You know how you can tell that Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time is a hit? This is the line for the New York Comic Con panel, a good 15 minutes before it was scheduled to begin:
And that’s not the end of it. It kept going, for what felt like miles:
The standing-room-only crowd was treated to New York Times critic Dave Itzkoff moderating a panel with Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward, head writer Kent Osborne, writer/composer/storyboard artist Rebecca Sugar, and voice actors John DiMaggio (Jake the Dog) and Jeremy Shada (Finn the Human). It took several minutes for the overflow crowd to even get into the room, meaning many people (including me) missed the first few minutes of the panel or it would have started even later than it did.
We walked in as Pendleton Ward was describing how comics, cartoons, video games, and role-playing games “was my entire life” as a small, chubby nerd. While he didn’t know how important these things would be in his future career, he did say that he always knew he wanted to be an animator, getting his start with flipbooks drawn on Post-It Note pads that his mother carried around to keep him occupied while they were out running errands. John DiMaggio relayed a story that Ward’s mother brought a young Pen Ward for a spontaneous visit to Matt Groening’s house for advice on how to be an animator; flash-forward to today to Groening saying in public multiple times that Adventure Time is one of his favorite shows.
Ward’s first bit of advice for anybody wanting to replicate his success was to “do stuff,” saying that a lot of people stop at “how do I do it?” and that if you want to be an animator, just to start animating. He added that Finn and Jake were just doodles in his sketchbook at first, and that he “plugged in the personalities of my friends” when he pulled them out to pitch Adventure Time (joking “fanfic your friends” as further advice).
John DiMaggio gave a brief overview of his career from stand-up comedy in New York City to voiceover work in Los Angeles to his role as Jake in Adventure Time (drawing big cheers for references to New York City and his role as Bender in Futurama). He described Jake as similar to his own voice except “a little more homey…you want to cuddle up with this voice.” He also poked some fun at the crowd outside the room and how lining up for a panel at 5:00 AM was like “the new (Grateful) Dead show,” even if most of the audience was, depressingly, probably too young to get the joke. DiMaggio said that he’s still confused by the scripts at times until a fan explains it to him.
Jeremy Shada noted his career in live-action and voiceover, adding that his older brother Zach was the voice of Finn in the Adventure Time pilot (to which DiMaggio joked, “Thank God your brother went through puberty”), and that while Zach may tease him a bit about the role, there’s no jealousy between the two. Later in the panel, Jeremy Shada said he does get physical in the booth, and then offered up a yell for the audience (“My Pajamas!“).
Two clips were screened: one from an upcoming episode (never before seen and not even streamed for the Internet audience), and one from a previously aired episode (featuring Lumpy Space Princess promising Turtle Princess a trashy book on how to get boys). In response to a question from Itzkoff about how much of the world is pre-defined and how much of it is discovered as they go, Kent Osborne said that they are definitely building more now than they were, partially because they have back-material to draw on. Ward described it as they were “playing D&D while we’re were writing this,” discovering the characters as they’re writing them and figuring out a lot as they go along.
Rebecca Sugar also added that they can also feel when something feels right or wrong, which led to Pen Ward describing the mandate that Finn won’t cry very often or be a lame hero in the show. Ward elaborated that this is how he always saw Leonardo in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show, calling him a “bummer” and exclaiming “Leonardo sucked!” because of the way he was always asking for help from Splinter and whining, but that writing heroes tend to fall into those same behaviors. (Also, Ward said that the TMNT references were something he wasn’t allowed to talk about on the DVD, in case you were wondering what was being said (sometimes) under that ukelele music in the commentaries.)
Itkoff asked the panelists whether they felt if Finn had grown up a bit during the show, with Jeremy Shada responding that he felt Finn had grown up in some areas (if not necessarily in being comfortable with the ladies) and that there was some cool back-story stuff for him in the upcoming season.
