Interview Time: GeekDad Talks With Adventure Time’s Pen Ward


Adventure Time screen shotAdventure Time screen shot

Image: Courtesy of Cartoon Network

Since its 1992 debut, Cartoon Network has meant many things to many people. It’s been the basic cable home of classic animation, a launching pad for American anime enthusiasts, the land of Adult Swim and more. But perhaps most importantly it’s become a veritable bastion of quality original content.

Currently at the top of that stylistically diverse heap is the Frederator Studios-produced surrealist animated action-comedy Adventure Time. The unlikely duo of Finn, a righteously energetic 13-year-old warrior, and Jake, a magical shape-changing canine, has paved the way both for multiple Emmy nominations and a level of fan acclaim on par with previous Cartoon Network success stories.

It Came from the NightosphereIt Came from the NightosphereJust last week the series saw its second DVD release, It Came From the Nightosphere. Boasting a mishmash of 16 eleven-minute episodes from show’s three seasons, it’s a solid sampler whose only real failing from the perspective of the fan community is not being a legitimate full season collection. (You might remember this is the same argument made by bronies against the recent Friendship Express release.) From the title episode, in which we learn a bit about the past and parentage of Marceline the Vampire Queen, and the zombie pastiche of “Slumber Party Panic” to the warped morality tale of “Business Time” and the delightfully Ice King-heavy “Hitman,” it provides a fine cross-section of all the show has to offer with regard to over-the-top characterization and brilliantly bizarre plot lines.

Admittedly the special features are a little light — they’re limited to a series of “Little Did You Know” bios for secondary characters — and the lack of third season’s gender-swapped “Fionna and Cake” is a bit of a letdown, but don’t let that stop you from adding this one to your collection of top-shelf ‘toons. The disc is available at retailers nationwide for under $20, and, of course, Amazon offers it for around half that price.

In addition to giving me an early crack at a DVD for review purposes, the crew at Cartoon Network was also kind enough to set me up with an interview with series creator (and the voice of Lumpy Space Princess) Pendleton Ward. Pen took some time out of his day to talk with little ol’ me about how he and the writers strive to bring a touch of normalcy to the patently abnormal Land of Ooo.

Wired: Adventure Time tells of the continuing exploits of Jake the Dog and Finn the Human; would you consider the basic premise to be about a boy and his dog or is this simply a tale about two friends?

Pendleton Ward: I’d say it’s about two friends. Two buds hanging out in a fantasy world.

Wired: The feature episode in the latest DVD release is “It Came From the Nightosphere” from Season 2: a big episode for Marceline the Vampire Queen. She’s a pretty complex character, as are most of the females in Adventure Time. Do you make a conscious effort to make the women of Ooo a real part of the show’s action and plot?

Ward: With the girl characters I just try not to — I was actually just explaining this earlier today to someone — with the female characters it’s easy to either write them as clichés or write them as the extreme opposite of those clichés. I feel like a lot of girl characters in anything usually end up being either extremely tough or extremely ditzy. There’s always some sort of extreme personality trait that they have. I like to try writing girls that feel like normal people, like normal women that you’d meet in real life.

So I just try to make them have faults and strengths just like Finn and Jake have. And to not… well, I’m also trying not to overthink it either. I do know that you can fall into a lot of traps with girl characters when you’re considering, you know, all the girl characters in the past.

I don’t know; I am conscious of all the ladies in the show, and I just want them to feel fun and like people that you’d want to meet in real life.

Wired: Well, I think you do that. I mean, Princess Bubblegum is a romantic interest and she’s also a scientist. There’s definitely some kind of substance there.

Ward: Yeah, she has an interest in science, but I don’t want to make her the smartest person in the world. I just want everyone to be average. Or slightly above average.

I don’t want to make it too — again, cliché’s the word.

Wired: Those characters are obviously a big draw of the show, but another great strength of Adventure Time is its world building. I mean, as weird as everything is there’s a sort of universal consistency. What were some of the inspirations for the Land of Ooo itself?

Ward: Dungeons & Dragons is the biggest inspiration. Also, there was a game called Battle Cards that I was playing for a little while in college. It wasn’t a very popular game. They had these cards that you could scratch off — like lottery tickets but with like a little dude with arms and legs and a head. And there’s a little scratch-off symbol next to him with a little blood piece under it. And if you get a blood you kill him.

Anyway, it was a really fun game. Battle Cards: check it out. You can buy ’em really cheaply on the internet.

Anyway, that was an inspiration for the world they live in. I remember there was a map card in that set. But that’s it; D&D was the inspiration for the rules of the world, the physics and what you can and can’t do.

Wired: Very interesting, as that’s my very next question! You tend to play around a lot with the basics of fantasy adventure and these dungeon-crawl-type tropes. And I was going to ask — I remember watching the “Dungeon” episode and the Demon Cat comes out and I was, “Wow; Displacer Beast!”

Ward: Oh yeah, that “Dungeon” episode was full of D&D-inspired monsters. The jelly cube? Totally.

Wired: I know that people are super surprised that two guys with glasses and beards have already devolved into talking about Dungeons & Dragons. We’re blazing new trails for our kind here!

Something that’s often referenced — but usually fairly indirectly — is the Great Mushroom War. Did you have any trouble shopping around a cartoon property that’s essentially based in a post-apocalyptic setting?

