‘The Great North’ creators on what makes the Tobins special: Interview

The Great North creators Lizzie and Wendy Molyneux would like for you to like their new show, and the adorable family at its center. But if you don’t? Well, that’s just as fun for them.

“Nothing makes me laugh more than someone who just truly did not like it,” Wendy tells Mashable over the phone, in an interview from when the series joined Fox’s Sunday night lineup in January. 

“Most of the (social media) reactions have been positive, but whenever I see someone who has no idea I exist on the other end of the computer, who watches it and is like, ‘Well, that’s a NO from me!’ it just makes me laugh.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone taking umbrage with a cartoon about a single dad and his kids living in small-town Alaska. But The Great North does have its naysayers, and, when asked about viewer reactions thus far, that’s who the Molyneux sisters bring up first. 

“Nothing makes me laugh more than someone who just truly did not like it.”

“It’s almost sort of a relief to know that some people don’t like it at all,” Lizzie, the younger of the two, agrees. “It’s like, ‘OK. Someone just hates it. Good! So I can relax.'”

Wendy and Lizzie began writing together on Loren Bouchard’s Bob’s Burgers, and as with Apple TV+’s Central Park, The Great North is openly similar to Bob’s in visual style and comedic tone; Bouchard executive produces The Great North alongside Wendy, Lizzie, and Minty Lewis, known for Cartoon Network’s Regular Show

But pressure to live up to the Belchers, arguably the most beloved family in network television, can be intense. On , The Great North currently has a 100% approval rating from critics, but a 54% average audience score. On Twitter, reviews have been similarly mixed. And, for good or bad, comparisons between The Great North‘s Tobins and Bob’s Burgers Belchers have been frequent.

"I mean, it's a Nick Offerman character named ‘Beef.’ It just *felt* right."

“I mean, it’s a Nick Offerman character named ‘Beef.’ It just *felt* right.”

But talking to the sisters who created this fictional family of six, it’s not hard to see that their inspirations go far beyond “be like Bob’s Burgers.” Although both shows did start with “Beef.”

On naming conventions in The Great North

The Great North began its writers room in July 2018, but inspiration struck long before then. 

“Wendy and I had always talked about trying to do our own show with Loren, since we’d been at Bob’s Burgers for 10 years,” Lizzie recalls. “And much like Loren did with Bob (and voice actor H. Jon Benjamin), we started by thinking about who were the voices and people we really wanted to work with.” 

The first name on their list was Nick Offerman, known in The Great North as loving dad Beef Tobin. 

“There’s nothing else to consider. We couldn’t have like changed it to ‘Chad.'”

The Molyneuxs had met the husky-voiced actor pre-Parks and Rec fame, on his wife Megan Mullaly’s 2006 talk show. Wendy and her husband Jeff Drake were writers on the series, and started trading bits in the show’s production office with Offerman whenever he came by. 

They stayed in touch, and over the years, Offerman became a kind of muse for the Molyneuxs. It was creating his character, the sisters say, that really jumpstarted the show. 

“We came up with (the name ‘Beef’) as almost sort of a placeholder,” Lizzie says. “I mean, it’s a Nick Offerman character named ‘Beef.’ It just felt right. We weren’t necessarily sure that it would stick forever, but then we started building off of that personality.”

“I mean, it kind of became this situation where it was just like, ‘Yeah, his name has to be Beef,'” Wendy adds. “There’s nothing else to consider. We couldn’t have like changed it to ‘Chad.'”

Bet they're watching Bob's.

Bet they’re watching Bob’s.

On writing a Bob-Linda-type romance

Beef’s eldest son, voiced by Will Forte, is named Wolf, though Lizzie describes the character as more of a Golden Retriever type. His fiancé, voiced by the illustrious Dulcé Sloan, is named Honeybee. She’s a friendly Californian, just getting acquainted with life in Alaska’s icy tundra. Together, the pair make The Great North‘s central romantic couple. 

“They’re both wild and nuts and whatever, but in the exact same way.”

“There’s a common thing in pilots and new shows of someone who’s a bit of an outsider, who can be the audience’s POV,” Wendy explains. “And so when when we realized we wanted to work with Will and develop Wolf around (Will’s talents as an actor), we thought, ‘Well, Wolf could be getting married to someone he met on the internet who is not from Alaska and that can give the viewers a way in.'” 

