Hazbin Hotel, the first foray into animation for award-winning studio A24, is actually not new, despite having debuted on Prime Video just last Friday.
The R-rated musical comedy originated online as a 30-minute pilot in 2019 and quickly won over a fanbase that has largely stuck by it since its self-funded days. The series follows princess of Hell Charlie Morningstar (Erika Henningsen), who in an attempt to stop the angels from murderously purging her demonic subjects, opens a hotel to help rehabilitate them. The goal: Turn these sinners into saints unable to be wiped out by the (unsettlingly terrifying) angels.
More from The Hollywood Reporter
She’s joined — in certain cases against their will — by friends, funders and her father (that’s Lucifer voiced by Jeremy Jordan). That includes Charlie’s grounded girlfriend Vaggie (Stephanie Beatriz); exasperated bartender Husk (Keith David); sex worker and rehabilitation Guinea pig Anthony “Angel Dust” (Blake Roman); Alastor the “Radio Demon” who harbors ulterior motives (Amir Talai), as well as hotel support Niffty (Kimiko Glenn) and self-proclaimed architect of destruction Sir Pentious (Alex Brightman, who also voices the antagonistic angel Adam).
The series has largely retained the distinctive indie voice and aesthetic fans loved — minus its original voice cast. (They were all replaced with a smidge of backlash as the show leaned more heavily into the musical part.) And now, after a slight release delay following Amazon boarding as distribution partner, Hazbin Hotel has dropped the first batch of its eight season one episodes, with an undated season two already ordered.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to creator and showrunner Vivienne Medrano about taking her long-gestating concept from YouTube to Prime Video, crafting two separate pilots for the same story, what inspired her colorful art style and adult themes and getting to make her series after facing “a world where Hazbin was not wanted right away.”
This series originated from your pilot, which has garnered a rather rabid fan base since you posted it on YouTube in 2019. Can you start by talking about the process of creating that?
It was very challenging. It was basically a passion project that started very small, and then just grew over time. It was about two years of work. I was fresh out of school. This was my first major project. I only had very, very minimal experience working with a team. It was kind of my first time working with other people, slowly developing. I was putting all my money, all my savings into it as well as I had a monthly Patreon that would constantly have money coming in. Then I was also doing freelance at the time. I was literally putting everything I had towards board artists here or an animator there. As it grew, we started putting more out, and it started to gain an audience. That made it grow so that I had more of a budget — that I could start hiring more people. It just became bigger and bigger and bigger. As it went it, I was able to add the songs in, and it ended up being 30 minutes. It was great to let it slowly evolve into something bigger than I initially set out to make.
You then took that, and five years later we have this Prime Video series from A24. Prime obviously has a growing library of adult animation, but this is a first for A24. How did they end up coming on board?
It was very overnight. Even before finishing the pilot, I was already thinking about how do I continue this story? This is not the end, obviously. I want to do more. Do we go Kickstarter? What is it? So when it was done, and it was so successful, that made it feel like the best first option would be to see if anyone’s interested in it before trying to do it ourselves. We were showing it around to many different producers, and A24 was immediately responsive. Not even just that, but they wanted it above all the competition and put this amazing offer down. It was really incredible. Obviously I’m honored by everyone who was interested in it, but A24 really showed so much faith in it off the bat. I really feel like that’s a testament to them.
They were willing to self-finance it and make that first season, which was a huge honor to me. This is their first foray into animation, at least to be released, and I’m so honestly excited to be representing that. That’s such an intensive role, but I think this is an amazing first step for them into this world. Then Amazon also joined in when they got to see even just a couple of the episodes. They were blown away by it and wanted it, and it was the same kind of feeling of so much faith being put in it. To me ultimately, that’s why I feel so secure working with bigger studios. I feel like the love and the passion for the show is shared. That’s really all I can ask for as the creator of the show and someone who cares about it so much.
The original pilot and the series pilot are different but it feels like there’s connective tissue between them. So how did you approach this? Did you want viewers to watch both to understand your universe? And what were the challenges of having essentially two pilots out there?
The challenge is it kind of had to be all of the things. What I love about it is that the original pilot will always be very special. I think the fact that it’s so visually distinct and, obviously, different actors and all these things that kind of set it apart — it’ll always be a very special piece of animation and this amazing project that so many people love. That’s what I like about the differences. But the challenge and the fun was still allowing the series to feel like a continuation. I didn’t want to re-tell the pilot. I felt like that just wasn’t right. I also didn’t want to use one of the episodes up just telling the same story again. I really wanted to follow it, but the first new episode — the new pilot — has to do the job of the original pilot in the sense of setting everything up and getting to know this world and these characters. But also setting up a new villain and a new story and all these other things while feeling like the next step.
