“Phineas and Ferb” versus “SpongeBob Squarepants”

“Phineas and Ferb” versus “SpongeBob Squarepants” October 8, 2012

“Aren’t you a little young to save the universe?”

“Yes. Yes I am.”

Phineas Flynn gets questioned about his age a lot, which is to be expected when you are a three-foot wunderkind with a triangle head and expertise at building, with your silent half-brother, time-travel machines and antigravity devices.

Phineas and Ferb, a Disney Channel cartoon entering its fourth season, may be the smartest thing on television.

Stuck in perpetual summer, the show’s eponymous stars devise elaborate machines to entertain themselves and their friends, or to solve problems, like a shortage of the exotic berries their mother uses to bake pies. Their entertainment takes the form of city-spanning rollercoasters and floating trampolines, while their solution to the berry shortage includes a trebuchet and a device for contracting physical space.

There’s no question this is the most intelligent kids’ show around. While Phineas and Ferb are solving a seemingly intractable rotational physics problem, three channels away Spongebob Squarepants is trying to figure out how to keep his pants from ripping.

Phineas and Ferb is arguably the smartest adult show as well, if not the cleverest. Cleverest may be England’s Sherlock, what with the detective’s implacable ability to deduce facts from scratches on a cell phone, or a thin streak of mud on a victim’s stocking.

Sherlock is clever, just as Downton Abbey is gorgeous and plot-driven, but for sheer intellectual depth, the smart money is on Phineas and Ferb. This program has heft because its creators, Jeff Marsh and Dan Povenmire—who pitched it for sixteen years before finding a buyer—steep it in external referents.

Progressive scholar turned education reformer E.D. Hirsch notes that it’s no small thing, the fact that today we teach a child that “A is for apple,” whereas earlier generations of students learned “A is for Adam.” The modern child sees, next to the simpler mnemonic, an insanely red apple pierced by a friendly, anthropomorphized worm. The child a century ago saw this bracing couplet:

In Adam’s fall
We sinned all.

The precipitous decline of reading comprehension in the 1970’s, Hirsch claims, coincides with education innovations that denuded classrooms of cultural knowledge.

Exchanging the theological allusion for a worm with rosy cheeks is one reason modern students don’t know what it means when they read: “I wouldn’t know him from Adam,” or, “This park is like the garden before The Fall.”

Not only does this yield dumber people, it fosters dumber art. Writes Hirsch, “If I as a writer cannot predict what my unseen audience already knows, then I cannot know how to communicate with it.”

Any comedian will explain that you can communicate with an ignorant audience; you just have to talk about things they know.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” may make no sense whatsoever to average Americans. Some boy’s obsession with a sled named Rosebud may befuddle audiences. And, they may have no patience with the jazz drummer who never cuts loose on the bass.

They will always be able to understand, however, farts and boobs. Or reality TV—marginally pretty people thrown together like cats in a sack, sniping about stolen toothpaste, or blouses borrowed without permission, or girlfriends who sleep around.

The artist’s alternative, in a community whose shared culture dwindles, is to craft worlds from whole cloth. Hence the success of Twilight and Harry Potter—nobody knows Shakespeare or the Bible anymore, but those of us still inclined to read can, rather than catching up on 500 years of Western civilization, simply internalize some rules about vampire mating, and how wizards get promoted to ninth grade.

If you stipulate that all art must either exploit physiological basics or invent alternate realities, you can predict the bulk of pop culture, whether it’s greasy thugs in a Jersey beach house, or a talking yellow rectangle who lives in a pineapple under the ocean.

Lost traditions push art toward primitivism and fantasy, but Phineas and Ferb proves that people are still drawn to something richer.

Most viewers probably won’t get the allusion, in the episode entitled “The Doonkelberry Imperative,” to the Big Enders versus Little Enders feud in Gulliver’s Travels, but they can still recognize how communities draw angry lines over small differences.

One needn’t have read Gulliver’s Travels to know that, of course, but the advantage, for the artist, of acquaintance with artistic tradition is that she can draw on hundreds of years of wisdom. She can tap into truths that resonate more deeply than whatever goody-goodness passes for moral education in the modern non-canon.

Phineas and Ferb proves that people will respond to that. Depending on what numbers you use, it’s already trouncing Spongebob Squarepants, not to mention more execrable Nickelodeon fare like Hey Gabba Gabba (imagine Satan as a fallen Muppet turned children’s show producer, and you’ll get an idea of the horror).

This is probably asking too much of a program targeted at six to eleven year olds, but maybe it can help rebuild a cultural foundation. Maybe when children get around to reading Moby Dick, they’ll fondly recall the cry of Phineas and Ferb’s meddlesome sister Candace in an episode: “From Danville Harbor I stab at thee!”

On the other hand, maybe just as the comical villain of the show, Dr. Doofenshmirtz, exclaims when no one laughs at his jokes, it’s casting pearls before swine. Watch an episode and decide for yourself.

