Every day after school, Penn Zero gets zapped into a different dimension. His mission? Save the world. The premise of this new Disney XD show sounds fantastical, but it’s actually based on the real childhoods of creators and executive producers Sam Levine and Jared Bush.
“When I was a kid, I’d always heard that my dad worked for the government,” Jared told us during a recent tour of the Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero production offices. When he was in his early teens, Jared’s parents revealed the truth: his dad was actually a member of the CIA. “He’s the most suburban dad imaginable, so none of this computed whatsoever,” Jared recalled.
Years later, that revelation inspired the idea for Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero. In the show, Penn (voiced by Thomas Middleditch) finds out that his parents are part-time heroes and suddenly finds himself needing to fill their shoes, with the help of underqualified wiseman, Boone (Adam DeVine) and overqualified sidekick, Sashi (Tania Gunadi). As Jared explains, the idea of “this secret family destiny really resonated with me, and the story of Penn and where he comes from is based on that.”
For Sam Levine, a childhood spent in movie theaters where his father worked as a projectionist inspired the mechanics of how Penn and friends would be zapped into different dimensions via a film projector. “For me, these old theaters that my dad worked at were sort of a portal for me to go to different universes. Using a theater as a literal portal to zap these kids into different worlds felt right.”
The marriage of these two ideas started when Sam and Jared first met over lunch to discuss the possibility of a new animated series. Jared describes how their creative partnership fell into place right out of the gate: “We hit it off. We were both on the exact same page with what the show could be and the potential of it. Sam doodled a bunch of what Penn could look like and what worlds he could go to, and it was so dead on exactly what the tone in my head had always kind of been.”
That vision has evolved from doodles to what Sam now calls a “full animation style.” The show’s innovative design combines complex graphic textures to create a unique animation aesthetic, inspired partly by classic Disney animation such as the designs found in The Jungle Book and 101 Dalmatians.
That aesthetic gets plenty of room to shine due to the show’s format. Penn and friends get zapped into a brand new universe in every episode, spanning anything from an underwater world to the Old West, and the characters transform with the landscape. This means that each episode requires a unique design. It’s an undertaking that requires the hard work of a team of over 100 people, and nine months for each episode’s completion from start to finish.
Sam and Jared see that ongoing challenge as necessary to create the show they envisioned. Sam told us, “We all loved the idea of these different genres and going to different worlds, and we both love character-driven comedy. So we put character first, and send them into different worlds, and find worlds that can be kind of a wish-fulfillment place to go, where you can just be anything and be anybody and do anything, but also you know you can learn something with the characters every time.”
Jared added, “We always liked the idea of every week, Penn is zapping basically into the third act of a movie. What’s the coolest part of a movie? That’s the part when those guys get in there, because that’s the part you want to watch. Seeing our guys get to go into the coolest part of all those adventures felt really right to us.”
Both Sam and Jared are fathers, which gives them the added advantage of getting feedback from their kids. Jared explained, “If they’re engaged and smiling, you know it’s good, and if they’re laughing, even better. It’s super fun to see how they relate. We’re trying to entertain ourselves, because it’s one and the same—if we’re going to laugh at this show, we’re going to enjoy it, we’re going to think it’s cool, we’ll get in touch with the kids inside ourselves.”
Penn Zero, Part Time Hero premieres Friday, February 13 on Disney Channel and Disney XD at 9:45pm ET/PT.