If there was an animated series that took Lord of the Rings merged with Seinfeld and mixed in some Looney Tunes, amidst the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic world, that show would be Adventure Time. Even the first time this show aired as a proof-of-concept fifteen years ago, on December 7, 2008, Adventure Time was weird. And that was the point. It wasn’t afraid to be avant-garde and different, and that unorthodox approach proved to be sensational not just for its own sake, but as a message that marching to the beat of your own drum wasn’t such a bad thing. While the greenlit series wouldn’t appear on TV until two years after the pilot first aired to a disheartening reception, Adventure Time did start a revolution, even if this unconventional idea needed some time to figure itself out.
But once it found its way and knew what it wanted to be, nothing could stop it. Here’s, briefly, why Adventure Time was such a big deal a decade and a half ago, and why it’s still great for your kids today.
Come On and Grab Your Friend
When Ward pitched Adventure Time to networks, he knew it was a risky venture for anyone to greenlight it. “The show didn’t have a hook,” he told Fast Company in 2012. “It was just two friends that got along perfectly fine and they live in a fantasy world together. It didn’t really have anything that you would want to invest millions of dollars into.”
Ward’s inspiration for the show stemmed from his childhood, with many of these passions and interests sticking with the animator into his adulthood. The concept was filled with nods to Pendleton’s Dungeons & Dragons campaigns and combined this fantasy landscape with the feel of some of his favorite cartoons, including Ren & Stimpy and The Simpsons.
When the seven-minute short first debuted on Nickelodeon on December 7, 2008, it was what we’d now think of as typical Adventure Time fare — complete with childish insults and bizarre phrases, but with a few differences from the final product. Jake the shapeshifting dog and Pen (not yet Finn) the twelve-year-old human (along with their signature wiggly limbs) randomly danced, encountered random characters, and stumbled into rescuing Princess Bubblegum from The Ice King (originally voiced by John Kassir, best known for his role as the Cryptkeeper in HBO’s Tales from the Crypt). A brawl ensues, and with the help of an astral projection of Abraham Lincoln on Mars, Pen gets the courage to believe in himself and save the day, earning a smooch from the Princess as gratitude for his bravery.
Whether they were confused by the content or unimpressed by the reception, Nickelodeon passed on the show multiple times, even after the pilot was uploaded online and became a viral sensation. Enter Cartoon Network, willing to give this oddity a chance, but only if the showrunners could prove this was more than a passing immature fad the way most viral content on the internet was from that era. Now with a growing team, Ward crafted storyboards of a spaghetti dinner date gone wrong between Finn and Princess Bubblegum, but Cartoon Network was even less interested. In a move that shocked Ward, the network actually wanted more of the inane humor from the pilot with less romance and plot.
Going back to the drawing board, the team created a new set of boards for an episode titled “The Enchiridion,” returning the focus to outlandish fantasy-based wackiness. Pleased with the way everything came together, Cartoon Network was on board for a series premiere in September 2008.
Apocalypse - What, Now?
The land of Ooo was now beginning to grow, but it was missing a major part of its story that hadn’t been shown in the pilot, simply because nobody thought of it yet.
Adventure Time’s setting wasn’t just D&D, it was also a post-apocalyptic world influenced by Waterworld and Mad Max. None of that was shown or mentioned in the pilot because it wasn’t the original concept, and didn’t become a part of the overarching storyline until the eighth episode of the series.
The first season episode “Business Time” has Jake and Finn discover an iceberg with four frozen businessmen/ zombies in it, who thaw and do business things to help “improve” the lives of our heroes. Things go awry, and these suits end up back on the ice after getting the pink slip. It was one of the first subversive episodes in the series and introduced this anachronistic element of something bigger happening in the world of Adventure Time.
As the series continued, viewers learned the deeper lore of the land and what created this unusual place filled with talking pieces of candy, vampires, lumpy space princesses, and the other peculiar inhabitants of Ooo.
Is Adventure Time okay for kids to watch now?
One of the biggest questions that remain today for existing fans and new viewers is who was Adventure Time made for? The answer is: EVERYONE.
“We don’t sit down and try to tailor jokes for kids or for adults,” Ward explained. “We just write stuff that we think is funny and hope everyone else thinks it’s funny.”
The best way to describe an episode of Adventure Time is to say it’s like kids playing together, and saying “and then this happens” and everyone goes along with it. Then another child says “But now this happens next” and the playing continues with no argument. For children, this freeform improv is just how their imaginations work, with no explanation or logic to create any coherent plot. It’s why Minecraft makes sense.
If there’s one thing this cartoon stayed true to, it is its own inherent weirdness. Inanity in kids shows isn’t a farfetched concept, but Adventure Time elevated it to new heights. What other cartoon had an Ancient Psychic elephant, a bipedal talking heart voiced by George Takei, or a morphing yellow dog who knew the best recipe for bacon pancakes? If these aren’t doodles found on parents' refrigerators, then tell me what is?
“Our show walks a line,” Ward explained in an interview with The Arcade. “There’s no rhyme or reason for it. It's fun to be able to watch it when you're little, and when you're grown up and you can still enjoy it in different ways.”
What makes Adventure Time so great over a decade later is its accessibility, not just as a cartoon show but as an inspiration. It tells viewers you don’t need to be the best artist or write the most intricate plot, and most importantly it’s okay to tell whatever story is living rent-free in your head that yearns to be told. A place exists for every idea, and there’s no reason not to share them. What might seem atypical to one person is normal for someone else, and that ode to weirdness is what the heart of Adventure Time really is.