Pendleton Ward is the wildly creative mind behind Cartoon Network’s latest hit series Adventure Time, starring the human boy Finn and his shapeshifting dog Jake seeking adventures and getting into trouble in the magical Land of Ooo. The original “Adventure Time” short film aired on Nickelodeon’s Random! Cartoons in 2008, and was pitched and rejected to Nickelodeon twice. Ward honed his chops as a storyboard artist for the comparably surreal The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, when Cartoon Network picked up the series in 2008 and announced it during the 2009 Upfront presentation.
Adventure Time just began its third season on Cartoon Network this past July, with a wave of merchandising beginning to hit stores and a new single-disc DVD release hitting store shelves today. In conjunction with the DVD release, Toonzone News was able to chat briefly with Pendleton Ward by telephone on what Adventure Time is and how it came to be.
TOONZONE NEWS: I mean this in the best possible way, but how many drugs are you on to make this show?
PENDLETON WARD: (laughs) Zero. Zero drugs.
TZN: Where did the concept of this brightly colored, post-nuclear adventure world come from?
PENDLETON WARD: I grew up playing “Dungeons and Dragons,” so that fantasy and adventure aspect was inspired a lot from D&D. It also inspired the way the world works…all those sort of weird creatures, that’s also very D&D inspired. When I was a kid, I had a Monster Manual, and there were all these wacky, trippy monsters in that book. So that’s where all that comes from, I guess.
TZN: There’s the bombs in the opening sequences, and there’s some references to the “Mushroom War.” What made you decide to set it in that post-apocalyptic environment instead of a more traditional fantasy world?
PENDLETON WARD: Well, it was sort of a happy accident that I was able to mix all of my favorite genres together. I really like post-apocalyptic movies, and when we were developing the show, we were just sort of drawing this brightly colored fantasy world, and then slowly but surely, we were digging up all these sort of creepy…like in “Business Time,” we explored how there’s an old world trapped in ice under that lake, and the show sort of slowly became post-apocalyptic Earth. That’s how I explain why Princess Bubblegum is made of gum and Finn has little dots for eyes. I think everyone’s mutated and they’re all mutants on the planet. (Laughs) I don’t know what I’m saying any more, but I’m excited about it. I’m excited about the sort of post-apocalyptic feeling, and all the bright colors.
PENDLETON WARD: I like that it’s just a background element in the mix. It makes it interesting for fans who watch the shows over and over again because you can always read into the world and fantasize about the history of the world. There’s more to the show than just the story that you’re watching. You can sort of make up your own stories, I guess.
TZN: I know you had pitched the show a couple of times to Nickelodeon and they kept saying no. Were you always working on it in the background, or did you just put it on the shelf and then somebody came up and said, “Hey why don’t we do this?”
PENDLETON WARD: I guess we always sort of kept working on it, and thinking about it and making different passes on the pitch bible. In the beginning, before the pilot, my plan was just to get a show, and to do that I was planning to be just an idea maker. I was just going to pitch ideas and if they failed, that was fine. I was just going to make another idea. I was trying not to become too attached to any project. So when Adventure Time was in limbo and we didn’t know whether or not it would be picked up, I wasn’t stressed out or anything. I was just waiting to see if it got picked up and if it didn’t, I would try to come up with a different idea. That was my plan.
Also, I spent a year as a storyboard artist on The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. I was spending my time working on other projects, as I was waiting for this show to get picked up.
TZN: How did your experience on Flapjack affect when you were approved and you actually go tot turn this into a full-fledged show. Woudl you say you learned anything specific on Flapjack that you carried over and used?
PENDLETON WARD: Yeah! Well, Flapjack was great because it was a crash course on how to storyboard. I still didn’t really know how to storyboard even doing the pilot, but I was working under Mike Roth — who was creative director on Regular Show and now he’s a producer…I can’t quite remember what his title is — but at the time Mike Roth and I were storyboard partners, and he was an amazing draftsman and cartoonist. He had awesome cartoony chops, so I learned a lot from him on how to draw and how to board, so that was super-helpful. Also, on Flapjack, it was a board-driven show, which means all the storyboard artists were writing all the episodes instead of the writers. Each storyboard artist would get handed an outline which was just a skeleton of an episode, and they would take it and they’d write all the jokes and draw out all the drawings for the whole episode. So they had all this control over it, and I really liked that style of show-making of finding super-creative and talented people who could draw and write, and have them pour their heart into it and make it their own. I like that style, so that’s the way Adventure Time is, too.
