Since 2010, Cartoon Network has been airing Adventure Time, a quirky, fanciful animated series about an enthusiastic boy, a shape-shifting dog, and the various monsters and royal types they live alongside in a land transformed by “The Great Mushroom War.” Produced under the creative direction of the not-quite-30-year-old Pendleton Ward, Adventure Time has found a passionate audience of kids and adults who are drawn to the show’s silly humor, imaginative stories, and richly populated world. Ward spoke with The A.V. Club in advance of the show's DVD release and return on April 2 to talk about the work that goes into making Adventure Time and how the show lets him indulge both his role-playing-game fantasies and his love of a good fart joke.
The A.V. Club: How do you write an Adventure Time episode? Do you just start and see where you end up, or do you have an idea of what you want to explore before you even begin?
Pendleton Ward: In the writers’ room, usually we start off by just shooting the breeze and telling weird stories about what happened to us during the week. A lot of the time, if we’re really stuck, we’ll start saying everything that comes to our mind, which is usually the worst stuff, and then someone else will think that’s terrible but it’ll give him a better idea and the ball just starts rolling like that. And at the beginning, when we didn’t have any time to play Dungeons & Dragons anymore because we were all working so hard on the show, we realized, “Well, we can still play sort of, just by writing the stories we’d want to be playing D&D with.” [Laughs.] I remember Pat McHale would write out a cool, dandy storyline, and it was fun because we were sort of living it out as we wrote it, which is a lot like playing D&D. So we did a lot of that.
AVC: About how long does it take to put together an entire season?
PW: I can tell you it it’s about nine months per episode. But in animation, everything’s sort of overlapping all at the same time.
AVC: Is it creatively freeing, having to produce so many episodes in the course of a year? Because you know you’ve got another one coming right after the one you’ve just done?
PW: It’s a great release of creative energy but it’s also extremely stressful to pull stuff out of your mind really quickly. I remember in the beginning, I was so pressed for time. If I had to think of a song for an episode, or a joke, the only time I had slated in the day to work on it was in the drive from my house to the office. So I had to turn off the radio and just, like, start talking to myself out loud, really quickly—like trying to pitch jokes to myself as I’m driving down the freeway. [Laughs.] It’s both really fun and really overwhelming at the same time, I guess.
AVC: How much of the world of this show—especially the pre-Mushroom War world of this show—is already in your head, and how much do you discover as you go?
PW: Well, we’ve sort of got it plotted down on the whiteboard in the writers’ room—the history of the world. But we create it as we go, I think. The general skeleton is there for when events occurred for all the characters, but things change all of the time, because the show’s constantly evolving and there are so many different voices adding to the show. There’s eight boarders who write and draw out all the dialogue, and they take it to all kinds of different places that I don’t even expect after we give them the outline to work off of. “We” being the three writers who write the outlines: myself, Kent Osborne and Pat McHale.
AVC: How much do you pay attention to what the fan community is coming up with about the show? There’s a lot of fan art and fan stories out there. Do you embrace those things, or do you avoid them lest you end up unconsciously drawing from it?
PW: I don’t actively seek it out, but I pay a lot of attention to it. I get so many emails from people who are showing me their original designs for characters and it’s usually, like, Finn wearing a black shirt. [Laughs.] Bizarro Finns and Princess Bubblegums. It’s a lot of fun for me to see. But I’m more interested in doing stuff that my creative team wants to do because everyone is so extremely talented who’s writing and drawing and creating this show that I get excited about what they want to make. That’s what I feel like the show has become. For me, it feels like a shorts program, for all the board artists and writers to do whatever they want to do with the show. I’m into that.
AVC: As the show has gone on, it’s become more about the relationship between the characters and about creating a place for fans to come visit and hang out in each week. Did you sense that potential from the beginning?
PW: I’ve always wanted that. I can’t say which episodes are more successful than others at doing it, but that’s what I’ve always wanted to happen with the show.
AVC: Are there any jokes or ideas you’ve come up with that have ended up being rejected by the network?
PW: Man, I should really take a day to remember all of this stuff. Really, it all comes back to a lot of poop and fart stuff that’s iffy with the network. I remember I was mixing an episode last night, mixing the sounds and effects and the picture all together at the post-house and there was a really long fart sound that I needed to have in there for the story to work, for the jokes to work. And I remember making a call and having a really serious conversation with the network about making sure that this fart can stay in there, and we went back and forth about how juicy it could be. I didn’t want it juicy, So he was like, “Oh, it can be really dry and that’s fine. As long as it’s not over the top. Diarrhetic.” [Laughs.] I was like, ‘Okay, I can work with that.’” Then I ended up doing the sound into the microphone. [Makes long, dry fart sound.] I have a lot of those kinds of conversations.
AVC: The gross-out humor is clearly a major element of Adventure Time. If you had to cut it out tomorrow, do you think that it would be the same show?
PW: Actually, I try to stay away from gross-out humor. I like the show to be really cute. I think fart jokes are a really precise art form. Not a lot of people really appreciate the time that can go into like a really delicate fart joke as much as I do. Like, I’m really into it—the science of the whole thing. So, it’s few and far between, and when we do do it—hey, “doo doo” [Laughs.]—then I really take my time with it and make sure that it’s not just for the gross factor. I think it’s more of a punctuation to a moment.
AVC: Are there any plans in the future to release the show in season sets as opposed to the best-of sets you’ve done so far?
PW: It will come. That’s as much as I can say.
AVC: What about streaming?
PW: I don’t know. You’d assume that it will. I’ve seen some Cartoon Network stuff just pop up on Netflix—bam! That’s all. I’m just speculating here.
AVC: As an animator with his own show, have you received any advice, either solicited or unsolicited, from other animators/auteurs?
PW: In the beginning, Fred Seibert of Frederator, he kept telling me that the workload is more than you can ever imagine. Like, there’s no possible way that you can prepare yourself for the amount of stress and work that you’re going to have. And I was like, “No, I can do it, I can do it. I’m sure I can figure it out.” But he just kept saying, “You have no idea what it’s going to be like.” [Laughs.] And I didn’t. I had no idea it would be so intense, especially in the beginning. It’s cooled off now that we’ve found a rhythm, but in the beginning it was so rough. I wanted to cry and vomit every day and there were a lot of sleepless nights. Is that advice? I don’t know. [Laughs.]
The best feeling is meeting people that I admire and respect and finding out that they even watch the show. Not even that they like it, but that they’ve seen it. It’s like, “Oh my gosh.” Just meeting Matt Groening and knowing that he likes the show is like the coolest award that you can even win. The “Matt Groening Has Seen It And Likes It Award.” So cool.