Certain of my friends, and here I am thinking of you, Mike, have a tendency to ridicule me for seeking out movies, books, TV shows and comics that provide quality entertainment for children. In some cases, this is because the person delivering the ridicule has an empty black pit of despair where his soul should be. In most cases, though, I think the problem is that a lot of adults don’t really know what goes in to making really good entertainment for kids — and that goes for a lot of the adults responsible for making them as well.
When we’re kids, we aren’t nearly as discriminating when it comes to our entertainment. We light bright colors and cool sound effects and things blowing up. Come to think of it, we like those things as adults as well. But as we get older, we realize that really good entertainment requires more than that. The things that make up good storytelling are universal — strong characters, clever jokes, inventive plotlines and the like are not dependent on the age of the audience. There’s a lot of kids’ shows that are utter crap. I’ve gone back and watched shows that I loved as a kid and I felt the urge to apologize to my parents for making them sit through them (and here I am specifically thinking of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which I always knew was basically a half-hour toy commercial, but I didn’t understand at the time was such a terrible half-hour toy commercial).
The way to tell a great story for kids is actually pretty simple. Just start out by telling a great story, and then leave out the things that you wouldn’t necessarily want to expose a child to. That’s all there is to it. You don’t speak down to the kids and you don’t leave out the adults.
Not long ago my brother told me I should try watching a Disney Channel show called Phineas and Ferb. I’m sure many of you out there are familiar with it, but until a couple of days ago, I had never seen an episode. Then, remembering his recommendation, I sought out the first season on NetFlix. Since then, I’ve been watching a few episodes every night before I go to bed, and laughing myself to sleep. It’s not just a great show for kids. It’s just a great show.
If you haven’t watched it, here’s the premise: Phineas and Ferb are stepbrothers on summer vacation. And since the days of summer are so precious, they vow to fill every single one with different kind of adventures: building the world’s tallest roller coaster, making a ski resort in their backyard, going on a quest to find a mummy, starting a rock band and becoming one-hit wonders, and so forth. Their older sister, Candace, is constantly trying to show their mother evidence of their misadventures, only to have it wiped out at the last minute, leaving her frustrated and forlorn. Oh — also, their pet platypus, Perry, is a secret agent who has to constantly thwart the schemes of the (kind of) evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz. It’s absolutely absurd. And also, incredibly funny.
The show, created by two writers who used too work on such diverse shows as Rocko’s Modern Life and, on the other side of the spectrum, Family Guy, is remarkably self-aware. Much of the humor comes from the characters pointing out the absurdity of their situation every step of the way. (A running gag involves some adult asking Phineas if he isn’t too young to be involved in whatever the project of the day is — roller coaster construction, for example — to which he simply replies, “Yes, yes I am,” and then goes on and does it anyway. Dr. Doof seems fully aware of how outlandish his schemes are (giant laser pointers, flooding the ocean to turn his own land into oceanfront property, etc.), but he’s compelled to go through with them anyway. In fact, not only is he compelled to execute the scheme, but he’s unable to do so unless Perry the Platypus shows up (wearing his fedora) to attempt to thwart it. The show trends very closely to breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging its existence as a TV show, with the characters pretty much going along with their insane existence just because they know there couldn’t be a show if they didn’t. That awareness takes what would have been an okay kids’ show and makes it into something that teenagers and grownups can enjoy on an entirely different level than the young’ns.
And they do it not by writing down, but simply by avoiding things like foul language, overt sexuality, and realistic violence. It works on the same level that such brilliant works as Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and, of course, the grandfather of them all, Looney Toons worked: it has something for every age group. I’m not saying that this show is quite on level with them, mind you. But I’ve also only seen about ten episodes so far, and the show is on its third season. People who’ve been playing along this whole time may well have found it to be that good. (If so, let me know.)
This is what makes for really great kids’ entertainment — don’t exclude anybody. That’s really all there is to it. Too many adults think that you have to dumb down the writing (at one point, reportedly, the network was even afraid the show was “too smart” to air) or kids won’t get it. Phineas and Ferb proves you don’t.