So it was definitely a challenge, but a fun challenge and I feel like it worked because, like you said, it feels like connective tissue, but there is enough difference that the pilot gets to still live on as its own thing. And for the series, I went through so much between the pilot and season one. I made a season of my other series, Helluva Boss. I learned so much on that show production-wise, and my art evolved. When the new series came out, I was just drawing like normal, but I saw a lot of comments, especially as the characters started to be revealed, from people who were like, “This style looks different.” But my style evolved with me.
Let’s talk about that style. It’s really fun and sharp. What’s behind that?
My style has existed so long, and it’s really just things that appealed to me and put in a blender. I grew up loving the sexiness of Bruce Timm’s style and the Batman animated series. Invader Zim was huge for me — the sharpness and the expressions of that, and how spindly everything was. Kind of the same with Tim Burton. I love the expressiveness of Looney Tunes, and then the fluidity of Renaissance Disney. All those things were major influences. A musical I feel needs to be very fluid. Not to disparage anything else, I personally really don’t like when musical animation isn’t expressive, and I feel like there is a lack of really expressive musical animation in the adult space. So that’s something that I really was passionate about carrying over for this show. Just how bright and appealing the characters are also helps endear them quicker and make them more fun, even if they’re horrible people.
Hazbin Hotel leans into its R-rated elements with language and content, but it also explores themes and challenges representations around the bible, sex work, good versus evil and redemption. The angels in particular are an interesting ode to biblical description. What about those things made you want to explore them?
It’s all important to me because they’re not things we see very often. So I’ve always had a lot of respect for people who do sex work. It’s, obviously, a very demonized profession. It’s also one that’s consumed by 90 percent of the public. It’s one of those things that’s always bothered me. I know a lot of people in sex work, people who’ve either been around that world or in that world. I have a lot of respect for it. So there was no fear with wanting to depict a character in that world and really make them a character you really care about. But there is also darkness to it, especially this hellish world, which is kind of extra hazardous.
When it comes to everything else, like the themes of redemption — that one especially means a lot to me. I think being a person who’s grown up on the internet, I’ve literally made all the dumb teenage mistakes. I’ve gotten into the Twitter arguments that have been embarrassing or cringy, or even made authentic mistakes all over the place as a developing artist. Online, we live in a world where people will be very cruel about things you did when you were really young and not accept that you could have grown from it. Especially being a woman online, you have to be perfect or people hate you. That being my experience as a human, it made me want to tell stories about redemption, and how it’s important to allow people growth and allow that people can have flaws — that we are all flawed. This vitriol and this judgment is not helpful, and it’s not going to help anyone change. It’s really about having support and love for people. That’s something that matters to me in life, and having a story where that can be almost helps me feel better.
Then hopefully, everyone can recognize that their flaws are OK, and it’s OK to grow from them. Especially when it comes to the LGBT side of things. I think that’s one of the reasons the show resonated so much. Queer characters in media — we’re starting to see it more — but when I was developing the show, LGBT characters often were not allowed to have flaws. Or the other extreme where they have no personality whatsoever. There was a fear which is letting those characters be characters and have engaging storylines and be part of the story that isn’t just about their identity or them being perfect. So I think that was very important to me, showing that queer characters can be flawed and have interesting stories and challenges that aren’t just about their identity.
It’s not every day you hear about a show like this. It’s the kind of thing — like Nimona, another groundbreaking animated project with similar art school origins — that might not have ever gotten made by a major studio 10 or 20 years ago — even five years ago when you put out your original pilot. Do you think there’s been a shift in the kinds of stories allowed in the animation space, and has it benefited your show?
There’s definitely been a shift. Without getting completely into all the details, there was a world where Hazbin was not wanted right away. It’s really special to me, because in a lot of ways, it feels like the perfect show to prove itself. The pilot proved itself on YouTube, and then it proved itself with these produced episodes at a much bigger studio that has an amazing roster of shows. Amazon feels like a very, very catered palette when it comes to animation, so I feel like it’s the perfect home for it. It’s a testament to how special the show is that it can prove itself. It’s a quality thing, and it deserves a place at this table.
That’s what’s exciting to me. Movies like Nimona are that. They have to prove themselves. Nimona also has the amazing story of being brought back from the dead, so it extra proved itself. I feel a kinship with that. It’s not an easy concept to put in a box, and I think a lot of studios want to put adult animation, especially, in a box. Is this a raunchy shop comedy? Is it a dark brooding drama? It’s both and it’s also a musical. There’s so many things. I think what’s exciting is Hazbin maybe will show that there’s a lot that LGBT stories and adult animation can do.
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Vivienne Medrano’s Helluva Boss as Hell of a Boss and identified Satan as Lucifer.
Best of The Hollywood Reporter