Trouble in the Phineas and Ferb writers' room. The Disney Channel had ordered up a fourth one-hour special, in which the Phineas and Ferb characters would interact with the story of Star Wars. The show had aired more than 110 22-minute episodes, each comprising two 11-minute stories, a feature film, and the aforementioned three prior hour-long specials. The challenge -- how to keep the Star Wars episode from descending into self-parody, the typical fate of animated programming, and sitcoms and drama, for that matter.
The good news, according to co-creator Dan Povenmire, was that hour-long episodes "have been really refreshing for us, because we've been able to write stories that have more emotional heft, that have more things going on, that you really can get some gravitas into, and really do some fun action stuff."
While The Simpsons experienced success with their parody of Robot Chicken, and Family Guy with a Star Wars episode, they did not reach the level of outside the box thinking that is Phineas and Ferb. Characters on those shows were simply recast as C-3PO, Darth Vader, and the rest. This is exactly what the Phineas and Ferb writing team wanted to avoid.
Then one of the writers, Scott Peterson, said one word, a common name, really, which banished forever the expectation that Doofenshmirtz would be Darth Vader, Perry would be Yoda, and so on. The word was Rosencrantz, which explains why Phineas and Ferb is much better than a lot of other children's animations.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a play by Tom Stoppard, made its appearance 50 years ago. The play explores what two minor characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet actually do during the hours when they are offstage, waiting for their brief appearances. The remarkable thing is that a writer for an animated children's show would refer to a play as heady -- and obscure -- as Rosencrantz. The more remarkable thing is that the show's co-creators, Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh, knew exactly what he was talking about and agreed immediately.
In the Phineas and Ferb Star Wars show, characters are offstage not in Hamlet but in, of course, Star Wars. The actions they take explain why Star Wars unfolded the way it did.
"We actually left Star Wars alone," Povenmire adds, "and had our characters doing a parallel story that kept bumping into the Star Wars story."
Marsh adds, "The story is carrying on, but you find out that Phineas and Ferb live on the moisture farm next to Luke. And along the way we account for the times when you don't see the characters off-screen. R2-D2 runs into them in the desert and ends up losing the Death Star plans, so they find him in the back seat of their speeder. They realize how important they are. So they have to hire a pilot who ends up being Han Solo's rival, who turns out to be Isabella. She's the captain of the Centennial Chihuahua, and the Star Wars and P&F stories intersect.
"So if you just widen the shot a little bit from the original movie, you'd see some of our characters here. Or if after the main Star Wars characters left, if you waited a little while, our characters would come through. And that was really fun to do. You had to go work within that framework and find out where the holes and gaps were for us to play with."
Povenmire nods. "Like, when C-3PO doesn't want to go into the escape pod, and there's a blaster hit next to him, and then he says, 'Okay, I'll get in!' Now we see where that blaster hit came from. It was Buford's blaster that went off accidentally when he was doing something, and it hits them. So we put in all sorts of stuff where you see a bit of Star Wars happening in the background, and you're like, oh, this means that happened because of this thing over here."
The reference to Rosencrantz in the writers' room put Povenmire in mind of the novel Ender's Game, which he calls, "One of my five favorite books in the world. The same author, years later, wrote another book called Ender's Shadow, which is the exact same story, the exact same occurrences, but from another character's point of view. And it was brilliant."
Let's say you don't have young children in your home and you're not familiar with Phineas and Ferb. Or let's say you do have kids, and you've seen all of the 110-plus episodes over and over with them, murmuring to yourself the whole time, "This is brilliant. All of these jokes are written for adults. What are my kids getting out of it?"
Or to ask the more important question, why are people writing an animated children's show for the Disney Channel take as inspiration Tom Stoppard and Ender's Game?
And why is a program with those sorts of inspirations not only The Disney Channel's biggest animation hit ever?
Phineas and Ferb is unique among TV cartoons in that it treasures the creativity and resourcefulness of kids while at the same time preserving the dignity and wisdom of parents. Indeed, on P&F, people basically get along. The parents have a functional relationship (something that used to be known as a happy marriage). They appreciate each other's quirks and embrace their roles as spouses and parents. Phineas and Ferb are half-brothers; they get along, perhaps because Ferb doesn't seem to mind that Phineas does most of the talking. (Swampy says Ferb's character is based on an uncle of his who had a cleft palate and didn't say much, but when he did say one thing, it was such a wise statement that everyone sat up and took notice.)
The half-brothers get along with their older sister, Candace, whose voice is performed by High School Musical veteran Ashley Tisdale. Candace suffers from teenage angst -- she constantly obsesses over the state of affairs with her boyfriend Jeremy while determining just how much energy to divert into "busting" her brothers, whom, deep down, she actually adores.
Even the action figures of the piece -- a pet platypus who transmogrifies himself into Secret Agent P in order to do battle with the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz -- recognize how much they need each other. Says Povenmire, "We said to ourselves, 'Can't we do a show where nobody's a jerk or an idiot to each other?'"
