I loathe stupid tween TV. But one show redeems the entire genre. All hail Phineas and Ferb, now midway through its third season on the Disney Channel.
Phineas and Ferb, as I will endeavor to explain to those of you without a 6-to-12-year-old kid or an adult hipster in your home, is a cartoon about two young stepbrothers who spend their summer vacation coming up with insanely creative activities. They design a backyard roller coaster, create a circus, build a model of Angkor Wat out of playing cards, organize a public-awareness campaign for the shoelace aglet, take cows to the moon in a homemade rocket to discover whether low gravity produces better-tasting ice cream, help the 1980s hair band Love Händel reunite, and miniaturize a submarine for a Fantastic Voyage-esque journey into a Chihuahua. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the boys, Phineas’ pet platypus, Perry, who seems to be a typically passive, malodorous mammal, is actually a brilliant secret agent for O.W.C.A., the Organization Without a Cool Acronym. Agent P’s assignment: to thwart the evil schemes of Dr. Doofenshmirtz, who is perpetually plotting to rule the entire tri-state area.
Every episode has at least one lyrically complex musical number referencing any of a myriad musical styles: Bollywood musical, 16th-century madrigal, Yiddish folk song, ABBA, Broadway, lounge, funk, dancehall, doo-wop, ska, sea shanty, girl-group pop-punk, rap (as in one unforgettable bit titled “S.I.M.P. Squirrels in My Pants”), and Japanese pop.
If it all sounds a bit frenetic, well, it is. It’s also very brainy. The show’s creators, Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh (who play Doofenshmirtz and Perry’s boss, Major Monogram, respectively), claim to be influenced by both Tex Avery and Woody Allen, and it shows. When my 6-year-old, Maxine, roams around the house singing about shark anatomy (“though technically vertebrates, they’re cartilaginous!”), I know she’s been watching Phineas and Ferb.
“We want to celebrate being smart,” Povenmire told me in a recent telephone interview. “A lot of media and society for kids is more interested in being cool than in anything else.”
“To us, being knowledgeable is being cool,” Marsh chimed in (the two interrupted each other and finished each other’s sentences throughout the interview). Perhaps the show’s complexity—there are multiple plot threads per episode, as in a show made for adults—and atypical sensibility explain why it took Povenmire and Marsh 16 years of steady pitching to sell the idea.
Phineas and Ferb celebrates creativity, but it also gets a kick out of pure, crystalline nerdiness, as embodied by the boys’ friend Baljeet. When Baljeet accidentally enrolls in a summertime rock camp, thinking it’s about geology, he is distressed to learn that he’s expected to shred. Though the brothers try to help him channel his inner headbanger, he’s terrified he’ll flunk. It’s not until he learns he’s not getting graded at all that he can really cut loose, screaming in fury about not being graded:
I have been burned by vague lesson plans and a free-floating curriculum!
I like my rules, baby, etched in stone, ‘cause you know I am going to stick to them!
Can I get a syllabus? A little discipline?
Judge me on a scale from A to F!
You wasted all my time learning how to rhyme, then left me hangin’ from a treble clef!
Somebody give me a grade!
I need the man keeping me down!
Somebody give me a grade!
Is there a red pen in this town?
Somebody give me a grade!
I already said it! I need that extra credit today!
And make it an A!
Oh, I am so upset!
I am stone cold honor roll!
I won’t be told how to vent!
I won’t cry or sigh; I’m here to testify,
Up with the establishment!
Phineas and Ferb never mock Baljeet. They just try to help him chill. It occurs to me that Phineas and Ferb are just the sort of kids that parents like me—Jewish, educated, progressive, upper-middle-class, anxious—dream of having. They’re curious, self-motivated, polite, kind, resourceful, productive. They’re menschy. They want to help others. They are not snide.
They also have a great deal of freedom. Unlike our over-programmed kids, they’re not spending their summer in a high-priced sleep-away camp or a Mandarin-immersion robotics program. Yet they’re never bored; every day they come up with some astonishing project. (One of the show’s taglines is “Ferb! I know what we’re gonna do today!”) While we want our kids to be sweet self-starters like these boys, we’re also freaked out by the notion of allowing them unstructured time. We live in a morass of Tiger Mom talk, “dangerized” perceptions of childhood, and anxiety about letting kids be free-range. Heart-rending stories about abducted children don’t seem the tragic aberrations they are but rather like part and parcel of growing up. The national crime rate is actually significantly lower than it was in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s, when we grew up, but our level of anxiety seems about a million times greater than that of our own parents.
