Penn Zero: Become A Part-Time Hero with Sam Levine, Jared Bush, and Balls

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Yesterday, we talked about Star Vs. The Forces of Evil with the creator of the show, Daron Nefcy. Today we look at the other side of Disney XD’s new action comedy one-two punch, Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero.

Ever wondered how heroes always manage to save the day? Well sometimes they get a little help in the form of some Part-Time reinforcement. Penn Zero and his friends Boone and Sashi zap into dimensions, and into the bodies of a Hero, Wise Man, and Sidekick, respectively, to overcome the odds in heroes’ darkest days. It’s a zany concept that allows for nearly infinite possibilities – something creators Sam Levine and Jared Bush are both aware of and very happy about.

ComicBook.com chatted with them both, and tried to filter through the laughter and hijinks in order to get some new information about the show. We got some fresh intel on the secret origins of Penn and his pals (and even his parents), some more about Larry, and talked a lot, probably far too much, about Balls. Yes, Balls. Oh, and some hints about flying into the danger zone. We also have an exclusive clip from "I'm Still Super!" featuring Adam West - twice!

Of course, just as I was connected to the pair of jokesters, they were mentioning something they “can’t wait for people to see,” so I had to start with that.

Okay, Sam, Jared, what can’t you wait for people to see?

Sam Levine: Oh, yeah, the episode we’re working on!

Jared Bush: Yeah, there’s an episode coming up where Larry, our loveable minion, we’ll get to see a little bit of his homelife. I’m very excited for people to see it, his homelife, I think it’ll take people by surprise, what his living situation is.

Sam: Yeah, we don’t want to reveal it, but it’s something we came up with while we were developing the show, and it’s pretty funny – it informs him a lot. Yeah, we were just saying these episodes, most of them are like 11 minutes each, but it’s fun to inform more about our characters with each progressive episode.

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I like it. Well, you know, Penn Zero’s premise really limits you to the infinite possibilities of basically all of pop culture, all of history, and anything you can imagine – how on earth do you handle that horrible limitation? (laughs)

Sam: (laughs) We’ve painted ourselves into a corner.

Jared: (laughs) Yeah, exactly! I think early on, when we started developing, that was one of the most fun things – we really didn’t want any limits. We wanted Penn to be able to be any of these heroes and have it work organically into the show, have it built in to the premise of the show. We have this great benefit – for a lot of shows, if they want to do something really wacky, it feels like, “why are they doing that wacky thing?” For us, it’s just, “okay, that’s just what this guy’s job is today.” I think that’s really freeing and exciting.

When you started developing the show, how early on did you bring in Boone and Sashi alongside Penn, because I feel like you found a really good balance there?

Jared: Really early on, actually. As soon as it became a pitch for episodic television, we knew we wanted to have Penn have some pals to go with him. Part of it is someone to enjoy the journey with, and also some of it is comic relief that they bring. We also early on figured out that Sashi can sort of be the “adult in the room.” She’s an incredibly capable, violent character, who’s really funny, but we needed someone who could say, “Stay on mission!” We didn’t want that person to be Penn, because it would make him a little less fun. We wanted him to want to do the mission, but at the same time be easily distractible by Boone.

Sam: By the same token, Boone represented someone who could – early in development, he was a little more aggressive, a little more of an Anti-Penn, his coworker but maybe not his best friend. As we developed him further, we realized it was great to have someone that Penn could go to the world with and at some points have just goofy fun, not really worry about the mission. At other points, Penn will separate and become the hero he has to be… Boone… (laughs) less so!

Boone is someone who will always have fun and do his own thing in the world. If Sashi is the adult in the room, Boone is the real kid in the room. There are a few Boone-centric moments coming up in a few episodes, where he has to do things more or less on his own, and it’s fun to see him do that, too. He does have some wisdom inside, but it’s not always immediately apparent.

But yeah, it was always about that dynamic of friends. We believe you’re always better with someone who can support you, or can sometimes bring out your flaws and make you better in the end, make up for what you lack.

