Tonight, Disney XD premiers Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero, a new animated comedy adventure series about Penn Zero, a boy who falls into the job of part-time hero with his best friends Sashi, part-time sidekick, and Boone, part-time wise man. Together, the trio zap into other dimensions full of genre-crossing themes (think Jurassic Western) to fill in for heroes in need.
Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero’s voice cast includes Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley), Adam DeVine (Pitch Perfect), Tania Gunadi (Aaron Stone), Alfred Molina (Spiderman 2) and Larry Wilmore (The Nightly Show), with notable guests including Sigourney Weaver (Avatar), Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings), Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee’s Playhouse), Adam West (Batman) and others.
I had the chance to talk with Penn Zero co-creators Jared Bush (Zootopia) and Sam Levine (Robot & Monster) about the shows origins, its comedic cast and their own favorite heroes.
GeekDad: I hear there’s an interesting origin story for the show involving both of your childhoods. How did Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero evolve into what it is today?
Jared Bush: For me, growing up outside of Washington DC in Maryland, I had this normal suburban life and a normal suburban family. Right around the time I was 12 or 13 I discovered that my dad, who I’d thought worked for the “government” actually worked for the CIA. In fact, he worked there and my grandfather had also worked there for decades. There was sort of this implied family legacy that maybe one day that would be my job too. If you’ve ever met my dad, he’s a very unassuming gentleman, so none of that made any sense to me whatsoever. So, the idea of a secret family legacy was something that Sam and I always really liked. We thought, wouldn’t it be cool if likewise Penn had no idea, and one day discovered that his parents were these awesome part-time heroes who go to different dimensions to save the world. For Penn specifically, he then also has to take on that job and fill in as a part-time hero.
Sam Levine: For me, I grew up spending a lot of time going to work with my dad when he worked as a projectionist for some New York theaters. I spent a lot of my time watching movies from the booth. Everyone escaped when they went to the theaters as a kid and really felt that they were a part of the movies. For me in particular, those old movie houses, many of which aren’t even standing anymore, were a big inspiration for the Odyssey, the theater that our characters use as a base to zap out of and go to these different dimensions, literally. In my childhood it was very much my imagination that transported me to those places.
GD: Tell me about the worlds you’ve created for the show?
SL: It’s a very wide range of places and genres. Obviously the show is an excuse to sort of geek out on any particular genre, or place. We made the decision early on that we wouldn’t just go into genres that we’ve seen, but do mash-up genres, combining different things. We don’t just go to an old Western town; we have cowboys together with dinosaurs to add another element. We have a James Bond, or spy genre that we mix with a primitive, prehistoric caveman world where all of the gadgets are really crappy.
JB: They’re all rocks and sticks.
SL: We play with the different expectations of genre and many of our worlds are completely unique. Really, anything we can imagine and think would be a cool and fun place to go to we’ve created and sent Penn to. It’s pretty wide-ranging.
JB: I think for both of us, growing up in the ‘80s, the Amblin movies marked sort of the heyday for us. Thinking about those types of movies, where anyone could be the hero, for instance, Sam always brings up Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, or Ghostbusters or Goonies, these are all movies with unlikely heroes. So when were choosing the worlds that we go to, we really try to ask, what are the fun worlds we can remember going to when we were kids? For instance, we like zombie movies, so lets take them to a zombie world and try to find a unique twist, but also find a way that world can really take advantage of what our characters are going through. Lets look at the insecurities they are going through, and create this meld between what the world is and the characters story.
SL: We have a lot of things that we geek out about. I geek out about giant Japanese Transformer robots, and we have one episode where our characters become these giant, rearranging, transforming robots that merge with each other. We wanted to really determine what the characters story is and how it plays into this world. What it came down to was working together, teamwork, and having fun with that idea in a comedic way. “I’m the arm, you’re the leg, and we have to move together this way.” We wanted to play with that idea, something we’ve seen a lot in Power Rangers and Voltron, but actually have fun with it in our world. That’s our rule; no matter what cool moments in the world make us geek out, we have to find the characters story that’s going to make it fun, funny or surprising.
GD: You have a pretty impressive core cast. Tell me about what each of your actors brings to their characters and how they’ve helped define the personalities of those characters?
JB: We have five main characters, three heroes and two villains. Penn, our main guy is voiced by Thomas Middleditch who comes from the Upright Citizens Brigade. He’s this amazing improv guy. It took a long time for us to find him. We wanted a voice for Penn that felt like someone who didn’t quite have it down, someone who’s vulnerable as a hero and really funny in his own right. We wanted a guy that, when he zaps to these worlds seems off a little bit. We didn’t want him to go in and say “ok, as a hero I have to do this and go and rescue that.” Finding that specific voice for Penn was actually pretty difficult because we wanted him to be unique and really likeable. Thomas really brought that into the show.
SL: For Penn’s Wiseman, we have Adam DeVine who plays Boone. Boone is a Wiseman by trade, but is really the least qualified Wiseman you can imagine. He’s not wise. His last name is Wiseman, which is how he got the job. His parents were part-time Wisemen before him. Adam DeVine is super funny in everything he does, from Workaholics to Pitch Perfect. The thing about Boone is that he’s not the smartest guy in the world, but he’s not your typical dumb best friend character. He’s intelligent, he’s just not often engaged in the mission. He’s just into his own stuff and having his own fun. He’s off in his own world and now and then comes out with sparks of wisdom very unique to his character.
