Matthew Bass and Theodore Bressman are the co-creators of the SYFY and Peacock animated short series The Pole. The series digs into political issues through the prism of Santa Claus and the North Pole with lots of humor and hypocrisy on display. It also uses short form animation for complex stories and the joy of a bingeable platform.
Awards Daily: What was the inspiration for this show?
Theodore Bressman: There’s obviously not a dearth of Christmas content but it seemed like rarely has anyone approached the North Pole through the prism of the rest of the year. So we thought it would be an interesting take about Santa Claus and the North Pole to explore the political machinations and the inner workings of the toy factory the rest of the year. Then from there it became a pretty organic opportunity to explore our current political landscape, because we felt Santa Claus represents an obvious stand-in for a political leader and that got us going to the version of the show we ended up making which positions the naughty and the nice as political corollaries for the progressive left and the right.
AD: One thing that comes across is Santa as this political figure that we want to be perfect and he can’t. So when he gets into the sex scandal it’s the woman who gets blamed and not him. What made you want to take on him as a character?
Matthew Bass: It kind of started off with the idea that Santa is this iconic character, he’s iconic but he’s not real, which is kind of a crazy thing that we discover. As two Jews we have our own complicated relationship with Christmas, and as we initially started the idea and went to pitch meetings, a lot of people were, like, you can’t do this to Santa. We are, like, he’s not real, we can do whatever we want, he is a fictional character. Then the more we explore who Santa is, besides Father Christmas he runs the factory so he’s a CEO, he runs the town so he’s a mayor. Then we were, like, he can be a political figure, he can be a corporate representative. Then we really landed on the political figure and as that developed we were, like, who do we see him as? That brought us to Bill Clinton, who is flawed but was incredibly popular, and from there we researched more about Bill Clinton and where our society has transitioned to. The fact that he got away with a higher approval rating is kind of crazy. We were watching interviews with Monica Lewinsky and she said what upset her was that it was called the Lewinsky scandal. it should have been the Clinton scandal. He was the one who was in the wrong. That really helped give us the framework.
TB: As we were considering what political figure sort of aligned most closely with the known character traits of Santa we came back to the idea of jolliness, sort of a happy-go-lucky optimistic figure, in spite of everything effortlessly lovable. That created for us a pretty clear connection between Santa Claus and Bill Clinton. What Bass is saying I totally agree with, one of the things we tried to do as the season progresses is explore the political aftermath of what would happen if Bill Clinton had handled that situation more sensitively, with a 2021 lens. We do think in this current political climate the right oftentimes uses Bill Clinton specifically as a personification of the left’s hypocrisy. I think what we tried to do was offer up essentially a political theory of what our landscape would look like if Bill Clinton had pivoted and done the right thing, and what we landed on was nothing would be different actually. But that’s our opinion.
AD: Who was the corollary to Jack the son, who is very self-righteous and wants to be more pure?
MB: Originally we looked at Harry and William, what it means to be the heir apparent, and what it means to be the other guy that has no responsibility whatsoever. It started from that, and we’ve been developing this for years and then we entered the Trump era and we started to give more and more traits of Trump and his rise, and then watching shows like Succession and Game of Thrones, which really helped shape what the show ultimately became, which is a show kind of like Succession where we wanted to see this ambitious son turn evil and want to take the reins.
TB: I think for us what we tried to do was tease a reveal of him being a Trumpian figure. If you retrospectively consider the character traits and his relationship with his father and the level of privilege he grew up with you can see the characteristics and overlap between Jack and Donald Trump. I don’t even know if we told Tim (Simons) that was what we were going for at first, but he definitely leaned into the character and had fun with it for sure.
AD: Was animation a field you always wanted to work in?
MB: Yeah, I think what’s cool about animation. There is a real flexibility of comedy and storytelling. We have always been incredibly inspired by the elevated Pixar movies, The LEGO Movie. The tone of our show, as we were writing it during the pandemic, I think it became harder because the material demanded that. But flexibility was something that appealed to us overall with what animation gave us.
TB: Obviously in animation you can have reindeer walking, talking, having sex. But also, subverting Santa Claus, if it was in live-action I think more people would have taken issue with what we did to him. But doing an animation you get a pass with certain material.
MB: I think personally we were also really inspired by BoJack Horseman. I think that show in particular just lived in two tones, not that our show is so similar tonally, but what we were trying to do was have the show exist on two levels simultaneously. Again it’s like when you watch Bojack there is so much profound storytelling couched within blue humor; that is really what we were trying to do with our show.
AD: While watching the show I kept thinking I knew Santa’s voice and then realized it was Louie from DuckTales. So what was it like working with Bobby Moynihan?
TB: It was great! By the way, working with all the actors: everyone was great, nothing but great things to say about everyone. But it was so tricky for us because the whole thing was done during the pandemic: casting, recording, so we’ve actually never met these people in person. We did the records via Zoom, and Bobby was in his closet. It was very bizarre and I’m certain it was very challenging for all the actors. But they were so great and easy to work with and Bobby just got the character right off the bat and put elements of Chris Farley in the character. He knows the Farley family very well and he just got what we were going for.
AD: How did you both come to work together?
TB: We had both worked as assistants for Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg around the time of Superbad and Bass worked during Knocked Up and Pineapple Express. Then we started writing together and became friends, and then the first screenplay that we sold in, like, 2013 they were technically still producers on. That kind of got us going. Then we worked on Future Man, season one together.
AD: Do you have a second season?
TB: I don’t know if we have a second season yet but maybe if we win an Emmy we will get one!
AD: Are there any other issues you would like to dig into if you get a second season?
TB: We think we landed the political satire we were going for in the first season. I think what would be interesting would be exploring Jack’s presidency through this shortened hindsight, which I think was a really effective narrative tool for us in the first season. We sometimes tease period versions of the second season like the whole thing takes place in the 60s and look at different political eras through the North Pole equipment. the ecosystem of the North Pole that we built both politically and economically. There’s a lot more to it that we hope we can get into. But there is another version of a second season that’s almost like The Wire that looks at a different aspect of the North Pole. What I’m saying on record is our show is as good as The Wire!
MB: The show just moved to Peacock, which we are really excited about because one of the things that is unique for us in short form animation is our show is highly serialized. To live on a platform like Peacock where people can just sit down, smoke a joint, have a bowl of popcorn, and binge the whole thing because I think the whole season is, like, 72 minutes. We are excited to be living on a very bingeable platform.
AD: Is there anything you want to leave our readers with?
MB: I think watching the show like that is something we really believe in because it is so heavily serialized. Our goal for the show was to take a medium that is normally used for just a story or somewhat simplified storytelling and make it really extremely complex and dense. So hopefully people appreciate that.
TB: I think that something we’re most proud of with the show is throughout development people were, like, you can’t do this. It’s too complicated, there are too many characters, too many set pieces. But our animators were on board for whatever we wanted, which was extremely helpful. There is a reason why shows like Succession, The Wire, and Game of Thrones are an hour long. It takes a long time to build our drama but I think we were successful and somehow built drama in twelve minute episodes. So, we are really excited about that and hopefully the audience also digs that.