Dan Povenmire – Making Shows that Make People Happy
Dan Povenmire is one half of the creative team behind Phineas and Ferb! With Swampy Marsh, he created, produced, directed and co-wrote Phineas and Ferb. If you somehow don’t know that show, two brothers, who never get in trouble, spend the whole summer building crazy things with their friends, while their pet, Perry the Platypus, is secretly a spy trying to defeat the evil scientist Dr. Doofenschmirtz.
Their new show, Milo Murphy’s Law, has just started on Disney XD. It’s about a 13 year-old boy named Milo, who is the great-great-great-great grandson of the Murphy’s Law namesake. He suffers from Extreme Hereditary Murphy’s Law condition (EHML). He and his friends are always expecting the unexpected!
Milo is played by Weird Al Yankovic, who is perfect for playing Milo – he’s really funny in it. If you haven’t already seen the show, be sure to check it out.
I had a chance to talk with Dan over the phone recently about Milo, Phineas, summer vacation, Saturday morning cartoons, working with Weird Al and his advice for creating great shows.
Carl: How did you get the idea for Phineas and Ferb?
Dan: Well, me and my buddy Swampy were trying to come up with a show that we could do together so we could continue to write together, because we really like writing together. They had thrown us together as a writing team on a show called “Rocco’s Modern Life” and so I was already thinking of what kind of characters we could do. I was sitting in a restaurant in South Pasadena – have you ever been to one of those restaurants that gives you butcher paper instead of table cloths? And they give you a little can of crayons so that you can draw on the table cloth because it’s just made out of paper, when you are waiting for your food? I picked up a purple crayon and I drew the first Phineas, because I was thinking, “What kind of weird shape have I never seen for somebody’s head?” I worked on the Simpsons and Bart’s head is sort of a coffee can, I worked on Hey Arnold and his head was a football. I drew this triangle and I thought, “I’ve never seen a triangle.” And I put eyes on it, and a nose and hair, and thought, “Oh, this guy looks great!” And I drew him 3 more times. My wife asked me, “Who is that?” and I said, “That’s Phineas!” And she said, “What’s he?” And I said, “I just made him up and I’m going to sell this show someday.” And sure enough, I did.
Carl: Do you miss working on the show?
Dan: I missed Phineas for a while, because now I’m working on this new show, and when you’ve been working on one thing for 10 years it’s sort of weird to shift gears. I’d be working on the new show, and all of the Phineas characters were still sort of bouncing around in my head, you know? I had all of these story ideas for them, and what they would say in this particular instance, and I then I realized, I don’t know, maybe 6 months or a year ago, that I no longer have them in my head bouncing around, I have the new characters in my head bouncing around. So I suddenly feel like I’m now working on this show and I don’t miss Phineas any more. I really loved Phineas as a show, I loved it just as something to do every day, but now I’m so into the new one that it doesn’t make me miss it.
Carl: I love Phineas and Ferb, and Milo now, too.
Dan: Excellent! I’m glad.
Carl: My summer vacation wasn’t 104 days long. Was yours when you were a kid?
Dan: It was NOT! That whole number came about when we were in a meeting at Disney when we were deciding to make the whole show about summer vacation, which I thought was a great idea. I just asked, “Does anyone know how many days there are in summer vacation?” And one person spoke up and said, “Oh yeah, I just had to research this. There’s a hundred and four.” And I was, like, “Oh, perfect!” And so I wrote that song with Swampy, and we said (singing), “There’s a hundred and four days of summer vacation…” without really thinking about it or looking it up. And what they had researched was how many days there are in summer. The season of summer is about 104 days long. They had just been mistaken when they said that, but we went ahead and finished the song that way anyway because it seemed like a good number. At the time we thought that we might get 52 half hour episodes, and if each episode had two 11 minute segments, then it would be 104 episodes and I said, “oh, that’s perfect.” And we ended up doing 100 half hours, 200-some episodes and some hour-long specials, so it didn’t really make much of a difference whether it was 104 or not.
Carl: Oh I see! What were your favorite Saturday morning cartoons growing up?
Dan: Let’s see, growing up I loved Bugs Bunny; I loved Scooby Doo.
Carl: I like Scooby Doo, too!
Dan: Yeah, Scooby Doo is still going strong today, they’re still making new Scooby Doos! Mostly it was those two; those were probably the big ones. There was also Super Friends, which I enjoyed a lot, but now when I watch that as an adult it doesn’t hold up for an adult as much as Scooby Doo and Bugs Bunny.
Carl: Cool! Why do you think they don’t still have Saturday morning cartoons like my mom and dad tell me about?
Dan: You know, I was there when they sort of stopped doing Saturday morning cartoons. We were asking Disney if we could put Phineas and Ferb on Saturday mornings, because that’s how we grew up. And that was about the time that they stopped doing that because it used to be that that was the only time that you could watch cartoons. Because Saturday mornings, they figured the parents were probably still in bed, and the kids were up, we should put cartoons on now because that’s when kids will watch cartoons. But then they got cable TV and suddenly there were all these channels and they were able to put channels like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and Disney Channel there, so that kids could watch cartoons at any time – when they got home from school they could watch cartoons, they could watch cartoons Saturday mornings, Saturday nights, Sunday mornings. Suddenly there were so many other places for them to watch cartoons that they stopped putting them on the regular networks on Saturday morning like they used to. It makes me sad.
