When you’re the creator of a hit Disney animated TV series, it helps to have kids of your own in your target demo to offer feedback and inspiration. It certainly hasn’t hurt Disney XD’s Emmy-winning “Phineas and Ferb,” whose endless summer finally reaches its conclusion tonight, June 12, after 126 episodes.
“When he asks for my opinion, I try to be as honest as I can,” says Jeff “Swampy” Marsh’s 14-year-old son Django, who was 6 when Marsh and co-creator Dan Povenmire sold the show to Disney. Marsh has woven some stories from Django’s life into the series. “He does seem to steal bits,” Django says. “Like the episode where the characters went to rock ’n’ roll camp. And I’m pretty sure the whole hockey episode happened because I was playing hockey at the time.”
Marsh laughs. “I’m just waiting for my son to realize that I owe him money” for those ideas, he says.
Povenmire’s oldest daughter was born about a month before the show got picked up, and he named one of the supporting characters after her. “We knew we were having a girl, and that we were going to name her Isabella,” he recalls. “We had this character, a sort of girl next door who has a crush on Phineas, and we said, ‘Of course! Her name is Isabella.” His daughter’s growth has given Povenmire something to gauge the show’s progress by. “She is my visual representation of how old the show is,” he explains. “I tell myself, ‘Oh, the show is old enough to roll its eyes and talk back to me.” Isabella is now 9 and her younger sister, Melissa, is 7.
Disney Junior hit “Doc McStuffins” came to be after creator Chris Nee had to rush her young son, Theodore, to the emergency room because of an asthma attack. “In that week afterward, I kept thinking, ‘I want to be that parent who’s played by Susan Sarandon when she comes up with a cure for asthma,’ but that’s not going to happen,” she wryly recalls. “Then I realized that one thing I could do was try to demystify doctors for kids.” Theo, now 8, says: “I like that it’s helped so many people going to the doctor.”
Many of Theo’s playthings have made their way into the storylines. “I’m so obsessed with my son’s toys. If something breaks, I’m like, ‘What exactly happened?’” explains Nee. “He came home from the aquarium one day with a new toy, and we said ‘Hold on, one second,’ and we made an episode out of it.”
Craig Gerber was inspired to create Disney Junior’s “Sofia the First” specifically because of his firstborn son. “The show was a direct response to him being born. I was watching television that was aimed toward little kids, and I thought I’d come up with something I’d enjoy watching as much as the would. That was always the goal. Now he has three sons: Miles, 7; Des, 5; and 2-month old Beau. “I have three boys, which is ironic, since my show is about a princess, but I’m lucky. My older boys love the show.” One even created a Bat Sofia outfit for last Halloween.
Sascha Paladino’s 5-year-old twins were also a big inspiration for his new Disney Junior show, “Miles From Tomorrowland.” “When I found out we were having twins, I thought I’d never have another adventure, and that led me to daydream about the greatest adventures you could go on with your family,” he says. “For me, that would be outer space. And adventures are really better when your family’s there.”
His sons, Gianluca and Cole, have offered ideas that have been used in episodes, such as space police. And they have plenty more. “I’d like to see an outer space giant,” Gianluca says. “And a volcano that they have to go in.” Chimes in Cole: “Because there’s a crystal inside the volcano.”
“Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero” co-creators Sam Levine and Jared Bush might want to consider a couple of episode ideas put forward for the Disney XD show by Levine’s sons, Jake, 12, and Josh, 10.
“I want to see Penn go to a world where everything they say is backwards, but there are subtitles on the bottom,” explains Jake. “The funny part is that they have a hard time communicating and Boone is constantly doing the wrong thing because he can’t understand anything.”
Josh has a very Hollywood take on his idea: “I call it ‘World of Food,’” he says. “There’s giant food everywhere. Penn is a fly, Boone is a slug and Sashi is a worm. They have to find a gigantic giant magic apple that turns them back into real people.”
Levine says he and his sons watch the shows together at various stages of development, even as early as the storyboard stage. “They will call us out on character continuity,” he notes. “It’s great to see that they are aware of that. And they don’t forget anything.”
Bush’s kids are younger, but his oldest son, Hewitt, 8, has helped Dad out on occasion. “I look at the show and see what the problems are,” he explains.
Says Bush: “He likes to tell me when things aren’t funny. A lot of his advice is naive logic. He’ll say, ‘This police officer is bad now. Police officers aren’t bad, so that doesn’t make any sense.’ He’s a stickler when something’s supposed to be a certain way and it’s not.”
So the showrunners, their kids and their shows are all intertwined. “We all steal liberally from our kids,” says Marsh.
After bidding farewell to “Phineas and Ferb,” Marsh and Povenmire will be back on Disney XD in 2017 with “Mikey Murphy’s Law.” For a preview, they’d likely have to ask their kids.