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Interview: 'Adventure Time' with Pen Ward and Tom Kenny at the Mondo Gallery

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This weekend, the Mondo Gallery in Austin, TX opened up its second-ever gallery showing: an entire gallery filled to the rafters with artwork based on Cartoon Network and Pen Ward's Adventure Time. This wildly impressive opening was immediately followed by a marathon screening of Adventure Time episodes at the Alamo Drafthouse, and your humble Comedy Examiner was on-hand to experience it all (and to talk with the show's creator and the "Ice King" himself, Tom Kenny). Wanna know how it all turned out? Carry on, my gentle Examiner readers...

When it was announced that Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time would be serving as the theme for the second-ever show at the Mondo Gallery in Austin, TX, I found myself in a unique position: as a longtime fan of both Mondo and the stable of artists they tend to work with, I was jazzed that a new show might be arriving so soon after the gallery’s March opening. That show—a big-ass, sci-fi-themed spectacle that proved to be one of the biggest draws in Austin during SXSW’s opening weekend—had been flat-out amazing, and the fanboy in me was curious to see what new stuff might be on display during round two.

But the truth was, I’d never actually gotten around to watching much of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time (not at length, anyway; prior to this weekend, I’d only seen one or two episodes, and that was through the bits and pieces I’d glimpsed on YouTube or while flipping through channels). A science-fiction themed show with artwork based on Brazil, Fantastic Planet, Star Trek 2, and Akira? I’m on board with that immediately, don’t even need to think about it. But a gallery show filled with artwork based on a topic I had virtually no working knowledge of? And it’s a cartoon? Hmmm, not so certain.

As I should’ve known, my lack of experience with Ward’s series had no bearing whatsoever on my enjoyment of Mondo’s latest show. Before I discuss the scene at the Gallery on Friday, feel free to take a peek at this “walking tour” I videotaped while strolling through the gallery (hint: if you full-screen it, you’ll get a better look at the placards next to each piece): the first of four videos is embedded on the left, and you can click through to YouTube to see the other three.

Pretty cool, huh?

The Adventure Time gallery show (as you can see in that first clip) was filled with vibrant works of art, stuff that any Adventure Time fan would’ve been thrilled to have hanging in their homes. Surprisingly, the vast majority of the works were originals (rather than Mondo’s normal screenprints), but--based on the things I’ve heard over the past few days—that hasn’t had any effect on sales: if what I’ve heard is true, almost every piece of artwork inside that Gallery has been sold (Mondo’s Justin Ishmael snagged the best piece of the bunch, a Graham Erwin piece called “Victory”). We’ve also heard that the screenprints and giclees that were being sold have also achieved “Sold Out” status, but none of this is to say that the Adventure Time show is over. In point of fact, you can stroll on down to the Mondo Gallery all this month and check out the stuff that was on sale this weekend.

So, the gallery show rocked, but what about Saturday’s marathon? As it turned out, my relative ignorance of Pen Ward’s series only served to make the Adventure Time marathon all the more exciting. We watched a total of ten episodes during the marathon (these were broken down into batches of 3-4 episodes, and each round had been crafted around a specialty course created by Drafthouse chef and culinary badass John Bullington; more on that in a moment), and judging from the reaction of the die-hard Adventure Time fans in the audience, Ishmael picked the lineup very well, indeed. They were even more thrilled when—once the time for the last round of episodes came around-- Ishmael revealed that the final two installments were actually world premieres, a two-part follow-up to an earlier Adventure Time story arch (in the interest of not spreading spoilers, I’ll say no more about the content of these ep’s, other than to say that fans have much to look forward to).

As a relative Adventure Time n00b, I was blown away by how much I enjoyed this series: cartoons aren’t normally my thing, but the Ward has really created something singular here, something that’s at once joyous, subversive, wildly imaginative, colorful, energetic, easily-appreciated by all ages, and—most importantly-- authentic. Yes, yes, “authentic” isn’t normally word we associate with cartoons, but the writing in Adventure Time perfectly captures the sort of stream-of-consciousness/go-for-broke imaginings of two kids playing together in a backyard, and is surely the reason that so many adult fans say that the series “makes them feel like a kid again”. There were moments during the marathon where I genuinely felt moved by what was happening onscreen, moments where I was startled into laughter by the show’s borderline-aggressive weirdness, moments where I applauded right along with the audience. In short, I walked out of that marathon firmly on the Adventure Time bandwagon.

