(August 14, 2011 in Los Angeles, California) I met a few of my new closest friends in a land called Ooo. Or, more accurately, in person on the west side. That was about two weeks ago. Since then, less magical things that take place in our land called Earth have separated me from logging the experience. Burst pipes under the house. Unexpected sicknesses. Broken tech. Out-of-town guests. Work.
How I wish for dragons to slay, monsters to play with, companions made of peppermint and other candies... There's a luminary thing in youth called imagination. It's the same thing that sends many in their later years to this strange kingdom called Los Angeles, which is about the only place where one can make a valid career of the crazy things in their head. It doesn't always work out. Case in point: I just watched Sharktopus on DVD. But when it does...
Two weeks ago, even traffic and parking got in the way. I've written up Adventure Time once before, when I first got my hands on it a few months back. At that point, I'd only caught an episode or two. Now I've got three roommates caught on, and I believe a backlog of 60 episodes on the DVR, many repeats. Who cares? I've rarely seen a show so rewatchable. The episodes -- set in a colorful, sometimes subversive candy land (yes, called Ooo) -- might as well be M&Ms themselves. They don't melt, and as far as repeats, has anyone going through a bag of the candy-coated chocolates ever paused to complain, "But I've had the green one before"? Nay.
They don't make 'em like they used to, they say. And no, they don't. Tom & Jerry this ain't. Looney Tunes this is not. But this is the reverse -- they sure didn't make 'em like this then. What Adventure Time captures is madcap whimsy, much like its forebears. What it exhibits is what I was getting at before: unbridled imagination, somehow still managed to be bottled up.
The Paley Center for Media, as part of their family week, was kind enough to do some of this bottling and put on stage, for a lucky and rabid room, some of the talent associated with the show -- from its creator, Pendleton Ward, to a suit from Cartoon Network, to Tom Kenney, aka SpongeBob Squarepants himself, who also does time as the voice of Adventure Time's Ice King.
"Does time" is such a wrong way to say it. There was an obvious jocularity on stage, not a smidgen of jadedness, and a bit of shock that this is all working. "This all" being this show. I almost don't want to describe it to you. It defies being described and demands being experienced. But if I said that one of the preview episodes shown involved a valley girl gossip queen character named Lumpy Space Princess who resembles a pink Slimer running through the mountains with a pack of wolves eating rabbit after running away from home, and then if I then said that said episode was said to be based on Jersey Shore as said by the creators on the panel, would you be interested? Wait, what'd I just say again?
I can't laud this show highly enough. I'm sure I have a head-ached editor that's wondering why a second article about Adventure Time is coming in instead of a first about The Killing, and it's not because this is a site written by 12-year-olds. It's because this show is that danged good and that cut-out not just for the kiddos, and maybe even not for the kiddos, but for a 20-something set that's grown up on strange lingo and a polarity of entertainments that ranged from the shiny innocence of the aforementioned SpongeBob to the darker tones of Ren and Stimpy, to the advent of the TV ratings system warranting Beavis & Butthead and South Park. We grew up in a strange Internet culture that we basically pioneered, slobbing the place up with a new, non-sequitur vernacular, and the all importance of teenage drama and brave MMO quests across the rickety bridges of dial-up.
In some strange ways, this informs Adventure Time, or at least is some of the best theorizing I can do to explain -- for some adults in front of me and my friend in the signing line afterward, for example -- why we dig it, as some of its sillier or darker tones go right over their heads. Have you ever seen a hot dog in armor take it to the face from a scorpion? Don't doubt it's comedy until you have.
In the same way that Blade Runner, LOTR, or even The Wire are lauded for so completely creating a world and tone, Adventure Time can take equal if not completely unique footing. And for what it's worth, Pendleton gladly pointed to World of Warcraft, LOTR, and Looney Tunes as other inspirations -- but okay, not quite The Wire. Still, Ooo is catching on.
Hundreds were left wanting, and most in costume at Comic-Con, when the Adventure Time hall space was under-booked. Here at Paley, I was only lucky enough to get in the room, thanks to my credentials and an awesome guy on staff named Gary. Thanks, Gary. Tickets for the event sold out right quick weeks earlier. Kids, adults, and teens: costumes, home-made, and customized.
I don't want to say I'm jaded exactly, but the tourist thrill of LA -- where a palm tree or a sighting of Damon Wayans, Jr. on a street corner is enough to excite -- begin to dissipate as residency is established. I got butterflies for this panel. Pendleton Ward was everything I hoped he could be. I had pictured him as some kind of skinny-jeaned, detached hipster, but when he rolled out on stage bearded, bespectacled, and uncomfortably tucked into cargo khakis with a bright tie...this guy is the eccentric he's meant to be. A worthy descendant of the Walt Disneys of imagination yore. And thankfully, he wasn't priggish. This wasn't a show -- Pendleton's show is Adventure Time, Pendleton's Pendleton is Pendleton. He was sincere, hilarious, candid. He's still a fan at heart, deferential to all the entertainments that inspired him [The Simpsons, Home Movies (check it out!!!), etc.] before lauding of his own biz. At least one other member of the panel -- someone from the show's crew -- was also a fan that got to work on the show and seemed just as dumbfounded and thankful that such a crazy thing is taking off and that he gets to be a part of it, like Charlie Bucket launching into the future in Willy Wonka's glass elevator.
