Phineas And Ferb Co-Creator Dan Povenmire On Studio Notes And Bringing Nosferatu To SpongeBob [Interview]

(Welcome to My Most Ridiculous Note, a series of interviews in which animators talk about the weirdest and funniest notes they received from studio executives.)

When "Phineas and Ferb" premiered on Disney XD 15 years ago, it quickly became one of the most original, consistently funny, inventive Disney cartoons in years, as well as one of the network's biggest hits. The show was co-created by animator Dan Povenmire, who has been involved with some of the biggest cartoons of the past 30 years. Povenmire has worked on everything from "Rocko's Modern Life" just as it was starting off, to joining both "The Simpsons" and "SpongeBob SquarePants" at the heights of their massive popularity.

/Film caught up with Dan Povenmire as he prepares for the launch of his latest cartoon, "Hamster & Gretel." During the conversation, Povenmire talked about his time on "Phineas and Ferb," being at the right place at the right time on multiple beloved cartoons, and the most ridiculous note Disney gave him while making the Emmy-winning Disney XD series.

'We like highbrow comedy and lowbrow comedy'

Coming out between the age of animated spin-offs of theatrical movies and the genre-focused 2010s, when things like "Gravity Falls" or "Tron: Uprising" made their mark, "Phineas and Ferb" felt like a middle-ground of what was, and what was to come. The show explored a multitude of genres, parodying everything from "Star Wars" to "The Lord of the Rings" to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." 

The show was also renowned for its hundreds of musical numbers, covering all sorts of genres. That being said, Povenmire regrets never finding a place to write a Latin song for the show. "I never wrote a tango or anything like that," the animator and writer explained. "And now in 'Hamster & Gretel,' that was one of the first songs I wrote — a tango."

Though "Phineas and Ferb" was undoubtedly a kids show, it was also very popular with older audiences, much in the same way "SpongeBob" was a hit with college students. From jokes with some innuendo to simply bizarre imagery, Povenmire's time on Nickelodeon and "Family Guy" can be seen all over the lowbrow humor that accompanies Phineas and Ferb's summer adventures. 

"We are just always trying to write a show that makes us laugh, and we're adults, but we also have sort of childish senses of humor," Povenmire said. "We like highbrow comedy and lowbrow comedy. So anything that makes us laugh goes in, and I think that just becomes a function of getting an adult audience, too, is we never don't do a joke because the kids won't get it."

The problem is that a show aimed at kids with jokes that only make adults laugh isn't exactly what a network making kids shows wants. So it makes sense to hear that Disney made that clear from the very first season, when they sent Povenmire a note asking if the audience was even going to get a certain joke.

"And I was like, 'Quite frankly, I don't care. As long as your audience doesn't change the channel because of this joke, it's okay. Because we've got another joke coming for the kids in five seconds. Trust me, five seconds from now, the kids will be laughing.'"

"But it's okay to aim for the adults in the room," Povenmire continued. "Every parent has to watch shows with their kids. And I think that it'll get turned on a lot more if the parents also are laughing with the kids, because it becomes sort of a family moment. And so we always tried to put whatever jokes in we could constantly."

'I don't know if I've ever done anything better'

Years before "Phineas and Ferb," Povenmire was working on "Family Guy." During the show's first cancellation, he briefly worked on "SpongeBob" when it was already a ratings hit and a cultural juggernaut. "SpongeBob" had the perfect blend of absurdist, surreal humor, and a relentless sense of heartfelt optimism that instantly set it apart from other cartoons of the time. "You go from an outline and you just put two people who draw and write together in a room, and you just bounce ideas off each other and make a funny cartoon," Povenmire said, recalling the show's creative process.

Though his time as a writer there was rather short, Povenmire ended up being involved in some of the most beloved episodes of "SpongeBob." From "The Fry Cook Games" to "Sandy, SpongeBob, and the Worm." Then, there's "Graveyard Shift," an episode Variety named the fifth best episode in the show's history. It is also an episode Povenmire particularly called out as a favorite. "I don't know if I've ever done anything better than Graveyard Shift with the hash-slinging slasher."

