Joss Whedon on Emmys, Dr. Horrible and the future

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Writer/producer/director Joss Whedon has his hands full: In addition to writing the second-season premiere episode of his Fox sci-fi series Dollhouse, he's prepping it (he'll also direct) and is putting the finishing touches on Cabin in the Woods, the upcoming horror movie that he's producing and co-wrote with director Drew Goddard.

But he wasn't too busy to talk with SCI FI Wire on Thursday about the surprising and well-deserved Emmy nomination he received for the unprecedented Web musical Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, which was announced that morning. Dr. Horrible was one of the nominees in the brand-new Emmy category of short-format live-action entertainment program. (The nominees also included Syfy.com's Battlestar Galactica: The Face of the Enemy, written by Whedon's onetime Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer Jane Espenson.)

"{It's] definitely nice to be the only completely original piece on there that is unrelated to any other event, be it brilliant television series or football game," Whedon said with tongue typically in cheek, referring to fellow nominee "Bruce Springsteen Super Bowl Halftime Show."

As for how he felt when he got the news? "It felt nice," Whedon said with understatement. "I mean, you know, I tend to soften everything. I don't, ... I tend not to get too excited about things. Because otherwise I'd be more bipolar than I already am. And so I sort of went, 'Oh, how pleasant.' And then, also, you know, and let's be perfectly honest, if there's one person who knows it's an honor just to be nominated, it's me. This is probably as good as it's going to get."

Despite creating such acclaimed shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, Whedon's only previous nomination was for writing the Buffy episode "Hush," which he didn't win.

Joss Whedon at Paley Fest

The new nomination is a vindication for Whedon's risky creative decision to make Dr. Horrible, with the help of his brothers Zack Whedon (a television writer) and Jed Whedon (a composer) and actress Maurissa Tancharoen, who is also Jed's wife. (She prefers the designation "writer/actress/wife/ruler of all the Whedons.")

The 43-minute musical centers on the title wannabe supervillain, played by Neil Patrick Harris, who secretly pines for Penny (Felicia Day) while scheming to vanquish the superhero Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) and gain entry into the Evil League of Evil.

In our exclusive interview with Whedon, he talks about what the nomination means for the nascent creative endeavor of Web programming and what's next for Dr. Horrible. Following is an edited version of our interview.

This is a new category, and it almost feels like this category was created just for Dr. Horrible, doesn't it?

Whedon: I can't go on record as saying that, but I sure hope you print it [laughs]. I mean, there's definitely, you know, there's definitely good stuff being done that has to be, that's really become more than just an advertising tool for the other shows and stuff. ...

When you started out Dr. Horrible, as I recall, it was kind of a lark, and kind of a thing just for you and your friends to just put on a show.

Whedon: Well, it was and it wasn't. When it first started, it was really about the [writers'] strike. And it was about proving that we could do things on our own. We did prove that. We didn't prove that we could do it during the strike, because by the time we actually got around to production, the strike had ended. And so, at that point, for us, it became a bit of a lark. In the sense that we're still going to do it because it's fun, and it's musical, and we love it. And it always had that sort of joy to it. But the other agenda of, you know, making an impact on the industry just had sort of, you know, fallen into the background. So this does kind of make my head spin a bit. ...

There are several ironies in this. One of them is that you were previously nominated for writing a Buffy episode with the fewest actual words in it ...

Whedon: Um-hum.

And now you're nominated for a program that's not even on television.

Whedon: Yes, it seems the only way I can get in through the door, ... to get into the party, is by way of the dumbwaiter. Not even the back door. I'm thinking the dumbwaiter.

Jane Espenson

And here's another irony: You're up against your former colleague, Jane Espenson.

Whedon: That's not an irony. That's simple math. It has to be one of them. I have too many awesome writers in my past. However, I do want to go on record as saying that Jane is a hack and she phoned it in, and I think she had a ghost writer, and ... No. I loved those episodes.

Have you spoken with her today?