And after all that, I had the chance to sit down and talk with Pen Ward and Tom Kenny (Mr. Show alum and the voice of Adventure Time’s Ice King). Here’s how our interview went:

Pen and Tom! How are you doing today!

Tom Kenny: How are you doing?!

Great! Would you guys mind identifying yourselves for the tape, just so I know the difference…not that you don’t have two distinct voices, though…

TK: The more hyperactive, nasal tone is Tom Kenny.

Was this the first time you guys had been to the Alamo Drafthouse, or to a Mondo event?

TK: I’m definitely familiar with Austin, as I have friends here and stuff…but that was my first Alamo Drafthouse experience. It was incredible.

I’m curious how this came together. I know Mondo did some Adventure Time prints awhile back, Pen, but how did this particular event—the gallery show and the marathon—come together?

Pendelton Ward: Well (laughs), I wasn’t really involved at all! It was really the work of Mondo and Cartoon Network. Mondo called ‘em, they set it up. That’s about all I know. That, and it was an amazing time. I had no idea how cool this would be…

TK: Or not cool. I mean, you never know how these kinds of things will turn out. You always hope they’ll be full of enthusiastic people and a fun, communal experience…but you never really know how it’s going to go. A lot of things can go wrong, y’know?

Have you had something like that happen before? Someone’s supposed to be organizing an event that you’re attending and it turns out to be….y’know, boring? Lame?

TK: Well, speaking for myself, these things are delicate. Sometimes they’re just not what you’d have hoped for, or there’s something specifically wrong with the venue that nobody thought about. We were talking last night and we were saying, y’know, those people from Mondo and the Alamo know how to do it. This had a real fan-based vibe to it, something the fans would really love. (Mondo told us) “We’re gonna eat a bunch of food that’s inspired by the show!” And, sure enough, we watch a bunch of episodes of the show on a big screen and there’s people dressed up as the characters and the Drafthouse chef, John (Bullington), as obviously so into it. I guess he’s been up for, like, 72 hours getting everything ready? He’s got kids that are really into the show, and you could tell he was a fan, too.

Yeah! I was really surprised to learn that (John Bullington’s) kids are named Jake and Finn. That’s a pretty remarkable coincidence. And the menu itself was one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen at a Drafthouse event.

TK: He really approached that menu from an artistic perspective. It wasn’t just “hot dogs with a couple different colored sauces on ‘em”, it was the whole rainbow, and Rainicorn Dogs, and all the sauces matched…well, he didn’t get the whole “ROYGBIV” of the rainbow because the Indigo and Violet was too similar, but it was pretty close!

Y’know, before the show was announced, I’d heard about Adventure Time but had never watched it at length. I’d seen a few episodes before Saturday night, but it wasn’t what I expected it to be. I was expecting something a little more—I dunno— Adult Swim, but was pleasantly surprised to find it to be more childlike, and just a joyous, gentle, imaginative…really authentic kinda thing. It made a fan of me, real quick. How would you personally describe the show to someone that’s never seen it, Pen?

PW: Well, first of all, thanks so much for all those nice things you just said about it! And as for the question, uh, I dunno. It’s hard to describe, but to me it’s really just about a boy and his dog and they live in this post-apocalyptic world of magic and dungeons and monsters. I know a lot of adults have come up to me and said that it makes them feel like a kid again, and that’s really cool.

TK: When I hear Pen describe it like that, it makes sense, but for me…y’know, I’ve got kids that are super into the show, and for me my favorite part of the show is the back-and-forth and the repartee between Jake and Finn. It’s very well-written, which is a hard thing to do. It’s very real, like you’re eavesdropping on two people, or two kids. The setting and stuff is kind of…it doesn’t matter, because the relationship would work in whatever world you put them in. I think it’s really sweet and universal and well-made.

