Explorations of Intelligence in Phineas and Ferb

Surprise!!! Can you guess who we casually, serendipitously and totally randomly ran into at brunch in Pasadena this weekend?

img_2540No, not Phineas and Ferb. But freakishly close – who could it be but their co-creator, Dan Povenmire?!?!?!?! My sister instantly recognized him when he got in line next to us at the omelette bar, but we didn’t know what to do! Say hi? Leave him alone? Was it really even him, the brain and voice behind one of our absolute favorite tv shows??

Stalker picture extraordinaire.

Finally we decided that if he got up for seconds, one of us would follow him and ask. Eventually, after moments of stalking, we saw him slowly inch back his chair. My brother LEAPT up to follow him and say hi…they talked for a bit…confirmed! It really was Dan! Not only was he incredibly nice, BUT, he immediately went back to his table and freehand drew us each a picture! He even drew one for me of the character named Vanessa, and talked right then in his Dr. Doofenshmirtz voice (!!!).

“Whatever, Dad…”

What a truly an incredible experience. It won’t surprise you that basing the show on family, creativity, music, smart humor and incredible puns would make it one of my favorites, and I don’t even know how many times we’ve been watching and just looked at each other in happy amazement at how genius it is. But to coincidentally meet a person who’s inspired you in real life? And that it was such a fun experience?? Yay! Nothing boosts your faith in humanity like meeting someone you admire and finding out they are actually super nice.

In honor of meeting this incredible dude this Sunday, I decided to do a little post about portrayals of intelligence on his show. I started thinking about it because surprisingly, I think Buford is my favorite character to watch. Honestly, the writers blew me away with his complexity and development throughout the series. They could’ve easily made him a one-dimensional bully character, as seen on so many other shows… “I eat food and punch people as an outlet for unresolved emotions”…but they really didn’t. Throughout the series, he is easily on par with Phineas and Ferb for asking philosophical questions and looking into the meanings behind what they’re doing. He unexpectedly speaks a romance language. He weeps at sights of beauty. Who is this guy??

img_2534In most shows, “intelligence” is an optional quality used by the writers to completely define a character. It has become a one-dimensional archetype, like “sporty” or “vain.” Another Disney Channel show, Jessie, is a great example – there is the “smart” brother and the “dumb” brother, and same for the two sisters. And it’s not just a writing device of kid’s tv…many adult shows, from Sherlock to Psych to 30 Rock, seem to hinge on one character’s brilliance, or lack thereof, and foil it with the opposite trait in everyone around them.

At first, Phineas and Ferb may appear this way as well; there’s the “nerdy” Baljeet, the “bully” Buford, the “lovestruck” Isabella. But when I really started to think about it…these people are not one-dimensional at all. While I had come to expect, based on my experience with other shows, that Phineas and Ferb would be the “brilliant” ones, and their intelligence heightened in the plot by the relative dumb-ness of everyone around them, this is simply not true.

Take Buford. Yes, he is overwhelmingly img_2547a bully…a gross, violent little dude. But. He really thinks of it like an art. He has feelings and rational opinions about everything he does; he has real, thoughtful reasoning behind what would normally be senselessly gross and mean. Buford has this self-awareness and philosophical side that make him so much more than the “caveman” bully popular on other shows. Maybe it’s that artistic intelligence about him so interesting.


Isabella definitely shows us emotional intelligence. She is a great leader, and if I learned one thing in my time at the USC Marshall School of Business, it’s that EQ is the gosh-darn cornerstone of leadership. Frequently leading the Fireside Girls into battle for last-minute fixes, she is also not afraid to compete and frankly, kick butt. Yes, she is adorable and pink and lovestruck over Phineas. Her intelligence means she is very aware of how she feels, and good at understanding and motivating others. But unlike other shows, she doesn’t have to be just cute or just in charge…she can be real. She’s a total sweetheart. But she’s also a total boss.

The final Povenmire original.



Then there’s Phineas, Ferb, and Baljeet…the more “traditionally smart,” you could say. And yet, even there the writers give us so much variety: Phineas, the broad-sweeping visionary, Ferb, the mechanical genius, Baljeet, the facts and figures guy. Not to mention the whole introvert/extrovert contrast between the two brothers – there is not just one way to be smart! Not even the “brainier” painted characters on the show can be pinned down to the self-important, socially stunted, uni-nerd tv archetype. And that variety is a beautiful thing. Because, it forces the characters to work together….just like in REAL LIFE! Not everyone is going to be the same kind of smart. But we need each other, and we all have something important to share.

So why is Phineas and Ferb so unique in taking the varied nature of intelligence for granted? Maybe the writers of other shows feel that they don’t have the time or the audience for dimensionality and character development. It is so much easier to define people by one label and move on with their lives. “You’re the smart one, you’re the funny one, you’re the pretty one, let’s do this thing.” But isn’t it so much more true, let alone more entertaining, to treat characters like actual humans, with depth and differences and more than one part?

Question: Do you know these people? NO! No one does! Nobody like them actually exists!  (Bunk’d, Disney Channel/Bob D’Amico)

I love Phineas and Ferb because it shows more closely what thinking is like in real life. It gives us a picture of many differently but equally gifted people working in a team, making each other stronger, and no one has to be defined by a simple characteristic like “nerd” or “dumb bully.” It takes for granted the fact that everyone can be smart and funny and vulnerable and everything else most shows only let one character be. Of all the brilliant things about this show, this one I am so glad they decided to include.

Thanks Dan!

Don’t forget to check out Dan and Swampy’s new show Milo Murphy’s Law, coming this October to Disney XD!


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