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phineas and the gang in the new movie Image: Disney+

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Phineas and Ferb faced a 16-year battle to get made — and the show was better for it

Ahead of the new movie Candace Against the Universe, the series creators discuss the show’s origins and legacy

Phineas and Ferb holds the title of longest-running Disney Channel original series: the animated series was on the air from 2007 to 2015. Built on the simple premise of two step-brothers enjoying their summer vacation, Phineas and Ferb has been praised as the kind of kids’ show that’s smart enough for adults. Over its eight-year run, the wacky series gave us catchy songs, zingy one-liners, and memorable characters like Perry the Platypus. It’s one of the few Disney Channel shows that fully bridged the gap between late millennials and Gen Z, and it buzzes with an internet relevance that few shows from 2007 manage to achieve. Who can forget rapper Lil Nas X promising his followers a Phineas and Ferb Blu-Ray when “Old Town Road” hit platinum?

It’s hard to imagine Disney Channel without Phineas and Ferb, whose characters headline theme-park attractions, pop up on current Disney Channel shows, and have become staples on TikTok. But as iconic as the show now is, it’s surprising that it got made in the first place. Creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh spent 16 years pitching the show before it finally got picked up at Disney, and they almost gave up several times.

Five years after the series finale, the boys are back in a Disney Plus original movie, Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe. This time, their older sister Candace takes the spotlight, as she’s whisked away to a distant planet. With the movie premiering this week on Disney Plus, Polygon sat down with Povenmire and Marsh to talk about the show’s journey and legacy, and how waiting so long for a studio to pick it up made the show special.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

dan povenmire and jeff “swampy” mars
Dan and Swampy hanging out
Photo: Disney+

Critics have called Phineas and Ferb an “adult show for kids” — was that something you aimed for in the original inception? Did it just evolve naturally with your own work?

Dan Povenmire: We just always made the show for each other. We’re adults with a childish sense of humor.

Jeff “Swampy” Marsh: Yes, exactly.

DP: So it makes perfect sense.

JM: It’s a function of us having really, really stupid senses of humor, but also intelligent senses of humor.

DP: We’ve been around a while, so we’ve just acquired knowledge, but it doesn’t make us any more mature.

JM: Yes, we’re very immature, but we also like heady jokes.

Prior to Phineas and Ferb, you worked together on other shows, like The Simpsons and Rocko’s Modern Life. Did you bring any lessons from those collaborations to Phineas and Ferb?

DP: I think you bring in whatever you learn at other studios and on other shows. Somebody once said Phineas and Ferb was the artistic and comedic midpoint between Family Guy and SpongeBob, which were the two shows I had worked on right prior to that. It’s like Family Guy and The Simpsons, the timing, [with] a lot of the pauses and a lot of the blank-expression stuff. We brought that over, but also the craziness from Rocko and SpongeBob, and that kind of kid cartoon. We tried to put them all together in a blender and see what happened.

Dan’s original sketch of Phineas reportedly was done on butcher paper at a restaurant. How did some of the other character designs come about?

DP: Most of the other characters we got because I went home and drew Doofenshmirtz and Perry and Ferb that night. They didn’t quite look like they do now, but they are recognizable. If you saw them, you would know what they are. Ferb had a round nose at one point, and Doofenshmirtz’s head was a slightly different shape. But if you saw the original lineup, you’d know immediately who these characters are.

JM: It would look like fan art.

DP: But then we lived with them for so long. Every time we would re-pitch it, I would go in and sort of, “Let me see if I can make these guys more into the same universe.” The only characters that were exactly the same as the original drawings of them were the bugs that showed up in the fourth season, because they were originally going to be a main part of the show. It just became too many things to juggle, and the executives were like, “Can we cut these?” “Okay, but we’ll probably put them in later.” And then it took us three or four seasons to put them back in. And Irving, played by Jack McBrayer, who didn’t show up ’til third season. But when we were like, “Oh, we should put him in,” we literally just used my original drawing. So the original lineup is hilarious because all the characters, you can tell we’ve changed a lot of stuff. And then there’s Irving, and it’s exactly his model. It’s very funny.

candace and phineas singing one of the show’s iconic songs Image: Disney

Do you think Phineas and Ferb’s 16-year gestation period helped the final version of the show?

DP: It did give us time to mature as storytellers. I think Phineas and Ferb might have been a very different show if it had gotten picked up when we were in our 20s, rather than in our 40s. I was 42, I think, when the show started. We both had children, and suddenly I think it was a kinder, gentler show. I think [the original version would] have been trying to be edgy, like you do when you’re younger. It was Swampy’s idea early on, “Let’s not have these characters ever do anything that would be considered disobeying their parents, or being disrespectful, or really being negative in any way.” We’re like, “Oh, that’s interesting,” because that’s where you go for comedy most of the time — to this negative place, or to shock.

JM: It’s very easy.

DP: The easiest laugh you can get is going to those places. I wondered if we could make a show that’s still edgy, that wasn’t using those things. And I think we were able to do it, because, as you say, people describe it as sort of an adult show for kids. I think we were able to keep some edge in there without the kids ever snapping off and saying something smart-aleck, or anything like that. It was a very different thing.

JM: But I also tell people, one of the advantages that time gave us was, our ability to properly argue for the things we believed in on the show was exponentially greater. So we knew in much, much better ways how to articulate why we wanted those things on the show, and it made it much easier for us to actually do those things. That was a big difference.

candace sitting with phineas and ferb Image: Disney+

To touch on the movie a bit — why focus on Candace as the central character this time around?

JM: It’s her turn!

DP: Candace is always sort of the focal point of Phineas and Ferb. I always say that what Phineas and Ferb are doing is the setting, and the story is really Candace and Doofenshmirtz. They’re the ones that actually have a bit of an arc in any of them. But for us, it was a matter of, “What stories have we not told?” All of our Phineas stories were driven by Phineas and Ferb trying to make the most out of every single day, which is a fun place to go for gags and stuff. But if you want something really emotional, we were thinking, what would it be like if we started a story where there was an urgency to it, where they had to go and rescue somebody? Somebody was in jeopardy, and we’ve got to stop that jeopardy. What is that story for our characters? And can we still make a fun Phineas and Ferb movie where they stay positive, but they really have to get in there and do something. I think it’s a big balancing act, but I think we were able to do it and still keep it positive and fun, but still have real stakes.

The show came out in the late 2000s, so early seasons have the characters using flip phones. But in the movie, they all have smartphones and use social media. What was it like updating the show to incorporate modern technology?

DP: That to me is the biggest pinpointable thing about when something was made. When you watch a movie, and they have a specific type of phone, “Oh, it was made between these three years.” I don’t think we really had that for the movies before smartphones happened, before cell phones happened. You’d have to go, “Well, the cars look like it might be in the ’60s.”

JM: Nowadays, the computer console that somebody’s typing into — what does the display look like? And you go, like, “Oh yeah, 1985.”

DP: It’s happening so fast. It was fun to be able to use. One of my favorite bits is when they’re watching Candace get taken away in the spaceship. Phineas looks like this [makes a shocked face] and Ferb just takes his phone out and goes like [pretends to take a picture on a pretend phone] and then starts going like this [makes the motion of zooming in] on the screen. You don’t even see what he’s doing. But you know exactly what he’s doing. If I had had him doing something like that to a little rectangle [years ago], nobody would have known what that was. But everybody knows what that motion is now.

I’m a big theme-park fan, so I wanted to ask about Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure — the interactive attraction at Epcot that just closed this past February. How much involvement did you have in the creation of that?

DP: They pitched us everything they were doing in it. We had to go record voices and stuff for it. We thought it was so cool that we were going to be part of a theme park. They flew us out when they first put Doofenshmirtz in the glockenspiel in the big clock, where he comes out like this [makes a face as close to this image as possible]. It was just so great to do that. They flew us out and then gave us VIP tour guides to take us around the parks, which was an amazing experience, because we got to the front of all the lines.

JM: We were filming press stuff all morning, and in the interim, my family had gone on every great ride. So when we were done, it’s like, “Let’s go [see the park]!” and they were like, “We’ve done it.”

DP: But it was so great just to see [our characters] be part of something like that, and hear our voices coming out of things in the park. It sort of gave us chills. That and when they did the Phineas and Ferb dance party at California Adventure, that is the coolest stuff we got to do because of the success of the show.

What was it like coming back to these characters after all this time?

DP: We missed them. When we finished Phineas and Ferb, we were ready. We asked to do a finale and move on to something else. We’d been doing it for 10 years, and we felt like, “Okay, this is good” — but we wanted to have an actual ending. They let us do the finale, but they did say, “Don’t kill anybody off, in case we ever want to do more.”

JM: It’s a shame, because we wrote a whole script where everybody dies.

DP: Yeah, exactly. So we had to throw that one away! They let us do that. Then we went on and did Milo Murphy’s Law, which I think is a great show. I’m hoping people start finding that on Disney Plus, and maybe we can do a third season of that. But in the interim, we had some time away from Phineas and Ferb. So when they called and said, “Can you do another? Can you do a Phineas and Ferb movie for Disney Plus?”, we were like, “Yes, we can do that.” We really missed those guys. We had gotten a little taste of it, because we did a crossover episode with Milo Murphy’s Law. It was so much fun. It was like putting on an old comfortable sweater that was like, “Oh yeah, I love this.”

JM: We were reminded of just how well these characters still were resonating with people.

DP: Yeah, it was so much fun. Hopefully we’ll be able to do it again. People say, “Are you going to do more?” Well, that’s up to Disney, but I am perfectly willing to do more of this.

All episodes of Phineas and Ferb are available to stream on Disney Plus. Candace Against the Universe hits the platform on Aug. 28.