I have to ask what this writer’s room is like. I feel like one of you is on one side of the room shouting pop culture references or basic hero ideas, and the other is opposite, yelling out the ridiculous twist, like it’s “Let’s do Star Trek!” “But make Penn’s Kirk character a ridiculous alien dog!” or “Let’s do a classic Western Pastiche” “But with dinosaur riding cowboys!”

Sam: (laughs) I mean, that’s kind of it!

Jared: (laughs) Yeah, it really is. That is so right. We trade roles, so it’s not always the same person saying, “lets go weird with it.” But we figured out, if we do straight genre, it’s not as entertaining as it could be. So trying to find a twist or a mashup, like you mentioned “Old Old West,” which is cowboys and also dinosaurs. Cowboys on its own, we thought, wouldn’t be as hilarious as we need it to be. You put dinosaurs on top of it and all of a sudden it becomes something really special and unique. That’s always the challenge, what is entertaining, and what’s the twist we can put on it, so we can put Penn and the Audience in the same place. “I think I know what’s going on – wait a minute, we have no idea what’s going on.”

Sam: Yeah, speaking of writing, we have a really great Story Editor, Jeff Poliquin, and one of his first ideas – we set the tone with Cowboys and Dinosaurs and some of these stranger worlds – but one of his first is in the next two episodes that premiere, one is called “I’m Still Super,” and the other is called, “Balls.”

One of Jeff’s first pitches was “what about a world about Balls,” and we were like, “okay, keep talking!” (laughs) You have my attention! But it really became about, you know, in the most pure way, about bouncing balls of all shapes, sizes, and circumferences. It’s a world where balls live. So where does a soccer ball, a football, where do they live? Who are their natural enemies? What is the social situation? The problems the face? And Jeff created this world that’s similar to kind of a “Seven Samurai” or “Three Amigos” story, but about this herd of balls that’s preyed upon by these uh…

Jared: (busts in) By the way, I love that you’re saying all this in complete seriousness right now! (laughs)

Sam: It’s more important than anything to me! But honestly, that’s what we were doing. Believe me, when we were establishing this show, it was important early on that we could go anywhere and do anything. So it was important right off the bat to absorb something like this kind of story and not say, “oh that’s too weird.” And we want to find some real emotion. I think there’s always a kind of a wink and a bit of a goofiness to that episode, you know, whenever they say “balls.” But it really does play as a story, so when Penn, who happens to be a tennis ball in that, very small, pretty bouncy, but they still don’t have any hands or legs! But they still find a way to win against the villains of that world. Maybe. I won’t spoil it. (laughs)

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So first you did literal toilet humor, and now you’re doing literal ball jokes…

Jared: That’s right! That’s right, exactly. We pledge to always do that.

Sam: Yeah, we talked about that. I mean, literally: they’re balls. It’s balls. They’re just balls. People use balls all the time, for sports and…

Jared: Yeah, there’s a hot dog episode coming up where they’re all wieners (laughs).

I don’t know if you’re kidding or not. Man, how do you get any work done? With the “entering in Act 3” structure, what’s it like having just a moment or two to establish what they’re coming into?

Jared: It’s difficult, honestly. Early on we found out there’s sort of a structure and bits of information we have to deliver to the audience. It’s one of the great things with Sashi having her specks, her little goggles, that deliver the core information. Basically, here’s what the audience needs to know to enjoy the next ten minutes of the show. We found early on that we needed to be very specific and clear about what that is, so that people didn’t have to worry about the ins and outs of the plot, and could just enjoy the character journey through that.

Sam: Yeah, and since we are eleven minutes for the most part, we have a few two-parters, four of them in season one, but they’re mostly eleven, we discovered that we don’t have that much time, but it’s actually liberating. Depending on the story, and whose character story we’re telling, other things drop away. Really, every structure of every episode is different. Some of them need more setup, others don’t. Some of them, they know what they’re doing in the world, like in Brains Burgers, other ones it’s about revealing it bit by bit and playing with the confusion.

Sashi can have whatever amount of information we need her to, to play with the characters. It’s just been a fun way to give us variety and tell the character stories we want to tell.

You’ve both spoken in other interviews about your personal family legacies influencing the development of the show. That carries over nicely to how Penn is following in his parents’ footsteps – how much will that be explored, or is it more of just the background info?