Dan: You know, we were looking for somebody whose voice sounded super-positive because that is the main thing about Milo, that even though horrible things are happening around him, things are breaking, and things are going wrong, he stays completely positive about it and optimistic. And whenever we had actors come in and audition, who were trying to put on this positive voice it always sounded off. You know, it sounded like they were trying to hard or something. And then I listened to an interview with Weird Al because he had come in and done a little cameo role for a friend of mine’s TV show and I was like, “Ooh, Weird Al! I heard him interviewed before. I think he’s like a super-positive guy just normally.” And so I listened to an interview of him on YouTube and I said, “If I could just keep him in the upper part of his voice, if I could just get him to go a little higher than that, he’ll sound young enough. And he has this great sort of, you know, like, ‘everything’s going to be OK’ feel to his voice, just naturally, so he doesn’t have to put it on.” So we had him come in and do the part and I think it worked so well, we both got really excited about it and we hired him on the spot!
Carl: Will he be writing music for the show or will you and Swampy keep working with Danny Jacob?
Dan: Well, Swampy and I and a couple of members of the writing staff usually write the songs. Al has so far been too busy to actually write any of the songs for us, but he has performed several of them. I would not be against writing something with Al because I think he’s super, super talented. It’s just a matter of scheduling. He also has records that he’s putting out so he’s doing a lot of that for himself. I don’t know how much extra time he has.
Carl: Where did you get the idea for the show – was it similar to getting the idea for Phineas and Ferb?
Dan: It was different in that I had drawn this character that I really liked. I drew Milo, and I wrote next to him, “indefatigably optimistic,” meaning that he’s just super, super optimistic, and it was just how he seemed to me. And I just really liked this drawing, and I went into Swampy’s office, which was right next door. I was like, “You know this guy here?” I had been drawing a bunch of ideas for shows, and I was actually thinking about putting Milo into a different idea for a show, as a minor character. I went into Swampy’s office and I said, “You know this character?” Because I kept looking at him, thinking, “I think he should have his own show. I think we should do a show about Milo.” So I went to Swampy and I said, “Remember that Milo character?” And he said, “Oh, yeah, I really thought that he should have his own show.” And I was like, “EXXXXAAAACTLYYYY!” And we sat down and we put the whole show together in about an hour. We had the whole concept for the show, we had what would happen in the pilot, we had the outline for the pilot, we had different characters sort of thought out and I went from his office I went and immediately started story boarding and writing the pilot.
Carl: Cool! Was it harder to produce the first episode of Phineas and Ferb or the first episode of Milo Murphy’s Law?
Dan: It was pretty easy for both, because they sort of left us alone to do the story boards and then they liked what they saw on the story boards, so there wasn’t a lot of notes or anything. Milo may have been easier because, by that time, we were drawing on our tablet computers so I didn’t have to keep getting up and walking to the Xerox machine or looking through a light box to draw. It was all with the computer and it’s much faster when you’re drawing on glass.
Carl: I know a lot of kids who dressed up as Agent P or Dr. Doofenschmirtz for Halloween. (Dan laughs!) Do you think someday kids will be dressing up as characters from Milo Murphy?
Dan: Oh, I hope so! I’ve already seen on Twitter two different people dressed up as Milo and one person dressed up as Melissa. I haven’t seen a Zach yet. But I’m hoping that by next Halloween we’ll see a whole bunch of those.
Carl: Did you go as Time Ape?
Dan: I did not go as Time Ape. I have gone as Doofenschmirtz one time. I came to work dressed as Doofenschmirtz. I have a picture of that. That was really funny. But one time I went to a party. A friend of my daughter’s was having a birthday party and my daughters and my wife were out of town but they said, “You can still come by the party if you want. It’ll be fun. We’re going to have cake and stuff.” And I was, like, OK, I’ll just come by because I’m friends with her parents. And so I came by the party not knowing that this was a Phineas and Ferb themed party! So I got there and all the balloons were Phineas and Ferb, they made cupcakes in the shape of Perry the Platypus, they had a Phineas and Ferb karaoke machine, everyone was dressed as characters from Phineas and Ferb. All of the adults were dressed as Doofenschmirtz, except for me! Because I think they didn’t want to tell me; they wanted to see my surprise when it was a Phineas and Ferb themed party. I was the only adult at the party who was not dressed as Doofenschmirtz.
Dan: Yes, they are a show, and the show figures heavily in the series later on, so you’ll be seeing a lot more of Doctor Zone and Time Ape.
Carl: I’m working on a creating a show of my own. My dad is helping me with the treatment. What advice can you give me to make it as good as your shows?
Dan: You can hire me! I think the thing to do, and what we did with Phineas and what we did with Milo, is we just created the show that we would want to see. That was the reason I kept pitching Phineas. You know, we created Phineas in 1993, 1992, somewhere around then. We kept trying to sell it and get it on the air and trying to get someone to pick it up as a series for 14 years before it went on the air, right? So it was a long process, but the reason we kept at it was because if I was watching TV, that would be a show that I would want to watch. And I think that’s the best advice I can give to you, is that if you are creating a show, create a show that you would want to see, because there’s going to be other people like you out there that are going to want to see it. Just make a show that makes you happy.
Carl: Thank you very much for answering my questions! It was great talking with you!
At this point in our conversation, Dr. Doofenschmirtz took over the call! Had I known he was in the room with Dan, I would have called Agent P!
Dr. Doofenschmirtz: Thank you very much! I had a wonderful time talking to you, too. I love reaching young people in the area!
Carl: I really love Milo. Thank you very much for creating the show.
Dan: You’re welcome. Thank you for watching it!
Dr. Doofenschmirtz: Bye, bye, stay evil!
No, Dr. Doofenschmirtz! I’m staying good!
Oh, and Dan, you’re hired!
Thanks again to Dan and everyone at Disney who helped set up the interview – and even Dr. Doofenschmirtz!
Be sure to check out Milo Murphy’s Law on Disney XD!
(Photo source for all pictures: Disney XD)