The episode, of course, follows Spongebob and Squidward trapped at the Krusty Krab late at night when the greedy Mr. Krabs decides to open a night shift. To pass the time, Squidward makes up a story of a serial killer called the "hash-slinging slasher." 

"I've done a lot of TV that is as good as that, but at a certain point I watched that and I was like, 'That just works all the way through,'" Povenmire told us. "And then it's got one of my favorite types of gags, when something looks one way in a silhouette, and [when] it steps into the light, it looks like diametrically opposed to what you were expecting."

"Graveyard Shift" is also responsible for introducing "Nosferatu" to a whole generation of kids, as the episode ends on a brief gag involving a still image of Count Orlok from the 1922 silent film. 

"I get that lot," Povenmire said. "I had somebody tell me that shot of Nosferatu turning the lights on and off, she said it jumpstarted her OCD."

'You're just entertaining yourselves'

By the time Povenmire joined the crew of "SpongeBob," it was already a hit for Nickelodeon, and when he joined "The Simpsons," it was already a cultural mainstay. But in between those, the animator worked on Nickelodeon's first in-house cartoon production, "Rocko's Modern Life." 

This show was part of the second wave of Nickelodeon cartoons, following the Big Three: "Doug," "Rugrats," and "Ren & Stimpy." This meant that expectations were high, but there was also a lengthy period before the show actually made its way to its first viewers.

"We were on that show for like two years before it was on the air," Povenmire recalled. "And there was something fun about being in on the ground floor of that, and just having a ball [...] It sort of felt a little bit like working in a vacuum to a certain extent, that first season, because you're not getting it out in the air, you're not entertaining the rest of the world yet. You're just entertaining yourselves."

Though its style of visual humor resembled the other shows Povenmire ended up working on, "Rocko's Modern Life" stands out because of its dark social satire. The show lacked pop-culture reference overload, but instead was full of shots taken at mega-corporations, bureaucrats, and the start of late stage capitalism. Its characters were weirdos, geeks, and anyone that felt out of the ordinary in a world of that pushed the uniform. It was surreal, it was depressingly funny, and it remains surprisingly timely.

Coffee, anyone?

Though "Phineas and Ferb" was a hit for Disney, the company was not afraid of throwing notes at even the smallest of things. According to Povenmire, the studio was particularly averse to getting copyright claims. "They feel like they have a big target on their back, because they're always protecting their copyrights," the animator explained.

This meant that any time the show tried to reference a company or brand from the real world, there was some pushback. This is relatively common, but there was one occasion where the studio took it a tad too far:

"We had a shop in the background that said Coffee Shop on it, because it was like, 'Let's just call it the most generic thing like that.' And we actually got a note from legal saying, 'Could you please change that? We found that there's a place in Nebraska or something that calls themselves Coffee Shop.' And I said, 'Well, if you name your establishment the generic name for what that establishment is, then you forfeit your right to sue. Nobody's going to be able to say, 'We own the words Coffee Shop next to each other.”"

What comes next

Dan Povenmire has found himself at the right place at the right time several times in his career. He's been involved in some of the biggest cartoons of the past three decades in some capacity. He worked on the iconic "Cape Feare" episode of "The Simpsons," the aforementioned "Graveyard Shift" from "SpongeBob," and "Brian Wallows and Peter's Swallows" on "Family Guy."

Of course, he has no plans on stopping anytime soon. Povenmire's next show, "Hamster and Gretel," follows a young girl and her pet hamster who receive superpowers and decide to become heroes.

"I think it's the right time to really poke fun at [superheroes], sort of poke fun at the conventions of them," Povenmire told us. "What would a superhero [story] be like if it was a little girl and a hamster [...] what kind of humor would you get out of that?"

"Hamster and Gretel" premieres on Disney XD on August 12, 2022. You can watch an exclusive clip from the show below.