On the final day of New York Comic Con, The New York Times presented Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward, along with John DiMaggio (Jake the Dog), Jeremy Shada (Finn the Human), songwriter Rebecca Sugar and show writer Kent Osborne in a panel theater filled-to-capacity with fans of all ages.
Since its debut in 2010, Adventure Time has become a cross-demographic hit for Cartoon Network, appealing to children and grown-ups alike. Kids appreciate the show’s silly stories about a boy adventurer named Finn, the only human in the land of Ooo, and his best friend Jake, a talking dog with magical powers that allow him to shapeshift at will. While adults can certainly enjoy the wackiness of Finn and Jake’s adventures that pit them against the princess-snatching Ice King or the destruction-loving Lich, they are more often drawn in by the subtler stories that go on within the series, like Finn’s struggles in growing up, getting noticed by girls, and the realization of his beloved best friend’s mortality, or the Ice King tragic backstory which reveals the startling origin of Ooo.
The show’s massive popularity was clear throughout NYCC, where countless cosplayers dressed as Finn, Jake, Fiona, Cake, Princess Bubblegum, Marceline the Vampire Queen, Marshal Lee, Ice King and Lumpy Space Princess. As the Adventure Time team took their seats on the panel, DiMaggio cried out “What time is it?” And in response the audience roared, “Adventure Time!”
A common theme in the question portion of the panel was origin stories. First Ward was asked to recount his beginnings in animation, and what he was like as a child. “I was an idiot,” Ward said, “I was fat and I ate a lot of pizza and I played Diablo.” He went on, “As a small chubby nerd, it was my entire life, video games, comics and cartoons. That was all that I knew. So yeah, they were super important to me because that was my childhood. I lived in that world.” He had no idea how important these things would be in his future career, saying, “I knew what I wanted to do when I was little. I knew I wanted to be an animator. I used to do a lot of flipbooks on little Post-It note pads…I would just sit quietly by myself and animate stories on them. I spent a lot of time doing that when I was little.”
The origins of Finn and Jake, Ward explained, “were just doodles in my sketch book.”
“I just doodle a lot,” he continued. “I carry sketchbooks in my pockets, small ones so I can always doodle. That’s where it started. I just picked two doodles when I was pitching from my book, and I plugged in the personalities of my friends into these little sketches that I had. And that’s where it starts, I think. When you’re trying to figure out what to pitch or what your story is, just start drawing and then just look at your friends and which two of your friends are your weirdest friends. And then start plugging in their personalities into your drawings. Start writing stories about them. Fanfic your friends.”
DiMaggio offered his own origin story, detailing that he had begun acting as a kid. Then in his twenties, he turned to stand-up comedy in New York City. “I was doing stand-up a lot,” He said.” And I started doing voiceover for television and radio commercials. Then when I moved to Los Angeles, there was a lot more animation there. And I started to audition for a lot of things, and then I got Futurama…and then I auditioned for this little pilot called Adventure Time, where I was the voice of the dog. And Jake’s voice is close to mine…except (sliding into Jake’s voice) he’s a little more, he’s a little more homey, you know? You want to kind of cuddle up to this voice, get a blanket and maybe a hot dog…but that’s just it. You audition and hope for the best. You never know when a show is going to explode like this show has. It’s amazing.”
Asked for how he came to join Adventure Time, Shada revealed it was actually his older brother who was initially picked to voice Finn. “My brother Zack…did the original pilot and played Finn in the pilot, so when it rolled around to Cartoon Network about three years later my voice sounded just like his had, and I kind of copied it a little bit too.” He added that there’s no animosity between them over this casting replacement. “He’s totally cool about it,” Shada said, though he admits Zack will joke by saying. “It should have been me!”
“Thank God your brother went through puberty,” DiMaggio teased.
“I know, right?” Shada laughed.
As to what’s to come, Shada said Finn’s backstory will continue to be explored. Osborne promised the polarizing Lemongrab will return, adding, “It’s going somewhere but we can’t talk about it.” And Ward assured there will be more Fiona and Cake. But as for how it will all turn out, not even Ward can say.
“The fate of the world isn’t already figured out,” Ward said. “What it is is that we’re playing D&D [Dungeons and Dragons] while we’re writing it. We’re role-playing the characters as we’re writing them. So we’re having the same experience as you all are having as you’re watching it because we’re figuring it out as we go along. We are those characters. We put ourselves into that situation and figure out what they would do if we were them. Which I think is cool!”
He added that D&D is also an influence on the show’s overarching plotlines. “Continuity is important to me because I play D&D. I like having that loot. I want them to have that loot.” Aside from that, Ward said, “We just write to make ourselves laugh. I think that’s all you can do.”
“I like the darkest of places, and we usually have to pull it back from those places just a little bit,” Ward said of the show’s more mature themes. “There was an episode where Jake saw his own death (“The New Frontier”)…that one was way darker than what you saw. It was almost un-airable I think. I went in and lightened it up just a little bit.”