TZN: The original short is not actually on this DVD that was just released. Are there plans to put it out on one of the subsequent DVD releases?
PENDLETON WARD: That’s a good idea! I have no idea. I don’t even know who owns that short. I’d be curious to find out, but that’s a good idea for future DVD releases.
PENDLETON WARD: I helped pick the episodes to put on it. That’s about as far as I was involved on it. But I like the artwork on it. I like the cover. It looks cool. (laughs) That’s about it.
TZN: John DiMaggio is the only actor who reprised his role from the short, (other than you). Were you writing any of the roles with actors in mind or with voices in mind?
PENDLETON WARD: No, I was just trying to make it funny first and create funny characters, and then find actors who I thought could sell the jokes the best, I guess.
TZN: The boy who plays Finn is terrific. Did you find him through a straight audition?
PENDLETON WARD: Yeah. In the beginning, for the pilot, there were maybe 20 or 30 kids who auditioned and we picked a kid named Zack Shada. Then when Adventure Time got picked up finally, we had maybe 50 or 60 kids who did auditions, and we ended up landing on Zack’s brother, which was bizarre. He was the best. He had the best audition, and he just happened to be Zack’s brother. Zack had grown up and was too old for the part, we thought, but we ended up hiring his younger brother Jeremy. He’s super talented, and he’s a pro. He screams all the time for the show, he does lots of screaming.
TZN: Who would you say is the hardest character on the show to write? Are there any characters that you would say are particularly easy to write?
PENDLETON WARD: Ice King is the easiest to write, because Tom Kenny can take our dialogue and turn it into the funniest thing you’ve ever heard. It doesn’t matter what we’re writing, Tom can make it funny. John’s the same way. He can turn our dialogue around and just make it hilarious, so it’s great writing for them. But yeah, it’s easiest to write for all the characters, really. All the actors are so super-talented.
TZN: What would you say has been the biggest change between what you were doing when you started the show and what you’re doing now?
PENDLETON WARD: I think we’re just trying to keep it real. We’re trying to keep it interesting for us to make and for people to watch and trying not to …I don’t know…trying not to slow down and take any shortcuts. We’re just trying to keep it interesting. Working on season 4, we’re doing more and more bizarre episodes with a lot of dreaming themes. Every season we’re just trying to do something a little different.
PENDLETON WARD: More than the fans, I’m thinking about what little kids are thinking about who are just watching the show for the first time. That’s who I’m making it for in the end, is the littlest of kids. When you’re a kid, you’re sort of soaking up everything. When I was a kid, I liked Beavis and Butthead and Ren and Stimpy because it was just blowing my mind how hilarious and ridiculous it was. That was the only place that I could see something that crazy. It was so intense to watch, and it made me want to draw cartoons and be silly. I think that’s the main reason why I got into cartooning was to try and…I don’t know, return the favor, sort of, to the next generation. Blow kids brains apart.
TZN: (laughs) That’s a good goal to have, I think.
PENDLETON WARD: But when we’re writing, I think all the board artists are just writing for ourselves, most of the time. Trying to make each other laugh. That’s the best we can do, too, really. We judge everything ourselves, and everybody’s pretty closely tight knit. All the board artists.
TZN: Is there anything that you can talk about more specifically about what we can expect in upcoming episodes?
PENDLETON WARD: There’s a Christmas special coming up. It’s a two-parter. I think that’s going to be really funny. You’ll get to see back history of the Ice King, and sort of how he came to be the Ice King, which I think is really interesting.
TZN: When you say, “two-parter,” do you mean a half-hour or a full hour of TV time?
PENDLETON WARD: 22 minutes. Two 11-minute episodes. So I think that’s cool. And there’s a lot of characters that come back and make brief appearances in that episode. I get a lot of e-mails from people asking if this or that character will ever make a comeback, and this episode has a ton of characters in it at one point.
Toonzone News would like to thank Pendleton Ward for taking the time to speak with us, and all the PR folks at Cartoon Network and Bender/Helper Impact for setting it up. Adventure Time currently airs on Cartoon Network Monday nights at 8:00 PM (7:00 PM Central), and Adventure Time: My Two Favorite People is on DVD now. For more information on the DVD, check out Toonzone’s earlier coverage here.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this interview misspelled Zack Shada’s first name as “Zach.”