Whedon: No, I haven't. Jed and Riss [Maurissa] are in the office with me, and even though their names aren't even on the nomination, it's obviously their baby as much as it's mine. And you know, it's a little funky because the line producers are on the thing, and then the creators aren't, which isn't how it usually works in television. So I feel a little, I'm like, so we can share. But we're all sort of like, "Yay! That's so cool. What is that? It's a category too long for us to say. OK, let's get back to work."

You were sort of evolving into this after Dr. Horrible's success, but now that you are the Emmy-nominated co-creator of Dr. Horrible, you are the new guru and visionary for Web-based original entertainment.

Whedon: [With faux grandiosity] I truly am. And I have come to lead my people into the waters of unlimited creativity and wildly limited profit.

Captain Hammer

But seriously, what do you think this nomination means? Not just for you, but the fact that the Academy has created this new category and clearly people are looking at Dr. Horrible and other sorts of things like this? What do you think this does for the prospect of people creating their own work and putting it on the Web with minimal interference from actual suits?

Whedon: You know, it absolutely is a step. And it absolutely means a great deal that the Academy went ... and recognized that some of the ... entertainment that they're focused on is happening outside of conventional television. And it's my hope that more people, ... that the next time these nominations come up, there will be more than one company listed that is independent.

Because, ultimately, it's still hard. And a lot of people have said, "Well, it's easy for you to say, 'Go and do this.' You have a fan base. Where do we get one of those?" And the fact of the matter is, it was easier for me in some ways. However, we still had to get it done. And you'll get somebody like Felicia Day, who really is a home brew, who is really getting it done on her own, you know? And she's proof positive, more than the work I'm doing, that there's not only a market out there, but it's a market for people that aren't necessarily already established.

Are you talking about Day's Web series The Guild there?

Whedon: I'm talking about The Guild, I'm talking about the way she handles the internet, the way she's monetized The Guild, as well as written it and starred in it. ... That's a complete home brew in a way that ... me and my advantages wouldn't have made. And I'm hoping that more people will be able to pursue that. And that more people who do have the kind of advantages I have will use them for something like this. Who will take that risk.

I mean, ultimately, you know, the profit that this show has generated might not excite News Corp. or Time Warner, but it's not terrible. It's fairly impressive. And we all know that the mediums are shifting and that television is struggling to figure out how the rise of the computer is going to affect it. And the Guilds are struggling, and I really feel the best way to deal with that is just to get out there ... and to make stuff. And to make it in a way that is equitable with all of the [talent] guilds. We dealt with all of them, you know, very specifically. In many cases, without any kind of precedent, where we had to create it as we went along. But making sure that, you know, while creating something very small and independent and on the fly, we weren't bucking the guilds or making things worse when we were trying to make things better. And we were able to do that without incurring prohibitive costs or anything like that. It is a model. I haven't seen a lot of people following it on their own. I've seen the bigger entities sort of sniffing around it, and in some cases, like The Office and Battlestar, doing great work there. But I'm looking for more people to do it. I'd be doing it more, but Fox forgot to cancel my show.

They tried.

Whedon: Very awkward. They looked and said, "Oh, this is our bad. We forgot to cancel your show. You're going to have to make more."

I know you were contemplating some kind of follow-up for Dr. Horrible. But this certainly adds momentum to that effort.

Whedon: Well, it certainly doesn't slow us down, does it? [laughs] We have been in, and continue actively to contemplate [it]. We're all extremely busy, but we're all really motivated. This is just ... yet another moment of going, "My God." This is the kind of thing, you know, that is, ... just the effect is snowballing. And, in a way, it makes you a little skittish. It's like, we don't want to do a Horrible that's horrible. You know? We don't want to blow it.

Now the pressure's on.

Whedon: You know, it's like, yeah, it could be great, or it could be Arthur 2. We don't know. But at the same time, it motivates me, not only to do more, not only work in the Horrible realm, and also, just, who doesn't want to play with those guys? But just generally, I'm very anxious to do more stuff on the Internet, either with other people or just in my own small capacity. You know? Just to keep testing the models. Just to keep it fresh and keep surprising people, including myself. Because none of what has happened has surprised anyone more than it surprised me.