» BronyCon Q&A: M.A. Larson

As part of BronyCon 2013, press members were granted access to a “press conference” style Q&A session with various VIPs. The Round Stable was in attendance. For the first in this series, we present MA Larson!

Sitting in front of a group that could be deemed the fandom press, M.A. Larson is asked about BronyCon, and how it feels to be the center of attention at a convention like this. His answer reflects his attitude:

“It doesn’t make any sense.”

He adds that he finds it “insane” to see jokes he wrote for episodes being plastered on t-shirts, and more than once references his shock at the large crowds which permeate the Baltimore Convention Center. Laid back and humorous, Larson is straight-forward and honest about his run as an animation writer.

Reading the Writers

Towards the beginning of the hour-long session, Larson gives a fairly thorough run-through about the precise process in which a Friendship is Magic episode is conceived and comes to fruition. At the beginning of a season, a weekend writer’s summit is held. Everyone on the creative team gets together and ideas are tossed around – here, there are mostly bigger ideas, such as what element to focus on for a given character or how much screen time a given character should get (Larson brings up the example of “we need more Applejack episodes”, then quipping that “probably no one has actually said that”). From there and throughout the season, the story editor takes down some basic episode premises and goes to Hasbro with them, who provide notations and story notes and ultimately approve or decline an episode. For a freelancer, you then eventually get an email announcing what episodes have been picked for you. You then go in for a meeting with the show runner and another writer; the other writer is there because three people make it much harder to get “stuck” (i.e. Cindy Morrow joined him for discussing “Magic Duel”). Ideas are bounced back and forth, leaving a series of note cards. The writer makes an outline off the cards and sends it in, sends it in for approval, gets a final round of notes, and, at long last, writes the actual script.

“Ponyville Confidential” is specifically detailed in those terms. Rob Renzetti sent out a call for more one-sentence episode premises – called “springboards” – to fill in a gap towards the end of season 2. The premise was one of 4 or 5 that Larson thought up. To Larson’s surprise, it was picked and passed through Hasbro. He expressed his initial reaction as, “oh no! I have to write a Cutie Mark Crusaders episode.”

In one of the staff meetings in preparation for “Luna Eclipsed”, Lauren Faust envisioned Princess Luna’s character to somewhat resemble to Aubrey Plaza’s April from “Parks and Recreation”. While the elements of alienation and being disconnected from society remain, it was actually Hasbro that pushed to make her more out-dated, a condition Larson compared to coming home from a long Cape Fear-style prison sentence.

On the topic of Faust, Larson notes the original show bible was “unbelievable”, citing it and HBOs The Wire as the two most impressive bibles he’s seen. Larson credits Faust and her bible for helping him to flesh out characters in his earliest episodes such as “Swarm of the Century”, noting the inherent difficulties in writing characters in the earliest stage of development as opposed to several seasons in.

As to the secret of the success of the show, Larson has a simple answer: “[it’s] not afraid to be cheesy”. While saying he remains a fan of well-done absurd humor and the Adult Swim style cartoon humor, he felt it became too prevalent to really be considered original anymore, and the style began to “eat its own tail”. He adds the show is a representation that “in a world full of postmodern stuff and a tanking economy…things can actually be nice” and is played out with warmth and heart, a theme he believes connected to a wide audience.

M.A. Larson Chats in the Press Room

Asked about his reputation for penning epic episodes, Larson backs away from the label, noting that he’s a “child of sitcoms” who grew up watching favorites like “Three’s Company”, “Night Court”, “Cheers”, and “Frasier”. He adds that, despite the narrative structure of “Secret of My Excess” being adventure in tone, he largely considers the centerpiece of the story to be a “slice of life” episode about Spike. Morals do not fall into this paradigm, however; Larson admits that episode morals are usually not a priority in figuring out how an episode proceeds, and seems to take pride in “Cutie Mark Chronicles” making fun of its own cheesiness and “Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000” throwing out the moral completely.

Fandom Functions

While often expressing his enjoyment of the fandom at large, Larson also denies any sense of writing for the brony audience when asked. While acknowledging that the show can be enjoyed by any audience, he states bluntly, “It’s a kid’s show, we write it for kids”.

Larson makes an unexpected point that the pony convention circuit has led to an unusual amount of interaction between cast and crew members that otherwise would not have happened. As noted above, the writer’s summit weekends presents the largest level of interaction for the various freelancers, and the cast is completely separate – he notes he still hasn’t met Cathy, and was looking forward to getting the chance this weekend. Larson denies that an event like meeting a voice actress changes how he goes about writing characters, but says the experience of being “steeped” in the show for weekends at a time is not something you get to do for most projects.