Ward: Oh, that wasn’t part of the bible. That wasn’t one of the selling points. That’s just… it’s all just stuff that’s sort of in the background. It doesn’t have a lot to do with the characters or what they care about at all.

I think it’s just sort of a cool setting for these characters. And they don’t really pay attention to all the post-apocalypse stuff around them. It’s just a part of their normal world.

Finn and Jake dig up all these things. There was an episode in the first season where they had flame throwers, and they were just finding loot in icebergs by burning these chunks of ice that were floating up to the shore. But they were just looking for stuff that they could put in their house, just appliances. They weren’t thinking about the end of the world; they were just shopping for stuff. Jake found a bunch of baby shoes that he didn’t want.

Wired: Who do you see as the show’s target audience? Who are you making Adventure Time for?

Ward: We’re just making it for ourselves. I feel like all the writers and board artists that are writing all the jokes and dialog, we’re all just trying to make ourselves laugh and just keep ourselves interested. Everyone’s so brilliant and creative who’s writing and creating the show that to write it for anyone else would be boring for them and they wouldn’t want to work on the show anymore.

I think everyone’s just trying to make themselves laugh and keep themselves entertained primarily.

Wired: I understand that the show’s TV-PG, but do you really see it more as an all-ages thing?

Ward: Yeah. I hope that anyone can enjoy it. Maybe people who are 100 wouldn’t know what to think about it, but I don’t know. I’m not super concerned about it.

Wired: I ask because this is a show I’m watching with my 7-year-old, at least a couple of times a week. And I guess there’s something special going on to keep us both interested.

Ward: That’s really satisfying to hear. I hear that from adults at San Diego Comic-Con — coming up to me with their kids getting the toys signed, and the dads and moms will start talking to me about how they watch it with their kids.

I think that awesome! That’s great to hear.

There’s definitely adult humor in it — it’s not gross or adult adult — but it’s stuff that I think adults can laugh at.

Wired: I guess you’re a few years younger than me, but we likely grew up with the same cartoons. Were shows like Ren & Stimpy, shows just edgy enough to really be interesting, were those big influences on the style of Adventure Time?

Ward: That’s all in the back of my head when I’m working on the show. Voltron and anime and I know I’ve got DVD sets of The Visionaries on my shelf — “Knights of the Magical Light!” — I’ve got some ’80s cartoons on my shelf. But we try not to pull from anything or reference anything directly.

I don’t wanna date the show. That’s important to me.

Wired: Adventure Time has really become a part of the broader pop culture, a genuine success story. This really hit home when I realized I was buying my son a Jake shirt at the local JC Penney. At what point did you, as the creator, realize that you had a hit on your hands?

Ward: Just recently. A few days ago, really.

I just realized that it was bigger than I thought it was. I mean, it’s on TV and I think anything that’s on TV draws some audience to it — there’s always someone that’s going to enjoy something that’s on TV. I know I liked one-off episodes of shows that were on DIC as a kid: Hammerman and Wayne Gretzky’s cartoon.

So I know that if anything’s on television people will be drawn to it to some extent. But I feel like I just realized recently, as we’re entering into writing season five, that a lot of people like it.

Wired: There’s a certain element of mystery, a sense of the unknown in Adventure Time. For example: I gotta know, point blank, is Susan Strong really a human?

Ward: Oh, golly, I can’t. I’m not gonna reveal that. I think everyone can just kind of assume what they want most.

Wired: Leave it to the audience to decide, huh?

Ward: Leave it to the fan fiction!

Wired: In the holiday-themed 2-parter “Holly Jolly Secrets” we learn about the Ice King‘s surprising origin. Do you feel this served to make him a less effective villain? Or were you really looking to make a sympathetic villain even more sympathetic?

Ward: Yeah, I think making him even more sympathetic… I don’t know if you even can make him more sympathetic.

Or pathetic! That’s what I thought you meant.

You can make him more sympathetic, but I don’t think you can make him more pathetic.

But, yeah, I think I really enjoy a villain that you fall in love with. So if he had this terrible magical derangement happen to his mind, and, you know, he’s been around for a thousand years and… I don’t know.

I love — it was fun hearing that history. Pat McHale wrote that monologue for Tom Kenny where he reveals his weird past, his tragic past. It was awesome to hear Tom Kenny record it because it’s perfect, authentic old time sort of horror radio…

I dunno, I’m just rambling. We had a lot of fun writing it!

Wired: Oh, no, man, by all means, ramble all you want! Say all you need to.

I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk. Adventure Time is one of those properties that’s come to mean something in my house; it’s something we can share as a family, so I definitely appreciate it.

Ward: Thanks!

One thing I did was I thought a lot about my mom. I’ve watched cartoons my entire life, and I know my mom has always wanted me to turn off the TV if she hears annoying voices too often from the television — if she hears sort of cartoon “acting.”

So that was one thing I had in mind when I was thinking about families watching the cartoon. I wanted everyone to have a sort of natural speaking voice so it didn’t bother my mother.

Wired: Well that’s not something you hear from a lot of animators and creators, and I guess that just serves to drive home what’s different about Adventure Time. And on behalf of all the families watching, we really do appreciate it.

Ward: Well, thanks a lot. My pleasure!

Liked it? Take a second to support GeekDad and GeekMom on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!