JB: That leads us to Sashi played by Tania Gunadi. When you’re designing things early on you find ways to help the network get their heads wrapped around a character. We had this commercial we saw from Honda, called Hoodie Ninja. It has this awesome Asian actress running around and kicking butt, and we thought that was really cool and could be a good template for who this character was. Down the road it turned out that the actual actress from the commercial, Tania Gunadi, also voices Sashi in the show. We didn’t go and seek her out, both of those things just happened to come together. We needed someone who was really fun. Someone you could believe would go out there and destroy anything that came up against her while remaining incredibly loyal. Her number one thing is that she wants to be the greatest sidekick of all time. She doesn’t want to be the hero, she wants to support Penn in any way that she can. We also needed, we found, an adult in the room. Penn and Boone can sometimes really enjoy the world and not stick to the mission. We needed someone to make sure everyone was sticking to the mission at hand. Giving that role to Sashi, just considering how aggressive she is in her own right, felt like the right fit.
SL: Where Boone is an under qualified Wiseman, Sashi is an overqualified sidekick.
GD: Who are the part-time villains in the show?
SL: We have some great actors filling the roles of our villains. We have Alfred Molina as Rippen. He works as an art teacher at Penn Zero’s school as his full-time job but what he really wants to do is become a full time villain. So, he moonlights as a part-time villain battling Penn. The fun part about Rippen, and Alfred particularly, is that most people know him from his movie roles, like Spiderman 2, where he hardly ever speaks with an English accent. He really has a very English accent, so he was very excited to do a role where he could actually be English. He’s a really hilarious actor. He loves to improvise and goof around which is a lot of fun for us. The character of Rippen is not goofy per se. He has some teeth to him. He really wants to defeat and hurt Penn and win. It’s within him playing the character kind of straight that we pull the comedy out of how he fails, particularly with Larry.
JB: Larry is voiced by Larry Wilmore. Like Penn, it’s a very comedic role, but it was very tough to cast because we didn’t want someone to come on and put on a silly voice that didn’t feel organic. It took a long time before Larry Wilmore came in and he was just being himself, which is exactly what we wanted. He really fit the character perfectly. We wanted him to be someone who would support Rippen, the villain, at all times. But at the same time he has this blind spot where he’ll be overly helpful. He just really likes to have Rippen as a friend, and that often takes over, causing him to accidently screw up Rippen’s plans by just trying to be a good and loyal friend. He’s also one of those characters, similar to Boone, who’s often in his own head. Sometimes, if he has another project in mind it can steer him down this other path. The cool thing is that when they’re back home in Middleburg, Larry is actually the principal of the school where Rippen works as art teacher, so Larry actually has seniority over him back in the real world. When they go to these zap worlds where Larry becomes Rippen’s minion, that power structure reverses. There is this really fun dynamic between the two that changes depending on which world they happen to be in.
GD: There is a really impressive group of guest actors you’ve lined up for season one. Who has been your favorite thus far? Did any one particular guest cause you to geek out?
SL: I’d say the one that was super fun for me, and we’ve had him back again, is Adam West, who plays Captain Super Captain, the hero in Megasupertropolis, a universe where everyone is a superhero. Adam is such a joyful, fun guy to work with. He’s really a comedian. He loves to laugh and to make people laugh. The whole roster of guests is a super exciting list of people who fit the roles of the shows we have them in. We really cast for personality. Of course, when it comes to casting a superhero in a superhero world, there’s nobody better than Adam West.
We have Sean Astin voicing Blaze, an ultra cool ‘80s style dragon in an episode inspired by those great ‘80s films with really wild hair and music. He really got into the ‘80s vibe. I think just having people who are willing to come into the studio and play is great. Sigourney Weaver voices a character named Lady Starblaster in a very sci-fi, space opera type world. Lady Starblaster is a horrible space dictator who Rippen zaps in and actually ends up competing with, though she’s so beautiful and terrifying that he just ends up falling in love. She had a lot of fun doing all kinds of different takes with Alfred and embracing the comic side of sci-fi, which of course she’s done before with Galaxy Quest.
JB: I think Maria Bamford has been really fun. We also had Garry Marshall and so many other great, comedic guests. The breadth of casting and the talent we were able to bring in has been really phenomenal. We’re really running the gamut.
GD: Who are your favorite heroes, be they full-time or part-time?
JB: Han Solo has to be at the top of my list. There’s some of him in Penn as well. Someone who will go out there and try to do the job, doesn’t always necessarily do it right and gets himself into trouble. When he’s facing three-dozen Stormtroopers he’s going to run in the other direction because he doesn’t want to die. I like someone like that, who feels real but can still find some comedy in the moment.
SL: I love Star Wars too, surprise, so I’d say Luke Skywalker was a big inspiration to me as a kid. I felt like I could relate to him; that progression of a kid who just wanted to go out and make something of himself and the world. I like that whole Joseph Campbell style story. It is cooler to say Han Solo though.
Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero premieres tonight, FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 13 (9:45 p.m., ET/PT) on Disney XD and Disney Channel, with three additional episodes premiering over the holiday weekend on Disney XD.