With a healthy amount of self-deprication, Larson says he “gets” the strong internet reactions to Alicorn Twilight. He says that the circumstances in which the episode was written was not the same as the light in which many viewed the episode, identifying November 2011 as a time when it was being written. On the topic of ownership, in large part because of the efforts of Daniel Ingram and the musical nature of the episode, the episode wound up unusually different from his initial writing. At one point, he notes remembering writing the episode in November 2011. He also expressed displeasure with the advertising for the episode, which he felt, via the announcement of Alicorn Twilight and the coronation of a princess, killed some of the element of surprise at the end of the episode.

Amusingly, Larson takes an issue with a common anti-alicorn argument: the concept that Twilight will now outlive her friends. By the logic of those who introduce the concept of death into the world of ponies, he quips, “They were all going to die anyway”.

The collaborative nature of the show, and the unexpected changes it can bring to a vision, are a regular topic of conversation. Larson notes that in “Magic Duel”, he had simply written Pinkie losing her mouth via Trixie’s spell with no fanfare; the computer mouse sequence was purely the invention of an animator. Perhaps more surprising, the Star Wars inspired ending of “Return of Harmony” was entirely the creation of the animation crew, a complete change from Larson’s original script (though he admits it was tonally similar). Despite all this, Larson notes that MLP is unusually good in staying true to a writer’s vision, saying that what he sees on-screen is usually reflective of what he had in mind.

Switching gears to another project, he notes an occasion from working on “Sym-Bionic Titan” where he wrote out a tightly choreographed sword fight sequence – only to see it replaced in script with “Cool fight scene here”.

“They actually wrote the word ‘cool’,” Larson adds.

When asked the inevitable question of favorite pony, Larson doesn’t hesitate in citing Rarity, drawing a comparison to Frasier Crane as an individual with a cultured persona which is inherently fun to break down with difficult circumstances. He again cites her sequences “Ponyville Confidential” as being particularly fun to write for the character.

M.A. Larson Signs a Shirt

Fluttershy, however, is a difficult character to write, with Larson making her understated personality funny more difficult compared to something like Rarity’s ego. One situation he finds useful is the concept of a reasonable Fluttershy being talked over, which appears in both SSCS3K and Magic Duel. For the latter, he found her meek personality to be an ideal contrast to Trixie’s dictatorship tendencies, leading to her subplot.

Asked to name an episode he finds particularly impressive (the word “favorite” was specifically avoided), Larson is quick to cite “The Best Night Ever”. The songs, the use of multiple plotlines and characters, and the visual element that Canterlot presented all impressed Larson, who spoke of the episode in a admiring tone.

Larson was introduced to “bronies” from Lauren Faust herself. During a story meeting, the topic of ‘bronies’ came up, as Lauren wrote “4chan” on a page for him to check out. Larson was amazed to see his name being mentioned, given how no one had done that for his previous credits. He was also amazed to see a video of a Russian brony campout, once again via Faust.  It was around this point that the uniqueness of the fandom began to hit him.

“Russia? Woah,” Larson replied.

Feeling for the Future

While Larson attended some season 4 story meetings, he will be largely watching as a fan as he works on a book project ‘Pennyroyal’s Princess Bootcamp’. Larson notes the switchover to watching as a fan is how he watches the show most of the time anyway, citing the “weird but cool” experience of watching “Keep Calm and Flutter On”, in which the Discord character he originally wrote returns, but this time as written by Dave Polsky. He jumps at the opportunity to say he’d be happy to return for season 5 if it’s in the cards.

While mostly pony related, Larson gives the occasional insight into his other writing projects. He notes the different styles of writing that he’s seen in different jobs; “Kick Buttowski”, for instance, had a more traditional writer’s room experience compared to the freelancer style of FiM or The Littlest Pet Shop. When asked about his experience on “Gravity Falls” – after a long pause – Larson says he has two credits (someone corrects him and points out he has 3), and doesn’t quite understand why. While specifically not disparaging the show itself, he pegs his experience as “not great”.

Odds and ends from the interview session:
–  As his Twitter followers already know, Larson identifies as a total film buff, and takes credit for the Gremlins reference in “Magic Duel”. Says you couldn’t find a writer on the MLP staff who wasn’t a TV and film buff. “Welcome Princess Celest” was also a subtle reference to the cult movie The Commitments and the “Heroine Kills” banner.
–  He loves Thanks, MA Larson, and was highly appreciative of PixelKitties’ “Thanks MA Larson” button art.
–  Originally made to distance himself from FiM, the “MA Larson” moniker is here to stay. He has also apparently emailed IMDb on several occasions to get it changed back after it was edited.
–  “The Wire” is among his favorite TV series, and comes up in conversation at several points. He thought it was neat to be in Baltimore, specifically in the area the city is revitalizing in season 4. 

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