Hi again, Mr. Levine - sorry to seem like a bother, I just have so many questions and such a tiny brain to hold them all in! Anyway, I'd love to know how you and the writers think up such creative worlds; especially the combo ones (ex: Plantywood)?
Well, the basic thing is we like to always do something new and unexpected. I personally get bored when I see something I’ve seen before. If it’s been done, why do it again?
The twist with Penn Zero,as a show, is that by definition we are hopping to new worlds every week. And while some are quite original, most are playing in familiar genres or types of stories. That’s by design. That’s why Jared and I wanted to make the show. A chance to play in so many of our favorite genres and also create some extremely unique ones. That said, even if one is completely unique, we find it is better to ground it in some familiarity. Because an audience needs to ground itself in something familiar, even a basic idea. Joss Whedon once told me every project needed the “universal” and the “cool”. If you are missing one of these, you’re sunk.
In It’s A Colorful Life, it’s a world unlike we’ve seen; where color is a commodity/life force that is at stake. In that case we grounded it in the idea of a race and a scavenger hunt. Yes we were also inspired by The Wizard Of Oz, Dr. Seuss, Yellow Submarine, and steampunk type era costumes and machinery…. But those were just general vibes that made us smile; nothing is literal like a satire or parody here; I this case we crafted a world that fit the odd little story. Small stakes for Penn Zero, but big enough that we wanted to see color returned to the world. And more than that, it was a story about how stupid external differences are, and the real truth is that we humans are all one, and there is no “other” …. If we can see clearly enough to find that wisdom. Beth Reinhart wrote a great script. I don’t know why I got caught up in this episode…
Regarding your actual question…. Jared, myself and the writers approach our stories from different angles. The goal is always to make it an engaging, fun, entertaining, emotional, and always a surprising episode. Surprise is the essence of any entertainment, from Football to Shakespeare.
But we approach developing a story from different ways…
Sometimes we start with a character story, then fit our genre and world to exploit character best. (Jared and I wanted to tell a Boone story where he faced his fears with the help of Penn, without Sashi finding out he was scared. We created an underwater world where Boone needed to face that fear of water in a huge way –to win the mission. And in another episode, a familiar Alien Invasion plot was subverted by a crazy gameshow/courtroom, just so we could explore another Boone fear: public speaking. Jeff Poliquin nailed that.)
Other times we find a world or genre and brainstorm what is the best character story to tell in that world. (I love giant combining robots, but what I had never seen is the act of combining and teamwork being used in a fun way with giant bots- the more in sync they are, the better they fight, and vise versa. And in the writing process I discovered a rare opportunity to force heroes and villains to merge together, and work out their differences if just for a moment- but all wrapped around that group dynamic)
All of the above is us combining character stories and worlds in ways that are new and surprising to us. But again, getting back to the question…. We are bored with what we have seen before.
We wanted to do a dragon episode. At first we explored ninja dragons vs samurai dragons. Cool, but it felt… expected. We tried to surprise ourselves… We then pitched amongst ourselves a country dragon vs city dragon story. Nobody has seen that, right? Right. But… We tried some stories, but it wasn’t funny. (That small town vs. oppressors story mutated Into BALLS once Poliquin got a hold of it BTW) We brainstormed dragons a lot. Then I suggested Top Gun style military dragons…. We all started trading ideas. And laughing. Fighter jets fly, and so do dragons! Both fire weapons! And what about the 80s?!! We laughed and we broke a premise. And Shane Morris crushed the script. Then add Sean Astin and Kenny Loggins and Jesus was that fun.
We wanted to do a spy genre episode. We had a very elaborate spy story in a huge, sprawling highly inventive world that you’ve never seen (I won’t mention it here in case we decide to do it someday) we got far along into outline, but rightfully so, Jared wasn’t laughing. It wasn’t pushing the spy genre someplace new. It was cool, inventive, would have been funny and looked great….but the story was familiar. Then Jared pitched Caveman spies. (We had also been developing separately a Caveman idea, but it was not going anywhere) Jared pitched a caveman spy world that was incredibly primitive. So primitive that it was stupid as hell. He pitched a story where Penn had been dreaming of being a super spy for a while- then when he gets his wish it totally sucks. That was a great solution and it still makes me laugh; every detail. Then we had Rippen immediately loving the crude world and how easily he could conquer it; and it was left to Penn to stop bitching about how primitive it is, and just be the best dumb spy he could be. Everybody crushed this one; joe’s storyboard, Tom’s direction, Ryan’s music. I think it’s one of our strongest, most original episodes; and it’s because we took the time to find the best world. There’s a lesson: don’t settle on your first ideas, there are better ideas ahead…
Plantywood was a bit simpler in the origin. I always loved Film Noir, since I saw Double Indemnity in A High School film studies class (by the way, watch that movie immediately- it’s spectacular). I honestly just came up with the most unusual film noir world possible, that would still hold a good noir story. Plants that wore fedoras and drank too much water in bars seemed fun to me. I named the town Plantywood; it is a dumb name and I’m proud of it. Once the genre was set, Paiman fleshed out the story. The notion of poisoning the water supply with weed killer suddenly made this world quite believable. It was a touch of Chinatown… We always want our worlds to be grounded in reality. We believe in them, they are not cartoon worlds with no stakes. They are real places with life and death and hopes and dreams. We only stay a short while in each, but they are all real words to me.
Chuckle City to me is a believable tall urban city designed for and by clowns. I love the wobbly skyscraper tents and the way the clown police precinct operates. You can buy banana peels at a storefront. Pie bazookas are weapons of course. It’s silly, hopefully funny- but very importantly—plausible.
We imagined a world where Cowboys ride dinosaurs and herd triceratops; no horses and cows. It was more interesting than regular old west settings I had seen. And gave us some comedy. And fun scale. And some danger. Horses don’t eat Cowboys…
Okay that’s it. Not really good at short answers :)