Friday, December 3, 2010

The Best TV Show You're (Probably) Not Watching

"Besides Mad Men, this is the smartest show on television*." "Surprisingly thoughtful...Family Guy with an espionage subplot...the new SpongeBob." Could it be that they're describing a cartoon on the Disney Channel?

Yes. Yes they are.



I may be a bit biased (those of you who know me well or have been reading my blog probably already know of my love for this show), but Phineas and Ferb is, in my opinion, possibly the best all-ages animated comedy- if not the best comedy period- on television right now. Although The Simpsons remains my all-time favorite television show period for good reason, I have to say right now that I get more laughs and enjoyment out of a Phineas and Ferb than I do a modern-day Simpsons- even I will admit that the show, while still entertaining, isn't what it used to be (although the writers still do come up with some gems). But why should you be watching Phineas and Ferb- and if you aren't already, why not? Well, I have some very good reasons.

1. Top Talent

Phineas and Ferb has top talent both behind the scenes and in front. Co-creator Dan Povenmire has a long history in animation. He started out on The Simpsons, where one of his first achievements was designing the Olmec head Xtapolapocetl which first appeared in the "Blood Feud" episode and I'm sure many Simpsons fans can recognize. He later went on to work on Rocko's Modern Life, where he and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh wrote many classic episodes, including the music-meets-environmentalism masterpiece "Zanzibar!" and the immortal "Wacky Delly," a great satire of the animation industry and an all-around funny episode to boot. (I AM THE CHEESE. I AM THE BEST CHARACTER ON THE SHOW. I AM BETTER THAN BOTH THE SALAMI AND THE BOLOGNA COMBINED.) It was while working on Rocko where the two of them came up with an unusual idea for an animated series...but more on that later. The two went their separate ways, with Marsh working in England and Povenmire going on to stints at Family Guy and SpongeBob Squarepants (where, among other achievements, he wrote the "Campfire Song Song"). Eventually- and by "eventually" I mean "nearly 15 years later"- after being rejected by practically everyone in the industry for fears that their idea was too smart, Disney picked up that series they had come up with so long ago.

Besides the veteran talent behind the scenes (which, besides Povenmire and Marsh, also includes a talented bunch of writers and animators, including Martin Olson, a veteran comedy writer, and Jon Colton Barry, son of famed songwriter Jeff Barry, among others), there's an equally talented group of voice artists giving these goofy characters their voice. The main cast combines Disney stalwarts such as Ashley Tisdale, Mitchel Musso, and Alyson Stoner with other well-known names such as Caroline Rhea and Richard O'Brien (creator and performer of Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Recurring guest voices include Allison Janney, Barry Bostwick, Kelly Hu, Malcolm McDowell, John O'Hurley (J. Peterman from Seinfeld), and 30 Rock's Jack McBrayer and Maulik Pancholy. Guest stars have included Evander Holyfield (drawn with a bite in his ear, no less), Billy Ray Cyrus, French Stewart, Geraldo Rivera, Ben Stiller, Kevin Smith, Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane, J.K. Simmons, Sandra Oh, John Laroquette, Vicki Lawrence, Cloris Leachman, Jennifer Grey, Tim Curry, Sheena Easton, David Mitchell (Peep Show), and Lorenzo Lamas (who played an alien who can only say "meap" and shoots rainbows out of his mouth!), among others. A future episode will guest star not only one, but two Emmy-award-winning funny ladies: Tina Fey and Jane Lynch. And last but not least are Povenmire and Marsh themselves, who gave themselves two of the funniest characters.

2. Memorable Characters

But what good is a character if you're only going by their voice? Thankfully, the wacky world of Phineas and Ferb is filled with characters that are just as memorable as their voice actors. Outside of the Simpsons's Springfield, I can't think of another large, diverse group of animated stars as memorable as these. The titular stepbrothers are surprisingly sane compared to some of their friends and acquaintances- and given as they usually spend every day building or doing something extraordinary, that's saying something. Two of my favorites are by far Candace, Phineas and Ferb's older sister who balances being a normal teenager with being certifiably insane obsessing over catching them in the act of their elaborate scheming (and is wonderfully voiced by Ashley Tisdale, who is a surprisingly talented voice actress), and Dr. Doofenshmirtz, a pathetic mad scientist who, for a would-be villain, is surprisingly developed (in humorous fashion), frequently lamenting about his failed love life and especially his childhood, which always fuels his not-quite-that-thought-out plans to conquer the entire...tri-state area.