And we sort of want our kids to heed Ms. Frizzle, the teacher in the Magic School Bus books who cries, “Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!” But we also sort of don’t. Messiness is messy. Mistakes and chances sound OK in theory, but not if they don’t work out. What if, God forbid, you get hurt or look stupid or torpedo your chances of getting into a good college? Phineas and Ferb are the antidote to that overthink-y angst. As Marsh said, “Phineas is my parenting role model: relax, be creative.”
I asked Marsh and Povenmire about the show’s lack of snippy snark—the tone is so different from most tween TV. “It’s easier to write comedy when you go to the mean place,” Povenmire said. “But it’s more rewarding when you keep it nice. I have a good friend who said he wouldn’t let his daughter watch anything on the Disney channel. She was too young to get the positive messages at the end; she was just aping the way the characters talked. I thought OK, how do I write a show my friend would let his daughter watch?”
Marsh, who met Povenmire when both were working as layout artists on The Simpsons, continued: “We had to bring in a team of writers and storyboard artists and retrain them, because they’d been writing mean-based comedy for so long. Not making fun of people just means using different comedic tools.”
Typical of the show’s humor is a song called “The Mexican-Jewish Cultural Festival“:
There is kreplach on tostadas
A pupik on our pinata
We kibbitz when we lambada
How are things in Ensenada?
We put bottles on cabezas
We do mitzvahs up on mesas
And we’re coming to your places
With big smiles upon our faces!
Oy-lé! Maxine’s idol, the character Isabella Garcia-Shapiro, is Jewish, but her creators aren’t. Still, the show’s super-verbal yet super-schtick-y Borscht Belt sensibility feels Jewish. Povenmire says that’s because unlike most cartoons, which create scripts first and then do storyboards, he and Marsh do both simultaneously. “That way there are more visual gags going on, but we can also go over the words really carefully.” Suddenly remembering he’s talking to a Jewish journalist, he exclaimed: “We futz over the words until we’re shpritzing!”
An indication of the show’s—and its creators—love of words: Dr. Doofenshmirtz’s name was originally Mittelshmerz, the abdominal pain women experience when an egg is released from the ovaries. Disney put the kibosh on that. Provenmire recalled: “I said, ‘It’s not a dirty word!’ But they said, ‘If it has to do with procreation, you stay away from it.’ ”
Another thing I love about the show is its casual, warm treatment of blended families—Phineas and Ferb are stepbrothers. “I am really passionate about this subject,” Marsh said. “All my brothers are half- or stepbrothers, and growing up, I always felt that being in a state of divorce or a blended family was never spoken about or had to come with a big elaborate explanation—it wasn’t just treated as the state of things. But 50 percent of American kids are growing up in blended families; they should see their experience represented.” Povenmire added: “I’m told we were the first people on the Disney Channel to say the words ‘divorce’ or ‘alimony.’ ” Marsh summed up: “I told Disney that hearing the word ‘divorce’ will make kids feel more normal; it won’t make them start crying. And to their credit, they said OK.” Povenmire added: “It just took five meetings.”
Not everyone loves the show. Common Sense Media, a family-oriented watchdog, loathes the boys’ sister, Candace, calling her “a screechy, whiny stereotype of a girl.” This is sort of true. But Maxie’s beloved Isabella Garcia-Shapiro is a fine counterpoint to Candace. She leads her own troop of Fireside Girls and is as creative and self-motivated as Phineas and Ferb. (Povenmire and Marsh both have daughters.)
For those who do love the show, next week is a big one: Friday, August 5 marks the premiere of “Phineas and Ferb, The Movie: Across the 2nd Dimension,” a film-length super-episode. The Disney Channel is promoting this milestone with a customized 27-foot Airstream trailer called “Perry the Platy-bus,” designed to look like the boys’ pet. It’s currently traveling cross-country, making stops to do song-and-dance performances at landmark sites. (Much like Sarah Palin, only mammalian.)
In the movie, the alternate-dimension Doofenshmirtz succeeds in his evil plots. I hope new viewers will familiarize themselves with the usual nebbishy Doofenshmirtz first. His more typical attempts at evil: plotting to release termites to eat all the wood in the area so he can launch an aluminum-siding business; hovering over his girlfriend’s house with a huge magnet so he can erase embarrassing messages he’s left on her voicemail; inventing a device to make people’s voices higher so his own voice will sound more manly; trying to rid the area of mimes; and planning to shrink national monuments to use with his model train set.
Doofenshmirtz’s hilariously schlemiel-esque approach to wrongdoing is just one more element that makes this show great. A program the whole family can laugh at, one that applauds inventiveness and resourcefulness and offers up clever music and lyrics? Only a doof would resist.
Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.