Enter Honeybee.The Molyneuxs made sure not to keep the effervescent Fresno native out of her comfort zone for too long. In the first season alone, the fearless bride-to-be wrangles a moose and pretends to be a frozen corpse — classic Alaskan pastimes, at least in The Great North. She is, of course, a natural.

“One thing we like about Linda and Bob is that they’re a team,” Lizzie says of the importance of putting the pair on equal footing. “They genuinely like each other. There’s not that kind of nagging or volatile relationship (you sometimes see). We wanted Wolf and Honeybee to have that kind of relationship too, where they’re both wild and nuts and whatever, but in the exact same way. So they boost each other up and support each other.”

"They boost each other up and support each other."

“They boost each other up and support each other.”

To hear the Molyneuxs tell it, casting Forte and Sloan as Wolf and Honeybee was easy.

“(When we’re recording,) if either of them starts talking about just something from their day or something they’re up to, it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever heard,” Lizzie says. “They’re not doing it on purpose. (Forte and Sloan’s) voices and the way they’re so naturally funny together just fits.”

On Moon and voice actor Aparna Nancherla

Finding a voice for the Tobins’ youngest family member, 10-year-old boy Moon, proved tougher. But when Aparna Nancherla, an adult woman, read for the part, the Molyneuxs agreed Nancherla was Moon and all other bets were off. 

“When we first conceived of the character, it was more of a chaotic energy.”

“When we first conceived of the character, it was more of a chaotic energy, more of a total wild man,” Wendy says. “Then, when we heard Aparna’s voice and looked at the Moon drawing — Aparna has a sort of natural gravity to her voice and that very measured pace and seriousness — and suddenly, we were like, ‘Oh wow, Moon is very different than we were thinking.'” 

“So we actually play him as more of an adult sometimes,” Lizzie explains. “But I think with the character of Moon and also with Louise (from Bob’s Burgers), it’s about finding those moments within episodes, especially episodes that center around them, where you want to gently remind the audience that they’re still a little kid. So Moon can handle tracking an animal and being off on his own and he drinks coffee and he pictures himself as this worldly adult. But then he still he wants to make sure that he’s there when his dad comes to tuck him in at night.” 

"Suddenly, we were like, 'Oh wow, Moon is very different than we were thinking.'"

“Suddenly, we were like, ‘Oh wow, Moon is very different than we were thinking.'”

Working in animation, Wendy explains, “You can hear these special characteristics in people’s voices, and sometimes they’ll give you a 180 on the character.” In this instance, Nancherla’s delivery helped Wendy revisit her childhood and make Moon a more relatable character.

“When I was 12, I walked out to a parking lot somewhere that we were and someone asked me to move my car,” Wendy laughs. “I mean, I think back on myself and I don’t really have any memories of feelings like a little kid! So I don’t know what happened, but I did find it quite easy to connect with (Moon’s) energy.”

On Alanis Morisette

Visit the Tobins on Fox Sunday nights and you’ll meet more charming family members, like Tobin teenagers Judy, voiced by Jenny Slate, and Ham, voiced by Paul Rust. (Ham, Lizzie explains of the name choice, is “an adjacent meat to beef.” So, like father, like son. Beef and Ham.) 

If it’s the right episode, you’ll even get a glimpse of Alanis Morissette — yes, Canadian music icon Alanis Morissette — playing a fantasy Aurora Borealis-inspired version of herself. She plays a kind  maternal role for Judy in the series, like an alt-rock fair godmother. Really.

“We always wanted to Judy to be this character with a larger than life imagination,” Lizzie says. “We wanted her to be able to tap into her fantasy life very easily. And I think from that came the idea of ‘What if she had her inspiration or muse or someone in her imaginary world she could talk to?'” 

Oh Alanis <3

Oh Alanis <3

Describing themselves as “intense” Alanis Morissette fans growing up, the Molyneux sisters were surprised when the singer-songwriter agreed to actually voice the role for the show. (“Maybe she’s pranking us,” Wendy jokes.) But in The Great North, these wonderful sorts of things just work out. 

The Great North airs Sundays on Fox and stream next day on Hulu.

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