P&F's co-creators come with outstanding credentials. Povenmire worked on The Simpsons, Family Guy, Rocko's Modern Life, and SpongeBob SquarePants, and is the voice of evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz. Marsh worked on The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Rocko's Modern Life. Both men have won three Emmy nominations, and Phineas and Ferb has won an Emmy. The impetus for P&F was the desire of Povenmire and Marsh to keep working together. It only took 16 years before P&F became a reality, however. So in that sense, according to Marsh, "Technically, the show was a colossal failure, because it failed to let us keep working together after Family Guy and Rocko's Modern Life!"
"But it succeeded in other ways," Povenmire adds. "At the beginning, we had a bunch of ideas. Then one night, I was out at a restaurant and I drew this guy. He was a forceful little character, with all those right angles on his head -- he just looked like a bundle of chutzpah. That was Phineas. After that, it all fell together really quickly. I went home that night and drew Ferb, Dr. Doofenshmirtz, and Perry. I brought them into work the next day and showed them to Swampy. 'How 'bout these guys?' I asked. And suddenly it all came together."
"We both commiserated," Marsh adds, "about how we used to go off and do crazy stuff in the summer, while kids today were just sitting around playing Xbox and watching videos."
Povenmire agrees. "When I was growing up, my mom always encouraged us to do something creative with our time rather than sit around being bored. She used to say, 'Summer's short. You've got to make every day count.' And that's exactly what Phineas and Ferb do."
Another inspiration for the show was Rocky and Bullwinkle because of the manner in which they told different, integrated stories. "So we thought," Marsh says, "if we had all these different storylines, we could weave them together. That's how we got Doofenshmirtz and Perry. We had a desperate need for action sequences."
So you have two brothers who are inventing something insane in their backyard, like a roller coaster, or robots, or a beach club. You've got Agent P -- a platypus -- going up against the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz. You've got the family relationships. You've got a gang of kids in the neighborhood. All with their back stories, sub-stories, and whatnot. All this... in 11 minutes.
The show made the rounds of Fox Kids, Nickelodeon, and ultimately Disney, where, 16 years after Povenmire sketched Phineas on a napkin, the little bundle of chutzpah finally arrived on network television. Why did it take so long? The show was too complicated for many executives to wrap their minds around. There's also an original song in every single episode, so that's a lot to handle in what amounts to 660 seconds.
Intriguingly, a colleague from SpongeBob told the pair that their characters were "too Christ-like."
"He told us, 'Your characters have no flaws,'" recalls Marsh.
"Yeah," Dan agrees. "He said, 'You can't do a show like this. If your characters don't ever lose, if they don't ever do anything wrong or mean or bad that they can regret, how are you going to create a whole show?'
"We wanted him to be our supervising director or creative director. But he couldn't wrap his brain around it, so he begged off. But even when people told us it was impossible, we didn't for a second think it was impossible. We knew we could do it."
Another criticism: The show was too complicated for kids and it had to be simplified. "We kept resisting that," Marsh says, "because we always believed from the get-go that kids are smarter than you give them credit for.
"We loved complicated stuff when we were kids! If it was a little bit of a reach for us, it really switched us on. We were confident that kids today were the same. We just needed to give them a chance."
"Swampy's right," Dan adds. "We had a meeting once where the note was, 'Okay, that joke is funny, but are kids even going to get it?' And I said, 'I don't care. As long as this joke doesn't make your audience change the channel, there's another joke coming for the kids in five seconds.'
"We're playing to the adults in the room. Since the adults have to watch the shows that kids watch, let's give them something they'll enjoy, too. Once the show went on the air, the studio started seeing how many adults were watching, and they didn't give us that note anymore."
"The people who believed in this at Disney," Marsh says, "took a great leap of faith. They were taking a risk, not just with the jokes we were writing but with the show itself. It was different from what people had done before. Every step of the process, we were asking them to do something differently than the way they'd always done it."
So why a platypus? The brothers have a pet platypus, who turns into the aforementioned Agent P to trigger the action/adventure sequences, because there had never been a platypus before on TV.
"The guys who created Shrek," Povenmire explains, "have this concept they call 'mental real estate.' They talk about how, before Shrek came out, people knew what an ogre was, but they didn't have a specific one in mind if you said 'ogre' to them. The creators felt that was mental real estate they could claim. And they claimed it. Now all you have to do is say 'ogre' and the first thing you think of is Shrek. You see this big green guy with funny ears, voiced by Mike Myers. They own ogre now.
"We heard these guys talk about this at the beginning of our first season. I leaned over to Swampy and said, 'We're going to own platypus.' And you know what? We own platypus! This whole generation of kids, you say 'platypus' to them and they think of Perry. Now that's pretty cool."
Parents and kids watching the Phineas and Ferb/Star Trek hour-long special, which airs this summer on the Disney Channel and Disney XD, won't likely be thinking of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or Ender's Game when they tune in. But the writing team did, and that's why Phineas and Ferb is the most compelling and original program to hit the airwaves since Ernie Kovacs.
Hey! Where's Perry?