The overall mood in your average TV show set in a post-apocalyptic land full of mutated creatures tends to lean toward the gloomy. Not so in the weird world of Adventure Time, whose nuclear-war ravaged landscape is filled with mirth and magic. That unconventional take on accepted wisdom, and the show’s correspondingly weird characters, dialog, and scenarios, has earned Adventure Time critical success and a large, dedicated fan base.
For the uninitiated, just watching two minutes of the Cartoon Network show lets you know you are seeing something decidedly different. In the show, a boy named Finn and a shape-shifting dog name Jake—who can talk, of course—go on madcap adventures in a post-apocalyptic (yet happily so) land. They fight mutants, wizards, and other bizarre adversaries and emerge as heroes. This colorful cartoon with its off-kilter dialogue and atypical plots is beloved by adults in their 30s and 40s and those very same adults’ kids.
Adventure Time returns this week for its fifth season. And next week an Adventure Time video game, for portables Nintendo DS and the Nintendo 3DS, will be released. We talked with series creator Pendleton Ward about the origin of the show, how he keeps it weird from year to year, and the challenge of writing a show that amazes adults while remaining kid-friendly.
Co.Create: How did Adventure Time get started?
Pendleton Ward: My first job out of school was the Adventure Time pilot. I was lucky enough to have my first lead on a job at a company called Frederator. They were accepting pitches for a shorts program. They were doing 7-minute-long shorts. And they were taking pitches from anyone, and you didn’t have to have any representation. Which was great for me. I just followed up on it. I pitched my storyboard for Adventure Time that I had boarded straight ahead—I didn’t really know what a storyboard needed, but I did my best and threw together a comic script. Luckily, they liked it. That’s how it started, with the pilot. That was six years ago.
I spent a year storyboarding and writing on a show called The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack for Cartoon Network, which really taught me how to run a show. Or at least the idea of running a show. Thurop Van Orman was the creator of Flapjack and his philosophy for running Flapjack is what I used when I started running Adventure Time, which is a storyboard-driven show. The storyboarder gets to write and draw out all the dialogue and expressions for every episode.
Fred Seibert [from Frederator] took the short and pitched it to Cartoon Network. It was a really big risk to pick it up. I feel like Adventure Time was a hard sell, in the beginning, for a network to pick it up. The show didn’t have a hook. It was just two friends that got along perfectly fine and they live in a fantasy world together. It didn’t really have anything that you would want to invest millions of dollars into. Luckily, Fred was with me and he just pitched it really hard to Cartoon Network and took a chance on it.
The show has a post-apocalyptic candyland and it’s filled with geek references. Was that weirdness the mission of the series or does it just come naturally from you and the other writers?
It all comes from us, from the writers that work on it. We write all the stories. But in general, it’s not weird to us. It comes from a really genuine place. I grew up watching Ren and Stimpy and Beavis and Butt-Head, and playing Dungeons and Dragons. So all of those elements feel really natural to me. They don’t feel bizarre to me, to write about magic, to write about strange creatures. It all feels right out of my childhood.
I don’t think the weirdness is where the risk was. Any new show for a network is a risk. So it makes sense to buy up established properties, like Ninja Turtles. So any new property is always risky. And my show really didn’t have a strong hook to it. I couldn’t come up with a tag line for it. I just liked that it was friendly and nice, just two friends that hang out in a weird world. I think that’s what was risky. It was boring and you couldn’t see where it would go. I mean, I could. But I don’t think anyone else could see where it could go, in the beginning.
The fifth season is starting this week. Considering how broad the content is, it seems like you can never run out of subject matter. What do you have planned?
There is no end and there is no plan. I don’t think there is any end in sight. It could go on for a very long time. It will go on as long as the show stays popular. And I think it is still really popular. We’ll just keep making it. I get this question at Comic Con, "How far in advanced have you plotted anything out?" And the answer everyone wants is that, "Yes, I have plotted out every bit of it!" So that people can feel safe, that, "It’s all unfolding in front of me." But in reality, we are faced with deadlines.
It’s just like playing D&D, where I’m role-playing these characters. I don’t know where they are going to go yet, but I am them when I am writing it. It’s exciting for me to write it. I don’t know what’s going to happen in Finn’s relationship because we haven’t totally figured everything out yet, but that’s okay because we are those characters. All of the writers on the show are living these lives. That’s what makes it cool. I feel like when I answer, "There’s no plan," it bums everyone out. But it shouldn’t, because we are those characters and we are making them live.
How will you raise your game in season five?
Every episode and every season we always think about how do we make it better than last season. Over season four and into five, we’ve been doing really well. The show is coming back and I am really proud of (the episodes). I can’t really see how to make them better. I guess I’m bragging. Or I am overly confident. But I like them a lot.
We are just trying to expand the characters. I look to the Simpsons and see what they did. I feel like at a certain point the Simpsons expanded on their secondary characters, you’d know more about Krusty or you’d know more about Professor Frink. So that’s what we are trying to do, dig into some more of the secondary characters, like Peppermint Butler and Beemo. And show off their secret lives, what they do in their spare time, their pasts.
And now an Adventure Time game is coming out. What is your involvement there?
I wrote half the script with James Montagna, who directed the game at Way Forward. And James did a good job on the script, writing in the voices of all the characters that are in the game. I wrote a really rough pass and James, who was more familiar with what’s needed for a video game, filled in a lot of gaps that I left out. I just wrote it straight, like I would write an episode. I titled it, "Hey Ice King! Why’d You Steal Our Garbage?!" Which I think is funny, to have a boring title—which makes me laugh. I did some secret animation in it, if you can find it. It’s a secret; I can’t say anything else about that.
Where would you like to take the Adventure Time brand beyond the game? Is there anything you want to do next?
I’d really like to develop the "Card Wars" game. There was an episode where Finn and Jake play this card game called "Card Wars." The cards would project these holographic characters that were on the card. Which I think you could do with augmented reality. You stick an image in front of a camera, and the camera can register what the image is and project it on the TV screen. You’d see the cards and see something projected out of the card. Which sounds awesome to me. it would be fun to do something like that. I don’t know if that will actually happen. It probably won’t. But I hope it does.
The show is so broad and you keep raising the bar, but is there anything you would avoid on the show? A subject matter that wouldn’t work?
I am just trying not to jump the shark. You can keep raising the bar, but at some point you might break it. I always try to keep the characters real. We were just writing a new episode with Bubblegum and Marceline and in the beginning we were having them bicker a lot, but I pulled it back and had them be really genuine with each other. I can’t think of anything I wouldn’t do. I’m just trying to stay away from sitcom tropes. I am just going to keep trying to push it and make it better than before. Always trying to raise the bar on it, so that it doesn’t get boring for anybody.
[Images: Cartoon Network]