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  • Great piece!

  • Samuel PG

    I am in complete agreement with you on Phineas and Ferb. As an adult, who does not yet have children, I still sometimes watch this cartoon and worry that it will not be on when I have kids. It had better go straight to DVD.

  • Tony,

    Don’t knock farts and boobs. The former stimulates laughter. The latter nurtured you when you were a helpless infant. 😉

    I love “Phineas and Ferb.” I just discovered it recently through a friend, and I have been trying to convince my wife of its brilliance. I will be forwarding this essay to her today so she can be thoroughly convinced.

    – CTJ

  • Chad,
    Fartknocker. Nice allusion to “Beavis and Butthead.” Good luck proselytizing for Phineas and Ferb. I’m not entirely sure, if I had the power to abolish grade school in favor of having students watch it instead, that I could resist.

  • Gray

    Thanks for explaining why it’s one of the few shows, out side of 1960s era westerns, that I can watch with my 5 year old.

  • Jay

    I often find myself going into my DVR and watching episodes of the show whether my kids are in the room or not. I’m glad that after 16 years they finally got the show out there or we the people would have been robbed and never known it.

  • I love this show. That was a great way of explaining it. It’s nice to see a show that doesn’t have to be crude to be funny. I DVR almost all of the episodes. I feel that I don’t have to be worried about censoring it for kids when watching it. It’s just honest, funny, and smart. Another thing that I like is that none of the characters are overtly cynical. They’re just honest and funny.

  • Tony

    Thank you for making me and my sons feel intellectual about our passion for P&F!

  • Meredith

    I’ll have to check out this show, but I’m puzzled by the crack at Harry Potter, which contained plenty of references to classical and medieval myth, not to mention the Bible. Even the easy-to-mock Twilight referenced Romeo and Juliet.

  • Celia

    My kids love Spongebob wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy better than that ignorant show P&F.

  • Lani

    It’s called Yo Gabba Gabba, and why would you like it? It’s a show directed at toddlers. The four and under set. One would think you were disparaging all things not of the bible or Shakespeare or other pieces of “classic” literature if one only read from “Progressive scholar…” on. Your wording and your casual trashing of modern literature makes you sound like an elitist snob-an art-world hipster, if you will.

  • Meredith, my point re Harry Potter is simply that modern cultural ignorance mitigates in favor of constructing worlds from whole cloth, because otherwise the writer can’t assume her readers know anything she might reference. With that said, comparing Harry Potter to things written a generation or two ago, for the same age group (Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers,” for example, or Edith Nesbit’s wonderful children’s books) reveals just how culturally dumb (grammar and syntax simplification aside) we’ve become.

  • Celia,
    That doesn’t surprise me at all.

    I suspect that what I wrote does indeed sound like snobbishness to anyone who can’t discern that “Yo Gabba Gabba” is profoundly stupid for any age group.

  • J I

    Phineas & Ferb is one of the few kids shows out there that I can put on and actually watch with my kids during those less spectacular parenting moments where I have no energy to do something more constructive with our time. I look forward to catching a new episode as much…you know what, more than they do. 🙂

    Not as literary but probably as stimulating given its self-imposed Buster Keaton-esque limitations is “Shaun the Sheep”, from the guys over at Aardman. It dispenses with all the bright color and silly noises and really does wonders with simple narrative. (Readily available on Netflix).

  • Katherine

    “Existentialist Trading cards. Cards come with the gum.”

  • My oldest is 5 and I still pretty much screen everything he watches, and up until this point always thought P&F was “too old for him.” I’ve never actually seen an episode but from the style I thought it was similar to the yellow guy with shorts. Now, after reading this, I think it may become part of our regular rotation, along with Shaun the Sheep (yes!) and Dinosaur Train on PBS. (I also have a 3 yr old who I think should get some TV time with Mommy, too…).

    But I also disagree with your assessment of HP. Rowling is a fan of Nesbit and was trying to write something with a similar feel. It’s not in the same class, of course, but I think it has the same intent. And the classical allusions in HP are on a similar level with Narnia, but with a bit more symbolism thrown in (dig deep — it’s there. Alchemy.) Lewis was a classicist, too. He just had a bit better British vocabulary than JK. But I digress.

    Thanks for the tip!

  • EGG

    SpongeBob is better because even though the post-movie episodes are shoddy, SpongeBob’s earlier episodes were brilliant and had a greater adult appeal and for Phineas and Ferb it tries to be funny and it’s just a family friendly version of Family Guy if you look at it, Because of the unfunny gags, jokes, and unlikable characters and god, the character designs are godawful as hell and the only reason it’s got a success is because Disney Channel managed to get a shit load of views off the show and aswell as countless shirts based off the Perry the Platypus character.

  • Brandon Roberts

    look i honestly like phineas and ferb and spongebob and they are cartoons just enjoy