That, maybe, is a better approximation of this entertainment than my generational reachings. It's Wonka. It's Oz. It's Labyrinth or The Muppet Show, or whatever other place your childhood wanted to take up residence in. The voice cast was great, charming. The process was enlightening but expected from the product. As cliche as it sounds for Adventure Time, it's more believable than what Matt Damon says at a junket for Syriana: everyone's just having fun, everyone's just having a good time. Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere and are always welcome. The actors get to riff and improv, the writers get to pull from the deepest recesses of their pockets for inspiration, lines could come from a stubbed toe or, more often, places of greater inspiration or humor. But the show does have that natural, blunt, sudden quality.
Thankfully, the creators and the network also didn't dodge the question of fans or Internet involvement. It's not uncommon for showrunners to say they try to ignore the press or the message board fanbase so as to not have their narrative dictated. That's honorable, but the Adventure Time crew likes to see what the crowd likes, then give them more of it. More green M&Ms! So favorite characters (like Lumpy Space Princess) get more screen time and moments and quotables. More wolves to run with.
The crowd was effusive. Questions ranged from the serious -- "How bout a movie?" "Maybe, we'd love to..." "How bout in 3D?" (my roommate thankfully scowled at that one) -- to the most sincere, child-like stuff I've ever heard. One kid asked, in reference to Jake -- one of the show's two main characters, a dog that can magically stretch to all lengths and contort to all sizes -- "Did you think of that first, or did it just go straight to the show?" Everyone laughed, but not in a cruel way.
See, Adventure Time, in its magnificent and genuine simplicity, is enough to subvert from the kids an arduous process called development. The show is so pure that if you're under 10, you can barely tell it was made; it need only be dreamt.
Penleton laughed, tried to explain the creative process for a minute, and then gave into the moment, "straight to the show." The room burst out in applause. Oh, the faith of a child.
The cast, crew, and network reflected on favorite episodes and moments, from when the Ice King's heart came to life in the form of George Takei (by this point, you should really just watch, not ask) to when the beautifully voiced by Olivia Olsen (you'd recognize her as the girl that killed it in Love, Actually rocking Mariah Carey during a school Christmas show) vampire Marcelene sings a song about her Pa eating french fries (she sang it live!), to moments we haven't quite seen yet and could not be revealed, like the Ice King's double-episode Christmas special origin story. Du-duh-duh!
But they all reflected on their process. Jeremy Shada's Finn is all gung-ho enthusiasm and honorable innocence; Olsen's Marcelene is a little mean and mischievous, but good at her core -- a punker bloodsucker with an empathetic feminine center; Kenny's Ice King is the ultimate candidate for Law & Order: SVU in an alternate reality -- a tragic sociopathic loner going to great and misguided lengths for human contact and interaction, stealing up princesses (Kenny liked to imagine the newspaper headlines). And Pendleton and co. mulled over the network involvement, giving them more leeway as the show caught on and asking for less explanation as they realized one reason people adore this show is for its inherent lack of plot, though its backstory -- both fantasy and post-apocalyptic -- isn't totally absent. Again, just watch the thing. And it was expanded upon how Frederator, a production house which got the show going, is still involved, keeping that fanbase going through the Internet and the like. Then Pendleton sang "Happy Birthday" to his Mom as Lumpy Space Princess at her request. So thanks, Paley, because nobody's getting that moment anywhere else.
The show's tone, content, and inspirations were also drawn out. Tom Kenny celebrated the show for taking its risks and being a little crazy. He said he'd rather his kids, in the pre-teen set, watch this than something inoffensive that doesn't take any chances. Amen. This is the kind of entertainment that expands and builds the creative muscle.
Here's a taste of Adventure Time's loopier, loftier, elements. At the end of a particular episode, a gingerbread man floats into space saying the following -- one of my favorite quotes from the series: "This cosmic dance of bursting decadence and withheld permissions twists all our arms collectively. But, if sweetness can win, and it can, then I'll still be here tomorrow to high-five you yesterday, my friend. Peace."
And now my editor is wondering if this is all just some kind of drug-filled prank article. No. It's not. I'm quite happy to report that Adventure Time is real, and I've shook the hands of the wizards behind the curtain, and what kind, thankful folk they are. And getting back to the task at hand, I'll be darned if there's not some crazy truth to what that Gingerbread man said. Reality twists all our arms, but if sweetness can win at 8:00 p.m. on Mondays on Cartoon Network, on a Sunday afternoon in Beverly Hills at a TV museum, then we can all access a timeless plane on which we can high-five each other. Call it good television if you want. Enduring entertainment, if you'd like. A good cartoon. Some well-drawn comedy. Sure. Me, I'll call it a bit of joy. I'll call it Adventure Time with Finn and Jake, my new life-long friends from Ooo. And a special thanks to Pendleton Ward, Jeremy Shada, John DiMaggio, Maria Bramford, Olivia Olsen, Tom Kenny (who happily hopped up on a table on all fours for a picture with me, though none, apparently, were allowed), some celebs catching onto the Adventure scene doing guest-spots, like Neil Patrick Harris and Andy Samberg, and Cartoon Network for introducing me, and to Paley for introducing personality.
Now if anyone from the show, or anyone from an asylum reads this, hakuna matata. I know Ooo ain't real, but oh, shouldn't it be? But I'm just glad, as a person who's a fan of things that are great, that there are great enough people and production facilities and networks, and organizations like the Paley Center for Media, to let these daydreams come to improbable, irreplaceable, inimitable life.
Check out Cartoon Network on the tele or on the www for a glimpse of the adventures of Jake the Dog and Finn the Human in the Candy Kingdom. Check out the Paley Center for Media for more ways to see some of your own favorite things and people in the flesh.