Jared: It’s definitely something – without giving away too many spoilers, Penn’s parents and how Penn came to be in his job, that’s a bit of mythology that Sam and I spent months and months honing and thinking about. We like to dole it out in little pieces.

I think early on, we thought, instead of just giving the audience everything up front, let’s save some of it. So definitely over the course of this season and hopefully if the show continues on, there’s a lot to unpack in his life and even the concept of Part-Time Heroes and how that came to be. So that’s definitely something that’s important to us.

Sam: Yeah, we have a lot of information and dramatic elements to share with the audience about how Penn, and Boone and Sashi, and the parents, and Rippen, and Larry, how they formed into this team – we also have a lot that moves us forward. Penn obviously wants his parents back. They’re in an unplotted dimension that’s the worst possible, and he doesn’t want them there. It seems impossible to get them back, but we have an arc planned, that we do, when we keep writing and developing the shows, we have a mythology that stretches forwards and backwards.

Jared: Yeah, one thing early on that we looked at, we have a pilot that’s an internal pilot, that’s just within Disney television. There was a lot of it about the parents, but we found that we liked having them as the undercurrent, so there’s stakes to the world and what Penn’s trying to do. But we didn’t want the drama of that to overtake every episode, because then the wish fulfillment about going to and enjoying all these worlds, you couldn’t enjoy it as much, because you were so anxious about the parents. I think we found a really good balance between the worlds and Penn enjoying it, and the fact that he wants to bring his parents back. I think we can bring that up to remind the audience when we want to, and it deepens Penn and what he’s all about.

Sam: Yeah, for example, in the “Balls” Episode, we have a moment where Penn is confused about the mission and how to succeed, so he calls his parents on his multi-universe holographic uplink, his MUHU, and they give him advice while they’re defusing some kind of weird bomb thing. So it’s a good way to bring them in and keep the thread alive that they’re in peril, but not let it dominate the show and keep it fun.

Cool! My hope and free idea: Penn and Sashi get zapped into Penn’s Dad and Mom while they’re in a botched mission and need to be saved. Boone is the family dog.

Jared: Good idea! (laughs)

Sam: It could happen!

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Looking a little more generally. What’s it like pitching a brand-new hero to DisneyXD, when they’re already home to tiny properties like Marvel and Star Wars?

Sam: I like that Marvel, I think they’re gonna make it.

Jared: Yeah, I haven’t heard of those, they sound interesting! (laughs) I think we started pitching this four years ago, so it actually predates Disney-Star Wars. At the time, we hit it at a great moment when Disney was looking for a hero that wasn’t the typical hero. We hit on that with Penn, a kid who had this vulnerability to him, who didn’t always do things correctly, who wasn’t a super-dork but also wasn’t cool. He was pretty much anyone you might want to hang out with, or how you might see yourself going into these worlds.

He’s just an easily accessible guy. I think that’s what separated him from the types of heroes we’ve seen before.

Sam: Yeah, I think there’s a sense of play we haven’t really seen before. It taps into how people can play video games, can plug into things – Penn, Boone and Sashi are plugging into these different worlds, and they are kind of playing the hero. I think Penn, especially with Thomas Middleditch who does such a great job with the voice of Penn, and Adam Devine as Boone, they really do feel, in a lot of ways, they say “Oh, I’m a giant 300 foot Godzilla type monster today? What am I going to do that’s fun?”

It’s more than if you have a hero show or a character who is going to show up and just have to be the hero – it weighs it down with seriousness, always. We get into that, and there are real stakes, but I think first and foremost is the sense of play, and where Penn and his friends are a little bit outside of the story, like anyone might imagine themselves in any situation. When you play a video game, you read a book, you watch a movie – that’s how Penn separates itself from other heroes and kinds of shows.

Alongside Star vs. the Forces of Evil, it seems like this is a new breed of hero on the channel – why is now a good time for these kinds of heroes to emerge?

Sam: I think Star is great, it definitely has a different vibe than Penn. It has a lot of funny, cartoony, stylized animation that Daron has created and it has it’s own vibe. There’s room for that specific story of Star going to Earth and it’s world, and there’s room for a show like Penn where it’s about this team of, really of five characters that we get to know and see in different worlds. And all the Marvel shows too, of course!

