Joe Strike chats with Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh about their careers and the creation of Disney Channel's new animated series Phineas and Ferb.
You'll have to excuse Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh if they seem a bit jet-lagged at the moment. They've just returned from hopscotching across Europe to promote their new Disney Channel series Phineas and Ferb. Literally minutes after reaching their respective homes from the airport, they're on a conference call with this writer to talk about their new series yet again...
Dan Povenmire: We sat across from each other at The Simpsons [where the pair worked as layout artists in the mid-'90s]. We were always laughing at the same jokes, and then we ended up as a writing team on Rocko's Modern Life.
Jeff Marsh: That was a really good show for us to be on. It allowed us the freedom to learn how to do this.
DP: We created Phineas and Ferb while we were there as a means of letting us work together more as writers. This was like 16 years ago.
JM: God, we're old.
Lesser mortals might have given up, but as their careers progressed, the pair kept pitching their concept...
DP: It wasn't like we pitched it to every network more than once. We pitched it to four different places. We'd get real close, they'd say no, so we'd put it back on the shelf for a couple of years, then -- "I've got a pitch over at Cartoon Network -- I'll dust it back off and pitch it to them; if they say no, I'll dust it off and pitch it to Nickelodeon."
JM: Two reasons we kept at it: one, we are stubborn, and two, it's always been the show we wanted to make more than the others. With all the stuff we've seen coming on the air, this one is really the best. There's no reason to throw it away and move on. Every time you read it, you think this is a good show.
DP: It was really the show we wanted to see: if this was on the air, I'd watch it, and I don't always feel that about every show I work on.
The entire series takes place over the course of a single summer vacation, as half-brothers Phineas Flynn and Ferb Fletcher create a variety of outrageous diversions for themselves and their friends with supernatural ease. One of the show's running gags is a disbelieving adult asking Phineas, "Aren't you a little young to be [fill in the blank]," to which he replies, "Yes, yes I am."
DP: His confidence makes people think, "He must be a prodigy." Nobody ever asks him if he's too young. He'd never lie to an adult or try to get away with anything. He's just motivated by fun. If he thought mom would actually dislike the things they're doing, he would probably stop, but since he's never gotten in trouble for it, he doesn't think of it as getting into trouble.
JM: The whole thing came about because we didn't want to deal with school. We've seen it over and over again in too many shows -- there's nothing fresh to it. We remember growing up being kids. Every summer day we'd go out and do something: dig a trench, or build a tunnel, fort, or a tree house.
DP: Don't say that -- some kid is going to go out, dig a tunnel and have a cave-in.
JM: We built go-karts or bicycles; we were always out doing something. We wanted to capture that imagination.
Much to her endless frustration, sister Candace is unable to prove to their mother what Phineas and Ferb are up to, as evidence of their activities perpetually vanishes moments before mom arrives. Meanwhile, and unbeknownst to all, the boys' pet platypus Perry is actually suave Secret Agent P, engaged in perpetual battle against arch-enemy Dr. Doofenshmirtz. The three separate elements of each story regularly intersect in unexpected ways.
JM: The show has a level of plot complexity they won't let most people do.
DP: That was actually the reason it didn't get picked up until now. Fox Kids wanted to put it on their next season; we had a couple of meetings with them. At Nickelodeon it kept going up higher and higher to the next echelon. Everyone loved it, but they eventually thought it was too complex to pull off. Disney was the first to say, "Let's see if you can do it in 11 minutes." We did it in the pilot and they said, "Let's see if you can do it for 26 episodes."
JM: I think it's great that the characters are cool, edgy and clever without the humor being mean-spirited. It was important to us that they never did anything with any animosity. They never tried to get their sister in trouble or outsmart their mother and get away with it.
DP: We were trying to do that and still keep an edge to it. Our animation director Rob Hughes moved back from Michigan because he liked the pilot so much he wanted to work on the series. He said on all the other shows every character is either stupid or a jerk, but there are no stupid characters or jerks in this one.
JM: Except the creators.
DP: Candace does get frustrated. She thinks it's not fair -- that if she were doing the things they're doing, she'd get in trouble. It's not, "I'm going to get those guys and ruin their lives." She does bust them later in the season, but there are a couple of twists to it.
