The Creative Keynote: Phineas and Ferb: How We Did It

Posted on: Friday 05 July 2013 12:14pm by Jayne Kirkham



Phineas and Ferb: How We Did It

Speaker – Jeff ‘Swampy’ Marsh, Co-Creator/Executive Producer ‘Phineas and Ferb’

Blogged by – Jayne Kirkham

Overheard on the way out of the Crucible Theatre

“That man is a legend.”

“He makes me want to do stuff.”

“He’s living proof.”


“So what is the difference between snooker and billiards?”

If you weren’t there: WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!

Here are the Top Ten Takeaways:

  • Overnight success takes a long time
  • Never underestimate the intelligence of children
  • Stick to your guns when it matters
  • The solution to a problem is often smaller than you think
  • Music is the ticket to immortality
  • Everyone on a team has the potential to have a valid opinion
  • Don’t call executives morons to their face
  • Working with people you not only admire but really get on with is the best
  • Always look for the opportunities to improve your work.

After a full day of listening to facts, figures, opinions, the last thing any of us wanted was another lecture.  Whoever had the idea of inviting Swampy to speak, I salute you!

A more personable, entertaining and inspirational speaker you couldn’t hope to hear.    He came to animation fairly late, quitting a suit and tie job and following a friend’s suggestion.  His first job was drawing backgrounds on The Simpsons, where he also met friend and co-creator Dan Povenmire.

Swampy explained how he and Dan came up with Phineas and Ferb as a way to continue working together.  Life intervened however and it took 15 years for Phineas and Ferb to be an overnight success.  It did the rounds of the broadcasters, getting close to deals but never closing until finally Disney took it and put it on the shelf.  By this time Swampy was working in the UK and with the dream of working together also gathering dust.  Then nine months later Disney dusted off the cobwebs.

Development involved convincing all the Disney territories of the idea with a great pitch reel, and the usual process of focus groups, executive notes, storyboards…  However, Dan and Swampy’s attitude seems far from ‘usual’:

  • They never underestimate the intelligence of the audience.  They write to make each other laugh, and believe the audience will get it too.
  • They are discerning with network notes: an executive’s solution may not solve the problem but what it does is identify that there IS a problem.  Solutions are often smaller than everyone thinks.
  • They stick to their guns – they didn’t want to write scripts but wanted to use storyboards instead.  They had to convince Disney to let them work in a ‘non-Disney’ way.
  • They are collaborative, not just with each other but anyone working on the show can have a valid idea.
  • They never stop looking for opportunities to improve the story.

In terms of creating a Phineas and Ferb episode, the show is essentially “the rantings of two middle aged men who think kids don’t get out enough and do stuff anymore.”  You’ll know it’s about two boys trying to make the best of every summer day and a secret agent platypus.

Swampy and Dan wanted to make a show that wasn’t populated with jerks and idiots or just populated with gags.  They insist that story and character come first: “if they [the audience] are not gonna care about the characters, they’ll never care about the gags.” The starting points for each episode are varied but boil down to asking the question “if you were nine or ten years old, what would you like to do in your garden?” An episode weaves three storylines together.

When asked about the secret agent element, Swampy explained it’s because he and Dan loved the chase sequences in things like Rocky and Bullwinkle.  Likewise they include songs because they love them: “music is our ticket to immortality: who remembers the Archies’ theme tune?” [We all sing it] ”Who remembers a story?”  [The ghostly echo of a cue ball clacking against a red fills the silence of the Crucible – no tumbleweed in Sheffield].

However, these elements are not just indulgences as can be seen in any episode.  The stories are worked and worked so they inform one another to create something that satisfies and entertains not just Dan and Swampy but the audience they respect and value so highly.



Produced by – Elaine McElroy, Freelance Development Producer

Sponsored by – Walker Books


Jayne Kirkham, Writer, Script Consultant, Youth Activity Worker

About the author

Jayne Kirkham


Jayne currently splits her time between adapting Ann Kelley's Bowerbird novels into a feature film for Artemisia Films, polishing her novel The Bones of Rockham Bay, administering the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children's Media and the Arts for the CMF, serving on the Writers' Guild of Great Britain Executive… Read more