Surprisingly, this montage doesn't even cover half of the psychological trauma inflicted upon Dr. Doofenshmirtz during his childhood.

Oh...and Norm. Just Norm.



3. The Songs

Among the things that Povenmire and Marsh loved to do at all of the shows they've worked on is write songs- in part because, as they say, it's their attempt at animated immortality. For example, that classic Jetsons song "Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah." Coincidentally, one of the songs they wrote for the series early on was also a unique way of saying "I love you"- and the Disney executives loved it so much they wanted a song in each episode. This may be the only time in history where an executive's suggestion actually made sense.



Almost every episode of the series has an original song in it, covering practically every genre of music under the sun from pop to rap to country to what have you, and they're always nearly catchy and well-written, with some dang funny and unexpected lyrics to boot. For example:

In the middle of a song about a beach for no apparent reason: "Your contacts need saline or else you can't see."
"Like a ninja of love rappelling down from above, you snuck your way right into my heart."
"Science can't improve upon a mother's heart, but given time, it can trick out her spleen."
During a Wizard of Oz parody: "Just take the yellow one, not the one that's burnt umber/and don't you take the purple one, it's covered in lumber."

Seriously, if this wasn't a kids show, I think Phineas and Ferb would have as many hit singles as the cast of Glee. (Although they wouldn't probably want it that way- they specifically set out to be one-hit wonders when they wrote "Gitchee Gitchee Goo.")


I read this somewhere recently and I agree...why isn't Olivia Olson as famous as Justin Bieber?

4. IT'S FUNNY!

Seriously, as with any comedy, the humor is where the show really shines. The situations, the dialogue...it's surprisingly smart- in a good way. The thing that really surprises (and amuses) me is that the show is basically based around a simple formula (well, "simple" being a relative term)- "Phineas and Ferb build something while Candace tries to bust them for doing so, but the defeat of Dr. Doofenshmirtz by their pet platypus Perry- who unbeknownst to them (but beknownst to us) is really a secret agent- always makes their project vanish just before she can"- the formula is always being tweaked and bent in just the right way for maximum humor potential. It's like a Road Runner cartoon- we know Wile E. Coyote's invention is going to fail. It's seeing how it's going to fail where the fun comes in. Heck, I laugh my rump off just when one of the simplest running gags- a "Doofenshmirtz Evil Incorporated" jingle that plays whenever Doofenshmirtz makes his first appearance- is changed to something oddly specific like "Doofenshmirtz holding a bucket" or "Doofenshmirtz walks to the diner." Because of this, the show actually gets funnier the more you watch it, as the clich├ęs and running gags are always being modified in just the right way for maximum humor potential. As Matt Groening once said about The Simpsons, it's a show that rewards you for paying attention.

Like many of the best comedy (and best things period) out there, try as I might to describe it, Phineas and Ferb is one of those things that can't really be described- only experienced. And for those of you who want to do so, you're in luck: A great way to start is by tuning in to Disney Channel tonight (Friday, December 3) at 8:30pm Eastern for their Christmas special. Besides having everything that makes the show great, it's a fun little Christmas special with a very interesting premise that I never really thought about before: Phineas and Ferb envy Santa Claus because he gets to travel around the world giving people presents in a single day, which sounds as fun as anything they do, and want to give him something in return. The theme of the special is mainly about thanking Santa for all he does and giving gifts rather than getting them, which is a really nice message if you think about it- in my later years I've certainly found it much more fun to play Santa than want things from him. But what about Dr. Doofenshmirtz? He's the sort who would want to ruin such a perfect Christmas situation, right? Well...



So please, check out Phineas and Ferb. I'm pretty sure you won't be disappointed. I am by no means a predictor of trends, but I'm pretty sure 2011 is going to be their year, so I hope you'll join me as their star continues to climb. I know what I'm gonna do today. Do you?

*Greg Ehrbar, co-author of Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records, **The New York Times

PHINEAS AND FERB ©Disney. No ownership intended or implied.

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