Strangely enough, the show tested just as well with girls as boys. In some age groups it tested a little higher with girls -- they love it when Candace gets pounded, boys and girls alike.
JM: Girls would definitely like to see her take more abuse; we're gonna take their notes and, boy, are they lucky. They also like Perry -- they say he's "hunky."
DP: His adventures often clean up the boys' mess. When we were writing Rocko, we always had one of two things, sometimes both: usually a song or a musical number, plus a big action/chase scene. Phineas and Ferb gave us a chance to write a song for every single episode, starting with the second episode, Flop Starz.
We played it and Perry's [secret agent] theme for the Disney executives. We were a little trepidatious because Disney has a big history of music -- what if they hate it? The reaction was, "These are great -- can you write a song for every episode?"
JM: We both want to be rock-and-rollers anyway -- Dan's had a band for years, and I was in one once.
DP: Every episode since then has song in it. It's not always the characters singing onscreen -- they don't break into song just to advance the plot. The music doesn't come out of nowhere, sometimes it's just a montage over action. We've done every genre known to man: ABBA, Broadway show tunes, 16th-century madrigals --
JM: Sinatra lounge songs --
DM: -- punk and psychedelia, reggae, ska... We write the song on Friday with one of the scripters who's also songwriter, then play it into our composer Danny Jacob's answering machine, just guitars and us singing badly. On Monday we'd have a finished song from Danny.
After Rocko and before Phineas and Ferb, the pair went their separate ways. Dan moved to SpongeBob SquarePants as a writer and storyboard director, then began directing Family Guy episodes. Jeff spent the next six years in England (where he first earned his soggy nickname back in his post-college days) working on an assortment of films and series, including Postman Pat and Bounty Hamster.
JM: London was absolutely fantastic. They do a much smaller number of shows; it's much more a boutique business. I hadn't worked that way in a long time; I'd always worked on big shows for big companies. I just had a great time being there.
Then Dan called. "Do you want to work on Phineas and Ferb?" The next sound he heard was me packing. "Are you happy to be leaving London?" That had nothing to do with it. I just wanted to make Phineas and Ferb, but I got to come back and take up surfing.
DP: My work on Family Guy didn't scare Disney. In fact, it had a huge impact on them, wanting to see whatever I did, because Adam Bonnet [Disney Channel's senior VP of original series] is a big fan. He called me for a meeting when I was working on a different pilot for them just to tell me how much he liked Family Guy. When I came back to pitch my own show, I think he was more open to it.
What we tried to do with Phineas and Ferb was put some of that primetime animation timing and sensibility without any of the raunch. We do a lot of stuff where we try to get a gag with a pause or a blank stare -- something really big happens and the other person just stares at him. That's something Swampy and I brought in from our primetime experience and put it in a show that also has big wacky cartoon animation in it.
People think Family Guy is a success because of how raunchy the gags are. I don't think it would have been a success at all if the timing wasn't absolutely crystal pitch perfect -- if there wasn't just the right amount of pause before or after the line. Comedy is all about timing and I think that's what people are responding to. Of course the fact that people are gasping and saying "I can't believe they said that" helps as well.
Animation on season one of Phineas and Ferb is nearing completion overseas at Rough Draft Studios and Wong Film. But 16 years earlier...
DP: I was at the Wild Thyme restaurant in South Pasadena. They have butcher paper over the tables and crayons for you to draw with, and I drew a triangle-headed kid. I tore that piece off and told my wife, "This is the show I'm going to sell." I called Swampy that night and said, "Okay, I've got Phineas." That drawing is framed in my office, complete with coffee stains.
JM: All the other characters grew out of that.
DP: This guy's a triangle, this one's a rectangle, this girl's half a circle. Then we worked geometric shapes into the background design to tie it all together -- give it a visual/thematic through line. There's a little bit of Tex Avery in there -- he had that very graphic style [in his later cartoons]. A lot of what I see now is borrowed from Tex.
The show's opening theme notes that "There's 104 days of summer vacation," exactly half of which are covered in Phineas and Ferb's season one segments. And the other half? According to Dan Povenmire, boards are already being drawn up for a second season; then there's always Christmas recess, not to mention the summer after...
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.