Disney Channel has an unusual hit on its hands, an animated show that is scoring big with the tween auds that flock to the channel’s live-action fare.
“Phineas and Ferb” is one of the cabler’s fastest-growing shows (averaging 3.4 million viewers), buoyed by the kind of playground word-of-mouth that money can’t buy. The show revolves around the outlandish adventures of two pre-teen stepbrothers who challenge themselves to overcome boredom, by any means necessary, on lazy summer days. Oh, and they have a pet platypus named Perry who leads a double life as a secret agent fighting the evil, and inept, scientist Dr. Doofenshmirtz.
“Phineas” has much more of a “Simpsons” vibe to it than other Disney Channel toons, which have tended to focus on younger kid demos. The series, created by animation vets Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh for Walt Disney Television Animation, is packed with jokes, sight gags and references that may sail right over the heads of the core aud, but get a giggle out of moms and dads.
Each half-hour installment generally comprises two 11-12 minute episodes that move like wildfire in the anything-goes spirit of vintage Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cartoon shorts. And by the choice of Povenmire and Marsh, the show is produced in traditional 2D animation style, where the initial writing and drawing for each seg are done in storyboard form at the same time.
“We wanted to go back to the old way of making cartoons,” Marsh says. “Our show is just as much visually driven as it is dialogue-driven.”
Povenmire and Marsh are also tunesmiths who write at least one original song per segment, with the help of staff composer Danny Jacob and a host of other collaborators who take part in a regular Friday night brainstorming jam session. (“We’re both sort of failed rock musicians from way back,” Povenmire admits.)
“Phineas and Ferb” bowed as a regular series in February 2008 (after a sneak preview on the night of the “High School Musical 2” preem in August 2007). It’s grown so popular that it fits comfortably as the lone toon running in Disney’s primetime lineup alongside “Hannah Montana,” “Wizards of Waverly Place” and “Sonny With a Chance,” among others. It’s also a centerpiece of the Mouse House’s boy-centric Disney XD channel.
” ‘Phineas and Ferb’ is the ultimate four-quadrant series,” says Disney Channels Worldwide entertainment prexy Gary Marsh (who is no relation to Jeff Marsh).
“It works for older and younger kids, for boys and for girls, for parents. Across every demographic we’ve seen substantial growth over the last six months. … There’s a layer of sophistication and humor here that you don’t see on other Disney Channel animated series.”
Povenmire and Jeff Marsh had been nurturing their idea for a show about stepbrothers who become best friends for more than 16 years. They met each other as writers on “The Simpsons” and began working closely together on the Nickelodeon toon “Rocko’s Modern Life.”
They went their separate ways in time, but both kept pitching the “Phineas” concept to myriad potential buyers. When Povenmire finally got a nibble from Disney, he called Marsh, who at the time was working in the U.K. on various animated ventures.
“That sound you hear is me packing,” Povenmire recalls Marsh telling him during that phone call.
The look of the characters sprang from doodles that Povenmire did one day absently in a South Pasadena coffee shop that used butcher paper for table coverings. Phineas, the mouthy one, has a distinctively triangular head. (“It gives him this edgy look. When I first drew him I liked it so much I did him three times,” Povenmire says.)Ferb, the genius who makes their wild ideas come to life but rarely speaks, has a rectangular body shape, accentuated by his habit of pulling his pants up to his armpits. The boys are regularly tormented by Phineas’ older sister Candace, a boy-crazy teenager (with a lanky build in the shape of a P) who’s always trying — and failing — to get the boys in trouble with mom.
Presenting the Flynn-Fletcher clan as a blended family without much commentary was important to Jeff Marsh, who comes from just such a background.
“Every time you see a blended family on TV the show usually makes an issue about it,” Marsh says. “I thought we should just present a family without explaining it or making any excuses. And we’ve gotten so much feedback from people who tell us how much that simple fact meant to them.”
It is equally gratifying for them to see evidence from the ratings that “Phineas” is a show that encourages family viewing.
“From the beginning we were just trying to make a show that would make us laugh, but would not make us cringe as parents if we were watching in the same room with our kids,” Marsh says.