of people who work on the show are. I’m definitely aware that there’s been games with that aesthetic. When I thought of this area to put a show in I as worried that it was too specific. Like did people have an entry point on this? And then I realized there’s Blood Dragon and this game Hotline Miami and it encouraged me. I think 12-year-olds watching on Comedy Central will definitely have an “in” for this kind of aesthetic. What hasn’t been done, luckily, is this style combined with really stupid comedy [laughs]. I’m happy to be the first guy to get to do it.

Paste: Are 12-year-olds the target audience?

SG: [laughing] Well, you know, young dudes watch Comedy Central, and we have to be mindful of who’s naturally watching the channel. I remember being a 12-year-old watching Comedy Central. In terms of… Comedy Central kind of guided us, when we came in the idea was more about, with this style of artwork, the idea was more about models and photographers, and it was about this hyperglamorous of super attractive models and stuff. And Comedy Central said “keep in mind, young dudes watch this channel. It’s up to you to take that note.” So we were like “let’s give ‘em guns. Let’s add violence.” And that’s how we made it for dudes. Comedy Central’s been great in general about not babysitting us and reminding us at every step and line who’s watching the channel, but it just in general, broad strokes, here’s how it’s a Comedy Central. They’ve been great in that regard, nudging us but never forcing us to do what we don’t want to do.

Paste: That’s pretty indicative of the ‘80s itself, that contrast between the glitz and the glam and then all those violent cop shows and revenge films and the panic over crime on the streets, and all that.

SG: And Miami Vice was always a reference point, so making it a cop show and more violent upped that level of influence. Yeah, oddly attractive people dealing with gritty stuff. Or not dealing with it, in our case. Ignoring it to do something else.

Paste: So you’ve written for Conan. You’ve written lots of Funny or Die shorts. How’s the transition to writing longer comedy narratives going?

SG: It’s been great. I was initially scared and thought I couldn’t pull off the time, but as we’ve gone on, and especially as we’ve added great other writers, the problem has actually been cutting it down. Everybody on the show has done a lot of sketches and doesn’t get to do a lot of longer form comedy, so they’re really excited to get to stretch out a little bit. It was funny for me, ping-ponging from Funny or Die, where there’s no real set formula and you’re making short films and you can sprawl out and take your time, and then I got to Conan which his more of a precision form, like you’re trying to get a laugh every couple of seconds and really trying to work that studio audience, which was a new skill for me to get to have. But I was very excited to just spread out a little more. Telling stories, I think every one of these episodes is like a mini-movie. It’s been cool. Sketches can be kind of formulaic and limiting in their own way once you’ve done them for a while, so I love this.

Paste: What’s the best way to tell a writer that they have a bad idea?

SG: [Laughs] To stammer and hem and haw and not look them in the eye and try to steer the idea somewhere else. We didn’t have a writers’ room where like “I’m the boss, and that’s not going to work.” I heard a story, I won’t say who this was or what show, but I heard a story where writers would pitch to the head writer and he would keep a newspaper in front of his face and if he liked the idea he would lower the newspaper and nod. And that’s how you know he liked it. I actually know that process was for a show that didn’t get on the air. And I think this show has to be very fun to work on. I mean, I think. You’ve got to be firm with stuff and not send people down a wrong direction, but it’s a small staff of likeminded people, so it was a super fun writers’ room.

Paste: You mentioned the music earlier. I know you have the band Night Club doing all the music for the show. Did you give them any pointers or just tell ‘em to go and do their thing?

SG: We lucked into a great situation with Night Club. Mark Brooks and Amy Cavanaugh are the musicians in Night Club, and Mark Brooks is a prolific director at Titmouse, where we animated the show. When we got to Titmouse I was like, wow, Mark Brooks is free. He doesn’t have a project right now, so we can put him on it, and he already has a band that makes sexy, sultry ‘80s synth beats. It was a real stars aligning kind of thing. The theme song of the show is actually an instrumental of a preexisting Night Club song, so they were already in this world, with a Depeche Mode / Gary Numan kind of sound. The composer and director are the same person in a lot of cases, so it has a tonal consistency that is really cool.

But there are also a lot of musical projects within the show. Not everything is synthed out. And there are specific situations, like we asked for something like the Fletch theme, or something that’s more like scary, pre-Nine Inch Nails industrial. Lots of fun little mini synth assignments. There’s also this ridiculous, kind of bad rockabilly song we got obsessed with in the writers’ room, especially celebrity bands, and we thought that’d be a good way to show Dazzle’s vanity, by him having this horrible band called Buster Brown’s Midnight Moonshine and the Texas Holdem Boys. And we knew we needed Rob to sing, we would have failed in this first season if we didn’t get Rob Lowe to sing. So this band that’s usually making just totally super rad synth jams, now they have to make this rockabilly song with the worst one-note guitar solo you’ve ever heard. There’s a song that’s a Toto homage called “Aquatica” that we’re very proud of. If you like music and comedy there are a lot of really dumb songs in the show.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections.

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