Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh have been working together for 30 years. The two had become friends while they were working as layout artists on The Simpsons, and later worked as a writing team on Rocko’s Modern Life. It was during that time that the pair had dinner together, and over the course of that meal, sketched out what would become Phineas And Ferb.
The rest is animation history. Though it took the duo years to get Phineas on the air, the Disney Channel finally took the bait in 2006, and the show ran until 2015, wrapping up its time with a big one-hour special. Phineas And Ferb crept out of hiding, though, for an appearance on Povenmire and Marsh’s latest show, Milo Murphy’s Law in 2019, and now the gang’s all back together for an all new movie, Phineas And Ferb The Movie: Candace Against The Universe.
Available today on Disney+, Candace Against The Universe finds Phineas and Ferb trying to save their sister Candace, who has been kidnapped by aliens and taken to what she believes is a sibling-free utopia. Of course, all is not as it seems, and the kids must all band together to get back to their suburban backyard.
The A.V. Club talked to Povenmire and Marsh about how they found their way back into the show’s Tri-State Area, and what it’s like to live with a set of characters for almost 30 years. Portions of that chat are in the video above, but if you’d like to know more, there’s a full transcript of the conversation below.
The A.V. Club: It’s been a while since we’ve seen a full story from Phineas And Ferb, and I read that when you guys were asked to do this movie, you thought “What would we even do?” How did you crack the story?
Dan Povenmire: We went into a room for three weeks…
Jeff “Swampy” Marsh: … endlessly pitching ideas that we’d already done, until we got to one that we went, “Oh, wait a minute.”
DP: The way we pitch with Phineas And Ferb, it’s where the story is driven—what they’re doing, what they’re building, what great thing they’re trying to do. And we realized that there were other kinds of stories we hadn’t told. What if the thing that drives the story is somebody being in jeopardy? If we have it be that kind of different adventure, can we tilt and still tell a story that feels like a Phineas And Ferb story if we start off from that place? So that was sort of the impetus of having Candace get abducted. What if the boys really have a mission they have to do that’s important? They have to save Candace.
AVC: And audiences can get a better look at who Candace is, and what she’s been feeling all these years/days.
DP: Yes, exactly. It feels like years for her. It feels like decades for us.
AVC: You created the show a long time before it actually aired, and it’s been a decent amount of time since it first started airing. You’ve been with these characters for almost 30 years.
DP: Yes, exactly. It’s been 27 years since we created the show and we’ve been living with it ever since. It’s weird because they feel like family to us in a very real way. We don’t think of them as drawings that we make and characters that we write. We know them so well that writing dialogue for them has actually become easier, because you just put them in a situation and then you know what they would say. It makes it sort of a shortcut for you to get to where you are., dialogue-wise.
JSM: It also makes it incredibly difficult on some of the writers we’ve had over the years, because we absolutely know what Phineas and Ferb and these characters would or wouldn’t say, or would or wouldn’t do. We’ve had so many times that people have come and pitch something like, “They do this,” and both Dan and I are like, “No, they wouldn’t,” and they’re like, “But it’d be funny.” It’s like, “Yeah, I know. But they wouldn’t.”
We just know them so well, and that was kind of the fun journey of saying, okay, if we want to do this movie, how do we believably get the characters there? It makes the job harder, but much more rewarding when you’re able to achieve it. I don’t think you get that kind of joy if you don’t really have this feeling that those characters have become absolutely real to you.
AVC: What’s harder now and what’s easier? For instance, are stories harder because you’ve done so many, but you can write songs in your sleep?
DP: Songs are still pretty easy. It’s easy to write a song if you know what the chorus is going to be. If you’re trying to write a song from inside your soul, then you feel like you have to wait for the muse to hit you, but if you have an hour and a half in your schedule and you have to write a song for this episode and it has to be about a girl who has squirrels in her pants, or “There’s a platypus controlling me,” or something, we can easily come up with funny stuff to get us there. We have enough of a pop sensibility melodically, and we can get there pretty fast.
JSM: The harder part is finding the stories that you don’t feel like you’ve over told or told before. You really want to keep finding new, emotional journeys. That’s the challenge.
DP: That’s what’s great when we do the long-form stuff, like when we did the hour-longs and we did the movies: Suddenly you felt like you could really tell an emotional arc that would hopefully get people a little bit choked up at the end. That’s what I think we’ve done with this movie. I feel like at the end of it, there’s a really sweet moment when it resolves.
AVC: Also, with a longer amount of time to play with, you can get to space. It’s hard to build a whole world out in 22 minutes.
DP: Space is fun, but it does open up like, “Oh, we can do whatever we want here because nobody knows what this looks like.” If you turn it on, it won’t look like every single Phineas And Ferb episode that we’ve already done. If you just came in during the middle of it, you’d be like, “I haven’t seen this yet because they’re on a weird planet where the trees are all mush,” or whatever.
JSM: I like that we go to a place where you can do anything, and then we immediately create rules for this new place we’ve gone to.
DP: Yes, exactly.
JSM: What is wrong with us?
AVC: Can you tell us a bit more about some of the voice cameos in the movie? For example, how did Ali Wong end up getting cast as Super Super Big Doctor?
DP: Ali was great. Ali is friends with Diedrich Bader, who’s done the show a bunch of times. He’s on American Housewife with Ali. When we started thinking about Ali, we immediately looked up if she had kids, because that’s usually how we get people. Their kids watch our show. But her kids are toddlers and may not be watching the show. They won’t even probably know the show. So we talked to Diedrich and said, “Can you tell her how great we are? Can you talk us up to her so that we can get her?” And he did, and she came in and just knocked it out of the park. I thought she was great.
It’s fun. You search around for whoever else. “Oh, we have a three line bit here. Who can we get?”
We got Thomas Middleditch to be the guy who tells the story of how everything happened on that planet. I’ve always loved him in Silicon Valley, and I was like, “I think it would be great to get something from him. I wonder what kind of voices he can do.” And then I saw Middleditch And Schwartz on Netflix. It’s great. Oh my god. He’s so brilliant. After I saw that, I was like, “We can get anything we want out of Thomas. He’ll be able to deliver.”
We called Wayne Brady to be Stapler Fist. Wayne’s a friend of the show. Wayne wrote a song with us for the Star Wars special. He wrote “In The Empire” with us.
It’s just sort of having these little places that we can put people and say, “Okay, it’s not a big part, but you’ll be part of the movie, and it will not be a lot of time on your schedule.”
AVC: Does quarantine exist in the Tri-State area? What would they be doing during this endless summer break?
JSM: It would be great.
DP: You know, we sort of have the quarantine episode of Phineas And Ferb. I forget what the name of it is, but there’s one episode where everybody like Buford, Baljeet, Isabella, and Phineas are all sick in bed and talking to each other on basically a Zoom call the entire time while Perry is off doing something. They somehow get control over Doofenshmirtz or Perry or something. I forget how we even got there, but a lot of people have been posting that on social media as sort of, “This is what Phineas and Ferb would be doing in quarantine.”
The whole concept of Phineas And Ferb is to try to make the most out of every single day of summer vacation, and when I see people on Tik Tok making these really creative videos and stuff like that, or stuff that people post—actually two different families built roller coasters in their backyards during quarantine. They’re not terribly big, but, but they actually work.
To me that’s the spirit of Phineas And Ferb. We’re dealt this hand where we have to separate and isolate, but what can we do that’s fun and creative and how can we make something great?
JSM: There’s a lady on social media who is sending me pictures of her and her family doing everything in the theme song or their equivalent of it, and it’s really great. You can tell for them it’s just a way to get together and do something wacky and creative every day. How cool is that?