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Interview with ‘Adventure Time’ Head Writer Kent Osborne

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As the Head Writer of Adventure Time, and with credits on shows such as Spongebob Squarepants, The Amazing World of Gumball and Steven Universe, it’s fair to say that Kent Osborne is a pretty cool guy. Okay, he’s more than pretty cool – he’s THE guy to know in the world of hit cartoons, and Skwigly headed to London Comic Con last weekend to meet the man himself.
Read on as we chat all about writing for animation, the finale of Adventure Time, and the origins of Ned Flanders…

So Kent, you’ve worked on so many great shows as a writer, storyboard artist, voice director (and more!) but how did you initially get into animation?

I was trying be an actor, and I started writing so I could write stuff I could act in. I wrote a movie that my brother and I made – he directed it and I wrote it and acted in it – and the creator of Spongebob Squarepants came to see a screening, and then brought me in to interview for Spongebob because they needed a writer. So I kinda lucked into it! My brother’s an animator, and had gone to CalArts in California, so when I first moved out there a lot of his friends were fellow students that went on to work at Pixar and Dreamworks and Cartoon Network, so yeah, I was very lucky that I knew all these people before they became successful.

It’s a good crowd!

Yeah! So that’s how I got in at Spongebob, and was writing episode outlines. Then a storyboarder left and they asked me to fill in, which I was very nervous about doing because I can’t draw that well. But they taught me how to draw!

So was that your first art gig?

Professionally, yeah! I love comics, and I used to make my own autobiographical comics, but they were really just stick figures of me talking about being single in Los Angeles. So I was trying to learn how to draw better, which was easy to do being on a crew with a bunch of really good artists. I could just walk into the next office and ask, ‘Where does the horizon line go here?’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, let me give you eight books on perspective!’

Adventure Time is a storyboard-driven show, and as I come from a purely scriptwriting background myself, the board-driven concept seems a bit of a mysterious beast to me! Could you explain a little bit more about how the story process works?

Anyone who gets a storyboard credit is basically a writer too. Where it all starts is you write a premise which is one paragraph, and you’re saying, ‘This episode is about Finn and Jake going to the Ice Kingdom because Ice King kidnapped a princess, and they have to get her back…’


Yeah, classic story! (laughs) So then you have to flesh that out and make it into a 2 or 3 page outline, usually with a 3 act structure (first act is 3 beats, second act is 6 beats, third act is 3 beats – although there is some leeway in there). You’re basically trying to describe the story without getting into too much detail. It’d be like: Beat 1, Finn wakes up, he’s having breakfast with Jake, there’s a knock on the door; Beat 2, it’s the Ice King blah blah blah. You just wanna get that skeleton of a story down. And when that gets approved you hand it off to a storyboard team, a team of two people, and they’ll split it in half. Sometimes they’ll split it right down the middle, sometimes one will take Act 1 and 3 and the other one will take Act 2, or sometimes they leapfrog beat by beat. Some partners don’t work together at all! They sort of say, ‘See you in two weeks!’ And some partners like to pin it up and brainstorm with each other and figure stuff out. But then yeah, when you’re storyboarding, it’s your decision for things like, ‘How’s Finn sleeping? What’s the camera angle gonna be like? What are the jokes when he wakes up? Is it an alarm clock, does he wake up ‘cos BMO’s poking him in the face?’ So you get to figure out those little details and character moments and stuff. Every show I’ve worked on has been board-driven.

Ah right! I was going to ask whether you had an experience of a more script-led show in the past.

Well I did work on Phineas and Ferb at Disney, which was Disney’s first board-driven show, but they were really nervous when they started and the premises were like 11 or 12 pages! We’d just get these huge outlines, and then it’s not as fun boarding because you have to stick to everything, and all the dialogue is already in there – it was kinda like a script in an outline form. You have to have a little bit of imagination when you read an outline I think – it’s definitely more fun to have that freedom to come up with stuff.

Adventure Time (©Cartoon Network)

Adventure Time (©Cartoon Network)

What would you say are your ideal writing conditions?

Oh, definitely in a group, although sometimes it depends on the people you’re with! The best rooms I’ve been in are when everyone gets along – that’s a good deal. It’s always nice when there’s one person that’s really good with action, and there’s one person that’s really good at jokes, and there’s one person who’s really good at structure, and there’s one person who really loves throwing out ideas, and nine out of ten ideas are horrible but then the tenth one’s great! In boarding too it’s great to bounce ideas off someone, because I could suggest something which could make you think of something, which would make me think of something – so I couldn’t have got there without you. But then also I do like to write alone, because it’s more peaceful – so it’s a little bit of both.

Is there anything in particular you like to do to tap into your creative juices?