As to whether the show’s popularity has given him more creative license to go darker, Ward said, “I’ve been dark since the beginning. But the show’s gotten darker I think, but as the show got more successful I had a little more pull to sort of pull the show into weirder and weirder places. Which I think is only making more people into it. I don’t know, we’re all just shooting in the dark trying to do something we like. And I’m glad other people dig it.”
As to Cartoon Network’s input on Adventure Time, Ward said, “They trust us not to blow up the show. So we keep it within what we know can be on TV. We try to at least. And if we don’t they tell us. But I’m not trying to sneak in stuff that I don’t think will work.” He added, “Whenever you’re fixing a note, you’re always finding a happy middle ground to make everybody happy. We don’t move forward with something unless we’re stoked on it.”
Over the course of the panel, Ward presented a series of clips from the show, including “Gotcha!” where Lumpy Space Princess wrote a book, “The Lich,” where the titular villain led Finn and Jake into alternate realities, and “Simon & Marcy” in which Ice King and Marceline’s bond is explained and the former sings a heartbreaking rendition of the Cheers theme song. After the last of these was shown, the panel discussed the how this story evolved. When penning the “Holly Jolly Secrets” episode, show writer Patrick McHale came up with the concept of Ice King’s past life as Simon Petrikov.
Shockingly, Osborne told us that Tom Kenny, who lends his voice to the Ice King/Simon, was not familiar with the iconic theme song, and had to look it up on YouTube to learn it. “It still sounds kind of off,” Osborne said, “But it kind of works because he (Simon) is going through a lot…It worked out great.”
Ward and company also showed one new clip that had not yet been screened on television. It began with Marceline, Finn and Jake strolling through an underground kingdom on a quest to bring Princess Bubblegum a spoon. But the trio stumbles on trouble when Jake gets stuck in quicksand. When Marceline and Finn can’t pull him free, Jake transforms himself into a drill to dig himself free, and accidentally causes a cave-in that blocks their only exit. Jake shouts, “I know! I’ll dig us out of here!” Finn and Marceline lunge for him and shout, “No!” as the clip ends.
The panelists further delighted the fans by breaking into the voices of their characters. Ward cried out, “Oh my glob!” and “Boys! I want boys and to write books!” as Lumpy Space Princess. (“I’m embarrassed how much I do relate to Lumpy Space Princess,” Ward admitted.) Shada screamed “My pajamas!” in character, and obliged one fan who requested he say “I love you” in the voice of Finn. And DiMaggio broke into song as Jake, leading the crowd in a few verses of “Making Bacon Pancakes” as Sugar accompanied on ukulele.
Sugar shared how much direction she tends to get in writing the songs for the show, “They are usually figured out in advance (rather than improvised). There will be like a thing that says, ‘Oh, a song goes here.’ So I try to come up with something. There was one for the musical episode ‘What Was Missing’ I remember that the outline said, ‘Finn plays the most incredible song ever.’ I was like, ‘Oh, thanks!'” As to how she ended up writing “My Best Friends in the World,” Sugar explained, “That one was really hard, although we started shifting it from being about the most awesome song, and more about it being emotionally honest song. That was a little more flexible than it being the greatest song anyone has ever heard.”
One of the stranger moments of the panel followed Ward’s explanation of how the show gets all the incredible guest stars it has, ranging from Ron Perlman as the Lich, to Kristen Schaal as Jake Jr., George Takei as the evil heart Ricardio, and Neil Patrick Harris as Prince Gumball. Ward explained he just reaches out to people he’s a fan of, like stand-up Brian Posehn who voiced the businessmen of the “Business Time” episode. “I’m just a fan of them” Ward said, “I just like to hire comedians and actors I’m a big fan of because it’s fun. And working next to Brian Posehn was awesome. We’re not buds, though. I don’t have his phone number or anything.”
Then DiMaggio interjected, “I have his number.” “Let’s call him,” Ward replied. And DiMaggio did while the theater tittered with laughter. Unfortunately, he got Posehn’s voicemail. But DiMaggio gestured for silence, then left a brief message, “Hey Brian, it’s DiMaggio. I’m here with Pen Ward…and I got about a thousand people who would like to say hi.” Then he gestured to the audience, who responded with a roar of “Hi!”
Another heady moment came when someone asked a question using the BMO app, which boasts the Conversation Parade game. “Do you know any good jokes?” BMO asked, and DiMaggio offered in response, “Why did the punk rocker cross the road, he was stapled to the chicken!”
It wouldn’t be a complete Adventure Time experience without some mention of the many, many princesses that fill Finn and Jake’s world. Questioned about how he and his team have come up with this myriad of random royalty, Ward said, “I don’t know. I like ’em. I like girls. We put a lot of princesses in. I think we jumped the shark with Bounce House Princess, which is fine I think. I’m glad we jumped the shark because now any kind of princess can be there.”
“I thought Embryo Princess was a little much,” DiMaggio interrupted, and some of the crowd audibly agreed. “That’s kind of gross, man.”
“You’re all wrong,” Ward smiled, “Embryo Princess was just right.”
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