To me, the fun part, and why I love Disney TV right now, is it’s a home for variety. Different kinds of heroes side by side, and different kinds of shows; Gravity Falls is also a really great show about heroes in their own way, dealing with challenging situations that develop. I just love the variety of it. We’re certainly not working side-by-side trying to make the same shows, we’re adding different facets of what it is to be a hero.

Jared: I think also that today, and just with my own kids, they want to be able to see themselves as that hero. That means not doing as great a job as a hero sometimes, and learning along the way. I think that there’s been this subtle shift into wanting a hero that “I can see myself as” or that feels a little bit more like a real person going into situations, not having all the tools, and having to figure it out along the way.

One of the things I really push is, Penn is a hero by being himself more than anything else. He succeeds by being himself, and in the hero of that world. I think that’s something that resonates with all these shows, that kids can see themselves as that character, and sees them as real people.

Sam: Yeah, the humanizing element is there. For a little bit of cross-promotion in the company, to me, when I saw the first Iron Man movie, which to me is still the best superhero movie done ever, it’s so great to me when Tony Stark just keeps getting up again and trying. To me, the best part of the movie is when he’s first trying to figure out the suit and he’s failing miserably, smashing around his garage – it’s so funny! And the reason why it works is you realize he’s human, and he’s making all these giant mistakes! Guardians of the Galaxy is also fantastic, and I think was great because Star-Lord, he just obviously has in his head who he is, and that’s not what the world sees him as. I think the gap between what you think you are and what the world thinks of you is part of the fun of these worlds. It’s certainly something we did with Penn.

Yeah, I think that the underlying optimism between the characters of those three shows, these two and Gravity Falls that you mentioned is really refreshing and important.

Jared: Yeah, I think Penn will always keep trying and do what he can to succeed, even though he doesn’t know how sometimes. Like Sam said, he’s always going to get back up and try again. That sincerity, and optimism, and heart is really important and a great message.

Sam: Yeah, in an upcoming show that’s paired with the “Balls” episode, we have a show called “I’m Still Super!” We revisit the superhero world, where he teams up with Captain Super Captain again, who is voiced by Adam West. In that show, he faces – when he first showed up in the world, he was a hero who had all these superpowers, and it was fun to see him fly around and shoot laser vision and stuff. Then when he returns to the world [in this episode], he finds the world is at odds with him, and all the superheroes are sort of possessed by some sort of evil. He teams up with Captain Super Captain again. I think the fun of it is, the first time it was a straightforward superhero world, and now we’re kind of adding to it, seeing how he comes to terms with that. In this episode, Boone and Sashi end up in peril and are kind of taken out of the equation, and he has to work more on his own. And Captain Super Captain – we actually have Adam West guest starring not only as him, but also as his evil twin brother, Professor Evil Professor. (laughs) Which is super fun to have Adam West, number one act with himself, but also have him play a supervillain. It was great, because he has such a great voice, and he has so much fun, he’s a great comedian, he really enjoys pushing that comedy. And it’s about superheroes, so it certainly pushes a lot of the superhero tropes, what it is to be a hero. Penn tries some new things in that world, it’s fun stuff.

In this exclusive clip from April 6th's "I'm Still Super!" Penn returns to the world of superheroes, only to discover the heroes have been turned evil by Captain Super Captain's evil twin brother, Professor Evil Professor. Adam West ("Batman") guest stars as Captain Super Captain and Professor Evil Professor

Real quickly, let’s talk about Rippen and Larry, they are really great, such perfect level of foils for Penn and his team. I get why Larry kind of idolizes Rippen, but will we explore why Rippen keeps Larry around?

Jared: Yeah, that’s a really good question. There are some episodes coming up – we even talked about it in the last one, “Number 1, Number 2” where Rippen actually was doing a tryout to get rid of Larry and get a new Number 2. You realize that Larry is not the best minion, but he’s a really loyal friend to Rippen. We hint that yeah, maybe Rippen would be better off with someone a little more evil, but deep down, he really likes Larry – he’d never admit it, he’d never say it, but he’s a slightly lonely guy who likes having Larry around, even though he makes him crazy.