Yeah! I ride my bike to work (which is weird in LA) but the best thing about it is that it takes about an hour, and a lot of it is on this bike path that goes along the LA river, and I can sort of zone out. Sometimes I’ll be like, ‘Oh I gotta figure out this Act 2,’ and I’ll think, ‘Oh I’ll just save it for my bike ride!’ So it’s pretty good because you can let your mind wander, and then you’ve gotta pull over and write it down. There’s an episode of Mad Men when Peggy is having a hard time coming up with something, and Don Draper says something like, ‘Think about it deeply, and then forget it, and the answer will come to you,’ which I thought was a good idea! So if I get stuck on something I’ll just think, ‘Right, forget it,’ and I’ll go bowling or something. And then when you least expect it, something will trigger an idea and you’re like, ‘Oh wow that’s it!’

I’ll remember that one for myself! So back to Adventure Time – how would you say you and the team find a balance between the comedy and the sincerity of the show? There’s often a deepness behind the funny stuff.

Hm. Yeah I don’t know if we do it consciously! Like, we don’t have a scale! (laughs) But I think, Pen Ward, that’s just his sensibility. He’s super funny, and also he’s really deep, and he’s sweet and he loves being alive, and the crew he assembled have a similar sensibility. Sometimes if people are new, they’ll try to make every line funny, and as soon as you pitch it you think, ‘Oh this isn’t working,’ because you don’t have those moments to breathe. The first board I pitched was just characters saying, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ ‘Y’know, pretty good,’ and Pen’s like, ‘I love this dialogue!’ I was like, ‘There’s no jokes in it! But okay!’

Obviously the show is a big hit with kids and adults. Was that something you discovered along the way, or was it more of a conscious decision to tap into that universal appeal?

Oh yeah, I think it just happened organically. At Spongebob, I remember they thought, ‘Oh this is great, because kids love it and college kids love it and adult love it,’ and then after that everyone wanted to make a show like that. But I think that’s the wrong way to go about it, because then no-one’s going to like it! I have a niece and a nephew and if I try to make them laugh, they won’t laugh – they’ll just roll their eyes. But if I’m actually just being funny, they’ll laugh because they’re smart and they get it and they know why it’s funny. So I think that’s how we approach writing. We’re never trying to go, ‘Oh kids’ll love this!’ or ‘Kids love when people fall down!’ We just write stuff that we like. I think a lot of parents have to watch cartoons with their kids, and a lot of cartoons are horrible, which is like torture to parents, but then we have parents come up to us saying, ‘Thank you so much! THANK YOU, you don’t understand!’ (laughs)

So recently it was announced that Adventure Time is ending after Season 9…

It is?! Is that true??

(laughs) Sorry to break it to you!! How do you feel about it ending?

It’s weird because I’ve never been on a show this long, and I don’t think Cartoon Network has done a show with this many episodes – for the past few seasons we’ve been surprised I think every time it gets picked up. And I think a lot of us were thinking in the back of our minds, ‘When is this going to end? Am I gonna be 80 and still writing this?!’ It is sad, and everyone’s kind of grieving, but it’s hard to feel too bad about it, because first of all, they have so many episodes in the bank that it’s gonna play for another couple years, and they did give us an opportunity to spend a lot of time thinking about the finale, so we’re working on that right now. And also when we told Tom Kenny, who plays the voice of Ice King, he said, ‘Well, just this week I did voices for Powerpuff Girls, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Samurai Jack,’ which are all reboots! So this isn’t going anywhere. But yeah, it’s bittersweet.

Sophie Dutton & Kent Osborne at London MCM Comic Con

Sophie Dutton & Kent Osborne at London MCM Comic Con

Speaking of the finale… can we have a hint about what might be in store for the last two seasons?

I will say – not only as someone who works on it but as a huge fan too – I’m really excited with what we’re coming up with, and I hope it’s satisfying to anyone who’s been watching the show all along. The weird thing with animation is that you’ll write a season and it’s like a year before the season even comes out. It’s so weird to think that Season 8 hasn’t come out yet! And so much happens in Season 8…

*excited squeak*

Yeah, I could spoil a lot of stuff right now! (laughs)

Finally, what advice could you give to a writer at the beginning of their first show? Or say, if you could go back in time and give yourself some advice at the beginning of your career, what would it be?

Hmm. I wouldn’t give myself any advice because I’ve done so well! Yeah I wouldn’t wanna screw anything up – butterfly effect! I would steer clear of me! (laughs) I would say a lot of mistakes people make when they’re starting their own show is they’re overthinking it. They’re figuring out the first five seasons ahead of time, and it makes it hard to pitch because you’re pitching this crazy, huge, epic world and story with so many characters – if you’re pitching that to someone their eyes are gonna glaze over. But if you just pitch a show like, ‘This is a show about two friends, and they live in this world, and there’s another character, and then there’s a jerk,’ you can let it evolve more organically. I remember in The Simpsons, they were talking about the first season, and Ned Flanders was originally just ‘The neighbour who has everything.’ Ned Flanders wasn’t even a Christian in the first season! He was just a goody-goody that’s got better stuff. It happened organically – someone probably just pitched a joke where he was praying and they all laughed and kept building on that and it turned into who he is. I’d say take your time – take your time with it.

Thanks so much, Kent! Great to meet you, and hope you enjoyed the rest of Comic Con!

Adventure Time Season 8 is due to be released in 2017, exact dates TBA.

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