It really does feel like an overheard conversation, maybe two kids playing in a backyard…

TK: Yeah! As a voice actor, I’m always impressed by the performances of Jeremy and Jonathan (Jake and Finn), who make it seem so offhanded. It’s hard to do a read on these kinds of things that doesn’t sound “read”-y. Y’know, this was probably the most episodes I’d ever watched in a row, and that (the writing) really jumped out to me this time.

The writing really is a cut-above. I’m not usually drawn to cartoons, generally because the writing just isn’t that great. With this, though, it’s really what makes the show. One thing I’m kind of curious about is that—even though it’s known that the Land of Ooo is a somewhat “post-apocalyptic” setting—you’ve said that the show will never directly address this. I’m wondering why: why make that the setting if you’re not wanting to address it with any more specificity?

PW: Well, I wasn’t planning on it being a post-apocalyptic world. But then we were writing episodes where they were unearthing, like, old, frozen businessmen from the 90’s who were frozen in an iceberg, and it just kinda came out that way. It just came out…well, probably because I love post-apocalyptic movies, y’know? I didn’t expect it to be a post-apocalyptic world, I guess, but now I’m ready to go with it (laughs).

TK: But then, I don’t think it’s ever directly referred to as a post-apocalyptic Earth, it may just be an alternate reality. The characters aren’t like, “Hey, we’re living in a post-apocalyptic world!”

PW: Right. The world they live in is, like, just a modern world to them.

One of the last things I wanted to ask you about, Pen, is the fact that you’re developing a game based on the show for the Nintendo DS, is that correct?

PW: Yes! It’s in its very early stages, developed by WayForward. I just finished writing the first, rough draft of the script for it, actually. It’s really funny.

How did the experience differ from writing the show, if at all?

PW: No, it was…y’know, the same, really. The story’s going to be about the Ice King, and how he walks into Finn and Jake’s house and steals their garbage. Jake doesn’t care—it’s garbage, and now he doesn’t have to take it out—but Finn’s annoyed because, well, it’s the principle of the thing. He can’t just be coming in their house and taking their stuff.

It sounds really early on in the development process, but are there any plans to develop for other platforms like iOS or XBOX Live?

PW: Y’know, if it’s popular, I guess it could touch…every part…of…the video game…uh, spectrum (laughs).

Awesome. Finally: any discussion of an Adventure Time movie? Any ideas or interest?

PW: We have been talking about doing a TV movie, and that’ll be coming up soon. But we’re just now talking about what we wanna do for it.

And that, my friends, was all the time I had with Tom Kenny and Pen Ward. Both were enormously friendly and generous to a fault (Ward seemed to want to draw a little Jake and Finn on every last Adventure Time poster that was thrust in front of him), and I thank them both for their time.

In summation: Adventure Time really is a series that’s absolutely worth checking out. Even if you’re not generally a “fan of cartoons”, the show’s writing is sharp, funny, always surprising, and might just leave you feeling like a kid again (and it’s not totally mandatory that you be stoned to enjoy it, unlike some other cartoons I could mention).

Many thanks go out to the folks at Fons PR for setting all this up, as well as to Justin Ishmael, Mo Shafeek, the rest of the Mondo team, Tom Kenny, and—last but certainly not least—Adventure Time creator Pen Ward, who made a whole bunch of new fans this weekend in between the show at the Mondo gallery and the Adventure Time marathon at the Alamo Drafthouse.

Stay tuned for more funny videos, news, reviews, interviews, and more from Comedy Examiner HQ in the near future, folks. We've got all manner of nonsense to keep you informed and entertained during the week, so hit the 'Subscribe' button up top to get all future Comedy Examiner articles delivered straight to your inbox, free of charge, the moment they're published ... including any of our future review-related updates. You can also head on over to THIS PAGE to follow your humble Comedy Examiner on Twitter

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