How Adventure Time Tells A Story – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Adventure Time!
Written by: Leo Cookman
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Edited by: Travis Martin
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Alex Futtersak
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
How Adventure Time Tells A Story – Wisecrack Edition
Hey, Wisecrack. Jared, again, and today we’re looking at the candy-flavored fever dream that is Adventure Time. With Finn and Jake now in their final season of adventures, we wanted to look at what makes the show so special. And while there are lots of reasons people love Adventure Time, I’m going to argue it has a lot to do with a storytelling style as old as written storytelling itself and an epic too epic for most to finish: “The Iliad.” So, let’s see ‘How Adventure Time Tells a Story’. And as always, spoilers ahead. Of course, some of the similarities to the classics of old and Adventure Time come down to the adventuring part. The classics have monsters, dramatic rescues, long journeys to distant kingdoms, and a beautiful princess that sends soldiers to battle. “The Iliad” is also sometimes referred to as the “Song of Ilium” and it is written in verse, giving it strong links to music. Likewise, Adventure Time features plenty of music and songs throughout its seasons — “Bacon pancakes! Makin’ bacon pancakes! Take some bacon, and I’ll put it in a pancake!” — and characters even occasionally speak in rhyme. “I’ve got something for you – a metal shoe! Don’t you know you might stub your toe?”
“The Iliad” and Adventure Time also both start with a musical call to hear their story: “Adventure Time, come on grab your friends. We’ll go to very distant lands!” But what really connects Adventure Time with epics like “The Iliad,” “The Odyssey,” or “The Aeneid,” is a surprising one: the structure of poetry. Rebecca Sugar, former Adventure Time writer, once said of show creator Pendleton Ward: “He’s expressing thoughts about very modern feelings that people have… Good poetry is like that.” Many of the things Adventure time is known for have origins in poetry: its mix of modern and classical language, — “Awake! Avast! Hold tight your buns, if buns you do hold dear!” — its music, its use of colorful and evocative imagery, the invention of new words, objects and creatures, — “Oh my glob, you guys! Drama bomb!” — and just how plain surreal it all is. But one of the most telling ways it relates to poetry, is in its length.
Adventure Time’s episodes only last roughly ten minutes, half your average TV show, which means each episode relies on compression. When you hear any story it has been compressed – it jettisons the boring details for the exciting stuff. Classical poetry, and a lot of modern poetry too, has some pretty firm rules on how this compression is achieved. “The Iliad,” for instance, compresses each line in a form of poetic rhythm, or ‘meter’, called ‘dactylic hexameter’ which is a fancy way of saying each line must be exactly eighteen syllables. Almost all poetry, even if it doesn’t use meter, is a mode of compression. And sure, movies compress stories to a few hours, TV compresses them to under an hour, but Adventure Time is even more hardcore, compressing a whole story into 10 minutes. This type of ‘stripping down’ requires the essential elements to be focused on in imaginative ways. In the episode “Puhoy,” Finn lives an entire lifetime in a pillow dimension where he gets married, has kids and grows old. All in 10 minutes.
This economy of exposition shows how compression feeds creativity and helps focus the story. And unlike other stories that get compressed in infuriating ways – Game of Thrones season 7! – Adventure Time uses this compression to be more outlandish. The first shot of “Puhoy” features raining knives outside, which shows us why the characters are stuck indoors within the first second, without having to tell us. But aside from just “both poems and Adventure Time are short,” we can also draw similarities between how they use these narrative snippets to tell a larger story. Traditionally in an epic poem like “The Iliad,” the text is broken up into paragraphs, called ‘stanzas’. Stanzas compose larger chapters ,called ‘Cantos’, from the Italian word for “song”. You could see a season of a TV show as a Canto and an episode as a stanza.
The Stanza focuses on the individual and their feelings, a short vignette or scene that gives an insight into someone’s character, even if it lasts a lifetime, like in the ‘Puhoy’ episode. A Canto, on the other hand, is the accumulation of these scenes that tell the story of several characters or a whole world. In “Dante’s Inferno” – another epic poem – the stanza will be a short interaction or description but the Canto will be the story of a whole circle of Hell. Just like “The Iliad” and other epics, Adventure Time tells its stories on a micro and macro level. Not only are there the contained narratives of each episode, but an overall narrative that reflects the history of the Land of Ooo. Through dialogue, geography, and even just certain names we discover the different types of government and rulers Ooo has, — “King of Ooo!” — that the main deity is a Cosmic Owl, and, especially from the episode ‘Simon & Marcy’, it is hinted that Ooo was formed after a nuclear apocalypse.
One of the most interesting ways in which Adventure Time can be compared to poetry is with something called Bathos. Bathos is a sort of anti-climax, a sudden shift in tone or a thoroughly mediocre end to suspenseful moment. There are some great examples of this in the classics, like the defeat of Achilles, an invincible warrior brought down by the lamest of weaknesses… his heel. And in “Paradise Lost,” We learn that divine angels defecate not through their poop chutes but by a kind of mist from their skin. That is Bathos. Something built up then brought crashing down to earth. Adventure Time is full of this. Just when something gets too dangerous, — “Help me… hang these streamers!” — or scary, — “I have come for you, Finn.” — or romantic — “Kiss me, Finn. I mean… kiss me, Finn!” — it is either interrupted or undercut by another character undermining it or shrugging it off. “Jake, hurry!” “Is he crushing you, man?” “No, he’s just… hugging me gently!” While Adventure Time is not the only show to use bathos for the sake of humor, — “Ooh, child. Things are gonna get easier. Ooh, child, things will get brighter.” “What are you doing?” — it certainly helps make some of the more creepy moments palatable to a younger audience. Bathos is also often integral to the story-telling and the moral message of the show. Characters, usually villains, are introduced and dispensed with in an episode, and even long-standing ones like the Ice King, develop using Bathos. “I was gonna start up on the elliptical again, but I got depressed, okay?” One of the key lessons you learn from Adventure Time is ‘prejudice is bad,’ or the more cliched ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. This is accomplished by setting up a villain as evil and then finding out they are simply misunderstood — “This is rad! I’m hot again! Thanks, little dudes.” — or a good guy who was a villain all along.
This type of Bathetic technique is used frequently in poetry both from antiquity and today but is also a lynchpin for character arcs in Adventure Time and an integral part of how it tells its stories. Although some see Adventure Time as prime TV for stoners, — “I am the dream warrior. I’ve summoned you here to hang with me in your together dream.” “Are you gonna show us a move to beat The Farm?” there is a fierce fandom out there who have invested a lot of time interpreting the show’s rather vague narrative. The same can also be said of poetry, which can often seem intentionally cryptic. And even though poetry isn’t as cool as whoever this Jake Paul dude is, Adventure Time is a prime example of how millennia old poetic techniques are still being used to tell funny, sensitive and down-right weird stories; and to extraordinary effect. Thanks for watching guys. Peace.