Ward said that the target audience they were writing for was themselves, and that they really just tried to write to make themselves laugh first and foremost. DiMaggio added that he had never seen a show with such a broad demographic in its fans, and said that he was frustrated in trying to figure out the show until fellow voice actor Tom Kenny told him, “It’s this generation’s Yellow Submarine.”
After another clip of Finn and Jake battling the Lich, the panel addressed the dark places the show can go, with Ward saying the show definitely has more license to go to darker places as it has progressed and that sometimes he has to dial it back (citing the episode where Jake sees his own death as one where he had to go back and lighten it up). He added that the show’s success has given him more license to go to darker places, and that it’s created a feedback loop as the darkness leads more people get into it.
In the middle of the panel, for no visible reason, Rebecca Sugar pulled out her ukelele for a duet with John DiMaggio for “Bacon Pancakes,” which turned into an audience sing-along.
(Sorry, you don’t get a sound file. You kind of had to be there.)
This led to David Itzkoff asking when to know it was the right time in an episode to deploy a musical number. Rebecca Sugar said there’s usually something in the script saying, “a song goes here,” which led to a story about how the toughest song she had to write for the show was when the outline just said, “Finn plays the most incredible song, ever.” She worked through that by writing a song that was drawn from an emotionally true place for Finn, which was an easier thing to handle than writing the most incredible song, ever.
Itzkoff asked who came up with the “I’m a Buff Baby” song, which didn’t get an answer but did lead to another live song, this time by Jeremy Shada. This in turn led to DiMaggio describing how someone at a con pulled off his shirt to reveal a massive Adventure Time tattoo on his back with “Punch-a Your Buns” at the bottom of it. He added that he signed the fan’s back, which the fan then got tattooed. Pen Ward then relayed his funny tattoo story, describing how he autographed a fan’s “love handle” in Canada that the fan got tattooed to show him the next day.
Itzkoff then asked if Ward was comfortable with his alter ego as Lumpy Space Princess, to which Ward responded that he wasn’t comfortable with it that he was “embarrassed how much I do relate to Lumpy Space Princess.”
In response to a question about the importance of continuity, Ward said that it was something they thought about (which led to something of an extended digression on The Simpsons and it’s lack of continuity). Expanding on that idea led to a clip from “Simon and Marcy” showing the Ice King and Marcelline in the past, which led to a discussion of the Ice King’s development in the show. Kent Osborne said it really started in “Holly Jolly Secrets,” as the crew was trying to figure out how to end it. He added that he also began to tear up just watching the clip, saying that Tom Kenny didn’t know how to sing the theme song to Cheers, but that the off-kilter singing worked out better for the scene. Ward and DiMaggio both sang Tom Kenny’s praises, with Ward citing his ability to “jump between sane and completely insane and silly,” swinging between completely sincere and bouncing off the walls at the drop of a hat.
This led to some discussion of other voice actors on the show, which didn’t lead to a hard answer but did lead to John DiMaggio calling Brian Posehn and leaving voice mail with the help of the panel attendees. No, really.
Itzkoff opened the panel to audience Q&A. Highlights include:
– Kent Osborne said that Lemongrab “was going somewhere,” though he couldn’t go into details.
– Pen Ward just said, “I like girls” when asked about the origins of Princesses, saying he thought they jumped the shark with Bounce House Princess (though Embryo Princess was “just right”).
– Ward said it was a little hard to write about the show while they were writing the show, but did plug the Adventure Time Encyclopedia by Martin Olson.
– Ward said that they aren’t sneaky in getting things on the show, and that Cartoon Network does give notes but they never feel like they’re sacrificing anything in complying.
And we have some extra panel photos too good not to share. First are John DiMaggio and Pendleton Ward reacting to the Arizona Iced Tea drinks left out for them on the table. Pen Ward is dumping some fruit punch concentrate into his.
This is probably why there is not going to be an Adventure Time/Arizona Iced Tea marketing tie-in any time soon.
In other news: the Adventure Time Hitchhiker’s Club is accepting applications:
Finally, a nice photo of Jeremy Shada because, judging from the reaction from some audience members, fans are really hot for him: