Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh are a lot like the kids who love their hit TV show — they want nothing to do with school. That’s why they originally decided to set Phineas and Ferb during the “104 days of summer vacation.” So it’s no surprise that the guys have decided to do a holiday episode. After all, as Povenmire notes, Christmas vacation is “just another summer vacation, it’s just colder outside.” Or, as Marsh puts it, “It’s a whole other terrain to play in.”
That terrain includes lots of snow, some guest voices — Clancy Brown, Malcolm McDowell, Jane Carr, Mathew Horne and Bruce Mackinnon, to be exact — and, as always, music. We spoke to the guys about the episode, which finds Phineas and Ferb attempting to spread holiday cheer throughout Danville after Dr. Doofenshmirtz covers the entire Tri-State area with a cloud of naughtiness.
Channel Guide: Did it actually take 16 years to get “Phineas and Ferb” on the air?
Jeff Marsh: We created it back when the two of us were working on a show called Rocko’s Modern Life.
Dan Povenmire: We pitched it to Nickelodeon …
JM: Cartoon Network.
DP: … Cartoon Network, FOX Kids. It had a lot of interest in different places.
JM: We even got optioned a couple of times at different places. And it always did very well, it just
always seemed to fall somewhere short of getting a pilot made for one reason or another. Even at FOX
Kids, it was kind of scheduled to start the next season, and then FOX Kids folded. So we kept ending up getting the ownership back and living to fight another day, as it were.
DP: It took Disney about a year before they called up and wanted to option it. We pitched it and they said no, they weren’t looking for anything with boys in the lead character but could they keep the materials? And we said sure. They just called out of the blue, like, a year later and said, “We want to option Phineas and Ferb,” and I was, like, “Oh … OK. I’ll call Swampy. He’s living in England.” I called to see if he wanted to come back and work on it if it went, and he was like, “Yes, absolutely.”
So do you get some added satisfaction now that, after all that time, the show has become a success or would you just as soon have had it happen years ago?
DP: Well, it would have been nice for it to have happened years ago …
JM: We would have been fine with it being a huge success 16 years ago!
DP: But then we’d probably both be retired.
JM: But, you know, it is very validating because it was the show that we kept saying was the one — of
all the different ideas and weird things that we had worked on over the years — that we really believed should be made and had the most potential and really was cool, even though it might have been as glamorous on the surface. I always used to says it’s not the show that has exploding alien teenage transforming robots. It’s just a couple of kids and a really simple story, but one we always thought had the potential for a lot of greatness. So that part’s very validating. When it’s a big hit you think, “See? We were right to stick with it.”
The original idea for the show is that it centers around what these guys are doing on their summer vacation. What made you decide to do a Christmas episode?
DP: The only reason it’s summer vacation is because we didn’t want to draw them at school. We thought that so many things are all set in school because that’s where kids are most of the time, but to us, the thing that we remember the most about growing up is the time we spent just exploring and having fun during the summer, where you’d have these long days with nothing to do but [use] your own imagination. And so Christmas vacation was just like, well, that’s just another summer vacation, it’s just colder outside. You get two weeks off to go play in the snow.
JM: It’s a whole other terrain to play in.
DP: But that was sort of a hard sell for the executives because they were like, “Well, isn’t this show all about summer?” And it was like, “No, this show is all about a kid’s imagination when they have the free time to really let it run.” We did a new version of the theme song that is not summer-oriented but Christmas-oriented. [Singing] “There are two wondrous weeks for our winter vacation before New Year’s and school come to end it.” We did like a whole different version of the theme song and Bowling for Soup came in a sang it. It’s really fun. It still feels very much like a Phineas and Ferb episode, but we get all these new backgrounds with snow on the ground and them all bundled up. It’s really fun.
Let’s talk about the music a little bit, since that’s an aspect of the show that gets a lot of attention. Do the two of you write all of the songs yourselves?
DP: We write the majority of them. We have a lot of musicians on staff as writers who just happen to be musicians.
JM: It started out with Dan and I doing it and yet we knew, like, Martin Olson — one of our head writers — we know he’s really musically talented. You kind of start drawing people in. What we really wanted was more of the staff to come participate, either collaboratively with us or just saying, “Look, we know you’ve got some musical skills. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t be afraid. Do some stuff and bring it to us.” And that started to happen and that was really cool. So now we’ve got people that may not have even known that they had musical talent kind of coming in and saying, “You know, I wrote this little thing. It’s probably not very good. You can listen to it, and you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to but here you go.” And most of the time, they’re really good and it’s a great jumping-off place for us to collaborative with them.
I would think that’s helpful because you guys crank out a lot of songs over the course of a season. You can’t really afford to get writer’s block.
DP: Yeah, although we tend to be able to write a song about anything in any style in one hour. Especially if it’s just me and Swampy or me and Swampy and Martin. If there are more people involved, sometimes it will take two or three hours. It’s sort of like the more cooks in the kitchen — sometimes it’s more fun, it becomes more like a party, but you get all the different ideas thrown around and it takes a little bit more to corral them into something cohesive.
JM: It really wouldn’t be possible to do this show if the people involved in writing it and creating it weren’t doing the music. Otherwise it would just be unworkable to have some other writing team try to come in on a regular basis and do this.
You mentioned Bowling for Soup, who performs the Phineas and Ferb theme song. How did you relationship with that band come about?
DP: Well, we wrote the theme song. That was, like, one of the first things we did. And Disney was talking about what kind of a name band we could use, and we both love Bowling for Soup. We said, “How about these guys? They get a lot of play on Disney Radio” and everything like that. We approached them, and Jaret [Reddick], the lead singer/songwriter for Bowling for Soup, was a big fan of my work on Family Guy. So he was thrilled to come out and meet with us and talk with us, and we showed him a bunch of shows. He really liked the show — he said it felt like Family Guy except, you know, without all the raunchy stuff. It was something he could show his kid. So took the theme song and wrote a longer pop song that’s actually on the [Phineas and Ferb soundtrack] album called “Today Is Going to Be a Great Day.” He sort of took theme song, then added this pop chorus to it and blew it out into a whole song, so that got some airplay on Disney Radio. Now he says that next year when they go out on tour, they get asked for that song so many times, they’re going to work it up and do it live when they play on their tour.
JM: He’s a really great guy. We actually had him in and he did a voice on the show. If you’ve seen the episode with the band Love Handle, he’s the voice of Danny, the lead singer of Love Handle. He’s kind of part of the Phineas and Ferb family now. He’s come in and done a songwriting session with us.
DP: He lives in Texas, but when he comes into town he gives us a call sometimes and comes in, and we’ll write whatever song we’re going to write that week for the show — we’ll write it with him because he has very similar musical sensibilities to us.
I saw that you also got Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to do a song for this Christmas episode. Was there any particular reason you went after them?
DP: Well, we’d written this song called “Christmas Is Starting Now,” which was sort of this big band, swinging rock song and we just though, “Who would be a good band to cover this?’ [Someone] brought up Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, who we were both fans of.
JM: They actually came out and played a benefit concert for my grandfather several years ago, so I’d met them.
DP: Swampy’s grandfather is Les Brown and his Band of Renown. He was one of the big band leaders from the big band days. He wrote “Sentimental Journey.” It was, like, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Les Brown were the three big guys. So [Swampy] comes from quite a musical pedigree.
By my count, there are eight new songs in the Christmas episode. We’ve discussed a couple. Are there any other favorites among the bunch?
DP: There are two really wonderful Christmas songs that I feel could live outside the show. There’s one called “That Christmas Feeling” [sung by] Olivia Olson, who plays Vanessa on our show. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Love Actually, but she’s the girl at the end of Love Actually who sings the Mariah Carey song [All I Want for Christmas Is You.”] She was, like, 7-years-old when she did that movie.
JM: She was the character that [Phineas and Ferb costar] Thomas Sangster’s character was in love with.
DP: She’s got this gift-from-God voice, so we had her do this “That Christmas Feeling” song that actually one of our writers, Jon Barry, wrote that’s just fantastic. There’s a shorter version that’s actually in the show, but we’re releasing a longer version on iTunes. It’s the same with the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy song — we’re releasing extended versions on iTunes even before the show comes out.
JM: There’s also a really nice song at the end that we got Mitchell Musso to sing, which is called “Thank You, Santa Claus” …
DP: … which really just feels like a modern classic holiday song. It’s really nice.
I noticed that you also have a few guest stars lined up: Clancy Brown, Mat Horne and Bruce Mackinnon, in addition to Malcolm McDowell and Jane Carr coming back as Grandma and Grandpa Fletcher. Any rhyme or reason behind casting those actors?
DP: Well, we’ve actually had Clancy on before. This is the biggest role we’ve given him, but he’s one of those guys who will come on whenever you need a big, deep voice for something. He’s a really good guy and he’s very versatile. We wanted somebody with this really, sort of, booming basso profundo voice for Santa Claus, and we ended up with Clancy Brown on that.
JM: And I wanted somebody fun for the elves. Mathew Horne was on [the BBC comedy series] Gavin & Stacey — it’s just such a great show — and he’s got such a cute, little impish quality that I thought he’d just be a really fun guy to have in that role. And his old comedy partner is Bruce Mackinnon. They worked together for years. I happened to be lucky enough when we did the initial record to have been in London, so we could just sort of get them in the booth together and get them having fun and playing off each other, which was very cool.
Phineas and Ferb Christmas Vacation premieres Dec. 11 on Disney Channel.