Sam: Yeah, and I’d say also, it may seem on the surface that Larry is the reason for a lot of the failures, but Rippen and his ego and hubris gets in the way as much, if not moreso than Larry. There’s also the fact that Rippen doesn’t really get to choose who his minion is – he’s not really in control of this Part-Time Villain job, just the same way that Penn isn’t in control of who his sidekick and wiseman are. There’s more to it than what you see on the screen, again going to what the setup is behind it.

But why Larry got hired, why Rippen got hired, is stuff that can be revealed in the series – how that all works. But certainly, their friendship is real, and it’s strange, but it’s fun.

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Jared: And to your point, we like that we’ve put our characters – not just Rippen and Larry either – in this position that people are asking these sorts of questions, how it’s come to be and why this is the case. We love that, and it’s by design, because it allows us to have an episode where we explain that more, and I think as the series evolves, there are these nice nuggets that come out, these character nuggets. I think it separates our show because you are revealing these great things that you were wondering about or surprises you in the moment. That’s something, for both Sam and I, that step one with the show going out, we knew we wanted to build these little things over the course of the season and hopefully future seasons where you’ll get to know them better.

Sam: Yeah, we don’t have a continuing – it’s not a show where every episode is “last time on Penn Zero” – we want the continuing arc to really change every episode. The show is, by and large, having fun going to different worlds. You don’t want the burden of “well what did they do three episodes ago?” That said, we do have the continuing arc, these tentpole episodes that advance the story. Then we’ll have little things to reveal within episodes, and over the course of the season you’ll see more of who these characters are and what they are to each other. Not everything, but more.

Very intriguing. You both cite Star Wars characters as your own personal favorite heroes. I know you can’t do everything in one season, but come on, when are we getting a big Star Wars episode?

Jared: (laughs) uhhh Well? Season 2?

Sam: (laughs) That would be exciting, it would be fun. I think we have fun with the unique worlds that we’re creating. We do have some worlds where – I mean, you already saw, “Flurgleburgle” was inspired by a certain sci-fi TV and movie franchise you may already know. I think we actually have like 7 or 8 different space worlds that we go to in this season. None of them are specifically Star Wars, but we have some “space opera” worlds that are inspired by Star Wars.

Jared: Yeah, “Lady Starblaster” is coming up, that has a little more influence from Star Wars, and that’s one that Sigourney Weaver is guest-starring in. She’s terrific.

Sam: Yeah, she’s playing against Rippen. She’s a horrible Space Dictator; it’s like Rippen and her each have their own Star Destroyer of their own, and they’re both trying to destroy this planet. But Rippen instantly falls in love with her. She’s horrible, but it couldn’t be better for him.

Sigourney Weaver and Alfred Molina play so well against – off of each other, it’s really fun. She had a lot of fun, I don’t want to say hamming it up, but certainly being pushed a bit more in her acting. That’s coming up, and that’s a lot of fun.

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That’s a pretty great tease, any other little tease you’d like to leave us with? Anyone want to bring up Balls one more time to close things out?

Jared: (laughs) We can always talk about Balls! I will say that there are some really interesting things that you’ll learn about Penn coming up and toward the end of the season, the end of the first season has some really exciting things that I think fans are going to love.

Sam: We have an episode called “Where Dragons Dare,” where they’re all dragons in flight school. It’s very much inspired by a certain 80s movie where characters fly jet planes and look cool in sunglasses…

Jared: I like that you’re being so coy!

That sounds like a pretty… dangerous zone to enter…

Sam: Yeah, it does, a very dangerous zone (laughs) Yeah, we have – Penn is a renegade, he’s actually named Renegade, and he meets this other dragon who’s so cool he has two pairs of sunglasses, his name is Blaze, and Sean Astin is doing this character. It’s very fun, it’s very much a love letter to the 80s.

Jared: Is there any music in this, Sam?

Sam: And we have Kenny Loggins singing five original songs within the episode. A lot of montages, it’s super fun. One of the most fun episodes we have, it’s different and a lot of fun.

All images courtesy Disney XD. Sam Levine headshot courtesy Disney XD and Craig Sjodin, Jared Bush headshot courtesy Disney XD and Araya Diaz.